Working the Graveyard Shift With Emily Dickinson Poetry Does That, You Know. It Makes You a Little Crazy.

Tuesday, May 2, 2006 - 11:30

This opinion piece ran in the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday, April 30, 2006.

By Martha Ackmann

In Amherst, Mass., last weekend, writers, poets, journalists, bloggers, children, college students, teachers and poetry lovers of all stripes read Emily Dickinson like she's never been read before.

From 9 am Saturday until 4:02 am Sunday, as part of National Poetry Month, readers recited Dickinson's poems nonstop: all 1,789 of them right in the house where she wrote most of them.

I took the readers' graveyard shift and reported for duty at Dickinson's stately home on Main Street at 11 Saturday night. I had come prepared with plenty of coffee, amused that among the poems I was scheduled to read was Dickinson's great outhouse poem, "Alone and in a Circumstance."

One of my students -- a prize-winning poet from Mount Holyoke College -- joined me. After she read, Sarah and I slipped upstairs and stole a look at the poet's famous white dress, disembodied and standing like a sentinel behind glass on the second-floor landing.

Later Sarah confessed that when she saw the dress, all she could think about was Billy Collins' provocative poem, "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes."

The long white dress, a more

complicated matter with mother-of-pearl

buttons down the back...

My official shift ended, but I stayed. One hour stretched into two, then three. I couldn't seem to make myself go home.

A woman in the audience, knitting, glanced at her watch. It was just after midnight. "Shakespeare's birthday," someone quietly announced.

At 1 am, reinforcements arrived: parents and their daughter, a group of neighborhood girls, a local librarian, a college student taking a break from writing an essay on Keats, a taciturn Yankee who read one of Dickinson's bird poems and then slapped his leg.

"Orioles!" he exclaimed. "Boy, she was great with orioles!"

People came and went, and by 2:30 in the morning, the group had shrunk to a small and weary clutch of six.

Fighting sore muscles from sitting too long, we decided to move from Dickinson's dining room and read standing up -- first in the family's parlor, then the kitchen, the scullery and finally Dickinson's bedroom -- a ghostly dark space with only the sound of cold rain hitting the windows.

Cold rain and metaphor.

By 4 am, when the last poem was being read, we were startled to hear the sound of the outside kitchen door swinging open.

"Am I too late?" a drenched women with an umbrella asked. "I wanted to read."

Poetry does that, you know. It makes you a little crazy.

That's what Dickinson warned us about.

A little Madness in the Spring

Is wholesome even for the King,

But God be with the

Clown --

Who ponders this tremendous scene --

This whole experiment of Green --

As if it were his own!

And Billy Collins?

Dickinson's buttons are in front, where she could see them.

Martha Ackmann is a writer who teaches a Mount Holyoke College seminar on Emily Dickinson at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Mass.

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