#PoetryPromise May: “Could mortal lip divine” by Emily Dickinson

#PoetryPromise is coordinated through Poetry by Heart with the aim of promoting and spreading the love of poetry. My #PoetryPromise for 2015 is to share a favourite poem of mine every month through my blog. My choice for May is this tiny fragment from Emily Dickinson:

Could mortal lip divine
The undeveloped Freight
Of a delivered syllable
‘Twould crumble with the weight

My copy of The Complete Poems

My copy of The Complete Poems

I can remember coveting Dickinson’s “The Complete Poems” whilst at university. The sheer size of the book, filled with nearly 1800 tiny poems, was intriguing and intimidating in equal measure. I can remember buying it and walking back to my room, the weight of the volume digging the carrier bag into my fingers. Fewer than a dozen of these poems were published during Dickinson’s lifetime, which she spent largely as an eccentric recluse. She often dressed in white and, the story goes, rarely left her room later in life. I still imagine her sister, Lavinia, discovering piles of notebooks and loose sheets in a locked chest in that room after Emily’s death, opening them up and discovering the scope and breadth of her poetry. Opening this book, I felt like Aladdin, stepping into a cave filled with enigmatic wonder.

There is so much to marvel at in Dickinson’s “quiet – Earthquake style” – her idiosyncratic use of the dash being one. These tiny bars work hard to restrain the pace and isolate words and phrases in her verse, forcing a kind of breathlessness into the reading. Her contained meditations on the nature of emotion are at once detached and scientific and passionately involved. I still find her poems fascinating little worlds.

Dickinson's original manuscript (source)

Dickinson’s original manuscript (source)

I have chosen this poem as it contains a message I try to remember every day. Once words are spoken, their impact and message cannot be controlled. Anything we say – to anyone – has unimaginable power on the recipient, irrespective of the intention. A flippant, offhand comment, delivered with barely a thought, can ruin someone’s day or stay with them for weeks – or longer. A well-intentioned intervention can backfire and make a situation worse. Our words have the power to can lift, raise and bolster – or crush,  shatter and destroy. Teachers, and especially school leaders, wield this power every day. What Dickinson’s poem teaches me is to weigh the words I am about to say, and deliver them with care.

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