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Wearing Emily Dickinson, Wearing Her Words

By August 24, 2011

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If you were going to wear another person’s face on your skin, would you choose a poet? Philip Jenks would, and did, and chose Emily Dickinson:

from “Chicago Ink” in Time Out Chicago:
A Poet’s Devotion to Emily Dickinson” by Max Herman
Philip Jenks is a poet and university lit lecturer who has devoted the skin of his whole back to a tattoo portrait of Emily Dickinson... “It’s a large, powerful image that he’ll occasionally reveal to his students and colleagues as a conversation starter. ‘It can be a great opportunity,’ he says with a smirk, ‘to rethink her work.’“ See photographs of his tattooed back in the Time Out Chicago article and at Max Herman’s Web site.

We can see the affinities between poetry and tattooing, calligraphy and memory, words taken to heart and body art... but Jenks’ choice—to wear the poet’s portrait rather than her words—is a rarity. Poking around the Internet in search of other tattoos inspired by poets, we discovered many more tattoo poems than poets: At Contrariwise Literary Tattoos, there are three Emily Dickinson tattoos, two of “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers —” and one of “If I can stop one Heart from breaking,” as well as collections of tats quoting Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, e.e. cummings, Charles Bukowski, and a variety of other poems. And there’s a coffee table book of literary tattoos, The Word Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos for Bookworms Worldwide (by Justin Taylor and Eva Talmadge, Harper Perennial, 2010), Dorothy Parker's Elbow: Tattoos on Writers, Writers on Tattoosthat ’s chock full of poem quotes embodied in tattoo form. Kim Addonizio and Cheryl Dumesnil’s earlier book, Dorothy Parker’s Elbow: Tattoos on Writers, Writers on Tattoos (Grand Central Publishing, 2002), gives us the words instead of the pictures—poems, essays, stories and memoirs on getting, wearing and interpreting tattoos. So which of Emily’s lines would you choose to wear?

More on Emily Dickinson:
Biographical Profile of American Icon/“Belle of Amherst” Dickinson
Our Library: Poems by Emily Dickinson
Circling Back to Emily Dickinson” (July 2013)
The Scientist in Emily Dickinson” (2010) “Emily’s Pearls Still Shine in the 21st Century” (2008)
What Would Emily Say? An Indeath Interview,” by Robyn Sue Millerz (2003)
Emily Dickinson: Continuing Enigma,” by Jone Johnson Lewis


August 25, 2011 at 6:42 pm
(1) lewis myers roberts says:

We in Barrow Bedford Commerce Street Group look forward to Dr Myers plays on
e e cummings
Edna St Vincent Millay
William Burroughs

August 30, 2011 at 12:07 pm
(2) Sean Morrow says:

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Dylan Thomas

August 30, 2011 at 1:47 pm
(3) Susan says:

I would have a yellow wood scene with “I took the one less traveled by” in the poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. One of my favorite poem about choice.

September 8, 2011 at 4:11 am
(4) Brooke says:

It seems fitting that people would tattoo themselves with their favorite poems. Poetry is a replication emotions construed by words that illustrate something far deeper than merely the face value appearance. Often people live on the principles, proverbs or opinions of their favorite poets so it only makes sense that they would tattoo the poems as somewhat of a shrine and proof of their loyalty and affection to their esteemed heroes.

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