Ilan Mochari
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BlogAugust-September, 2009
Emily Dickinson, War Poet

For one dollar, I bought The Top 500 Poems anthology edited by William Harmon. Thank you, Somerville Public Library, for your summer sale. Harmon’s postscript to “Success is counted sweetest” caught my eye:  

“One wise moment in J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye comes with the suggestion (made by Holden Caulfield’s older brother) that Emily Dickinson was a great war poet, even though she did not fight in a war” (737).

Sounds good, right? But here is the actual passage from Catcher:

“I remember Allie once asked him wasn’t it sort of good that he was in the war because he was a writer and it gave him a lot to write about and all. He made Allie go get his baseball mitt and then he asked him who was the best war poet, Rupert Brooke or Emily Dickinson. Allie said Emily Dickinson” (140).

Harmon omits the Rupert Brooke comparison from his commentary. Perhaps he didn’t want to praise Dickinson at Brooke’s expense. Indeed, Harmon’s introduction to “The Soldier” – the only Brooke poem in the anthology – is fawning:

“Brooke, one of the most talented and attractive members of his generation, has been anthologized mostly as a war poet, but he is also recognized as a playwright and as the author of some very fine light verse” (951).

Harmon also forgets the bias of Holden’s older brother, D.B., when it comes to experiential writing. We learn from Phoebe Caulfield that D.B. “may have to stay in Hollywood and write a picture about Annapolis.” To which Holden replies: “What’s D.B. know about Annapolis, for God’s sake?” (164).

It is no small detail to Holden that D.B. was in the army, as opposed to the Annapolis-based Naval Academy. D.B. has no Annapolis experience, but he may write about it anyway. No wonder he is so quick to defend Dickinson’s right to do the same thing – and do it well.

The other flaw in D.B.'s Brooke-Dickinson equation is Dickinson's eminence. Comparing Brooke to her is like comparing Jim Rice to Stan Musial. Dickinson and Musial defy association with all but a select group. Confronted with the binary - who was the best war poet, Brooke or Dickinson - how could anyone, let alone Allie Caulfield, answer Brooke? The mere presence of the adjective "war" before the noun "poet" does not make it a debatable question. 

Ilan Mochari's fiction has been published in Keyhole and honored by
Glimmer Train. In 2009, he received a Literature Artist Fellowship grant from the Somerville Arts Council, a local agency supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. He is a former staff writer for Inc, and he has also written for Fortune Small Business and CFO. He has a B.A. in English from Yale University.

    © 2008 Ilan Mochari  
Ilan Mochari