Every fall, people come from hundreds— even thousands—of miles away to read aloud all of Emily Dickinson’s 1,789 poems in one day. From dawn until dark, the author joins this singular band of poetry fans to find out why.
By Julia Shipley
Aug 12 2018
It’s 6:03 a.m. on a Saturday in mid-September, and I’m seated in the parlor of a dandelion-yellow house near downtown Amherst, Massachusetts, along with eight other literary athletes. I’ve come from 200 miles away for the annual Emily Dickinson Museum Poetry Marathon, which is hardly far at all. The man sitting next to me, Wang Liyan, has arrived from China. A literature professor, he obtained a contingent worker visa to fly 6,000 miles to Boston, the city closest to his favorite poet’s home. Then, earlier this morning, when it was so dark out it still seemed like night, Liyan mounted the electric unicycle he’d hauled with him from his homeland and, balanced on its single wheel, cruised the remaining dozen miles down the interstate from his boardinghouse in Greenfield to the Homestead—a museum dedicated to Emily Dickinson’s life, family, creative work, and enduring relevance.
When I arrived at 5:45 a.m., Liyan’s unicycle was already leaning against the wall in the front hallway, an incongruous item amid the 19th-century architecture. Ostensibly, Liyan’s feat should have entitled him to marathon bib number 001. However, a recently retired English teacher from New Jersey named Roxanne approached the sign-in table at the same time as Liyan. She slipped the first bib off the stack and pinned it to her sweater. He gracefully collected the second. I picked up 003. Five more participants arrived, pinned on bibs, fetched copies of The Poems of Emily Dickinson—the official text—and took their seats in the parlor, as we prepared to read all 1,789 of Emily’s poems in the order that she wrote them, from first to last.
The slight, bespectacled program coordinator, Elizabeth Bradley, had explained to me in the weeks leading up to the annual event what was in store. “Our marathon is more casual. Participants do not register for a time slot, but sit in a circle and take turns reading. Not that all attendees are held captive—readers can drop in and out whenever they wish.” Otherwise, the marathon—which can last anywhere from 15 to 18 hours—includes just two short breaks when readers transition between the parlor and an outdoor tent. “The idea,” she emphasized, “is to make sure that someone is continuously reading her poetry.” Although visitors might pop in to read a poem, the event depended on fans with stamina—“a core group [that] will commit to the entire day.”
At 6:04 a.m., Roxanne, sporting the coveted 001 bib, leads us off with Dickinson’s first poem, which begins Awake ye muses nine, sing me a strain divine—lines written in 1850, when the poet was only 19. After Roxanne’s recitation, the gentleman next to her reads the second poem. And the person next to him reads the third. Soon everyone has taken a turn uttering one of Emily’s poems. The parlor absorbs the words composed by its former occupant, words now spoken by a flat, nasal voice; a young, squeaky voice; a mature, sonorous voice; a voice with a clipped British accent; a low, plodding voice; a voice with a Middle Eastern lilt. We’re a choir of jittery soloists, as motley as any jury.
Next to me, Liyan anticipates the poem he’ll be expected to read by counting the number of participants ahead of him and correlating it to the book’s sequence of verses. Finding the one destined for him, he consults the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary on his cellphone. He checks the correct pronunciation of “bobolink” and “behooveth.” Perching the phone on his knee, he practices the poem silently until his turn.
On my other side sits Everett, a lean man in his mid-50s with steady brown eyes. I’d met him the day before at the Emily Dickinson Poetry Group, a monthly meeting featuring scholars and poets who take turns leading a discussion. We’d gathered in the Amherst College library conference room to discuss the topic “Enigmatic Riddling: How to Accommodate Multiple Understandings in Experiencing an Emily Dickinson Poem.” For two hours we’d considered the nature of koans and riddles and whether Emily’s poems resembled either. (Spoiler: They do.) (Sometimes.) A spread of cookies, brownies, cider, and tea sat untouched as the group’s two dozen attendees leaned forward and instead supped on the intellectual fare of the spinster’s poems. This was the 13th year of the poetry group, which meets every month, although in recent years members have whittled it back to a May-through-September schedule. Can there really be that much to say about a woman whose legacy amounts to one (substantive, but singular) book of poems? The answer appears to be affirmative. As Everett informs me, “She’s inexhaustible.”
