I Gave You Power as My Life had Stood a Loaded Gun: the complicated poetic styles of Emily Dickinson and Nasir Jones

Within the world of poetry, one would have a difficult time identifying two poets who are as complex and contradictory as Emily Dickinson and Nasir “Nas” Jones. Over time, each poet has acquired a cult-like following by producing legendary works that have been analyzed by theorists while at the same token, inspiring future poets. However, individuals within the respective following have been as baffled and alienated as they have been impressed. Each poet comes across as an enigma. In examining Dickinson’s life Richard Sewall reports, “She enjoyed riddles, apparently enjoyed being one” (Sewall 4). Perplexingly, Dickinson was prolific in the creation of her art. Yet, she was selective in regard to publication. Jones is also difficult to pen down. He has crafted inspirational, meaningful works followed by works laced with misogynistic lyrics that embrace capitalism and worldly living. In regard to his poetics, Jones states, “I’m totally contradictory. I was gonna make a song called ‘Mr. Contradiction.’ Cause in essence, It means I’m human” (Rockworth 11). When criticized, Jones makes no apologies when his art is concerned. Despite critical mauling, Emily Dickinson and Nasir Jones are considered two of the greatest poets of their respective time periods. This work compares and contrasts the similarities and differences within their lives while placing an emphasis on the works, “My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun” and “I Gave You Power”.

Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst Massachusetts on December 10, 1830. Her family was affluent and enjoyed prosperity. Dickinson’s education included time at Amherst Academy and a shorter period at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. During her studies, religion became an intricate part of her education. In reference to the spiritual foundation of her education, Cristanne Miller writes, “The Bible was a primary text in schools, including Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, where Dickinson studied, respectively from the ages of 9 through 16 and for ten months of her seventeenth year” Miller 132). This information becomes pertinent when one analyzes Dickinson’s unique stance on organized religion later in life.  In her lifetime, Dickinson became a recluse who rarely left her room sans her residence. During this time she became a prolific poet who maintained correspondence with select individuals via letters. When Dickinson passed on May 15, 1886, she left instructions to her sister Lavinia to burn all correspondence addressed to her. However, Dickinson’s instructions did not include any instructions on what should be done with her poetry. At that time, Lavinia discovered a plethora of Dickinson’s poems. It was after this discovery, that the majority of Dickinson’s clandestine works were brought to the attention of the public and published.

During her life, Dickinson’s decision not to publish was a defiant act toward the institution of patriarchy. In the 19th century, male editors selected topics for women writers. In essence, Dickinson was protective of her works. Speaking of Dickinson’s stance on publication, Elizabeth Petrino reports, Dickinson “valued her own conception so completely that she was willing to forgo publication” (Petrino 20). After she died, the first series of her poetry sold 10,000 copies while the first series of letters sold 2,000 copies (Messimer 5). After mass publication, the world became Dickinson’s audience.

In entertaining her audience, Dickinson’s writing style had many influences. Among them was William Shakespeare. In regard to her appreciation of Shakespeare’s works Thomas H. Johnson documents, “After long disuse of her eyes she read Shakespeare and thought why is any other book needed” (Johnson 210). Coincidently, both Shakespeare and Dickinson included biblical motifs in their writings. Additionally, Dickinson referenced other works in her writing as well. It is documented in Comic Power of Emily Dickinson that Dickinson paid tribute to Emerson. It states, “’I taste liquor never brewed-‘has long been recognized as a witty poetic response to Emerson’s ‘Bacchus’” (Juhasz 19). By spending much of her life as a recluse, Dickinson no doubt became well read and knowledgeable of many canonical works.

