On Creation: Emily Dickinson, "I dwell in Possibility"

...genuine expressions of identity are nothing less than poetry.

On Creation: Emily Dickinson, "I dwell in Possibility"

Helen Vendler close-reads literature in the most enviable way. I do have doubts about the value of always extracting deeper meanings from each syllable or overreading between the lines. But then I remember why I wanted the skill of close-reading in the first place. Objects which I first saw as scribbles on a page or a patch of pretty colors changed into conversations I desperately needed. For example: I have found myself stumped about humankind being a "learning animal," a statement of Aristotle from the opening of the Metaphysics. Does Aristotle, who also describes humankind as a "talking animal" and a "political animal," have reservations about our desire for knowledge?

Vendler's specialty is poetry. In her volume on Dickinson, she discusses I dwell in Possibility as devoted to exploring the differences between poetry and prose. I believe another interpretation may be useful. Perhaps a few love this lyric because they wonder about the limitations of prose. I suspect more people care because they would like to dwell in possibility. If you've been told your whole life what exactly counts as success, what you ought to be doing, and who you have to be, then dwelling in possibility appears a most attractive alternative. If this poem takes a detour into matters of form—I dwell in Possibility – / A fairer House than Prose—it does so because genuine expressions of identity are nothing less than poetry.

I dwell in Possibility (F 466) (from Poetry)
Emily Dickinson

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

"A fairer House" both lends itself to and steers away from self-construction. On the one hand, we do try to make the places in which we reside reflect who we are. I do know some hostile to that notion. I have met jaw-droppingly abusive parents who wouldn't let their kids decorate their rooms. I've also met people who are always talking about decluttering or simplifying in an obsessive, unhealthy way. As if by throwing out stuff, they could erase their guilt or even those they felt guilty about. In either case, the presence of an individual is strongly felt.

On the other hand, what about our obsession with remodeling homes and selling them? I don't want to judge. I too watch HGTV and think certain fireplaces are a bit much. But are there some using a "fairer House" to dodge anything of consequence? A couple can't be an aesthetic, no matter how much social media insists otherwise. In the end, you've got to go to doctor's appointments, help each other get through school and work, and deal with family difficulties. None of that is beautiful, no matter how nice the Thanksgiving dinner was.

Still, "[a] fairer House than Prose" asks us to be beautiful and well-made. Like a song we keep singing to ourselves, discovering new depth each time.


Dickinson allows her House to make no sense. It is possibility, after all. There are "numerous" Windows, letting you see so much. But then there are "Superior" Doors, keeping things firmly inside or outside. "Chambers" as "Cedars," "[i]mpregnable of eye" gives a flourish to this same theme. Enter one room and you will not see another. The outstanding questions: Is freedom located in possibility or choice? Can the two be reconciled? You want as many possibilities as you can have, but in order for them to be meaningful, you must make a choice. When that is done, many of the others—if not all—fall away. It feels for a moment like there are limits to possibility, but we are told of an "everlasting Roof," "The Gambrels of the Sky." Or, you could say, complete openness to the sky.

It's not just that you have to make a choice. It's that possibilities have to contradict to be possibilities. I bring up Plato a lot when writing about literature, but that's because the figure of crazy old Socrates as a "rational animal" often anticipates the concerns of later writers. In this case, there's a short Platonic dialogue, the "Lovers," where an interlocutor of Socrates wonders if a lover of wisdom is the second-best knower of everything. The best, of course, would be the person expertly practicing a craft. Is a philosopher an armchair quarterback for every activity conceivable? Are they "[m]ore numerous of Windows," open to the sky, but lacking doors and chambers?

The question of a "lover of wisdom," a philosopher, implies a choice has already been made. There is a moral commitment to knowledge which differentiates someone who truly wants to know from a hobbyist or dilettante. I suspect that as we construct our identities, we mirror the philosophic life. We make choices to build ourselves, and the poem's silence on the consequences which follow is notable. Dickinson prefers to talk about possibilities and openness. The moral commitment is real, the consequences unspoken, and the situation always fluid. There are possibilities beyond the possibilities we see.

That's a literary answer. Does it suffice for us personally? You're more than likely reading this because you like to write or create things. Dickinson's rhetoric would be most useful if it could alleviate the anxieties involved. Some choices are humiliating and devastating and quite accidental. The more I do that's incredible, the more I have to let go. I've found big successes and big failures coincide more often than not. That's my own experience and a mild statement of the problem. A more significant anxiety: What happens when you cause people to tune you out?


"Visitors" in "Possibility" may be angels, the "fairest" beings there are. The gathering of "Paradise" Dickinson locates as her fundamental task prompts me to consider this. But for those who want to be seen or heard, what does it mean to posit supernatural beings as one's audience? This feels like dodging a very real fear. We create so we are taken seriously by other people. Needing holy ghosts to attend us may not relieve any problems and instead threaten to mock the optimism of the first line, the reason why anyone reads this poem.

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I have to be real: it is much easier for me to produce with the appropriate employment. I do not have to explain to everyone and their mother why I am owed the most basic respect. I am asked questions which have to do with my field. People express trust in me and vouch for me. I can create and people will consider what I have to say. Creating was not easy when I was unemployed or in uncertain jobs. I am in awe of who I was about a year ago, when I was throwing in application after application and still blogging. I'm not sure where I learned to be so resilient, where I didn't doubt for a second that something important could be said about the human condition even if I was worried about the next paycheck.

I had credibility of a sort I hope I will always recognize in others. Often I think of credibility as emanating from social circumstances. Credibility in a higher sense, that is, not just frat boys mindlessly promoting their worst members to powerful positions in society. How is one credible? By reaching out to others, listening carefully, taking the time to explain their conclusions, demonstrating relevance to others, and appreciating the time, effort, and presence others give. "Adulting" is fake except when it isn't. There is a very real maturity independent of professionalism whereby someone knows they have grown. It's a maturity which art speaks to, especially art made for children.

It is hard to believe you have to be the angel to receive the angel. It makes no sense, especially in situations where you feel neglected or bullied. In my experience, I could not see what I was doing right in tough circumstances. Neither could those around me. Even the advice of "you need to change where you live" didn't seem right, because surely if things are going wrong, there must be something I can fix? Life doesn't work like that. It does not always let us dwell in possibility. Well-meaning people can be blind to how deep some wastelands are. You have to be an angel to understand what you have. To be committed to the motion and willing to announce it. The spreading wide my narrow Hands / To gather Paradise.