Emily Dickinson's 4 Super Simple Writing Techniques

How To Use Emily Dickinson’s 4 Super Simple Writing Techniques


Do you want to write like a master poet? In this post, we look at American poet, Emily Dickinson’s four super simple writing techniques.

About Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson was born 10 December 1830, and died 15 May 1886.

Given her tremendous effect on the poetic landscape, it is hard to imagine anyone being unfamiliar with Emily Dickinson. But, just in case, I’ll share a little about her here.

Dickinson was an American poet, unpublished in her lifetime, who nonetheless bound over 800 of her 1100 poems into small booklets called fascicles. She kept these booklets largely private, only deigning to share her work with her closest friends and family. These booklets were discovered and published posthumously.

Dickinson has become famous as a poet of delicacy and decorum at the formal and technical level, yet capable of explicating incredibly complex emotions and ideas using concrete metaphors from her day-to-day life.

Today, she is regarded by many to be one of the great American poets.

In this article I will enumerate and examine four of the most notable features of her work. I encourage you to try them out; see what effect the tools and techniques of a literary legend lend your own work!

How To Use Emily Dickinson’s 4 Super Simple Writing Techniques

1. Mundane Subject Matter; Massive Ideas:

Dickinson rarely strayed far from a domestic existence with her parents, and the longest she did so was the year that she attended seminary. As such, her personal experiences were hardly wide and varied. However, she easily made up for this with how deeply she plunged into the experiences she had, emotionally and philosophically. Often, in her poetry, she would take a daily task or happening—gardening or the sun rise, for instance—and use them as a catalyst and entry point into greater subjects.

Example:

In her poem, I’ll Tell You How The Sun Rose, Dickinson begins by describing a sunrise, but ends by turning toward a reflection on the uncertainty of perception. That’s right, she goes from sunsets to phenomenology, in a mere 16 lines!

Exercise:

Start a piece of writing by describing something simple and mundane to you, then push this topic and see what greater insights you can extrapolate from it.

2. Common Meter:

While she did explore other types of formal poems, Dickinson primarily wrote in common meter. That is, she wrote using four-line stanzas with an alternating rhyming pattern of ABAB, with eight syllables on the A lines and six syllables on the B lines. Often the stress would also alternate from unstressed to stressed for each syllable, giving the poem a simple consistent rhythm. At the time, common meter was used primarily in nursery rhymes and hymns. It’s likely Dickinson noticed this forms flexibility, that she realised it’s incredible potential given that it could be used in settings both homey and sacred, and took advantage of that fact.

Example:

Look at the first four lines from ‘I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose’:

‘I’ll tell you how the Sun rose –
A Ribbon at a time –
The Steeples swam in Amethyst –
The news, like Squirrels, ran –’

While she does use common meter as a guide for the poem’s form and structure, notice how she isn’t so strict with it that it stifles the poem. Dickinson is fine with having one syllable too few on the first line. She isn’t worried about the second and fourth lines only barely rhyming (if at all).

Exercise:

Try writing a series of poems in common meter and note what kind of creative solutions this formal restraint produces in your work. The more you use this form—or any form—the more naturally you’ll be able to wield it over time.

Like Dickinson, as long as the sound and flow of the poem remains natural sounding, don’t worry too much about getting the meter, stresses, and rhymes exactly perfect.

3. Capitalisation Of Nouns:

Dickinson capitalises many nouns in her work for emphasis and—sometimes—to personify them. This is something she probably picked up from her grammar book, William Harvey Wells’ Grammar of the English Language. However, Dickinson took what was intended to be a simple rhetorical technique and elevated it to the level of art in her poems.

Example:

Let’s look at lines 4-8 of I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose’ and note the effect of the capitalised nouns.

‘The Hills untied their Bonnets –
The Bobolinks – begun –
Then I said softly to myself –
‘That must have been the Sun’!’

If you read it aloud, you might find that—without thinking about it—you naturally stress the capitalised words, likely as Dickinson intended.