Everett works the late shift as an electronics technician at the U.S. Postal Service’s network distribution center in Springfield—he’s inexhaustible. After the poetry group and throughout the night, while Roxanne, Liyan, and I were resting up for the big day, Everett worked a 12-hour shift; then he returned home to collect his folding chair, a canteen of water, and a bag of tangerines and other snacks for the marathon. Each time it’s Everett’s turn to read a poem, he pronounces each word carefully, soulfully, as if he were divining every possible meaning.
Days after the marathon, Everett will email me a picture of his eight consecutive years of marathon bibs laid out on his kitchen table. In 2012, he’ll tell me, the program’s format was changed. Organizers broke up the traditional one-day event into three days, and accordingly changed the tag line from “1,789 poems, one great day” to “1,789 poems, one superior weekend,” thinking this might allow for greater participation from a wider audience. However, Everett and other diehards argued that the change diminished their sense of accomplishment, as well as eliminated their long day of accrued camaraderie. Besides, they claimed, no one conducts a running marathon that way. The one-day marathon was eventually reinstated.
Responding to the table of bibs—which represent 130-plus hours of marathoning—I will ask Everett (whose email handle is “Zengenie”) what he thinks people gain by completing this event. What’s the value of articulating all of Emily’s words, all day?
Zengenie’s reply: I think it plants a seed.
On a parlor wall hangs a painted portrait of the Dickinson children: 9-year-old Emily with younger sister Lavinia and older brother Austin. The doe-eyed trio supervises our proceedings as the sun rises and morning progresses and the circle widens to include more readers. The poems are now breathed to life by a creaky voice, a commanding baritone, a tentative, breathy voice. Susan has driven from a town 40 minutes away for the fellowship and community. Alif, a high school senior who lives with her parents near Boston, loves Dickinson’s poetry; this is her second marathon. Liyan reads poem no. 389: My Holiday, shall be / That They- remember me- / My Paradise- the fame / That They- pronounce my name.
Despite Emily’s disdain for publication (she called it “an auction of the mind”), despite her reluctance to socialize in her later years, despite the fact that she’s been dead for over a century and has no immediate descendants, this poet, who lived her adult years at the Homestead with her sister, enjoys a robust following. The museum hosts about 15,000 visitors annually, ranging from the mildly curious to the reverent devotees.
“We have a lot of pilgrims,” museum program director Brooke Steinhauser told me. Pilgrims? “That’s what they call themselves—people who feel Emily’s lyrics are speaking directly, specifically, perhaps even exclusively to them.”
Though Everett does not consider himself a pilgrim, during a snack break he confesses, “I’ve always thought of Emily as my sister.” When he was 12, he set out on his bicycle to pedal the 25 miles between his house and the Homestead, but upon arriving he found it closed. Undeterred, he’s visited hundreds of times since. Throughout the weekend of the Emily Dickinson Festival (which includes the marathon), Everett shuttles back and forth between his late-night shifts and the various events. In other words: work, sleep, Emily. It’s unsurprising, then, that he also found time to compose and publish Haiku Emily!, a collection of haiku-inspired poetry based on the works of Emily Dickinson, which he completed on May 15, 2011, the 125th anniversary of her death. To celebrate, he cut lilacs from his backyard and brought them (by car) to the Homestead, requesting the bouquet be delivered to her bedroom. Next, he cut some lilacs from the Homestead property and delivered them to her grave in West Cemetery, a quarter
Everett’s not an anomaly. Others also mark occasions—birthdays, anniversaries (Emily’s or otherwise)—by spending an hour alone in what the museum calls a “Mighty Room,” an experience that costs about $200. Visitors travel from as far away as Michigan, Wisconsin, and California, and some arrive attired in white—in honor of Emily’s signature garment—to dwell in the poet’s chamber, which contains her single bed, a bureau, a tiny desk, and the room’s sole source of heat, a woodstove.
