I’ve nothing else – to bring, You know –
So I keep bringing These –
Just as the Night keeps fetching Stars
To our familiar eyes –
Maybe, we shouldn’t mind them –
Unless they didn’t come –
Then – maybe, it would puzzle us
To find our way Home –
F253 (1861) 224
The poet, like the night, has a gift that has become so familiar that it risks being taken for granted. After all, although “Night keeps fetching Stars,” how many of us make a point of paying attention to them? They are just a familiar backdrop. In Dickinson’s day, of course, the stars would have been much more visible since they had only a fraction of the light pollution that most of us have. We only get to see a vivid night sky when the power is out or if we are far away from city lights.
|Celestial Navigation has brought|
many a sailor home.
Dickinson confesses she has only one thing to bring, and unless she is talking about flowers she is talking about her poetry. Poems to Dickinson are like stars to the night sky. In the last stanza she notes that even we might not think we would miss the stars, we could actually become lost without them. Polaris, the North Star, is an important directional landmark throughout the Northern hemisphere. We can also navigate by the constellation’s rotation throughout the night: they seem to move from east to west, about five degrees per hour (if I recollect correctly).
The implication follows that without poems we would also become puzzled about the way home. That’s a bold and really lovely claim for poetry. Textbooks, histories, and novels all have their place in teaching us about the world, but Dickinson implies here that if we want to find our way home – find our way to the place we truly belong, to a place of truth and solidity – we rely on poetry. “Tell the truth but tell it slant,” she says in a later poem. There is a deep truth to good poetry that goes beyond what our scientists and social workers and philosophers might tell us. So if there were no more poems many more of us would lose our bearings, just as we would without the presence of the Northern Star.