15 Emily Dickinson Poems You NEED to Read Before Watching 'Dickinson'

emily dickinson
Emily Dickinson, ready 2 write some poems. | Wikimedia Commons
Emily Dickinson, ready 2 write some poems. | Wikimedia Commons

When Apple announced that one of the first original series on the tech company's streaming service, Apple TV+, would be a show about Emily Dickinson — "Emily’s coming-of-age story — one woman's fight to get her voice heard" — my reaction was — "LEAVE EMILY ALONE!!!" She's been through enough! We have hardly any information on Dickinson because she stayed in her room for, like, 30 years! She spent all her time writing letters and poems with bad punctuation — poems and letters she mostly sent to her freaking next door neighbor/informal editor/likely lover! She could barely bear to walk next door! 

Where did she even poop or pee?? This is just one of many intriguing questions scholars sadly have yet to answer — about Emily Dickinson's life. But it's the mystery — and her posthumous fame — that makes her such a compelling artistic figure. In the past three years there have been twomovies — and now a show called Dickinson — about the quiet genius who wore white and whose poems are — still! — some of Harvard's most controversial IP

The stakes for this new "sexy" Dickinson are high — if it succeeds there will surely be a run on shows about poets, which will be a windfall for the hordes of Americans struggling to find a "use" for all those goddamn poetry classes that account for a sizable portion of their student debt. I look forward to writing about the steamy, soapy Showtime series on Lord Byron (featuring the Shelleys [who actually have a pilot in the works] and Keats, obviously) — it will take viewers on a scandal-filled adventure from England to Italy to Greece. Who wouldn't want Matthew Weiner to develop a Mad Men-esque office drama about the insurance company where Wallace Stevens served as a vice president? Why not a dark, controversy-generating HBO miniseries on Anne Sexton's trauma-filled life? Or a live Quibi show on which Robert Pinsky discusses "process" with other poets while they walk across a small liberal arts campus and sip tea? A Netflix poetry competition in which 10 of the best unknown poets have to complete a series of prosodic challenges to find the Next Great Poet — judged by Joy Harjo, Rita Dove, and a special guest rapper every week? Today's challenge — THE VILLANELLE!!! I dwell in possibility. 

Until each streaming service has as many poet shows as it does comedy specials, I must content myself with single pieces of content. All Dickinson viewers should — in an ideal world — read each of Emily Dickinson's 1,800-plus poems at least three times through in order to fully comprehend the nuance of Hailee Steinfeld and Wiz Khalifa's performances, but — alas! — our world can never approach this ideal. Instead, I will provide you a list of the mere 15 Dickinson poems you absolutely must read before you dive into Apple TV+'s Dickinson. Otherwise, you'll be totally lost — or, at the very least, less enriched as a person. 

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We'll be using both the first-line naming convention for all of Dickinson's (mostly untitled) poems, along with the reference number listed on the Emily Dickinson Archive (mostly from the 1998 Franklin Variorum), which also provides images of Dickinson's manuscripts along with the printed versions in a few definitive collections. OK, with that bit of housekeeping out of the way — this is a great poem! It's fairly conventional prosodically, but this is basically Emily saying to the future, "Please take extreme liberties in adapting my life for a streaming television show!" Something she likely said often.  

Another top-tier poem from E-Dick! She does seem to contradict herself a bit here, because if Truth and Beauty are "kinsmen met at night" — why tell the Truth slant? Doesn't that mar its Beauty? Logical consistency is the most important aspect of poetic exegesis, ask anyone. 

This brilliant poem is about a choo-choo train — Dick-heads will take note that Emily's father mentions in Episode 1 of Dickinson the TV show his ambition to bring a railroad to Amherst. Spoiler — Emily is going to love that, even though she doesn't really ride the rails or travel at all. 

