The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Emily Dickinson at Poets House

"A blossom" - Letter 803 from Emily Dickinson to Forrest F. Emerson, who briefly served as the pastor of the First Church at Amherst from June 12, 1879 until he was dismissed on February 21, 1883. Image (c) President and Fellows of Harvard College

Does a poem read differently when it’s handwritten versus typed? Can a penned manuscript shed light on the personality of the one who penned it? Lee Briccetti, executive director of New York City’s Poets House, believes the answer to both questions is “yes.” Through February 18, the organization is celebrating its 25th anniversary with the exhibit Emily Dickinson at Poets House, which aims to illuminate the reclusive poet through rare manuscripts, letters, and books from the private collection of Donald and Patricia Oresman. Although she only published 12 poems in her lifetime, Dickinson wrote close to 2,000 works, often embedding poems within letters to loved ones, scribbling fragments on scraps of paper, and experimenting with variant word forms, which she indicated with the letter "x."

"With untold thanks" - Letter 847 from Emily Dickinson to Mrs. Henry Hills, approx. 1883. Image (c) President and Fellows of Harvard College

“Great poetry always makes language new,” said Briccetti. “But how lucky we are…to be able to see the process of Dickinson's ‘making’ through her manuscripts' calligraphy and idiosyncratic spacing, to be in the presence of her hand's rendering of voice."

As Briccetti explained, much of Dickinson’s original “idiosyncrasies” were lost when the poems were finally published posthumously. “Because she published so little, she was very, very free to do things in a way that was completely of synch with her time. When she was finally published, the people who did publish her---[Thomas Wentworth] Higginson and Mabel Todd---were, I suppose in a gesture of friendship, trying to make her more acceptable, so they changed her lineation and her punctuation.” (You can learn more about these editorial decisions in our recent podcast with author Brenda Wineapple).


"Come unto me" - Letter 595 from Emily Dickinson to Mrs. Henry Hills, whose infant son Samuel died in February 1879 (Mary Adelaide Spencer married Henry Hills, a manufacturer of straw hats. Emily's brother Austin took over the Hills' failing business in 1878 to "save his friend from ruin.") Image (c) President and Fellows of Harvard College

For Briccetti, Dickinson’s unusual formatting gives her poems an almost “sculptural” quality. This visual element is echoed in “The wildest word we consign to language,” a complementary exhibit by poet and artist Jen Bervin, who curated the Dickinson show. Bervin has created large-scale quilts and white-on-works based on Dickinson’s variant markings and fragments, offering a wholly different way for visitors to approach and interact with the poet’s work. There have also been seminars and lectures, further highlighting the historical and literary impact of one of America's most enduring voices.

Coconut cake recipe - representative of Emily Dickinson's reputation during her lifetime as a beloved baker (she won a competition for her rye bread and was known to have often sent baked goods to friends and family for all sorts of occasions). Image (c) President and Fellows of Harvard College

Of course, for most lovers of poetry, it is often not the historical relevance of a poem that makes it memorable, but its emotional effect. From her lyrical phrasing to her poems within letters, written for an “audience of one,” Briccetti believes Dickinson has always held a particularly intimate relationship with her readers. A longtime Dickinson enthusiast, Briccetti has herself been moved by experiencing the manuscripts on display in the exhibit. “Just to see the big ‘B’ in her ‘blossom,’ makes me feel that there’s some blossoming of the word itself,” she said. “It’s incredibly moving. The first time I saw that ‘B,’ I cried.”

Click here for more information on the exhibit at Poets House. For more information on Emily Dickinson and her poetry, please visit The Big Read website.


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