Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Visiting Emily Dickinson

There comes a time in every young poet's life (at least for those of us who live in my part of the world) - a time to visit the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst. For me that time was last Saturday, and I had a beautiful experience on the guided tour (the only way you're allowed to see the Dickinson house), which was really like walking through a talking book about Emily and the Dickinson family.

Emily Dickinson's poems are so sparse, so clenched, and they give up so little in terms of explanation, that I've always found them to be greatly enhanced by their social and historical context. The poems are Biblical, or scriptural, in terms of the intensity of their images and the dense, sometimes opaque, nature of their content. The tour, which our guide had animated by selecting many quotes from Dickinson's letters, provided this kind of illuminating context.

It was amazing to stand in the room where those verses were born, to look out of the large sunny windows at nearby trees and the road. It was easy to imagine that space being enough of a world for a poet with such a rich inner life.

One thing I really appreciated was a display used to convey how word choices affect the meaning and nuance of a poem. Dickinson often chose alternate verbs or nouns or adverbs for a poem, and instead of crossing out and replacing one with another in her manuscripts, she let them stand, indicated with asterisks. Editors have had to choose one word when preparing Dickinson's poems for publication, but the display board in the museum had sliding pieces that allowed one to change which word was included in any given line. I had visions of an interactive book where the poem is still alive, given its final incarnation not by an editor but by each reader.

If you go to the museum, make sure to take the extended tour, which includes the Evergreens. The Dickinson Homestead has been redecorated, cleaned, and somewhat updated. The Evergreens, where Emily's brother and sister-in-law lived, still contains many of their possessions. It smells of age and dust, and echoes with history.

After a tour of the museum, I went with my friend to find Emily Dickinson's gravesite, a short walk away in the West Cemetery. Instead of "died" or "deceased," her gravestone says "called back." People have left offerings of coins, flowers, and pencil stubs on top of the unassuming white marble marker. And close to her gravestone, the grass has (intentionally or unintentionally) been left to grow, wild and tall, a fitting tribute to this local and domestic, yet wild and spiritual, poet.


  1. Nicely described, Kat. I've also taken the pilgrimage to her house and grave. I too enjoyed standing where she wrote, imagining her inner life. One of these days I'd like to do the Evergreens.

  2. BTW, I found this book to be very helpful in explaining some of Dickinson's work: