It is a common view that poetry is often the result of a deeply felt reaction to one's life and society. Hence, over 100 years on since Dickinson died, this would lead us to assume that her poetry can hold no value to us as now: society must have changed beyond all comprehension to that when she was alive - or so we would like to think.
It is almost a disconcerting thought that we could possibly still relate to people at a time when women could not vote and many of the great inventions of the twentieth century were only just appearing. Hence, the individual aspirations of people must have been somewhat different - but it is precisely the contrary which Emily Dickinson's poetry shows us: she displays the same fears, regrets and power of emotion that we do today. In fact, her poetry is astoundingly modern:
'Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne'er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need'. #67
The aphoristic quality of this poem is clear even to a modern reader. The imagery of 'nectar' and 'sweetest' creates a bittersweet testimony of the way one feels in defeat. The simplicity of the poem and the almost child-like rhythm of it subconsciously reminds the reader of the fragility of human emotions even in adulthood.
Many of Dickinson's poems are dedicated to absolutes: to life and death - that which will always apply:
'There's been a Death, in the Opposite House,
As lately as Today -
I know it, by the numb look...' #389
Here Dickinson notes the cold and frigid nature that society treats death with. For all the ostentatious ceremony that was characteristic in the Victorian period, there is little true feeling; a window opens 'abrupt - mechanically', people wonder if 'it died - on that', and a mysterious 'somebody' flings the mattress out. The poem exudes a lack of personality, a lack of concern and above all a lack of emotion.
For me, the obscurity of her imagery is painfully exquisite; it is at these times, when ones own imagination is invoked that the poem becomes more personal and meaningful -even if your interpretation is not what Dickinson intended! Yet in contradiction to that remark, Dickinson's poetry conveys a deep sense of spiritual experience and hence it would seem a logically progressive statement to say that the aim of her poetry is to create an impression of feeling on the reader - whatever that feeling may be.
Thus, her poem:
'I've seen a Dying Eye
Run round and round a Room -
In search of Something...'
Although seems to be talking about death, to me it conveys the desperate attempts of someone looking for that which is truly beautiful in a world that is 'obscured with fog' so that truths and intentions are soiled. A great poignancy is created by the almost gothic image of a 'dying eye' that is 'soldered down'. In its quest it has become disillusioned and lost its pure idea that 'twere blessed to have seen', this is such a intimate stream of thought that it is more appealing to the reader as they have to become involved in the Dickinson's meaning. In short, her poetry makes the reader think.
Even if we do not identify with the message of her poetry (although it must be said that at times there appears to be less of a message and more of an emotion conveyed) we can still be captivated by the beauty of her language. Although she uses homely daily phrases to express her emotions, they have a greater impact as they bring her poetry closer to the bone. Her avoidance of felicitous statements is very revealing as she has rejected an artist facade that might numb the reader to apathy which would reduce her poetry's power:
'The heart asks Pleasure -first-
And then - Excuse from pain-
In just a few words, Dickinson has moved straight to the point - she talks of the 'heart', 'pleasure' and 'pain'. It is this involvement with the inner truth and raw emotions which is so admiring. With Dickinson you are in a world where emotions can not be ignored, they are embraced, issues are not skirted, instead she uses her talent of expressing herself in few words but those which encompass the whole of life:
'I found the words to every thought
I ever had - but One
And that - defies me'- #581
Even if one agrees that her poems are too occupied with personal issues, there is Dickinson's style to analyse and amaze us. She is a strange mixture of metaphysical poetry, Romanticism and Transcendentalism: she even portrays some of the characteristics evident in literary movement of the twentieth century. Such links are evident due to her use of conceited metaphors such as 'My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun' and her use of imagination over reason, often leading her to the dismissal of set grammatical rules:
'I'm coming Home -
Day - got tired of Me' -
A lot of her poems are too do with pain and anguish, another example of the universality of her poetry. These are often her most deep and inspiring. They do not contain a moral but are simple expressions of her pain - one can not read them and feel satisfied afterwards or learn from them, but should feel an affinity with her :
'There is a pain - so utter -
It swallows substance up-
The above example perfectly demonstrates her ability to capture passing, fleeting moment. And, even if Dickinson is too concerned with personal issues, her poetry is such that one admires her skill to put an idea so beautifully into words that we, ourselves would not be able to do.
This said, we may find it hard to identify with her feeling of entrapment in being a women during her period:
A solemn thing - it was - I said -
A woman -white - to be' #271
In this poem, her perceptions are tinged with a penetrating sense of the contrast of change of circumstance brought on by marriage. She ponders 'how the bliss would look' and 'to drop a life Into the purple well'-. Her sensitivity to irony is a talent of its own and thus without the experience of what she is saying, her witty and sarcastic language creates an appeals all of its own:
'The sages - call it small -
...And I sneered -softly - "small"!' #271 cont.
Also, we can relate her poetry on this topic to a more general sense of restriction: even in today's society only a few can truly say that they do not in some way conform to what society suspects. Emily Dickinson did not conform and thus in much of her poetry a sense of solitude is evident; the enigma Dickinson chose to create for herself, alone, can instil interest for the reader:
'This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me' #441
And 'The Soul selects her own Society-
Then - shuts the Door' #303
The difficulty with the statement posed in the question is that it asks whether Dickinson's preoccupation with personal issues is relevant. Poetry does not have to be relevant, the best poetry is often irrelevant, something you can not describe and will not experience, yet strive to know about - it is another form of reality- a source of entertainment that does not isolate the imagination. Thus, I disagree with the statement, in full comprehension that an entirely antithetic view to mine own can be put forward, precisely because poetry is so personal and subjective. Dickinson is writing from a different period in time yet her ideas are not limited by her era. In fact, Emily Dickinson says it herself:
'a Poet - It is That
Distills amazing sense
From ordinary Meanings
...Exterior to Time'. #448