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Finding Emily Dickinson in the power of her poetry

March 8, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
Who was Emily Dickinson? A new exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York takes a closer look at the iconic American cultural figure through her poems and the remnants of her life, and finds a less reclusive woman than we thought we knew. Jeffrey Brown reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, on this International Women’s Day, she is as beloved as ever. And now, the poet Emily Dickinson is getting even more attention and a new look, in books, online, on film, and in a major museum exhibition.

Jeffrey Brown reports from New York.

JEFFREY BROWN: She is at once among the most known and most mysterious of American cultural figures, Emily Dickinson, subject of an exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York titled, “I’m Nobody! Who Are You?” the first line of one of her most famous poems.

Who was Emily Dickinson? Scholar Marta Werner offers this:

MARTA WERNER, D’Youville College: She is a constant summons to me to think about language and its preciseness, and not only its preciseness, but its power.

WOMAN: These are the days when skies resumed the old.

JEFFREY BROWN: Here, visitors can listen to readings of the poems, while examining remnants of a circumscribed 19th century life lived almost completely in one town, Amherst, Massachusetts, the only known painting of Dickinson as a child with her siblings, a daguerreotype of her as a young woman, the only authenticated photo of the poet.

There’s also a lock of her auburn hair, a replica of cut and pressed botanical specimens, and another of the rose wallpaper in the bedroom to which she retreated in her later years.

This exhibition, with some 100 rarely seen items, is eager to present a different, fresh take on Dickinson.

Curator Carolyn Vega:

CAROLYN VEGA, Curator: The stereotype that was attached to her very early on of this total recluse, of this woman in white who never left her bedroom, who penned these amazing verses, like, in a vacuum almost, in total seclusion, has really stuck to her.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re fighting that?

CAROLYN VEGA: Yes, we’re fighting that, or just bringing it into context a little bit.

JEFFREY BROWN: This Emily Dickinson engaged with her times, including the Civil War years, through her reading and a constant correspondence with friends, leading thinkers, and others.

Often, she sent poems, sentences, stanzas and entire poems written on scraps of paper and envelopes, even chocolate wrappers, a new book, “Envelope Poems,” as well as the recent “The Gorgeous Nothings,” document this aspect of her work.

SUSAN HOWE, Poet: By God, she broke the glass ceiling in poetry. And Emily Dickinson is like a beacon of verbal power that will not be silenced.

JEFFREY BROWN: For Susan Howe, a leading contemporary poet and Dickinson scholar, the powerful voice of Dickinson is best heard and seen in these original manuscripts, the unusual line breaks, alternative word choices, poems as virtual works of art.

SUSAN HOWE: Ultimately, she leads me to the fundamental mystery of all poetry, which is the relation between the ear and the eye. Every mark on paper is an acoustic mark. Dickinson breaks down the barriers between poetry, prose and ear and eye.

JEFFREY BROWN: Marta Werner, a leader expert on Dickinson’s manuscripts, showed me an example.

MARTA WERNER: She talks about wanting to hinder time.

And as the poem unfolds, the way that the writing almost stumbles, right, performs that hindering of time, but you’re seeing, to some extent, the mind thinking.

JEFFREY BROWN: The first editions of Dickinson’s poetry came out only after her death in 1886, and, from the beginning, editors ignored her idiosyncrasies and formatted her writings into a more conventional style.

She wrote some 1,800 poems, but only 10 were published in newspapers during her lifetime.

MARTA WERNER: It’s unsigned. It’s anonymous. Her name, you know, never appeared in print during her lifetime with any of her poems. It’s dropped in, in the middle of this other column. What comes after it is a little piece on how to use chloroform.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Dickinson was thought to be reticent about seeing her work, as well as her image in public, so we can only wonder what she’d think of “A Quiet Passion,” a film due in April starring Cynthia Nixon.

But there’s no denying the continuing fascination with the woman and love of her work, as at marathon readings put on by the Library of Congress, and the restoration under way of her Amherst home.

And now both scholars and everyday fans have access to a trove of original manuscripts and more online, digitized from the collections of Amherst College, Harvard University and the Boston Public Library.

Marta Werner offered a personal story that drove home the connection many feel, how her dying father, a scientist, shared his favorite poems.

MARTA WERNER: It was his idea. He started to write me letters. And then he would ask me to send back my list of poems. This was a very extraordinary thing.

I think there’s a lot of people like my father who love her and can’t quite say why.

JEFFREY BROWN: The enduring power and mystery of one of America’s greatest poets.

From the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

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