Being reclusive no doubt fostered Dickinson’s writing ability, while allowing her the proper opportunity to reflect and compose. She wrote on common household items like wrappers and napkins. Marta L. Werner documents, she wrote on “whatever lies close by” (Werner 21). Seemingly, when Dickinson felt the urge to compose she seized the opportunity to write. Apparently, Dickinson experienced physical impairments that posed a threat to her craft and writing ability. It is believed that Dickinson’s eyes at one point began to fail her. In 1879 she changed from pen to pencil, due to her eye strain. Also, writing in pencil made for flexibility in regard to potential mistakes (Werner 21). Whether she used pen or pencil, her poetry is still, for a lack of a better term, unique. Dickinson invented terms and used frank language. In regard to this motif Cristanne Miller responds, “The language of Dickinson’s poetry is elliptically compressed, disjunctive, at times ungrammatical; its reference is unclear; its metaphors are so densely compacted that literal components of meaning fade” (Miller 1). Seemingly, without previous knowledge of her work, or the proper training, an individual may not be able to appreciate the imperfect perfections created by Dickinson. This allure is partially why she is equally abhorred as she is adored.  Still, she is considered one of the greatest poets of her time period, if not one of the greatest American poets ever.

Individuals who adore Dickinson’s work may have an appreciation for her puzzling style. Her style utilizes an abundance of non-traditional capitalization and a copious amount of dashes. In regard to her verse, Dickinson’s structure is also non-traditional. She avoids pentameter in favor of trimeter, tetrameter and sometimes dimeter. Dickinson procured the ballad stanza while employing the ABCB rhyme scheme. Many of her poems resonate with hymns such as “Amazing Grace”. Dickinson scholar Judy Jo Small weighs in on Dickinson’s melodic flow. Small states, “Dickinson shared the Romantic concern with the ineffable power of music” (Small 37); due to the murky nature of the relationship between sound and meaning, music represents the elusive sublime” (Small 38). As a consequence, according to Small, Dickinson may have directly been influenced by Emerson, Isaac Watts, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning as they collectively utilized “incorrect” rhymes for “expressive effect” (Small 40). Arguably, one may find Dickinson’s experimentation with irregular rhyme exhilarating.

Ironically, the same individuals may find Nasir “Nas” Jones’ rise to fame and experimentation with rhyme equally exhilarating. Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones was born September 14, 1973 in Brooklyn New York. Nasir means “helper”, sometimes “supporter” or “protector” (Gasteier 21). Early in his rap career, Jones crafted a song titled “Fetus” that harkened to the less than desirable conditions surrounding his birth. Jones would go on to scribe, “Pops took moms to see the doc at the clinic, but I was saved cause he changed his mind in the last minute” (Rockworth 30). Incidentally, by the song’s end, Jones’ parents commit to their obligation, and he is born safely. While still a youth, Jones’ family migrated from Brooklyn to Queens New York. Due to a lack of funds, the family moved into the Queensbridge housing projects. His mother Fannie Ann Jones worked a post master and his father Olu Dara, a jazz musician. Though he traveled the world performing during Jones’ formative years, Dara had a profound influence on his son. As a result, Nasir Jones initially wanted to become a comic book artist or a jazz musician like his father once he reached adulthood. Reflecting on the blessing of having his father in his life when many of his peers did not, Jones states:

So many of my peers grew up without their fathers. They never had that tight structure in the household with a man there, so a lot of them are wild and crazy. I always thought of that and felt bad for them. I couldn’t imagine that being my story. So that alone made the relationship [with my dad] golden. (Rockworth 31)

Eventually, the rise and invention of Hip-Hop music and culture would change Jones’s career path. Later in life, after becoming a multi-platinum recording artist, Jones would have the opportunity to record with his father, Olu Dara. Before that time however, Jones would fall in love with the culture that fostered the growth of Hip-hop. He entertained himself by writing poetry, break dancing, and performing a hybrid form of street dancing known as popping and locking. Jones began to use the moniker, “Kid Wave” (Rockworth 32). During this time in the culture, Corporate America began to notice the marketability of Hip-Hop. Artists were signed to recording contracts, Hip-Hop began to appear in magazine ads and television commercials, and Hip-Hop films appeared for the first time. In the African American community, this was a harbinger of good tidings for the future prosperity of Hip-Hop and its culture. While reminiscing of his son’s rise to acclaim and the delicate period in Hip-Hop’s history, Olu Dara quips:

