Posted by: jeannineatkins | April 29, 2009

Marilyn Nelson on Emily Dickinson

(ED stipple drawing by my husband, from many years ago)

Last night I got to hear Marilyn Nelson (whose books of biographical poems, such as Carver, are wonderful), read Emily Dickinson. This was at the Jones Library in Amherst, part of an NEA sponsored program called The Big Read. Marilyn Nelson read each poem twice, as she said was her habit over thirty years of being a professor at UConn. She asked the most spellbound audience questions beginning with: if you cover the poem with your hand, or close your eyes, what stays with you? We’d look at words, phrases, punctuation, then, when people replied, she opened and amplified the responses with her marvelous words and sweet voice. It was like being at a symphony. We listened to poems in which the speaker reveled in the wild drunkenness of spring, while others were restrained. We were reminded of the joys of wanting over getting, the richness and gift of not having, or as ED writes, “the Banquet of Abstemiousness” (poem 1447) There was discussion of the constraints within the poet’s life, but the bounty she found in her garden, as vast as her vocabulary.

Marilyn Nelson orchestrated such a bevy of comments – and while she said she spent three years immersed in Emily Dickinson, and had spent the afternoon contemplating one line (I forget which) – there were people in the room – biographers, high school teachers, college professors, special collection librarians, historical museum directors — who spend almost every day with Dickinson. A lot of wisdom and opinions. Amherst is a town with regular events such as walking from Dickinson’s house to her graveside to read poetry on the day she died. With portraits of her in coffee shops (soon I’ll bring my camera). Click on the link above to learn more about local events including a biographical ballet, Jane Yolen reading her new picture book, My Uncle Emily, a poetry picnic, and the fifth annual ED Poetry Marathon, a non-stop reading of every one of Dickinson’s 1789 poems.

I took a picture of Marilyn Nelson, but it seemed to reflect more anxiousness about a babbling fan girl sticking a camera too close than her beauty. So instead, I’m posting some of what I got to drink in today on a walk with Mary and our dogs. Mary and me, wearing orange vests to ward off turkey hunters, pants tucked in socks to ward off ticks, were not quite such a picture. But with this view to behold, who cares?



  1. I would love to hear someone who really “got” Dickenson. I just read a book where the narrator described her as sneaky.
    Watch out for those hunters!

  2. Swoon swoon swoon! I drank in every word of this post. Wow!!

  3. Turkey hunters and ticks – how brave! Great photo, I can see why you live dangerously.

  4. Thanks for the sweet warning re hunters.
    And I kind of like the idea of sneaky Emily.

  5. Love to see you swoon!

  6. Well, the bear hunters keep me out of the woods, but it really doesn’t seem fair to get one day a week in April and May.

  7. It was in Jennifer Donnelly’s A Northern Light, which I really enjoyed. And it got me curious about that sneakiness.

  8. I wish I could have been there — both for the reading and for the walk! (I grew up in hunting country, so I’d be happy to take my chances just as long as I had that orange vest.)
    if you cover the poem with your hand, or close your eyes, what stays with you?
    What a wonderful question. I can see why a talk like that would be like being at a symphony — in more ways than one.

  9. Forgot to say that I like the drawing very much!

  10. Marilyn Nelson not only has a brilliant mind but a soft lovely voice; so when there parts I couldn’t follow, I’d never mind and enjoy the sounds.
    And thanks re my husband’s drawing!

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