“This is the land the sunset washes, these are the banks of the Yellow Sea” — Emily Dickinson
The depths of her work could take lifetimes to truly explore, but today I want to examine one aspect of her work that inspires me — color.
Prompt Challenge: Write a poem using color as a central element.
Read below for some Emily Dickinson inspiration and works from a present-day color genius, Guérin Asante.
This is the land the sunset washes,
These are the banks of the Yellow Sea;
Where it rose, or whither it rushes,
These are the western mystery!
Night after night her purple traffic
Strews the landing with opal bales;
Merchantmen poise upon horizons,
Dip, and vanish with fairy sails.
The morns are meeker than they were,
The nuts are getting brown;
The berry’s cheek is plumper,
The rose is out of town.
The maple wears a gayer scarf,
The field a scarlet gown.
Lest I should be old-fashioned, I’ll put a trinket on.
In her poems, Dickinson frequently interacts with the natural world as one might commune with another human. Color serves to personify descriptions of these natural characters. The fields are not merely scarlet, they are dressed for an occasion. Blue is calm, purple is regal, green is the color of life itself.
Color is not wasted — it has significance. The sea is blue because it acts blue. The fields are scarlet because they act scarlet. The sunset is all-encompassing, yellow, purple, opal — because it dwells in a magical realm.
As I read Dickinson, I react in a similar way as when I look at an impressionist painting. The sum of a scene — the feeling, the essence — is far greater than the individual components. Color and light are not vehicles to meaning, they are the meaning!
My river runs to thee:
Blue sea, wilt welcome me?
My river waits reply.
Oh sea, look graciously!
I’ll fetch thee brooks
From spotted nooks, —
Say, sea, Take me!
In “My River Runs to Thee,” the blue sea is steady and impassive, providing an anchored counterpoint to the hectic action of the speaker determined to impress. The illustration is just as true today as it was then — will all the tricks and wiles for attention be successful?
We are uncertain as how the sea will answer — I love this tension, and that color is at the center of it.
What does it look like to write in technicolor today?
I’d point to Guérin Asante, a brilliant painter and poet.
Asante, like Dickinson, paints scenes with words as much as he writes them. He uses color to tap into the elemental spirit of humanity, bypassing the rational mind and speaking straight to the amygdala.
When you see his art and read his poetry, your first reaction is not to think, first you feel and experience. Then you digest, then you ponder once you begin to separate yourself from the visceral emotion.
I think this is how great poetry should be — experienced first, understood second.
You can find several of his colorful works here:
A yellow dream drives us
freely down the avenue,
riding over dust come up
on graying, gusty streets,
overrun with concrete lovers hovering,
in a hurry, climbing one-way nerves
with not a single curve in sight,
en route southbound
toward the in-town rush,
and as we finally reach
a central patch of green,
we find our feet again
waltzing with the city’s rhythm,
hoping we will find ourselves
by getting lost within
In a Garden, On Fire:
The first golden fingers
peel back blue from hedgerows,
careful not to linger so long,
the night is fooled
into staying behind
and sleeping in,
instead, they reach
over everything alive,
arriving at our room,
to tap our window blinds
and tell us
“wake up, your garden is on fire —
you should be out here, dancing
in between the flowers and the flames”
It’s hard to say what we should call
this color here between us,
at this late a time of day before
the sky is set to close up all its doors,
but it’s safe to say the hue
is less the shade of what the sun presents,
and more like all its brightness
shining through our shuttered eyes.