Emily Dickinson

The very first Emily Dickinson poem I encountered was in a book of poetry for children. My mother gave it to me when I was in second or third grade. In among poems by Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, there was this one:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you — Nobody — Too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise — you know!

How dreary — to be — Somebody!
How public — like a Frog —
To tell one’s name — the livelong June —
To an admiring Bog!

Several years later, probably while in junior-high, I encountered Dickinson’s “A bird came down the walk” poem. Here is its first stanza:

A Bird came down the Walk —
He did not know I saw —
He bit an angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw.

In both the “nobody” poem and the bird one, Dickinson shows a quirky sense of humor. Her observations are so astute that her poems are like visual memories. We might not remember the exact wording of a line, but we remember the visual image.

As I mentioned above, when I first read Dickinson’s poems I was seven or eight years old. My memory of the words on the page is that the lines of the poem did not contain excessive dashes. It’s possible that children’s book editors removed the dashes — which just about everybody agrees are excessive. And certainly the short lines look better without the dashes, which seem to interrupt the flow of a poem. Critics argue that Dickinson used the dash to emphasize certain words or thoughts; to indicate uncertainty; to indicate a shift in thought; to connect and separate at the same time; to be informal.

For ease of reading, I prefer the poems without all the dashed dashes! Although . . . when I see one of her poems and it contains no dashes at all, I think something is wrong.

Just as the “a bird came down the walk” poem shows Dickinson’s sense of fun, the well-known “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” poem shows she can make us shudder at the feeling of a snake unexpectedly gliding by our feet.

In my late teens and early twenties I began to encounter people of all types, I was struck by how unanchored some of them seemed. It appeared to me that they hopped from one idea to another to another to another, all without examining how or why or what the differences were. And then one day, while reading The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson (I was taking a class in Dickinson) I ran across this four-line poem:

I bet with every Wind that blew
Till Nature in chagrin
Employed a Fact to visit me
And scuttle my Balloon —

For years I had that poem hanging on my office wall.

A large percentage of the words Dickinson wrote with are one- or two-syllable words of Anglo-Saxon origin. They are, therefore, words very familiar to us, and their brevity and familiarity help give them power.

But Dickinson had a very large vocabulary that naturally included words of Greek and Latin origin. When she used such words in a poem, juxtaposing them against the Anglo-Saxon words, the Greek or Latinate words seemed more powerful. As an example, consider one of her most highly regarded poems, “Because I could not stop for Death.” The words in the first two lines are short Anglo-Saxon words. The fourth line ends with the word “Immortality,” which came into English from Latin. The contrast between the Anglo Saxon words and the Latinate ones helps the reader feel stronger emotions and, at the same time, think about concepts and beliefs.

Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman were the two most important poets of 19th century USA. Whitman was published and self-published in his lifetime: Dickinson had only ten of her poems published. The two are very far apart in style and subject matter, but both have influenced generations of poets. Whitmanesque lines and themes can be seen in the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, particularly in “Howl.” Dickinson has influenced poets such as Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Susan Howe. And I can’t help but think that her short-lines influence is visible in the “skinny” poems of our era.


None of the birds in Barbara Gregorich’s poems bite angleworms in half. See Crossing the Skyway: Poems.

An Unnoticed Theft

My father emigrated to the US a month short of his fourteenth birthday. I’ve told part of his story in The Line Between. As a teen, he fell in love with the silent movies of the time, particularly the westerns. My father wanted to be a cowboy. But that wasn’t possible in eastern Ohio, which was not home to cowboys.

Horses were another matter. Many farmers and even non-farmers owned horses. My father so coveted a horse that, one night, he inadvertently stole one. I explain the result in the poem below.


My Father Was a Horse Thief

Joe longed to be a cowboy, wear a white hat,
ride a black stallion and thunder after bad guys.
The Packards, Studebakers, and Arrows

of his new land held no lure for Joe: moving
pictures with western heroes called. Every night
after chores, Joe bolted down the street

to the saloon, where Old George Clark hitched
his horse to the rail. Joe stroked that horse,
fed it, and pictured himself in the saddle, looping

a lasso and roping bad guys who wore black hats.
The stallion didn’t belong to him, but Joe was a kid
and Old George Clark drank his nights away and the horse

was there. One night in the drizzle Joe couldn’t resist:
unhitching the reins he sprang into the saddle with a loud
Giddyup, just as he had seen done in the movies.

Snorting, the stallion burst into a destination trot
that no amount of desperate Whoa’s! would stop.
When it reached home the cayuse finally halted,

and not a Giddyup in the western world could start it up
again. In the gloom and rain Joe trod three desperado miles
back to the saloon and waited: waited to come clean to Old

George, who at closing time reeled out and peered around.
Joe stammered, confessed that he had taken the horse
for a ride and it wouldn’t bring him back, but Old George

wouldn’t be tricked: he figured he must have walked
to the saloon, and so he walked home. Thunder rolled
as good guy and bad guy hoofed it home in shades of gray.




This poem is from Crossing the Skyway: Poems, by Barbara Gregorich.

Ho, Cool! — Naming Characters

I grew up on a street that had, to the best of my memory, nineteen houses. That’s nineteen different families. Their last names were of English, Irish, Polish, Italian, Croatian, Hungarian, and Czech origin. The kids I went to school with came from many different ethnic backgrounds — all of the above, and more.

Frowning  because books had no ethnic characters

Frowning because books had no ethnic characters

But the books I read as a child did not reflect the reality of the world I lived in. The characters in books always had English or Irish last names. In addition, nobody these characters interacted with had anything other than an Anglo-Saxon or Irish last name. While I loved the books I read, I nevertheless felt there was something different about them. Something that made me feel part of the books’ purpose was to exclude the kind of world I lived in.

