Emily Dickinson lovers poised to study beloved poet

This article originally appeared in the July 22, 2011 edition of the Daily Hampshire Gazette. 

Staff Writer

AMHERST - Martha Ackmann first encountered Emily Dickinson's poetry at 15, when she was too young to understand the poet's haunting themes but old enough to feel the power of her words.

"I remember the exact moment," recalls Ackmann, who grew up in Florissant, Mo., and now lives in Leverett.

"I was taking the obligatory survey course of American literature and I came across 'After Great Pain, A Formal Feeling Comes,'" said Ackmann, a professor of gender studies at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley. "It's a very serious poem, about pain and letting go"—subjects that she was unaware of, and "blissfully" so, she said.

But the words reached Ackmann anyway, across the divides of time and experience.

"While I did not understand the poem, I somehow knew it," Ackmann said. "For me, that started it, and the work and the reading continues to snag my brain and perplex me and sustain me. It's like a jewel you have on the table. Suddenly the light changes and you see something new."

Gathering again

Something new? That's hard to imagine, given that the poet's life and work have been the subject of countless books, articles, dissertations—and endless speculation—in the years since she died in 1886.

But Ackmann, who is currently at work on a book about Dickinson, and legions of the poet's fans, return to the well time and again - and will do so once more on July 29, when a three-day conference devoted to Dickinson convenes at Amherst College.

"Great Debates," as it's called, will draw poetry lovers and scholars from around the world and is open to the public. The conference is co-sponsored by the Emily Dickinson International Society and the Emily Dickinson Museum. Outside this country, the Dickinson Society has members in Japan, Italy, Germany, France and many other places, according to Ackmann, who is currently serving a one-year term as the society's president.

Over the years, Ackmann says she has been to dozens of Dickinson conferences. And in the age of social media, she notes that Dickinson is now also a presence on Facebook and YouTube.

"The Outlaw of Amherst"

The great debates, in Dickinson's case, never end.

What was she really like? Was she a recluse or a woman of her time, or some of both? What makes a Dickinson poem truly a Dickinson poem? What was up with all those dashes that punctuated her work? Why didn't she publish her poems during her lifetime? Who was the love of her life, or was there one? To whom did she write the famous "Master" letters, and why?

"There are so many questions about her," said Jane Wald, director of the Emily Dickinson Museum. "Some are partially answered, some are unanswerable, and there are some around which there are different opinions. She is still a person of mystery.'

Dickinson did not leave "a clear trail" of answers behind, said Wald, who lives in Amherst. The curiosity about her, the desire to see, to stand in the place where Dickinson wrote, continues to bring people to the house at 280 Main St.

In 2003, about 7,000 people a year visited Dickinson's home, Wald said; last year, the number was twice that. Though Wald said the increase reflects several factors - including marketing efforts, extended hours, a heightened presence on the Internet - it's also testament to the poet's continuing appeal.

"People continue to come here because they want to know where this great poetry was written," Wald said. "Coming here places her in time and space and in a full life."

State Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, will be on hand to deliver the opening remarks at the conference. Besides his being a long-standing supporter of the arts, it seemed fitting, Ackmann said, to ask Rosenberg to give a talk about what makes for a great debate.

The keynote speaker will be Holland Cotter, a New York Times writer who won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2009.

In a piece titled "My Hero, the Outlaw of Amherst" that ran in the Times on May 13, 2010, Cotter wrote that his admiration for Dickinson took root when he was "a bookish, verse-writing odd-fit kid with authority issues, looking for a hero. ...

"Some people who encountered her in person found her challenging and demanding company," Cotter wrote. "She is that way as a writer too. She insists on having conversations about subjects most of us steer clear of. Death, for example. She has been described as morbid, obsessed with mortality. To me, she was simply a realist."

Dickinson's emotional realism may help explain why her work is still topical, 125 years after her death.

In the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan earlier this year, Ackmann said that a newspaper there, seeking to put words to an experience that defied words, reprinted a four-line Dickinson poem, "Unto a Broken Heart."

"A poem has to make you feel something - feel, not think," Ackmann said. "And I continually come away from her work reminded of what it means to be alive in all its ways - to be confused, in agony or exultation and all the points in between."

Ackmann's book about Dickinson will focus on 10 pivotal days in the poet's life, the earliest at age 14, the last near her death. It will be a work of narrative nonfiction, she said, that will trace Dickinson's evolution as a poet.

Ackmann and Wald say they hope the conference will suggest new areas of interest and help bring shape and focus to trends in Dickinson-related scholarship.

They know it won't be the last word on the elusive poet. Next year, in a nod to Dickinson's ability to attract readers across cultural boundaries, Ackmann said the Dickinson Society plans to hold its annual meeting in Cleveland, home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The title of that meeting, she said, will be: "Emily Rocks."

After she left the museum, Ackmann walked toward Amherst, past the silhouette sculptures that shows Amherst's two best-known poets, Dickinson and Robert Frost, looking as though they might be talking to each other.

"Sometimes when I pass by there, I look at it and the shadow from Dickinson is huge," Ackmann said. "It reminds me that you can't pin her down."

Great Debates Schedule

WHAT: Great Debates, the annual meeting of the Emily Dickinson International Society, co-sponsored by the Emily Dickinson Museum
WHEN: July 29-31
HIGHLIGHTS: Panel discussions; informal talks; a showing of "Seeing New Englandly," a film produced by the Dickinson Museum; an open house at the Dickinson Homestead; keynote address by Holland Cotter of the New York Times. For the full schedule of events, go to www.emilydickinsoninternationalsociety.org
REGISTRATION: Deadline is July 25; go to www.emilydickinsoninternationalsociety.org or to www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org
FEE: $60 for students, $110 for members of the EDIS, $150 for non-members
SCHEDULE: Go to www.emilydickinsoninternationalsociety.org

(Photo: Martha Ackmann and Emily Dickinson Museum Director Jane Wald, credit: Jeffrey Roberts.)