Now that's what I call poetry — Vol. 1. This poem is kind of like Emily Dickinson's version of "I contain multitudes" — and it's the poem she's working on at the beginning of Episode 2. We get it, Dickinson's a big-brained mega-genius who shows up to meetings with Don Draper-esque pitches about how the pain of nostalgia can sell a slideshow machine. The assignment said "just show up," but she had to bring the fields and the bees and so on. We are not worthy, Emily!  

You guessed right, we're looking at another A+ Dickinson poem here — if you didn't pick up before the final stanza that it's about a butterfly, you need to go back to Poetry School! Dickinson fans who have seen Episode 2 will know that Emily mentions butterflies — one of her favorite insects/living entities — and the fuzzy fellow is of course a caterpillar, which lepidopterists will tell you turn into butterflies.  

An absolute gem of a poem, "The heart asks pleasure first" is somehow only the second piece thus far about death — that means there's a lot of death to come. Even from her room, Emily understood the universal experience of reducing expectations steadily over the course of a life until all you want to do is die. Inspirational stuff. 

What if grief — were a mouse? That's the mind-melting proposition of Dickinson's tremendous poem in which she also claims grief is — a juggler, a thief, a gourmand, and more. It's simply a masterclass in figurative language, and it's kind of cute to think of grief as a little gray mouse hanging out in your wainscot, too shy to attend the funeral. 

Anyone looking for a fabulous poem about death can stop the hunt — you've found it right here! "Because I could not stop for death" gives the first episode of Dickinson its title, and it's worth reading this poem while picturing Death looking a whole lot like Wiz Khalifa, who plays Death in the show.

Holy crap, what a stupendous poem, and it forms the basis of Episode 2's central plotline. You truly do love to see a streaming television show depict a 19th century lecture on volcanoes — because that's presumably the inspiration for a Dickinson poem. Like the citizens of Pompeii, we are living at the peak of cultural development. 

Any fool can write one great poem — but can any fool write a great poem that also lends its name to a movie and a television episode? Nay! "Wild nights" encapsulates one popular image of Emily — a woman who wants to go out and party but instead just stays in her room and writes poetry, letting her imagination do the partying for her. Dickinson suggests otherwise, but there's no evidence the poet took opium — though it would be a lot cooler if she did. 

Sometimes you read a good poem and think, "That was nice," — and sometimes you read an astounding poem and your life changes forever. Suffice to say we're talking about the latter with "I dwell in possibility" — Emily's friend/lover Sue quotes it back to her in Dickinson. It's a smart strategy to dwell in possibility if your goal is to have your poems change the course of literature after you've died. 

It's not often a poem doubles as a mysterious introduction at parties, but Emily the master has done it in "I'm nobody" — one of her most famous works, probably because it's simply terrific. Some people read this and say — "See?? She didn't even want to be famous," to which I respond — why write poetry if you're not trying to get super famous and admired by the bog?

An exceptional effort even by Emily's exceptionally high standard, this poem goes out to anyone in the audience who's had a panic attack. Dickinson SHOULD have an episode called "The hour of Lead" — but with only the first three installments provided to critics and poetry experts, we'll just have to hold our breath while our Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs, waiting to see if the Dickinson fans out there will be satisfied — or will take to Twitter to express their great pain. 

Finally, some inspiration for Sexy Dickinson! This astonishing erotic poem is, as they would say in Dickinson, HOT — it openly discusses desire for another woman (presumably Sue, but who knows!), and how it really wouldn't be possible to buy a necklace for a woman without all of Massachusetts, ya know, talking. Good thing Apple TV+ is a less restrictive sexual environment than 19th century Amherst. 

We end this cursory jaunt into Emily Dickinson's oeuvre where everything human ends — Death. The truth of this magnificent poem is borne out by Emily herself — Death surely set her significant, as it did all her meticulously collected verse. Sure, it's a sad note to end on, but take comfort — Death is coming for us all ;).

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Anthony Schneck is an entertainment editor at Thrillist. Follow him @AnthonySchneck.