I saw A Quiet Passion, the 2017 movie about Emily Dickinson (directed by Terence Davies, starring Cynthia Nixon) this month. I’m not a movie critic, but I am a poet and a feminist, and the movie struck me in several ways.
First, keep in mind that this is the mid-late 1880s in America, and not urban America. And then think of the quiet. No cars, radios, tvs, airplanes, telephones, computers, or cell phones. The movie does an admirable job of showing just how quiet life was then. The only music is live, made by people playing the piano and/or singing. When people aren’t talking, the default is quiet. Between moments of conversation: quiet. When Emily is writing or thinking: quiet. The days stretched out in ways that would be unrecognizable to us now, and the writers among us must recognize how that quiet would both feed Emily’s poetry and practically require all those exclamation points. Her work is a shout into that quiet, even if it is also born of it.
I think about quiet a lot these days, and how our lives are not set up for it now. How it’s not merely that we’re uncomfortable with quiet, but that our work and private lives require us to be available for interruption nearly all the time. Some of us, including me, are old enough to remember life before cell phones, email, cable tv, video games, and all the rest. When nothing was on tv and no one was available to talk to by phone, you had reading, playing non-computer games, or being with friends. I’m not sure I would have become a writer if I hadn’t grown up in quieter times, when individual lines of poetry rang and echoed through my days after I read them.
Second—back to the film—I was struck by the dialogue. I watched it in an art theater in a university town, and the audience was responsive: we laughed at the subtle and not so subtle jabs the characters made at each other, recognizing Emily’s resistance to convention and cheering it on. Even as I recognized that not everyone could have been that articulate and intelligent all the time back in those days—that I was watching conversation not as it had been, but shaped by a writer and director—I still loved the strangeness and the entertainment value of the repartee. Emily and her family were educated, and that education informed even their arguments. It was adversarial, and more so as Emily herself became less hopeful, but the point of conversation was also to learn, and to figure out and convey complex ideas.
Finally, as a poet I empathized immensely with the Emily Dickinson portrayed in the film. She was unconventional in many ways, though she also yearned for romance and was acutely self-conscious about her appearance, her self-stated lack of beauty. She wanted to be read and was hurt—as women writers still are today—by the sexist nature of literary publishing, as well as the sexism of the rest of the world. While she endured direct comments about women not being “capable” of writing great work, the adjectives used to describe much writing by women these days convey similar attitudes: domestic, sentimental, tender, delicate… Yet Emily was compelled to write, couldn’t not write, and chose to do so at times when she would not be interrupted (of course, the film makes certain to have her ask her father’s permission to be up at night writing).
Besides dealing with sexism, Emily also is shown to live a tempestuous inner life common to artists, even if her outward life was lacking in adventures like travel or romantic liaisons. She wanted to be read, perhaps even to be known, but refused to be seen when an admirer came to visit; she wanted a big life, but required time and space and quiet in order to write. The contradictions are familiar, and go beyond easy introvert/extrovert conversations to get at the heart of what it means to be an artist. How to put oneself on display, when privacy and solitude are so essential to creation?
Other aspects of A Quiet Passion may strike you more deeply than the ones that struck me—issues of family, religion, health, or morality, perhaps. But I do recommend it, particularly to poets and other artists. Even if you have reservations about Dickinson’s poems—as I do, though I admire them, too—you will get something to think about from this interesting film.