When the Emily Dickinson Museum celebrated its fifth anniversary (see this blog post for Sept. 28) one of the activities was a marathon, like the recent one celebrating John Milton’s 400th birthday.

I say “like it” not only because of its verge on the boring, as when reading Paradise Lost in its entirety. But, because if you were around for the non-stop reading marathon of all 1,789 poems by Dickinson, you found, as Jennifer Howard described in her delightful rendering of the similar event at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, a little bit of something for everybody. “Hot sex! Hellfire! Some damned good poetry, too…more»”.

I read along with others who showed up at the Dickinson Homestead very, very early in the morning. After a few hours, I dropped out, but the steady stream of arrivals never stopped, ready to do their bit as readers, until those gathered with other Dickinsonians expanded the circle into the afternoon and late as the night wore on. Hundreds shared our unspoken awe for poems like, 

There is a pain – so utter –
It swallows substance up –
Then covers the Abyss with Trance –
So Memory can step
Around – across – upon it –
As One within a Swoon –
Goes safely – where an open eye –
Would drop Him – Bone by Bone –

The implied personal equilibrium behind this poem is mesmerizing: outrageous emotional sensitivity while maintaining logical thinking.  At the forefront of the poem is not this balance between different forces of natural strength. It’s not even the voice of conflict between fierce private pain and a unique need for connections and roots. But, of a powerful readjustment of each of these qualities required when injury is suffered.

As I read Howard’s account of the social pleasures enjoyed by those who gathered for the marathon reading celebration by the devotees of Milton, I thought of the mixture of laughter and respect we all enjoyed in Amherst.

Once in awhile communications are easy and favorable; positively informative. Participants in both events were “As One within a Swoon -”


Digest A Poem A Day — Accept What Comes Your Way