One of America’s most renowned poets would likely fit in nicely in this modern era of texting and tweets — where the rules of punctuation and capitalization need not apply and brevity is a must.
Emily Dickinson is the subject of this year’s Weber Reads program, a community-wide reading program that includes events and activities at Weber State University, Weber County libraries, local schools and the Ogden Nature Center.
“Her poems are fairly sparse and they are not florid,” said Kathryn MacKay, a professor of history at WSU. “She writes a lot about the natural world and her poetry abounds in creatures and bees and birds and snakes.”
At Dickinson’s request, her sister Lavinia burned much of Dickinson’s personal correspondence after her death. As a result, much of her personal life is shrouded in mystery and speculation, which has overshadowed her achievements in poetry and her extraordinary innovations in the poetic form.
“She was a rebel and she dressed differently … she probably would have had black fingernails if she lived now,” said Margaret Rostkowski, a retired schoolteacher who acts as liaison between the Weber County Library and the numerous schools involved in the Weber Reads program.
“She was revolutionary in her poetry and wrote differently than anyone has before,” Rostkowski added. “She’s open to so many interpretations that I think people will find it refreshing.”
Belle of Amherst
Born in 1830, Dickinson was also known as the “Belle of Amherst” and spent her life as a single lady in the Massachusetts farming village. A middle child, she was adored by her older brother and younger sister. She had a frosty relationship with her mother and a complicated relationship with her father.
While famed for her reclusive nature and dressing all in white, Dickinson quietly produced an enormous canon of poetry. Her writings were known to her family and friends and she did see a few of her poems published, but it wasn’t until after her death in 1886 that the depth and genius of her work was discovered and subsequently published.
“After her death, her sister was shocked to find poetry in every drawer she opened … everywhere that she uncovered, there seemed to be another poem,” MacKay said. “Many of them were written on scraps of paper and written on envelopes and other things.”
When the poems were first published, they were heavily edited with conventional punctuation and capitalization added, and in some cases entire stanzas removed or rephrased. It wasn’t until 1955 that a complete and mostly unaltered collection of her poetry was published in “The Poems of Emily Dickinson.”
“Most people think of Emily Dickinson as much more reclusive than she actually was,” MacKay said. “She is not a hermit and she doesn’t spend her life in her room. She is out in her garden. She is downstairs in the parlor talking to friends.”
Aaron Ashley, an associate professor of psychology at WSU, will help shed light on Dickinson’s life and work when he presents “Emily’s Biography” on Tuesday at WSU’s Stewart Library.
“There are stories that during dinner parties with friends, she was quite the social butterfly,” Ashley said. “She was happy to be alone or happy to be in groups of people.”
Ashley is also planning to discuss how Dickinson used metaphors in her work to explore timeless, universal themes.
“In the hands of a master craftsman, these metaphors can do incredible things,” Ashley said.
Russell Burrows, a WSU English professor who will be speaking later this year about Dickinson’s poetry, also lends some insight into her behavior.
Dickinson had become friends with a powerful newspaper editor by the name of Samuel Bowles, who reportedly became perturbed with her for holing up in her room while he paid a visit.
“Bowles was said to have shouted ‘Emily, you damn rascal. No more of this nonsense … Come down at once,’ ” Burrows said. Dickinson reportedly came down and was quite pleasant and sociable.
“Maybe Emily Dickinson needed more men like Samuel Bowles in her life to help her be civil,” Burrows said with a laugh.
Perhaps — but perhaps she had more important things to attend to.
During her lifetime, Dickinson was known more for her domestic and gardening skills than her poetry.
“She was a wonderful gardener, played the piano and baked bread,” said Lynnda Wangsgard, director of the Weber County Library Systems, which is facilitating many of the activities at the local schools for Weber Reads.
“She is a keen observer of nature,” Wangsgard said. “One of the things I most enjoy about her are her insights into nature.”
Dickinson demanded much of those around her and didn’t suffer fools lightly, both Rostkowski and Wangsgard pointed out.
While many think of her as reclusive, Wangsgard sees Dickinson as a dynamic woman who had something to say in her poetry and didn’t have time to dally.
“Perhaps she sought the seclusion she needed to get this wonderful body of work out for the rest of us to enjoy,” Wangsgard said.
Although Dickinson did not travel extensively during her lifetime, MacKay noted that she lived near the epicenter of the American Renaissance as issues of slavery, abolition, women’s rights and humanitarianism were taking hold in the country.
Dickinson experienced her share of loss and grief and lived during the bloodiest period of the nation’s history as the Civil War ripped the country apart. Living during that tumultuous time period surely colored Dickinson’s view of the world.