I took Nas to Lincoln Center to see one of the first rap movies. It could have been Krush Groove or something like that. And I remember Nas seeing LL Cool J walk by with a radio on his shoulder. Nas was young and he said, ‘Daddy, he’s gonna be a star.’ I didn’t know who the hell LL was, but Nas was always particular about predicting who’s gonna be a star. Once, he picked up a Michael Jackson album, Off the Wall, he said, ‘He’s gonna be big, big, big, big daddy! (Rockworth 32)

Apparently, Jones would continue to have a gift for identifying talent. By the time he reached the 8th grade, Jones decided to dropout of school to make a career out of Hip-Hop. He spent countless days crafting lyrics on anything that he could find reminiscent of the ways of Emily Dickinson. He would attend Hip-Hop parties in nearby parks but would be too afraid to recite his brand of poetry for the revelers. In this regard, like Dickinson, Jones became reclusive. He would return to his project window to craft more poetry for his own enjoyment. Jones would later document this awkward period. He raps:

Back in ‘83 I was an emcee sparkin’/ but I was too scared to grab the mics in the parks and/ kick my little raps ‘cause I thought niggas wouldn’t understand/ and now in every jam I’m the fuckin’ man. (Gasteier 27)

It was not until his eye for talent identified a young man from his project building named Willie Graham, did Jones begin to become a man in regard to the genre of music. Graham served as a Disc Jockey (DJ) for Jones. The friends began to spend time honing their respective crafts until they made a small name for themselves. As a consequence, the duo changed their names to become more marketable. Graham became “Ill Will” and Jones dropped the “Kid Wave” moniker and began to refer to himself as “Nasty Nas”.

Shortly thereafter, Jones received the opportunity of a lifetime. He was asked to appear on the song of national recording artists Main Source. The song was titled “Live at the Barbeque” and was featured on their first full length album Breaking Atoms (Rockworth 34). This invitation provided Jones the break he so desperately desired. In the song, Jones displayed a talent and style that struck an accord with the Hip-Hop Audience. Jones would go on to record:

Street’s disciple my raps are trifle/ I shoot slugs from my brain just like a rifle. I melt mics ‘till the sound waves over/ Before steppin’ to me you’d rather step to Jehovah. (Gasteier 25)

In regard to Jones’ rhyme scheme/flow Hip-Hop researcher/ critic/journalist Matthew Gasteier reports, “Nas started a revolution in multi-syllabic rhyming that continues to stand as the major signifier of quality rapping” (Gasteier 15). At this point, Jones’ become the topic of discussion in barbershops and school bus stops across the nation. Jones began to accumulate fans from all walks of life, creeds and colors. Unlike Dickinson, Jones wanted to publish. The group Main Source was led by a young rapper/producer named Large Professor who also was from Queens New York. “Large Pro would take Nas under his wing, shopping his demo around and inviting him up to the studio during off recording times” (Gasteier 24). As a result of the tutelage, Jones signed a recording contract with Columbia records. Unfortunately, tragedy struck during the joyous time. As the deal with Columbia was completed, Willie “Ill Will” Graham was murdered in the same Queensbridge building project where the duo met. Later in his career, Jones would start a recording label imprint of his own. He would name it “Ill Will Records” in memory of his fallen friend. Until that time however, Jones was set to make history with his critically acclaimed first album, Illmatic. Remarkably, this album would go on to cement Jones’ reputation as on of the greatest poets of the 20th century. It is believed the album’s title also pays tribute to Graham.

