Travels with George in Search of Ben Hur and Other Meanderings

By Paul Ruffin | Go to book overview

Was Emily Mad or Merely Angry?

Over the years I have taught a number of courses in which I used the poetry of Emily Dickinson, one of my all-time favorite poets. One reason is, I think, that she wrote many of her poems in the hymn beat, which has always been quite familiar to me. My initial appreciation of poetry came from memorizing the lyrics of all the songs in the Broadman Hymnal, that tome that we used in the Assembly of God Church in which I grew up. After a while, I could rattle off a hymn-beat poem in a heartbeat, a talent that later made me a professional poet at twelve. See, when my friends in school were assigned to write a poem, they would come to me, knowing how fast I was on the draw, and pay me a dime or quarter—depending on complexity and length—to write their poems for them. But all this is beside the present point….

Miss Emily, she strikes students different ways. Some view her as odd but pleasant, and most seem interested more in Emily the person than Emily the poet, this in spite of the fact that, as several students have pointed out, her poems are short and many can be sung to the tune of “Amazing Grace.” Why this latter characteristic should loom large would be beyond me, but for my acceptance of the fact that most of my students come from Protestant households, as I did, and know and love the hymn beat the way they do the rhythm of their own hearts.

It is a fact that many of our poets practice eccentricity; such behavior hints at genius, whether it is there or not. Usually it isn’t. Miss Emily did not practice: she was eccentric. A graduate student said to me one time, after we had finished analyzing a Dickinson poem titled “I felt a funeral, in my brain” (the first line of the poem—Dickinson provided no titles): “This is one of the strangest poets I’ve ever been exposed to. Was she simply nuts?” I do not recall my answer.

Interest in Emily Dickinson the woman and Emily Dickinson the poet has surged and waned over the past hundred years, but at no point since the

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Travels with George in Search of Ben Hur and Other Meanderings
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface ix
  • Acknowledgments xii
  • Things Literary, More or Less 1
  • Travels with George in Search of Ben Hur 3
  • The Mosquito 15
  • The Lady with the Quick Simile 19
  • Workshopping a Cowboy Poem 22
  • Was Emily Mad or Merely Angry? 28
  • On the Death of Edgar Allan Poe 31
  • Making Preparations for the Tour 34
  • The Girl in the Clean, Well-Lighted Place 37
  • Explaining a Poem to a Student 40
  • Some Rare and Unusual Books 43
  • Tales from Kentucky Lawyers 45
  • The Boy Who Spoke in Hymns 48
  • Making a Dam in Segovia 51
  • Just Thinking about Shit 54
  • To San Juan and Back 60
  • On Likker and Guns 81
  • Drinking 83
  • Rats! 100
  • The Bowhunter Asks for My Bladder 117
  • The Day the Sharpshooter Killed Something He Didn’t Intend to 120
  • Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho, off to the Gun Show We Go … 128
  • From "Growing Up in Mississippi Poor and White but Not Quite Trash" (an as-Yet-Unpublished Memoir) 135
  • Trains 137
  • Learning about Sex 143
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