How Emily Dickinson Recognized True Poetry

Emily Dickinson’s test of poetry:

If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know. Is there any other way.

Dickinson gave this definition in 1870 to Thomas Wentworth Higginson. I found it in Edward Hirsch’s How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, which I am thoroughly enjoying. You can read the first chapter, including more on the quote, online thanks to the Poetry Foundation. 

The only adults I know who write—and in a way, read—poetry are poets. It kind of narrows down to the people where that is actually their style of writing and their medium. When you’re a teenager, it’s easier to dabble more. … Also, in a way, you’re protected. When I think about the poetry I wrote in high school, I felt protected because I felt like I was taking on a tone and an understood amount of drama as opposed to when I was just trying to write a personal essay, and it was straightforward. To use certain writing devices that I had used in poetry seemed melodramatic.

 Tavi Gevinson, in an interview with Ruth Graham for Poetry