For years I had been avoiding Emily Dickinson. Her poetry is hard, and the popular image of her as an unknowable recluse made it easy for me to put her in the “perhaps another day” box. When my son became a student at UMass Amherst, I drove by the Emily Dickinson Museum countless times, peeking into the windows and wondering if it was time to take the first step. I began by visiting the Museum’s website and learning about the Dickinson family. Easier to access than her poetry, I learned about her family’s relationship with Amherst College and the compelling story of how Dickinson’s poetry was discovered and published.
But when I started to read her poetry, I was frustrated. Although I’m a good reader and can usually discern an author’s meaning, Emily Dickinson does not give the reader that luxury. Reading one poem quickly basically gives you nothing. It requires, as one of last week’s speakers said, “some ironing out.” But I was interested enough to pursue her – or more accurately, frustrated by the riddle-like nature of her poetry.
During one of my visits to the Museum’s website, I saw a reference to a week-long program, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and decided to learn more. In my letter, I was honest about my struggles to understand Dickinson’s poetry, but expressed enthusiasm for grappling with her work. But after being accepted, I was a little unsettled. What if the other participants “got” every poem after one reading!
Luckily, that was not the case. In fact, the best part of the program was reading Dickinson with others. Talking and re-reading and being guided by leading Dickinson scholars, I began to realize that the rewards for reading Dickinson are great, but not easily gained. Emily Dickinson was a brave writer who confronted things head-on. She was subversive and engaged – not at all the caricature we latch on to of a woman unaware and uninterested in the world around her.
We spent the week immersed in Dickinson’s world, but looked at her life through a broad lens. One of the most interesting sessions took place at the Jones Library in Amherst where we looked at objects related to life in the mid-1800s. At a table filled with material related to the Civil War years in Amherst, I began reading an 1861 sermon delivered by Rev. William Stearns, the third president of Amherst College. I opened the document expecting to read a few pages before moving on to something else, but nearly 45 minutes went by before I looked up and remembered where I was.
The days were full and demanding, in the best way. There were lectures, small group sessions, poetry discussion groups, and curriculum planning. At the close of the formal day, several of us gathered for dinner during which the conversation and questions continued.
There’s a lot more to say, but honestly, I’m still working through the experience myself. I keep returning to something the Dickinson scholar, Joanne Dobson, said: “We don’t read Emily Dickinson. She reads us.”
I’m not intimidated by reading Dickinson’s poems anymore. They challenge and confuse me, but she is worth the effort. And I’ve just explored the tip of the iceberg.
One of Dickinson’s famous “envelope poems”
Emily Dickinson’s gravesite