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Garden Roots of Emily Dickinson’s Poetry

June 9, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Paul Solman reports on a new show in New York that attempts to recreate the green spaces that inspired the writings of famously-reclusive poet Emily Dickinson.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: a summertime story about the green thumb and tender prose of a renowned poet.

“NewsHour” correspondent Paul Solman is our guide.

PAUL SOLMAN: In the Bronx, New York, an ostentatious show about a famously reclusive poet, Emily Dickinson.

TODD FORREST, vice president for horticulture, Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, New York Botanical Garden: So, we are in Emily Dickinson’s garden in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory at The New York Botanical Garden.

PAUL SOLMAN: Todd Forrest is the Botanical Garden’s V.P. for horticulture.

TODD FORREST: We have recreated the garden, based on some wonderful research done by a woman Marta McDowell, to try to evoke the garden that was so inspiring to Emily Dickinson as a poet.

She really was a poet second and a gardener first. She got her knowledge of nature and her passion for nature, which informed her poetry, through working every day in her own garden in Amherst, Massachusetts.

PAUL SOLMAN: She worked in the two-acre garden and wrote overlooking the flowers in it, from the flashy to the ever-so-humble.

ALICE QUINN, executive director, Poetry Society of America: “The dandelion’s pallid tube astonishes the grass, And winter instantly becomes an infinite alas.”

You know, later in life, she wrote to a friend, you know, if we love flowers, are we not born again every day?

PAUL SOLMAN: Alice Quinn, head of the Poetry Society of America, considers Dickinson a poet, not a gardener first, though her nickname was Daisy.

ALICE QUINN: So, one of the essential daisy poem’s in Dickinson’s oeuvre of 785 poems begins, “So, has a daisy vanished from the fields today? So tiptoed many a slipper to paradise away.”

PAUL SOLMAN: “To paradise away,” people who died, yes?

ALICE QUINN: Yes.

From a very early time, she was very conscious of death. A number of her cousins and young friends died of fevers. And, in fact, a poet friend of mine says of Dickinson that funerals were her TV, you know, that she would look from her window to watch the funeral cortege, and then she would get a glimpse of the whole village. Mortality and the brevity of life was a huge subject for her.

PAUL SOLMAN: “I felt a funeral in my brain.”

ALICE QUINN: Yes.

PAUL SOLMAN: “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.”

ALICE QUINN: “And the nerves sit ceremonious like tombs, the stiff heart questions. Was it he that bore, and yesterday or centuries before?”

I mean, those are feelings that she wakens in us, because we all know what it’s like to grieve or to survive an illness.

PAUL SOLMAN: Above us, small birds hectored a hawk, perhaps protecting their nest. But if nature is read in tooth and claw and represents the realm of mortality, poetry endures.

ALICE QUINN: “Essential oils are wrung. The attar from the rose be not expressed by suns alone. It is the gift of screws.”

PAUL SOLMAN: A pressed rose, that is, lives on as its perfumed essence.

ALICE QUINN: “The general rose decay, but this, in lady’s drawer, makes summer when the lady lie in ceaseless rosemary.”

PAUL SOLMAN: Live roses die, but the perfume and poem illicit an endless summer, though the dead lady lie in rosemary, symbol of remembrance.

Never married or engaged, Dickinson also wrote love poems.

ALICE QUINN: “I tend my flowers for thee, bright absentee. My fuchsia’s coral seams rip while the sower dreams. Geraniums tint and spot, low daisies dot. My cactus splits her beard to show her throat.”

The vulnerability that she’s declaring, it’s — is extraordinary.

PAUL SOLMAN: That’s not the kind of poetry we associate with this spinster in Amherst.

ALICE QUINN: No. And, here, the cactus splits her beard to show her throat, her openness, her — the — what’s oozing out is her lifeblood.

PAUL SOLMAN: Dickinson wrote about flowers and trees, birds and bees, in fact, more than 50 poems about bees.

ALICE QUINN: “Bees are black, with gilt surcingles. Buccaneers of buzz ride abroad in ostentation and subsist on fuzz.”

PAUL SOLMAN: Or, more intimately:

ALICE QUINN: “Fame is a bee. It has a song. It has a sting. Ah, too, it has a wing.”

She was aware that fame is ephemeral. Poets are known one year, unknown another.

PAUL SOLMAN: Emily Dickinson was utterly unknown in her lifetime. She made do with her garden and the contentments of solitude, which prompts Alice Quinn’s last Dickinson poem, one the Poetry Society will soon be putting up in New York buses.

ALICE QUINN: “How happy is the little stone that rambles in the road alone, and doesn’t care about careers and exigencies never fears.”

And it seemed like a good economic moment to place that poem on the buses.

PAUL SOLMAN: To remind us that the exigencies of the moment shouldn’t keep us from rolling along and sometimes stopping to smell the roses.