Upon its release, Illmatic would change the way Hip-Hop aficionados perceived and listen to the genre of music. The album went from an underground success to be hailed as one of the greatest Hip-Hop albums of all time. Hip-Hop biographer Janice Rockworth scribes, “Illmatic wasn’t a huge seller, but the numbers don’t represent the album’s value” (Rockworth 37). Initially, Illmatic’s album sales were brisk. However, over time as the legend of Jones grew, it would later be considered a commercial success as well as being considered a classic by critics. Author Eddie S. Glade Jr. speaks of the album’s impact and how it made Jones relevant for the first time in his life. He reports:

This classic work demonstrates a level of excellence indicative of the potential power of Hip-Hop, but it also evokes excellence in a different sense. Nas’s lyrical ethnography represents the art of living, a process of self-fashioning or the forging of a unique and powerful personality—of making oneself present through the medium of music. With the lyrical descriptions of the chaos of Queensbridge—the loss of loved ones, the reality of prison, drugs, and violence, the inevitability and imminence of death—Nas indeed rhymes himself into existence. (Dyson 192)

Incidentally, there is a Dickinson work that has acquired an existence of its own. “My Life had stood-a Loaded Gun” has been studied and critiqued since its 19th century release. It has been read from many different perspectives and is considered to be one of Emily Dickinson’s strongest works. In the poem, the female speaker is uncertain or indecisive about the power she possesses.  Dickinson wrote:

My Life had stood-a Loaded Gun-

In Corner-till a Day

The Owner Passed-identified-

And carried Me away-

And now We roam in Sovereign Woods-

And now We hunt the Doe-

And every time I speak for Him-

The Mountains straight reply-

And do I smile, such a cordial light

Upon the Valley glow-

It is as a Vesuvian face

Had let it’s pleasure through-

And When at Night-Our good Day done-

I guard My Master’s Head-

‘Tis Better than the Elder-Duck’s

Deep Pillow-to have shared-

To foe of His- I’m deathly foe-

None stir the second time-

One whom I lay a Yellow Eye-

Or an emphatic Thumb-

Though I than He- may longer live

He longer must-than I-

For I have but the power to kill.

Without- the power to die- (Johnson 341)

The poem includes details of death, the consequences of the gun’s power when possessed by the owner, and phallic symbols. The work can be read and interpreted from a Biblical perspective. Nancy Mayer detailed the interpretation in an article of the poem. She wrote:

The Gun, recognizing in God its rightful master, both begins and undoes the narrative. In Milton’s revision of Genesis, Death is the offspring of Sin and Satan, spawned in Hell. Neither Hell nor Satan is necessary in Dickinson’s “Sovereign Woods”; death has always been passive but prepared, so that the beginning of the story, predestined, is something of a false beginning, just as the triumph over death that the last stanza invokes is selective and incomplete. The hunted Doe, a representation for the whole of sentient animal life, has nothing to do with identification, the linguistic event that began the Gun’s reign of terror, or with the wisp of hope that might end it. (Mayer 541) Here, the hunted Doe is an innocent bystander by the poem’s end. It is almost irrelevant.

        Consequently, it is very difficult to comprehend just one intended meaning or purpose from the poem due to the plethora of reading and interpretations it has rendered over time. Scholars have read motifs of religion, patriarchy, heterosexuality, feminism, homosexuality, and the institution of marriage into the poem. Lillian Faderman is one scholar who fancies a Heterosexual reading. In an article dedicated to un-raveling the poem, she asserts, “Poem 754, like a number of other poems and letters by Emily Dickinson, is about her ambivalence toward heterosexuality, and particularly the role of a woman in a heterosexual relationship” (Faderman 121). All things considered, “My Life had stood-a Loaded Gun” has given many different interpretations to many different people.

