Brooklyn Heights Poet Daniela Gioseffi Outs Emily Dickinson as “Wild” Heterosexual

jsw_daniela_gioseffiPoet, novelist, literary critic, and Montague Street resident Daniela Gioseffi has had an eventful career. The most recent anthology of her works, Blood Autumn, won the John Ciardi Award for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry. She started the Brooklyn Bridge Poetry Walk which, in this year’s incarnation, included actor and poetry enthusiast Bill Murray. She is also poet-in-residence for Brooklyn’s public schools.

See Ms. Gioseffi's comment below about this photo.

Now, Ms. Gioseffi has delved into the writings and archives of perhaps America’s best-known woman poet, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886). Though dissed, along with fellow New Englander Robert Frost, by Simon and Garfunkel in The Dangling Conversation, Dickinson’s reputation as a poet whose verse anticipated modern poetics and presented profound observations in terse style has grown in recent times. (Publisher’s Note: See Ms. Gioseffi’s comment below about the photo on the left.)

The result of Gioseffi’s research is a “biographical novel” about Dickinson, Wild Nights, Wild Nights, the title of which comes from one of Dickinson’s poems, few of which had titles and are therefore known by their opening lines:

Wild nights! Wild nights!
Were I with thee,
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile the winds
To a heart in port,
Done with the compass,
Done with the chart.

Rowing in Eden!
Ah! the sea!
Might I but moor
To-night in thee!

Professor Leila Melani of Brooklyn College, CUNY, calls this “a poem of unrestrained sexual passion and rapture.” It seems completely out of character if one accepts the conventional view of Dickinson as an asexual recluse. While she never married and, later in life, largely withdrew from society, even to the extent of conducting conversations through a closed door, she had many friendships with both women and men, though some of these were conducted largely or entirely through written correspondence. Gioseffi took as her task determining the identity of the person to whom “Wild nights! Wild nights!”, as well as other poems referring to a “Master”, were addressed. Her conclusion, in her own words, is that he was:

…a man by the name of William Smith Clark, a botanist and geologist far more famous in his day than Dickinson. He was the first Ph.D. scientist with a European doctorate to teach at Amherst College, and he lived on a hill behind the Dickinson Homestead, now a museum and historical site of the poet’s life. “On the hill/ the house behind,/ there paradise is found. /…” wrote Dickinson.

A botanist may have been a natural match for Dickinson; her Wikipedia entry quotes Judith Farr, from her book The Gardens of Emily Dickinson, as noting “that Dickinson, during her lifetime, ‘was known more widely as a gardener, perhaps, than as a poet’.”

Gioseffi is editor and publisher of the popular poetry website PoetsUSA. If you would like to purchase a signed, personalized copy of Gioseffi’s book, please contact her at

Share this Story:

, ,

  • ashton

    when they make the movie, which will be filmed in the Heights no doubt, Angelina Jolie should be Emily Dickinson. Look at those lips, that pout. A better match for Ms. Jolie than Cleopatra for sure.

  • AEB

    And my fave, or part of it. True glory:

    Grand go the Years,
    In the Crescent above them–
    Worlds Scoop Their Arcs–
    And Firmaments–row–
    And Doges–surrender–
    Soundless as Dots,
    On a Disc of Snow.

  • AEB

    …of course, if Emily had lived to hear the name Su Su’s Yum Yum….

  • Claude Scales

    If Emily were alive today, would she have the hots for Kevin Youkilis?

  • zorg

    Emily Dickinson is the greatest! And what an insouciant innovator (slant rhymes and all).

    I’m not sure I would call the reference in the Paul Simon lyric a “diss.”
    « And you read your Emily Dickinson,
    And I my Robert Frost,
    And we note our place with bookmarkers
    That measure what we’ve lost. »
    The poets mentioned rather represent a level of existence that the presumedly female “you” and the male “I” have failed to attain. Perhaps they would have had better luck if he had read some Dickinson… and she had read some Frost, whose poetry is also dark and deep (as well as lovely). Neither poet really played it safe, and I would hope Simon knew that—though it’s true that many schoolchildren have been given the wrong impression.

    As one of the 5 percent of Americans who still have no cell phone, I was just thinking that if Emily lived today, she would probably love e-mail, but that the last thing she would do is tweet on Twitter. Although she was nothing if not pithy and could certainly say a lot with 140 characters, I don’t think she’d want strangers following her. Remember this one?