Exercise:

Copy down some of your favourite poems from Dickinson’s oeuvre, but omit her capitalisation. Does it look or feel substantially different on the page? Try reading it aloud reading from both the original and modified versions. Do you read it differently one way or the other? Finally, try capitalising nouns for emphasis (or to show personification) in your own work and note the effects.

4. Dashes At The End Of Lines:

This may be the technique that is most readily plain in Dickinson’s work. While using dashes in place of traditional punctuation was a practice commonly taught and employed at the time in certain types of writing, she is the first poet to depend on this technique throughout her work. The intended effect was probably to create a more pronounced pause in reading than a comma might produce, thereby allowing her greater control of the poem’s pacing.

Example:

Look at lines 9-12 of our poem, and note the effect of the dashes while reading aloud:

‘But how he set – I know not –
There seemed a purple stile
That little Yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while –’

Exercise:

As with our earlier example, try copying one of Dickinson’s poems and switch out the dashes for the more traditional punctuation—the comma—and note the effect on the look of the poem and the pacing of it when you read it aloud.

Try implementing dashes in your own poem whenever you want to create a longer pause than a comma might afford.

(Bonus Technique) Titles:

Dickinson didn’t title her poems, which later led to editors using the first line of each poem as its title. This was a happy accident in her case, but later poets have emulated this technique because it is such a simple and effective a way to tantalise readers. It gets them wondering what the poem might be about, urging them to read on. Give it a shot!

Final Thoughts

Dickinson did for poetry what Hemingway later did for prose: she stripped the form down to its barest essentials, creating a style that was both fresh and classic, simple yet nuanced and deep. Even if you have always had little interest in poetry (either as a reader or a writer), I’m convinced her beautiful and accessible work will change your mind!

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 by Oliver Fox
Oliver earned his BFA from the University of Memphis (2015). After graduation, he worked as an editorial assistant for The Pinch (’16). Currently, he works as a manuscript analyst and is an MFA candidate at the University of New Orleans.

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This article has 5 comments

  1. Anukriti Jayant

    Hello, Mr Oliver.
    Thanks so much for this article! I am definitely going to keep these points in mind.
    It is stunning how Dickinson manages to economise vast philosophical, existential distances within a span of- say, 20 words, as in “Is it too late to touch you, Dear?//We this moment knew–//Love Marine and Love Terrene–//Love celestial too–“. So much so that her craft appears deceptively simple, when it feels as if for us readers, it is actually the immediacy of her thought that we absorb as simplicity- that’s her genius.
    Your breakdown gives me some confidence, for I have been trying to incorporate in my writing a similar poetic economy for quite some time now. I am more self-conscious because I only end up managing rhymes but not proper metre. It feels more, what should I say, visibly ‘constructed’. But hoping to smoothen it a bit more. Dickinson’s poetry is one standard I worship. In a modest attempt, I try formulate my poetic line as questions. It’s a fun challenge also, choosing limited words like one is playing hopscotch and is allowed only certain squares to step on! 🙂

    • Oliver Fox

      Hi there, Anukriti!

      I’m so glad you found this article interesting!

      I’ve always felt that the surest sign of genius is the ability to take huge, complex ideas and explain them in terms elegant enough for anyone to grasp–or at least appreciate–them. Dickinson was precisely this kind of genius.

      And it sounds like you are on the right track in your own writing! Like Dickinson, don’t be afraid to make formal concessions if it means the poem reads more naturally, or doing so augments whatever you’re trying to express. Remember rhyme and meter were originally developed as mnemonics–tools meant to aid memorization and transmission; when/wherever they no longer serve the poem, they can be omitted.

      Thank you again for reading and sharing a bit about your own writer’s journey–keep going!

      All the best,

      Oliver

      • Anukriti Jayant

        Thanks for your insightful response. That’s an important point about mnemonics.

        Best Wishes, and stay safe!

        Anukriti

  2. Philip Byron

    This article was like a breath of fresh air to me after a long day. I am inspired. I’m so happy to have a new project now. Thank you, Oliver –

  3. Charles Chamberlain

    More important notice that nearly every noun and verb are a metaphor or simile.

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