Given the sheer volume of work she produced, Burrows takes issue with the theory that Dickinson was somehow mentally deficient or suffered psychological problems. In 1862 as the Civil War raged, Dickinson was at the height of her productivity, writing almost a poem a day, he noted.
That kind of mental discipline and creativity does not hold up for the psychologically troubled theory, Burrows said.
Dickinson may not have achieved fame and notoriety for her work while she was living, but today she is considered one of America’s best poets. Weber Reads organizers are hoping the community will get better acquainted with the renowned poet and her remarkable legacy.
Over the past few years, the program has tackled “Beowolf,” Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” America’s founding fathers, slave narratives and Mark Twain. Program organizers choose books that are available in a wide variety of formats for children, teenagers and adults.
Dickinson seemed an ideal choice for the program, since her work can be enjoyed by young and old alike.
One of MacKay’s favorite Dickinson’s poems is one that many adults will remember from their childhoods.
“ ‘I’m nobody. Who are you?’ is a poem that has been reproduced in a lot of children’s literature because children get it,” MacKay said. “They understand it because it is very straightforward and yet an adult can appreciate it at a much deeper level.”
Rostkowski said her poems are insightful, no-frills works, and she admires Dickinson’s way of looking at life without laying on thick with a lot of saccharine and sentimentality. Rostkowski finds Dickinson’s poetry honest and true.
“Reading her poetry is very helpful when you are grieving because she really confronted these things and she doesn’t pretty them up as we do to make things bearable,” Rostkowski said
While some may argue that Dickinson’s imagery, complex metaphors and darker themes — often involving death — are not ideally suited to a young audience, Weber Reads organizers believe this is a chance for the community to discover a poet, learn more about the poetry and perhaps try their own hand at it.
“I think we make a mistake when we say that poetry is hard and ... Emily Dickinson is really hard and that means that we won’t take her on and read her,” MacKay said. “This is the chance in this community to read one of the best poets ever — certainly one of the best American poets — and then maybe try to write a poem ourselves.”
WSU will be holding poetry slams on campus, and similar events are being offered in the elementary and secondary schools to ignite a passion for Dickinson.
Like Emily the gardener, Weber Reads hopes to nurture the garden of readers which the programs serves.
“What we think we are doing is planting things and from that will grow interesting discussions in the community,” Rostkowski said.
This is a partial list of events associated with Weber Reads Emily Dickinson. Other activities will be announced as information becomes available. All events are free and open to the public.
WEBER READS EVENTS
- 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 14 — Discussion of “A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade” by Christopher E. G. Benfey, Weber County Library, 2464 Jefferson Ave., Ogden
- 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 15 — “Emily’s Biography,” Aaron Ashley, WSU associate professor of psychology, Hetzel-Hollein Room of the Stewart Library, WSU, 3848 Harrison Blvd., Ogden
- 6 p.m. Jan. 24 — “Remarkable Women” discussion and film “Loaded Gun: Life, Death, and Dickinson” (not rated), Pleasant Valley branch of the Weber County Library, 5568 S. Adams Ave., Washington Terrace
- 12:30 p.m. Jan. 29 — “Emily and the American Renaissance,” Kathryn MacKay, professor of history, Hetzel-Hollein Room of the Stewart Library, WSU
- 6 p.m. Feb. 7 — Discussion in Spanish of Emily Dickinson’s “El Viento Comonzó a Mecer la Hierba,” Weber County Library, Ogden
- 12:30 p.m. Feb. 12 — “Emily and Transcendentalism,” John Schwieber, professor of English, Hetzel-Hollein Room of the Stewart Library, WSU
- 7 p.m. March 11 — “Family Fun Night: Emily Dickinson’s World,” Southwest branch of the Weber County Library, 1950 W. 4800 South, Roy
- 12:30 p.m. March 12 — “Emily and the American Poetic Traditions,” Russ Burrows, professor of English, Hetzel-Hollein Room of the Stewart Library, WSU
- 12:30 p.m. March 26 -— “Emily Live! Readers Theatre Performance,” WSU Stewart Library
- 7 p.m. April 8 — “Family Fun Night: Connect With Nature,” Weber County Library, Ogden
- 4 p.m. April 9 — “Emily, the Gardener,” Sally Shigley, Ogden Nature Center, 966 W. 12th St., Ogden
- 7 p.m. April 16 — “National Library Week: Riddles and Rhythm,” North branch of the Weber County Library, 475 E. 2600 North, North Ogden
- 7 p.m. April 16 — “National Library Week: Emily and the Great Outdoors,” Pleasant Valley branch
- 7 p.m. May 9 — “The poetry of Emily Dickinson and the natural world,” Ogden Valley branch of the Weber County Library, 131 S. 7400 East, Huntsville