The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Emily Dickinson in the Garden

Washington, DC

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recites a poem for Poem in Your Pocket Day. Photo courtesy of The New York Botanical Garden

Today most people connect the name Emily Dickinson with her poetry, but during her lifetime she was known for her skills as a gardener rather than her talent with words. For its first Big Read, the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) used its unique position as a scientific, research, and cultural organization to look at the connections between Emily Dickinson?s life, her poems, and her study and love of flowers, gardens, and the natural world.

To kick off the city?s Big Read and the opening of the exhibit Emily Dickinson?s Garden: The Poetry of Flowers, the Botanical Garden held a three-day marathon poetry reading in the Perennial Garden of all 1,789 of Dickinson?s poems in chronological order by local authors, students, and others. The event coincided with the celebration of National Poem in Your Pocket Day. In front nearly 600 guests, Mayor Michael Bloomberg recited a poem he had written, borrowing the Dickinson line, ?Hope is the thing with feathers.? He followed this with his own poetic efforts, ?That makes our city soar, it will take us to the future, as it?s carried us before?.? Sigourney Weaver and NYBG President Gregory Long read the Dickinson poem, ?I?m nobody! Who are you,? and New York State Poet Jean Valentine officially kicked off the three-day marathon reading of Dickinson?s poems by reciting the first poem in the cannon.
NYBG also partnered with the Poetry Society of America to present a four-part poetry series featuring esteemed writers such as former Poet Laureate Billy Collins, Joyce Carol Oates, and Lyndall Gordon. Led by the Poetry Society of America, these discussions looked at the different ways Dickinson had influenced and inspired the writers? lives and work.

Audio commentary, accessible by cell phone, is available along the Poetry Walk.  Providing insight into her poetry are Dickinson experts Judith Farr, Professor Emerita of English and American Literature at Georgetown University and author of The Gardens of Emily Dickinson; Marta McDowell, historic garden specialist, instructor at The New York Botanical Garden, and author of Emily Dickinson?s Gardens: A Celebration of a Poet and Gardener; and Alice Quinn, Executive Director of the Poetry Society of America. Photo courtesy of The New York Botanical Garden

In addition to exploring Dickinson?s poetry, the Garden also held events that focused on her skills as a gardener.  Author Marta McDowell led an exploration of Dickinson?s life through flowers and nature while Jane Wald, Executive Director of the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts, discussed efforts to restore the poet?s home and grounds.

Jennifer Josef, NYBG?s Director of Public Education and Big Read coordinator described the unique benefits of studying Dickinson?s poetry within the context of her love of plants and flowers:

We have found that placing Dickinson?s poems in this context gives people a greater understanding, enjoyment, and interest in her work and life, as well as increases their appreciation of nature and the plants at The New York Botanical Garden.  Suddenly the Garden comes to life in a totally new and different way for visitors than it ever has before. Our goal in planning the exhibition was for this connection to happen, but it is quite amazing to witness and more profound than I ever could have imagined.

New York Botanical Garden?s Big Read still has many more events between now and June 13, such as a self-guided tour that highlights 35 poems and the plants and flowers that inspired Dickinson and an event for young audiences that features award-winning author Barbara Dana. For more details and a full list of events, go to

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