Emily Dickinson Poetry Marathon
Every year, the town of Amherst, Massachusetts holds a weekend poetry festival, inspired by one of the town’s most famous citizens, the mysterious and elusive poet Emily Dickinson. The event features an “Emily Dickinson Poetry Marathon,” during which Dickinson’s entire catalog of work is read from start to finish, beginning on Friday evening and finally concluding on Sunday afternoon. While the word “marathon” might not immediately lend itself to association with Emily Dickinson, the former evoking images of vigorous glory, the later quiet reflection, there is a powerful, breathless quality to Dickinson’s work. Sitting in a simple room in the Dickinson house on Main Street, I became breathless with the momentum of poetry. I experienced Dickinson’s genius as an unstoppable force of nature.
The event took place in a high ceilinged room, with tall windows making the most of the dim light on an overcast autumn day. A small group of readers sat scattered in a haphazard oval of folding chairs, and well-worn copies of “The Poems of Emily Dickinson” lay on empty chairs for newcomers. I took a seat. We read around in the circle, each person taking a turn, reading in voices that were sometimes halting, sometimes strong, sometimes shy, and sometimes emphatic, with every voice gaining confidence with each turn. The first poem I read was number 730, which begins:
You’ve seen balloons set, haven’t you?
So stately they ascend
It is as swans discarded you
For duties diamond.
The poem, which goes on to describe the life and death cycle of a balloon as witnessed by a group of first captivated, then dismissive onlookers, was a surprise to a Dickinson neophyte like me. The poem is funny, and I didn’t expect the humor. I also didn’t expect the presence of people, not only people, but a crowd of people. I pictured Dickinson as being unfamiliar with both humor and crowds. Yet I soon found the themes of this poem, the drama of life and death enacted before an indifferent audience, arose time and again in the poems read that afternoon.
Dickinson herself, as a presence in her poems, is not so indifferent, but she seems to straddle a divide between engaged and withdrawn. She is in a liminal space. So too, is the season of autumn, which is full of abundance yet a season of grieving, a time when the world is shutting down. Autumn invites us to reflect on what we have gained and what we have lost. This confluence of nature and emotions, in both the past and the present, was poignantly reiterated in poem 780, which I read on another turn:
The Birds reported from the South—
A News express to Me -
A spicy Charge, My little Posts -
But I am deaf - Today
The Flowers—appealed—a timid Throng—
I reinforced the Door -
Go blossom for the Bees - I said -
And trouble Me - no More
The Summer Grace, for Notice strove -
Remote - Her best Array -
The Heart - to stimulate the Eye
Refused too utterly -
At length, a Mourner, like Myself,
She drew away, austere -
Her frosts to ponder - then it was
I recollected Her -
Here, life is abundant, but while Dickinson is aware of this abundance, she can’t be a part of it. She is grieving. She is already thinking about the winter.
Much has been written about poem 764, and the room drew a collective breath when the circle reached it and one of our members began to read:
My life has stood – a Loaded Gun –
The power of this first line is astonishing. It was hard for me to imagine the Dickinson who wore the diminutive white dress still displayed in the museum’s collection holding a loaded gun, let alone being one.
My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -
In Corners - till a Day
The Owner passed - identified -
And carried Me away -
And now We roam in Sovereign Woods -
And now We hunt the Doe -
And every time I speak for Him
The Mountains straight reply -
And do I smile, such cordial light
Opon the Valley glow -
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let it's pleasure through -
And when at Night - Our good Day done -
I guard My Master's Head -
'Tis better than the Eider Duck's
Deep Pillow - to have shared -
To foe of His - I’m deadly foe -
None stir the second time -
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye -
Or an emphatic Thumb -
Though I than He - may longer live
He longer must - than I -
For I have but the power to kill,
Without - the power to die -
Sitting in that quiet, pious room, I heard this poem as a cry of anguish and fury. Dickinson is murderous. In her role of protector, she can never sleep. Worse than that, she is cursed with eternal life. She is doomed to be forever separate from the abundance of life around her, and to forever inhabit that space between. Yet her devotion, her dedication, to a presence I assume is God, allows her to take on sovereignty and might. Here again, I was struck by the parallel process of Dickinson’s expressed emotional experience, and of the experience of the room and the readers. While we are invited to hear Dickinson’s pain, and perhaps, in so doing, reflect on our own, we are also invited to take on Dickinson’s power. The loaded gun may well be Dickinson’s genius, and it is freely given to us.
Coming upon poem #779, then, was a gift, a promise of the next growing season.
The Grace—Myself—might not obtain—
Confer upon My flower—
Refracted but a Countenance—
For I—inhabit Her—
Dickinson wrote about hope in more direct, explicit ways – most notably in the famous, “Hope is a thing with feathers” – yet here, she is not just writing about hope. There is no distance here. Dickinson inhabits hope. Surrounded by a world preparing to shut down, those of us in the room that day were invited to share the grace of a flower.
Poetry may be the most misunderstood art form. It is not misunderstood because people can’t understand poetry. It is misunderstood because people believe there is something specific to understand. While I have nothing against formal analysis of poetry, I grow frustrated when I hear people say they hate poetry because they don’t “get” it. What is there to get? What does the poetry say to you? Participating in the Emily Dickinson Poetry Marathon allowed me to experience poetry viscerally. My adrenaline increased, my heart raced. And then there were moments when I took a deep, full breath, and landed, resting on a word, a phrase, a stanza. Sitting in the soft, autumn light in that simple room, I didn’t care about whether I understood the poetry on an empirical level. I inhabited it.