Earlier in the week I spent an hour in this room, mostly staring out the window overlooking the side lawn, watching the squirrels cavort and sprint and scamper and pause. I tried to imagine Emily at her desk, its surface no bigger than a laptop, taking her scraps and developing them into poems. Here? I kept thinking. She found her lines here? And she kept them here? In these bureau drawers? It reminded me of how once I’d opened a storage closet to find one of my rarely worn dress shoes entirely filled with seed—an unseen creature’s labors, hours and hours of work, stored up for an imagined eternity.
By 11 a.m. we have shifted the recitation to a circle of chairs beneath a white tent near the garden, so that docents of the Homestead can conduct their hourly tours unobstructed. Now there are 23 participants, and the various voices are sometimes obscured by the guttural thrumming of a Harley-Davidson, or a passing bus, or barking dogs. A catbird issues its queer meow from a nearby limb. In addition to the microphone that is passing from hand to hand around the tent, Everett’s bag of tangerines is making the rounds.
At poem no. 466, which begins I dwell in Possibility, Brooke, the program director, interrupts and presents a bottle of “Dwell in Possibility”—a stout beer produced by Amherst Brewing—to the reader. The woman stashes the bottle under her chair, and the baton of Emily’s text continues its relay from voice to voice to voice.
An hour later we reach page 232, Emily’s 513th poem. Although the circle remains stocked with readers, 1,276 poems remain. But we’re not just running down the poems, flipping pages, advancing into the afternoon of a fall day. There is another progression. As the town clock bongs noon, signaling the sixth hour, 13 years of Emily Dickinson’s life have transpired since we commenced.
Every once in a while, a reader recites a famous lyric, one we’ve learned in school. Because I could not stop for Death- / He kindly stopped for me. Or, I’m Nobody! Who are you? (widely taught in China, this poem first prompted Liyan to discover more of Emily’s work, which eventually lured him here). When these familiar poems are read, their specialness ripples through the audience as they resound perhaps a robin’s hop from where they were first jotted down on scraps of paper. At other times, readers commit mispronunciations, omissions, or accidental rewordings—consequently there’s an inaudible but palpable flinching among the listeners.
By 4:20 we’ve moved back into the parlor, the tours finished for the day. There are 16 readers; we are approaching poem no. 866. Emily is in her 44th year. The same sun that shone on her and features prominently in her poems continues to light the room, sliding down the parlor’s panes as we publicly speak her private lyrics, lines that were once bound in little packets (called “fascicles”) and stored upstairs in a drawer, lines that might have vanished if not for three miraculous things.
The first stroke of luck was that her fascicles were not fed to the woodstove, a move that would have abolished a life’s work, and an American legacy, in less than 10 seconds. Upon her death, Dickinson requested that her saved correspondence be burned. Lavinia, who fulfilled her sister’s wishes, might have easily added the fascicles to the flames. But she refrained.
The second was that Emily’s brother, Austin, had an extramarital affair. This led, improbably, to two women—Austin’s daughter with his wife, Susan Dickinson, and the daughter of Austin’s mistress, Mabel Loomis Todd—cooperating on a project to turn the handwritten, hand-bound poems into a typed, hardbound book.
The third was the stewardship of Harvard University Press. It brought out a three-volume edition called Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1955. The book, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, includes all the transcripts of all the versions of all the verse she left behind. In 1998 the press brought out another important collection, The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition, edited by Ralph W. Franklin, which provides a single version of each of her 1,789 poems. This is the book the marathoners use.
