Happy April—or as we call it here in the land of American Transcendentalism—National Poetry Month. There are many reasons I love living in Massachusetts, chief among them its literary heritage. As a recovering English major, I enjoy being surrounded with the ghosts of Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Alcott and Melville. About this time of year when New England begins to thaw, I make the short drive out to Walden Pond to walk around Thoreau’s old stomping ground—well, ambling ground. Thoreau loved a good amble.
But more than anything else, I appreciate living in a town that is home to Emily Dickinson. Dickinson has occupied a place in my mind for more years than I can remember. I count my intellectual awakening to a day in high school when I first read the poem, “After Great Pain a Formal Feeling Comes.” I had no idea what the poem meant, but I loved the words and the rhythm and–most of all–the images. Reading that poem made something CLICK in my head and I went from being an empty-headed 15 year-old who loved television game shows and Switzer’s red licorice to being an empty-headed fifteen year-old who loved television game shows and Switzer’s red licorice, and Emily Dickinson. That was a step up.
Fast forward several decades and I still love Emily Dickinson and I count my lucky stars that I get to live in a town that is positively GOBSMACKED with all things Dickinson. The poet was born in Amherst in 1830 and died here in 1886. Every fall I teach a Mount Holyoke College seminar on Emily Dickinson in the poet’s house in Amherst, the Homestead.
I love the moment each December when students read “There’s a certain Slant of light/Winter Afternoons” and then look to the Homestead’s window sills with harsh light angling in. Then there are the days when I take our crew from stem to stern. We walk through every nook and corner of the house, including the cellar and the cupola. Mount Holyoke students love the cupola best and who can blame them with its breathtaking views of Dickinson’s beloved New England.
Dickinson and Mount Holyoke go way back. The poet attended Mount Holyoke for one year in 1847-48. She did not graduate, preferring to spend time at home writing. While I don’t encourage today’s students to leave college, I think Dickinson made a good decision back in 1848. She needed to get started on the work-at-hand. “My business is circumference,” she once wrote. I think that means she didn’t care much for game shows or licorice.
In addition to teaching a Dickinson seminar in her house, I also enjoy helping out with Emily Dickinson Museum events whenever I can. This summer I’ll be co-teaching a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar for K-12 teachers. Eighty teachers from Alaska to Florida will converge on Amherst for two weeks to explore Dickinson’s life and work. This summer is the second time I’ve taught the seminar and I love it. Teachers, sprung from the obligation of teaching others, explode with excitement when they’re back to being students. Combine their passion for learning with the beauty of Amherst in the summertime and you have an alchemy that can’t be beat.
A few months ago, the Dickinson Museum asked me if I’d participate in some programming for a National Endowment for the Arts grant they received. Dickinson is one of about 50 American authors who are the subject of the BIG READ this year. Libraries, museums and community programs across the country vie for grants to develop opportunities for people to learn more about our American literary heritage. With funds from the grant, the Dickinson Museum is putting together a striking array of programs during National Poetry Month and beyond.
Here’s a line-up of some of the events from lectures to panel discussion to readings. Next month, I’ll be talking about Dickinson’s most famous letter—a letter that first sent her poems out into the world–at a program on May 17 at the Jones Library in Amherst. If you’re in town, stop by.
I never turn down an Emily Dickinson Museum invitation because the Museum staff is so creative with ideas.
Take this one, for example.
For the next several weeks, people all over Amherst will “encounter” a Dickinson poem in surprising places. The Museum asked local businesses to post a copy of a Dickinson poem that people could stumble upon as they bought the local newspaper, paid their water bill at Town Hall or filled up their car with gas. It’s the ambush quality of the encounters that I thought was imaginative. The idea is so—well–Dickinsonian. Emily Dickinson was a master of the surprising first line and her poems–like their physical placement all over town this month–arrest, assault, entrap and startle.
My friends at the Museum asked if I would be willing to record one of the poems that people also could hear read out-loud on their cell phones. Technology and Poetry!—what a combo, I thought. Of course I said yes and last week, I went to the Museum’s “studio” to record a poem. Now I put the word studio in quotation marks because the recording booth was actually upstairs in Emily Dickinson’s attic—a small, dark cave of a room tucked among a warren of little-used spaces. There was a chair, a TV tray and two lamps that connected to a faraway outlet by snakes of extension cords. My friend, Cindy, sat cross-legged on the floor next to the chair. She held the recorder hooked to a headset. “When I point to you—start talking,” she said.
I took a breath and began.
“I heard a Fly buzz– when I died—“
“STOP!,” Cindy said. “I can hear you breathing.”
Well, yes, I thought, I usually do that.
“No, really breathing. I hear you sorta heavy breathing,” she said. “Maybe the microphone is picking up everything.”
Well, it is April and allergy season, and I already had been pumping Allegra for several weeks. And then there was “the studio.” It carried the literary dust of centuries.
“Try it again,” Cindy said, “and this time–try not to breathe.”
I backed away from the microphone, took one last gulp of air, and dove in.
“I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air—
Between the Heaves of Storm—
The Eyes around—had wrung them dry—
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset—when the King-
Be witnessed–in the Room—
I willed my Keepsakes—Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable—and then it was
There interposed a Fly—
With Blue—uncertain—stumbling Buzz—
Between the light—and me—
And then the Windows failed—and then
I could not see to see—“
Allergies side–sitting in that ancient attic, I was back to being fifteen again and awash in the wonder of Dickinson’s words.
I hope townspeople who stumble upon my recorded poem at the Hope and Feathers Framing Gallery on Main Street will feel that way, too. Give it a listen yourself—here’s a link.
I hope you don’t hear heavy breathing.