The father of American poetry.
The father of American poetry. Three Lions / GETTY IMAGES

It's hard to think of a better model for our moment of reclusivity than Emily Dickinson. For a lot of good reasons, in her 30s she rarely left her horrible father's home. She talked to people through doors, occasionally. Nevertheless, she was a social distance butterfly, writing tons of letters to friends, to a potentially imaginary person, and writing poems.

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She was Zoom-calling longhand, and though she cooped herself up in the house, she explored the cosmos in her poems. The poet celebrates this form of expansiveness in "126 'The Brain Is Wider than the Sky...,'" which you can find in her Collected Poems, available at local bookstores.

A few notes:

• This is one of those lyric poems, which tends to mean that each of the poet's language choices will reflect the poem's subject. In this case, there's a lot of things the poem is "about." It's about the act of comparison, it's about our imagination feeling realer than reality, and it's about some branch of metaphysics I'm too tired to think about right now, but, basically, it's about our inability to perceive of experience outside of our perception. You think you're comparing two things to one another, but really they're just one thing.

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• She sets up the thesis for that last point using pairs of words throughout the poem. In the first stanza she has, "side by side." In the second she has "blue to blue." And in the third she has "pound for pound." In each case the literal words are the same, but each refers to a different thing. Then she hits you with the final pair: "syllable from sound." Though the words themselves are different, there's no "real" difference between syllable and sound other than the semantic one we invent with our brains, just like there's no real difference between man and god, or sky and brain, or a and b. It is this wild truth, this play between signified and signifier, that allows a brain to be wider than the sky. And it's this wild truth we'll need to rely on more heavily these days.

• I just want to appreciate the fact that Dickinson uses "brain" instead of "mind" throughout this poem. In any undergrad class, you'll talk about how the choice highlights the slippages between concrete detail and abstraction that runs throughout the poem (brain v mind), but it's also just a fucking funny thing to do, and we don't talk enough about poets making choices for the sake of humor.

• Dickinson is the king of the sadly funny gesture. The shining example here is the line, "The brain is deeper than the sea, / for, hold them, blue to blue..." Here she's borrowing the color from the sky-sized brain in the first stanza, but she's also hinting that we're all a bunch of mopes—we're all "blue"—as the brain is where "all of our hearts and feelings are," as Julia Child once said of a lobster.