    « 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! »

  • Claude Scales

    zorg: that’s an interesting point about the Simon & Garfunkel lyrics, and one I’d like to think true. After all, I admire those guys, and don’t like to think they despised two poets whose work I love. I was in college when “Dangling Conversation” was released, and my interpretation of it is my own. It’s based on the line that immediately follows “That measure what we’ve lost”, which is, “Like a poem poorly written”. That, to me, seems to refer back to Dickinson’s and Frost’s poems.

  • zorg

    The bookmarkers in the books by Dickinson and Frost “measure what we’ve lost.” Full-stop. And only then
    “Like a poem poorly written / We are verses out of rhythm/ Couplets out of rhyme…”
    I’m sure that even if Simon didn’t entirely appreciate the depths of Dickinson or Frost, he would still not consider their work as containing many poems “poorly written,” “out of rhythm” or “out of rhyme.”

    It would be of course a mistake to identify Simon with the character speaking in these lyrics, whom he views from an ironic distance. Their appreciation of great poetry could presumably be as intellectually vapid as their opinions on the future of the dramatic arts or the relevance of Freud. (I find it a little strange that these latter topics sound rather “trendy,” while their bedside books are from earlier eras.) Yet perhaps something in the poets they each hold dear has penetrated their minds with a dim but unshakable perception of a grace and depth that will forever elude them.

  • Karl Junkersfeld

    “measure what we’ve lost.”

    For I have known them all already, known them all:
    Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
    I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
    I know the voices dying with a dying fall
    Beneath the music from a farther room.
    So how should I presume?

    T.S.Eliot “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

  • Karl Junkersfeld


    Nice job. You too, are a poet.

  • David on Middagh

    @zorg: And have you heard the frog’s rebuttal?

    “I’m a Froggy! Who are you?
    Are you — a Froggy — too?
    Then there’s a pair of us?
    Come here and we’ll have — Froggy sex!”

  • D Gioseffi

    Claude Sales has done an excellent job of describing my book, WILD NIGHTS, WILD NIGHTS: The Story of Emily Dickinson’s Master, Neighbor and Friend and Bridegroom, a biographical novel based on my NON-fiction afterword: LOVER OF SCIENCE AND SCIENTIST IN DARK DAYS OF THE REPUBLIC and at, as well as and other online book stores. I woud add that Dr. William Smith Clark is a fascinating man to learn about, and very likely Dickinson’s Master figure. Registered with the Dickinson Scholar’s Registry, I spent six years researching the book and have had very good blurbs and reviews from former Poet Laureate of the US, Bob Hass, who said he liked the way I “richly evoke the life and times of Dickinson”. Galway Kinnell, Pulitzer Prize Winning Poet Laureate of Vermont wrote that my non-fiction afterword, upon which the book is based, is “a stunning essay that should be a book.” And Alice Quinn, Dickinson expert who just staged the readings at the NY Botanical Gardens on Dickinson, America’s most iconic woman poet, wrote: “The essay afterword on Dickinson is fascinating and convincing.”Connie Van Kirk has written that the person who discovers Dickinson’s Master Figure will solve the greatest mystery in American literature, and I’m sure I have. I won The American Book Award for my women’s studies classic from Simon & Schuster, WOMEN ON WAR; INTERNATIONAL WRITINGS, re-issued in an all new edition from THE FEMINIST PRESS, CUNY, 2003, in print for over 25 years, and this book on Dickinson is in some measure a feminist undertaking, also. Dickinson is our most widely read, internationally known woman poet, and it was interesting for me to try to understand, fully, why she never published in her lifetime, and how she became so well known after her death. William Smith Clark was a swashbuckling hero of the Civil War, and Colonel Clark founded the University of Massachusetts. He was the first Ph.D. scientist, botanist, chemist, and geologist to study in Europe and come back to teach at Amherst College founded by Dickinson’s grandfather Samuel Fowler Dickinson, originally as a Puritan Seminary. Clark and Dickinson were intellectually wed in their love of science and particularly botany. It’s true that Emily was better known as a gardener and a baker in her lifetime than for her poetry.,The love story of Dickinson and Clark presents feminist issues as well as being a tale of the American enlightenment in a time when Darwin’s ideas were just surfacing among the American intelligentsia. I learned so much about American history in the 19th Century by writing and researching this book. It fascinates me to to see how science developed against the dogma of Puritan Calvanism, and how the American enlightenment among the Transcendentalists, i.e. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson, etc. struggled to be born. Dickinson is one of our most scientifically knowledgeable poets, something about her that is not associated enough with her writings and poems, though its clearly present in her texts. Daniela Gioseffi, Brooklyn Heights Author.

