Emily Dickinson by Helen Oyeyemi

'Dickinson is my hero because she was a joker, as a poet she confronted pain, dread and death, and because she was capable of speaking of those matters with both levity and seriousness'

People came to visit her and left feeling shaken. Often because she refused to see them, but sometimes because she didn't refuse. "Without touching her she drew from me," her first editor, Thomas Higginson, wrote. "I am glad not to live near her."

"My wheel is in the dark", wrote Emily Dickinson. (To us, not to Higginson. She was mostly coy with him – he was of no assistance.) But she saw better in the dark. "My wars are laid away in books", she wrote. And "The only news I know / Is bulletins all day / From Immortality". Not a lady to go to if you're looking for a quiet, comfortable afternoon.

Dickinson is my hero because she was a joker, because she would never explain, because as a poet she confronted pain, dread and death, and because she was capable of speaking of those matters with both levity and seriousness. She's my hero because she was a metaphysical adventurer. Somehow she had this startling perspective that drew her out of an externally "small" life of house-keeping and gardening and cakes and conversation and enabled her to flirt with the infinite.

A while ago there was a debate on the Emily Dickinson email list I subscribe to. Someone asked an urgent question: how tall was Emily Dickinson? Answers poured in, based on dress measurements, the size of her bed, extracts from letters she wrote and, the literal last word in measurements, the dimensions of her coffin. A consensus was finally reached: 5ft 3ins.

Why do we care so much? It could be because of her elusiveness, the way she used the language of her day to evade her day: "people must have puddings," she is reported to have said "very timidly and suggestively, as if they were meteors or comets". Every once in a while it feels necessary to find some detail that fixes such a woman in time. 5ft 3ins will do for now.

Helen Oyeyemi

The GuardianTramp

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