Continuing Studies celebrates Emily Dickinson’s legacy with free public events
Enigmatic Emily Dickinson is one of the most beloved, and yet most misunderstood, poets in the canon.
Even the best-intentioned seem to get her wrong. William Luce's famous Belle of Amherst portrayed her as a dotty, slightly sexless spinster baking cakes. Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, a poet who should know better, said he thought of Dickinson as "locked in a chapel" with "roses, tombstones, organ music."
The unorthodox Dickinson (1830-1886) would not have dreamt of setting foot in the family's Congregational Church across the street from her Amherst home, and she never adopted any formal creed—though her refusal shocked some of her peers. "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church—/I keep it, staying at Home—/With a Bobolink for a Chorister —/And an Orchard, for a Dome—," she wrote.
As for graveyards—who could blame her? Mortality was all around her. More than 30 people in her circle died of tuberculosis alone by the time she reached adulthood. Nonetheless, though keenly aware of the imminence of death, she viewed it through a lens in which paradise, judgment and eternity mingle with gentians, whippoorwills and the blinding light of noon.
Stanford hopes to set the record straight in its own way, with three events celebrating Dickinson's legacy. Sponsored by the Continuing Studies Program, the events are free and open to the public.
Soul at the White Heat. At 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 30, in Dinkelspiel Auditorium, three Bay Area performers will offer dramatic readings of Dickinson's poems and correspondence. The actors are JoAnne Winter, co-founder of San Francisco's critically acclaimed Word for Word theater company and one of its artistic directors; Julie Eccles, artistic associate of the California Shakespeare Theater; and Stanford lecturer Kay Kostopoulos, co-founder and director of the Stanford Interactive Theater Project. The program also will include 19th-century music performed on period instruments. Stanford Drama Department Artist-in-Residence Amy Freed is artistic director, and David Giovacchini, co-director of the Tricks of the Light Orchestra, is music director. "Dare you see a soul at the white heat?" Dickinson asked. With a panel discussion, followed by a question-and-answer session with the audience, several Stanford scholars will help us understand how and why the "white heat" of Dickinson's poems still illuminates our lives today. The panel will feature Freed; Hilton Obenzinger, associate director of the Hume Writing Center for Honors and Advanced Writing; and Albert Gelpi, the Coe Professor of American Literature, Emeritus, and author of Emily Dickinson: The Mind of the Poet.
The Music Emily Heard. At 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 13, in the Campbell Recital Hall of the Braun Music Center, audiences will have a rare opportunity to hear the music of Dickinson's life. The presentation will feature parlor piano pieces drawn from her own songbook; hymns she sang; songs drawn from the 1851 performance by legendary Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, which Dickinson attended; the music of the American Civil War; and other popular songs of the time mentioned in her letters. All will be performed on period instruments, such as the harmonium, parlor guitar and harp, and will use historical sheet music. The program is researched, arranged and performed by David Giovacchini and other musicians.
The Ghoul of Amherst. At 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 12, in the Roble Studio Theater, JoAnne Winter will reprise her role as Emily Dickinson in a special performance of Freed's The Ghoul of Amherst. Freed, author of The Beard of Avon and Restoration Comedy, has twice written plays that feature Dickinson as a character. The short, comic vignette, set during Dickinson's visit to a dying school chum, explores her preoccupations with the mysteries of the grave. Freed will introduce the play and afterward discuss the life and work of Dickinson.
"She's my most special passion," Freed said. "As far I'm concerned, she's just about the most powerful and original American poet, yet still undervalued, misconstrued, and still largely unknown."
Dickinson is so much part of the canon that only a few scholars recall how lucky we are to have her poems at all. After Dickinson's death, her sister, Lavinia, burned many of her papers, at the poet's request. Bowdlerized editions of the poems appeared (editors loved to regularize her punctuation and rhymes), with opposing factions in a family feud going to press in an uncoordinated effort. Hence, a complete, scholarly edition of Dickinson's poems was not published until Harvard University Press's three-volume edition appeared in 1955.
Although she is almost universally acknowledged today as a sophisticated, daring and innovative poet, critical opinion stayed scant and uneven until the 1920s. One editor advised her heirs that her poems were "poor, deformed creatures" and recommended that they "die with their creator." Even writer Thomas Bailey Aldrich, in 1892, criticized the "incoherence and formlessness" of her verse, and described Dickinson as "an eccentric, dreamy, half-educated recluse in an out-of-the-way New England village."
Dickinson continues to defy the easy boxes we would put her in. But one of the earliest intimations of her greatness came from Stanford's own prescient poet-critic, the late Yvor Winters, who was influential in adding her to the canon. As early as 1922, he called her "one of the greatest poets of our language," adding that she was "a terrible woman, who annihilated God as if he were her neighbor, and her neighbor as if he were God."