Then came the social struggles of the 1960s and soon literature started looking a bit different. With the 1950s and especially the 60s and 70s, American authors began to include what we would call “ethnic” characters (ethnic as in “part of a subgroup”) — normal, regular people, or as normal or regular as any literary character can be.

It’s important for a writer to include characters that reflect the diversity of the world we live in. If your novel’s characters live in an exclusively Anglo-Saxon world, then, okay, give them English names. But if the characters happen to live in major or mid-sized cities of the US today, their names should reflect that world as it is today.

In Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies — a book that can serve as a guide to writing novels in general, and mystery novels in particular — I have a long chapter on naming characters. Ethnicity is just one of the factors I take into consideration. There’s also rhythm, starting letters, altering names, origins, and meaning.

NamesTwo books (both out of print) which I highly recommend for any fiction writer who’s in the process of naming characters: (1) Family Names: The Origins, Meanings, Mutations, and History of More than 2,800 American Names, by J. N. Hook and (2) New Dictionary of American Family Names, by Elsdon C. Smith.

Flipping through a few pages of New Dictionary at random, I find the following last names:

Cool, English — from Coole (cow’s hill) in Cheshire
Herrera, Spanish — a worker in iron, a smith
Ho, Chinese — to congratulate
Picone, Italian — dweller at the sign of the woodpecker
Pokorny, Czech, Polish — a humble or submissive person

For writers who must name persons and give them personality, character, and background, choosing an appropriate name adds to the depth of the character. When I teach writing fiction and naming characters, I allow students to use my copies of the two books I mentioned. Almost every student is fascinated by these books and what they reveal about name meanings and name origins.

Fiction writers should be fascinated with last names and want to know more about them, in order to help create believable characters and in order to more accurately reflect the cultural setting these characters live in. If you can find these books at a used bookstore or online, consider investing in them. You — and your named characters — will be very happy you did.

The Strawberry Roan

Scan 1

From my earliest childhood days, I was a fan of cowboys. I wore Stetsons and toted cap-gun sixshooters and never traveled far from the ranch without a BB rifle slung over my shoulders. When I wasn’t rounding up the cattle or stringing barbed wire I strummed the banjo, one of those plastic windups that played one tune: “Home on the Range.” I would have preferred “The Old Chisholm Trail,” but cowboys don’t complain. By the time I was eight years old, I had selected the greatest cowboy song of all time and learned its lyrics. I can still recite them today.

That song was “The Strawberry Roan” as sung by Marty Robbins on Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. With lyrics by Curely Fletcher, the song has a few different versions — but a comparison clearly shows that the simplest, most memorable, and most dramatic version (cutting away all the clutter) is the Marty Robbins version.

220px-Gunfighter-Ballads-Robbins-CDSomewhere around the age of ten I abandoned my cowboy gear. But I never abandoned “The Strawberry Roan,” and now, decades later, I recognize that, had anybody been placing bets on what I would become when I grew up, they would not have bet “cowgirl.” The wisest among them would have bet “writer.”

They would have bet that way because the song I was attached to like a burr to a saddle blanket was a song with a strong, clear dramatic structure , much like the structure of a novel, play, or movie. In five eight-line stanzas, the lyrics take us from defeat to seeming victory to defeat-with-knowledge. A complete story cycle, with dramatic rising action.

In the first stanza we learn that a bronc fighter, out of a job, is approached by a stranger who needs a horse tamer. But the stranger warns the cowboy that the horse in question has had a lot of luck throwing good riders.

This warning only inflames the cowboy, who “gets all het up”,” speaks ill of the “nag” in question, and brags that he can beat any horse alive. By the end of the second stanza we’re out at the ranch, where the cowboy hero will get a look at the horse he has been hired to tame.

Seven of the eight lines of the third stanza describe the strawberry roan in great detail. He sounds like a wreck: old, his hocks swollen, pigeon-toed, u-necked. The listener is amused and lulled by this highly descriptive information which makes the roan seem no threat at all. And then comes the eighth line, the reversal, when the cowboy, wise in the ways of horses, reveals that Strawberry is “a regular outlaw.”

So three-fifths of the way into the story we have met the protagonist and antagonist and we understand the conflict. One of these two will win, Cowboy or Strawberry. The confrontation will be neither pleasant nor easy.

Frederic Remington Bronze, Bronco Buster

Frederic Remington Bronze, Bronco Buster

In the fourth stanza we’re let in on the fact that the cowboy, mounting the strawberry roan, recognizes the severity of what he faces. The instant the cowboy steps in the saddle and releases the blind, Strawberry reacts, frog-walking, twisting, bucking, heaving, and, at the end of the stanza, turning his belly toward the sun. (Putting his head low between his front legs while kicking his hind legs as high as he can.) Horse and rider, as well as listener/reader, are left suspended in the air as the fourth stanza ends.

Strawberry comes back to earth hard. Then up he bucks again, this time dislodging the defeated cowboy, who hyperbolically spins twice before hitting the ground. The final stanza is followed by a three-line summary in which the cowboy admits defeat and argues that no man alive could ride the strawberry roan.

As a kid, I loved that ending, mainly because I wanted Strawberry to win the contest. But I also loved the ending because I recognized that the cowboy was, throughout the song, engaging in humor at his own expense. The humor served to make the cowboy a mere mortal while elevating Strawberry to a higher level: The Horse That Couldn’t Be Broken.

There, in one short song, are the main elements of story — setting, challenge, protagonist and antagonist, conflict, rising action (literal as well as figurative!), climax, and change. No wonder I unsaddled my pony, hung up my sixshooters, kicked off my spurs, and became a writer.