  • http://none Her Master

    That’s not Emily Dickinson in the photo, FYI…

  • zorg

    Yeah, who *is* that in the photo?
    (And “Her Master”… what kind of name is that?!)

  • http://none Her Master

    “Gioseffi took as her task determining the identity of the person to whom “Wild nights! Wild nights!”, as well as other poems referring to a “Master”, were addressed”/joke

    And as for who’s in the picture, I’ve no idea. Only that it’s a far cry from the only certified [plain jane] photo of E.D. known to the world, or the other photo that probably is her but is uncertified.

    Google image will bring up those on the first page.

  • zorg

    To “Her Master”: I caught the apparent allusion, but wasn’t sure this was a one-off cybernym of yours.
    I’m curious as to how that picture got confused with Emily. I assumed at first it had something else to do with the story but never would mistake it for *her*.
    Another new book (nonfiction) about ED is reviewed in last week’s issue of The Nation.

  • http://none Her Master

    Interesting, thx. Yeah I don’t know who would confuse that pic for E.D., but I saw Ashton above did. *Anjelina Jolie

    –More like Scarlett Johansson if she starved herself for a year and broke her nose without resetting it.

  • Karl Junkersfeld
  • Karl Junkersfeld

    Do you guys remember this crazy scene, with Scarlett J., at the Academy Awards a few years back?

  • ashton

    OK from this picture maybe more Anne Hatheway than Angelina Jolie. She looks like she weighed 89 pounds. Definitely Anne Hatheway.

  • nabeguy

    I got to say, looking at that picture definitely makes the initials ED seem apropos. I’m sure she was lovely in person, but…

  • D Gioseffi

    These bloggers above are not aware of the photo of Dickinson dated 1860 in the back of Richard Sewall’s book. Sewall’s biography is considered one of the very best on Dickinson, published by Harvard U. Press, but Sewall would not have put it in his highly thought of scholarly book, if he did not feel it was a photo of Dickinson as I also do. It should not have been taken down in favor of the overused image of ED as a 17 year old sickly girl. The forward to my book WILD NIGHTS, WILD NIGHTS, The Story of Emily Dickinson’s Master at http://www.Amazon. com and explains exactly how I researched the photo to include it. There is no doubt in many Dickinson Scholars minds that it is Emily Dickinson at thirty years as the features match when sized against that old 17 year old photo that every one knows above, when the images are sized alike and put one over the other. What many NON-scholars of Dickinson who have not read as fully as I have do not understand is that the well known photo of her was taken when she was a mere, sickly seventeen year old just arisen from a sickbed. She herself in later years is described by those who saw her a bright eyed, clear skinned, attrative and womanly. Yes, she was diminuative all her life, but she described herseld as having “a gypsy face” and this photo fits her own description of herself that her sister Lavinia agreed with. Daniela Gioseffi, American Book Award Winning Author, Member of the Dickinson Scholars Registry

  • zorg

    I have a 1980 paperback edition (fourth printing, 1987) of the Richard B. Sewall biography, where the photo appears on the last page, “…reproduced by the kind permission of Mr. Herman Abromson, who bought it ‘some years ago’ from a bookseller in Greenwich Village. The name and date [1860] (in handwriting unknown) appear on the back of the photograph. Opinions vary as to whether it is an authentic picture of Emily Dickinson, the poet. There were several other Emily Dickinsons in the vicinity of Amherst during ED’s lifetime. The date of the photograph is probably approximate, but it accords well with ED’s concerns of about that time. In her first exchange with Thomas Wentworth Higginson in the spring of 1862, he asked her for a picture. she replied that she had none.”

  • Kate Erin

    I look forward to reading this! I just finished a run of a play called “Dickinson: The Secret Story of Emily Dicksinon” (I played the woman herself). My conclusions were that yes, she was wildly sexual, but I believe she was wildly bi-sexual not hetero. There is a lot of documentation to suggestion that she had a sexual lifelong relationship with Sue Dickinson. Though, clearly, she could also be a wild cock tease!

  • http://none Her Master

    It is understood that Emily Dickinson was an ugly woman. In her time, the woman pictured would be considered stupendously beautiful.

    This photo is what a 30-something Dickinson would look like:

    (It’s no surprise that her admirers would so willfully delude themselves, though.)