The best Emily Dickinson poems are never taught in high school English, even though she is one of the greatest American poets. Unfortunately, the most famous Emily Dickinson poems are not the best ones. The 2 or 3 famous works of poetry that they "expose" you to in high school are usually some of her safe and serene descriptions of birds and snakes and trains. This is for a couple of reasons. One is that the so-called nature poems are useful for teaching the poetic devices - simile, metaphor, synechdoche, metonymy, onomatopeia, and personification. They are also useful for learning about standard forms of poetry, since she used only a few variations on regular verse forms that she learned from church hymns - it is unfortunately true that many of her poems can be sung to the tune of the Yellow Rose of Texas.
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But it is her choice of subject matter that sets her apart, and her peculiar and somewhat unique use of the English language, and these facts are rarely mentioned or touched upon in the high school years. The fact is that some of her best poems are about her obsession with death, her experience of some kind of mental breakdown and descent into near madness, her recovery from that experience, and her unrequited love for a married man. These are not subjects that are comfortably discussed in the typical English class full of giggly juniors and seniors.
My personal choice of the best Emily Dickinson poems tends toward her more florid, even flamboyantly eccentric verses. I love it when I read a poem of hers and think I have just read a work of genius, yet I really have no rational idea what she is talking about. There are limits to a logical analysis of her work, because so much of what she writes about is from a personal, inner landscape that no one else could possibly understand completely. But her greatness is that despite the strangeness of much of her poetry, it has a freshness and an appeal for those who are willing to give each poem some time and effort.
Emily wrote a little over 1,800 poems in her lifetime, and only published seven. Her heirs published a volume of her poetry in the early part of the 1900s, the first chance the majority of the reading public had to sample her work. Before these poems were published, they were "cleaned up," so to speak. She used a variety of punctuation (all of the poems were written in her hand, of course) including dashes of various lengths, dots and other marks that were hard to get on to the printed page - so they were left out.
Her work was further "normalized" by changes in words so that rhymes were exact, not slant, and the excision of stanzas here and there. None of her poems had titles, either, just the number assigned by later editors, so each poem became known by its first line.
So here are the first stanzas of the 5 best Emily Dickinson poems, in my opinion. I'm sure there are at least 50 more that qualify as works of an exceptional artist, if not a genius, so it's very hard to pick only 5. By the way, to read the rest of the poem, just search using the first line, and it will pop up.
I felt a funeral in my brain,
And mourners, to and fro,
Kept treading, treading, till it seemed
That sense was breaking through.
This poem scares the heck out of me. I always imagine it accompanied by some appropriate music by Steve Roach or Aphex Twin. It is truly a horror story of the mind, a look into how ultimately alone and grievously damaged a human being can be and still survive. Read the rest of the poem and you'll see what I mean.
One need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Another scary poem, suitable for any Halloween, and more terrifying than any hack and slash movie could ever be. Her brain is haunted, you see, and it doesn't stop there. You'll be surprised as you read the rest of the poem just who the ghostly presence might be.
Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
A poem about death? Or is it about life, and how the two are related? This one at least warrants inclusion in many poetry anthologies, and it is one of her more well-known poems. Certainly it's a good example of her obsession with graves, tombstones, cemeteries, and funeral hearses (carriages). But it also has a breathing, living glossiness to it, and a stately, marching quality, just like the slow trot of horses pulling a carriage.
Mine by the right of the white election!
Mine by the royal seal!
Mine by the sign in the scarlet prison
Bars cannot conceal!
This little 2 stanza piece of poetry is proof that Emily had some sort of peak spiritual experience which changed her utterly from a New England schoolgirl turned spinster into something else, a queen of heaven, or a mystic of the highest order of esoterica. It burns and glows, and the voice of the poet is present on the page, like she's in the room. Read the rest of it and let her into your heart.
Wild nights! Wild nights!
Were I with thee,
Wild nights should be
This compact poem of unbelievable elegance and intensity gets pigeon-holed as romantic at worst, erotic at best. It's much more than that, a song to ecstacy and freedom, to finding a home in the universe and loving every second of it.
There are a few movies and documentaries that tell Emily's life story very well. Emily Dickinson lived her entire life as a spinster in Amherst Massachusetts. The home that she lived in and rarely left is preserved as a tourist attraction, and you can actually stand in her room and see the desk where she worked. Although she was a recluse, she traveled in other ways to places we couldn't even imagine, if we didn't have her poetry.