Written by Hazel Burke


Could be verse

Fancy getting stuck into a sonnet or cosy with a canzone but no idea where to start? In her column, our poetry doctor* Hazel Burke recommends revelling in nobodyness with good old Emily Dickinson. *She’s not a real doctor.

Emily Dickinson illustration by Louise Boulter.

I’m nobody! Who are you?
by Emily Dickinson

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us – don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

A couple of years ago I went to a presentation where we were told how much new stuff was added to the internet every day. As ‘a couple of years ago’ is roughly the dinosaur o’clock in internet time, I haven’t looked it up the figure because it will have changed. I can safely guess that the current figure is probably at least 20 Googlebytes a second, or as I like to think of it, shitloads.

In the face of this tidal wave of stuff, what to read? Clearly, given vast oceans of material and the most fleeting of time in which to read it, I mainly choose to read the Aldi leaflet because a) it’s there, and b) I’m an idiot. But don’t do as I do, do as I say, and have a punt on some poetry, including this little cracker from Emily Dickinson.

Poetry can have a bit of a bad rep: a bit old-fashioned perhaps, or irrelevant. Just a load of golden daffodils standing on a burning deck, vaguely remembered from school. But there are so many poems out there that really make me see and feel the world differently.

If you want a masterclass on how poets can rip you a new perspective then I recommend Claudia Rankine on race/racism and Kate Tempest on social inequality. These are big, important topics. I love personal-political poets like Clare Pollard, Hollie McNish and Salena Godden, who help me relate the big stuff to my everyday life.

Sometimes I just want a Wendy Cope pick-me-up or a good slug of Simon Armitage. And sometimes I just want to dip into the delightful poetical phenomenon that is Ian McMillan’s Twitter feed.

These people, and others, write stuff that really counts for me. It makes me stop, and think, and rethink. Poetry is really good for this. This poem by Emily Dickinson was probably written more than 150 years ago, but I want to show how it deals with themes that are so fundamental to human life that it is still relevant, and in fact how reading it now can give us an interesting new perspective on life today.

Dickinson grabs your attention right from the first line, pulling you into a quirky little exchange:

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?

You are co-opted into the writer’s secret gang of two: “there’s a pair of us”, set against a mysterious “they”. Yeah! At this point of the poem I feel like it’s me and Emily Dickinson to the end of the road, baby, getting all dramatic and talking about death and love and stuff and using exclamation marks like teenagers!!

“It’s a genius takedown of smug self-important folk who look down on others as ‘mere’ nobodies. The poem was written in 19th-century America but this idea works just as well when I read it in 21st-century Britain.”

Even if you’ve not got a bit overemosh about being in Emily Dickinson’s gang, you can still see how clever this first verse is. Lots of poems address the reader as ‘you’, but this one goes a step further, getting ‘you’ to collude with the writer against an unnamed other.

The first verse establishes ‘you’ the reader and the writer as a pair of nobodies, which is companionable, but doesn’t sound a bucketload of fun. Wait a minute, though, because the second verse goes on to explain that being nobody is in fact where it’s at: “How dreary to be somebody!” it says.

Somebodies, the writer explains, do not have the delicious privacy that you both share. They are like frogs sitting around croaking themselves hoarse trying to attract attention.

It’s hard to explain quite how much I like this image. It instantly takes down all the big-headed somebodies by picturing them as mere frogs. (I like frogs a lot, but it’s safe to say they aren’t a conventionally glamorous animal.)

To add insult to injury, these frog-somebodies must spend their time in public view, endlessly croaking their own name. It’s clear this is a fairly pointless activity, but just to ram the point home Dickinson sentences them to have no audience save an “admiring bog”.

It’s a genius takedown of smug self-important folk who look down on others as ‘mere’ nobodies. The poem was written in 19th-century America but this idea works just as well when I read it in 21st-century Britain. But reading it from this time and place, it also gets me really thinking about what it means to be a somebody or a nobody now. Who gets to decide?

What if the nobodies don’t want to be somebodies: what then? Could we – should we? – reclaim nobodyness and stop hankering after the publicity of being somebody? And I can think of no better metaphor for celebrity somebodies tweeting and ‘gramming their own personal brand than frogs croaking to an admiring bog. Think of this next time you see a celebrity ‘somebody’ spouting off about their life and revel in your obscurity.

Read all of Hazel’s previous poetry columns here.


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Written by Hazel Burke

Hazel likes seed catalogues, maps and toast. She lives in Manchester. @oxpecking