By 5:10 p.m. there are 19 participants in the parlor as we read her 1,000th poem. A basket of singly packaged Life Savers lozenges circulates. Soon, the air smells like wintergreen. I watch Catherine, a woman in her early 60s wearing track pants and running shoes, as she gobbles down crackers at a snack table to replenish her energy for the event’s remaining hours. When I ask why she’s devoted her whole day to this activity, Catherine asserts (with mouth full), “She’s on par with Shakespeare.”
By poem no. 1,176, it is dark outside, again.
By poem no. 1,225: I want to quit.
By 7:15 p.m. there are 18 participants, and then 17, as someone leaves to put her child to bed. Liyan left on his unicycle two hours ago to get back before nightfall.
Through the open windows, we can hear the crickets engrossed in their own recitations. Inside the parlor there is a sense of community: Participants distribute extra bottles of water, pass around copies of the book, orient newcomers to the correct page. Some have been here for more than 14 hours. Had we boarded a plane at Logan Airport upon uttering the first poem, we might now be landing in China.
By 8:37 p.m. we’re reading poem no. 1,577. There are 16 people, it’s 1882, and I begin to fantasize what it might be like to hear all of our voices—the meek voice, the strident voice, every voice—speaking in unison. What’s left to read amounts to a pamphlet.
The morning after the marathon, at Everett’s encouragement, I’ll visit Emily’s grave behind the Mobil station. Past the iron gates, the unkempt graveyard is part forest, part field, its 18th-century headstones jutting out like a forgotten crop. The cemetery is both vacant and full of life: alder saplings, a crow alighting in an oak, long grasses and blooming asters, the chanting crickets.
I’ll bear to the left along a dirt road, past the huge oak with limbs reaching every direction, then more graves, and then see what must be her site (“You’ll know it because it’s the only one with bars around it,” Everett says). A family will approach by another entrance, and we will arrive at the grave simultaneously. A mother and father with their children: two girls and a boy, ages 5, 7, and 8, I’d guess. The eldest daughter will pluck a dandelion and hold the stem as she gazes at Emily’s grave. Pebbles, a penny, and a shell adorn the headstone. A fresh hibiscus blossom basks next to a marigold, which, gauging by its wiltedness, was left the day before. Scattered upon the grass are 12 pens and pencils.
When the eldest girl asks how old Emily was, the father will prod her to do the math: “Take 1886 and subtract 1830.” The girl will consider this, then carefully tender her flower beside the others, inspiring the younger sister to contribute, too, by snapping off a clover. “You’re not even old enough to read,” the father will chide her. Undeterred, she’ll select and place another offering, a dandelion whose flower has become a globe of seed—something a breath could disperse.
In the parlor beneath the gaze of the young Dickinsons—two sisters and a brother—our day giving breath to Emily’s oeuvre nears its end. The parlor now seems a shaken snow globe of spoken words, and time feels disheveled and unruly. It’s autumn in the town of Amherst, but it’s spring in the spoken poem; it’s the second millennium among those gathered, but it’s 1886, the final year of Emily’s life, in the book. Although these are the poems of a 56-year-old woman, they’re enunciated by a 27-year-old man, a 15-year-old girl, a 70-year-old man, a 45-year-old woman. And whereas I was joyful and excited at the beginning, and then exasperated and panicky through the interminable middle, I now feel giddy realizing the book’s heft rests on the left side of its spine, and only a few pages remain on its right, until even those are turned.
Twenty of us listen as the woman with the clipped British accent utters the last poem, which begins The saddest noise, the sweetest noise…. What was for the diehard readers a single day—15 hours and 10 minutes total—has encompassed a single life’s work. An hour later the dandelion-yellow house sits silent and dark, its parlor emptied, the poet’s pilgrims scattered. Or perhaps: sown.
This year’s Emily Dickinson Museum Poetry Marathon will be held on 9/22. For more information, go to emilydickinsonmuseum.org.