Strangely enough, Nasir Jones also crafted a poem from the perspective of a gun. Included with his second album It was Written is the song, “I Gave You Power”. Jones rhymes:

        I was made to kill, that’s why they keep me concealed

        Under car seats they sneak me in clubs

        Been in the hands of mad thugs

        They feed me when they load me with mad slugs

        Seventeen precisely, one in my head

        They call me Dessert Eagle, semi-auto with lead

        I’m seven inches four pounds, been through so many towns

        Ohio to Little Rock to Canarsie, livin harshly

        Beat up and battered, they pull me out

        I watch as niggas scattered, makin me kill

        But what I feel it never mattered

        When I’m empty I’m quiet, findin myself fiendin to be fired

        A broken safety, niggas place me in shelves

        Under beds, so I beg for my next owners to be thoroughbred

        Keep me full up with hollow heads (Jones)

In this narrative, the gun details how he is used, how he is perceived, and his true desires. At the song’s conclusion, the firearm jams on his owner in a staged moment of rebellion against the gun’s designed purpose, according to the masculine persona of the gun, to kill Blacks. However, after the gun purposely jams, its owner is killed by the gun’s intended target. Immediately afterwards, the gun is quickly procured by a stranger who will continue to use it in the same manner. The song concludes with the gun’s realization that he alone is powerless when in the hands of others. He is destined to give total power to his owner. Matthew Gasteier adds insight on the songs purpose. He scribes:

The song shivers from mournful piano chords and weeping strings, stuck in a cycle of violence and death that seems inescapable. It’s a quiet moment of anger and compassion, producing an unspoken connection between one death—Will, the protagonist’s owner, or any black man—and the survival of not only those around them, but the ideas that sent them to their graves.” (Gasteier 40)

Ultimately, “I gave You Power” helped It was Written become the commercial success Illmatic initially, was not. The song became recognized for its social commentary on Black on Black crimes in America. Like Dickinson’s “My Life had stood-a Loaded Gun”, “I Gave You Power” began to spawn different interpretations including Biblical references. Because the gun makes choices on life and death, some listeners/readers believe that Jones intended the gun to represent God. Unwittingly, Nasir Jones creates a 20th century update on Dickinson’s “My Life had stood-a Loaded Gun” from an African-American perspective.

Paradoxically, these two poets displayed some of the same characteristics while producing profound materials a century apart. Both Dickinson and Jones have been praised as well as ripped by critics of their respective time periods. Despite critical mauling, Emily Dickinson and Nasir Jones are considered two of the greatest poets in American history. “My Life had stood-a Loaded Gun” and “I Gave You Power” both stand as monumental symbols of each poet’s talent, life, and passion.


Works Cited

Dyson, Eric, and Sohail Daulatzai. Born To Use Mics. New York: Basic Civitas, 2010. Print.

Faderman, Lillian. Poem 754 Ambivalent Heterosexuality in “My Life Had stood-a Loaded Gun.” Women’s Studies (16) (1989): 121-125.

Gasteier, Matthew. 33 1/3: Illmatic. New York: Continuum, 2009. Print.

Johnson, Thomas H. Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters. Cambridge: Belknap, 1986. Print.

---. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Belknap, 1999. Print.

Juhasz, Suzanne, Cristanne Miller, and Martha Nell Smith. Comic Power in Emily Dickinson. Harvard: 1993. Print.

Mayer, Nancy. “Reloading That Gun: Reading an Old Poem As if it Matters.” The Hudson Review 537-549.

Messimer, Marietta. A Vice for Voices: Reading Emily Dickinson’s Correspondence. Boston: Massachusetts, 2001. Print.

Miller, Cristanne. Emily Dickinson: A Poet’s Grammar. Cambridge: Harvard, 1987. Print.

Nas. “I Gave You Power.” It was Written. Columbia, 1996. CD.

Petrino, Elizabeth A. Emily Dickinson and Her Contemporaries: Women’s Verse in America, 1820-1885. Hanover: U P of New England, 1998. Print.

Rockworth, Janice. Hip-Hop: Nas. New York: Mason Crest, 2008. Print.

Small, Judy J. Positive as Sound: Emily Dickinson’s Rhyme. Athens: Georgia. 1990. Print.

Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1974. Print.

Werner, Marta L. Emily Dickinson’s Open Folios: Scenes of Reading, Surfaces of Writing. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan. 1995. Print.