My Emily Dickinson Pilgrimage

IMG_4457Amherst June 2017

Gentle Reader: I’ve been asked to tell about my pilgrimage to Amherst but I had to put that aside until I got a good start on the poems which immediately percolated from that seminal experience. Frankly, I also had to let the emotions subside so I wouldn’t blather on about it here. But I willingly admit that adrenalin was my frequent companion during that visit.

I call it a  pilgrimage because that is the best description in every sense of the word and my activities leading up to it–from planning the extra days tacked onto a business trip, picking up the rental car in downtown Boston amidst hundreds of pre-marathoners doing the same thing, trusting google maps to get me onto the turnpike under construction and enjoying winding roads in western Massachusetts where fast-driving locals did not share my interest in the countryside and historic homes along the way.

From a short 2-day perspective, Amherst is everything you might imagine nestled in the New England setting I’ve described. It’s a quaint small-college town with picturesque shops, and bookstores built around the campus which is seamlessly integrated into the neighboring area.

The Dickinson Homestead and Evergreens next door are not set off or protected in a way that many homes-turned-museums are. The grounds look largely the way they did when Emily lived there. Of course, some small modifications have been made to accommodate people moving about inside and for the museum shop—now in the kitchen.

While the house and grounds have a certain commanding presence due in part to the stately architecture and increased elevation above the street, one could unknowingly drive past because it also blends into the area. Although typical of the era, all the rooms in the house are slightly smaller than I imagined from seeing pictures—including Emily’s room. They’ve done remarkable work restoring and recreating it in her time—especially given the acrimonious split among those carrying on her legacy and the items now in Harvard’s possession.

Her bedroom is—again—smaller than I imagined but the aura there is palpable. Her writing desk is no bigger than 20 x 20 inches square with one tiny drawer underneath. That surface had to accommodate a lamp and an ink well plus pen/pencil and paper. She was known to carry that desk downstairs to the library and sometimes out into the yard to write. During the height of her most prolific writing, one must envision scraps of poems and pieces of paper strewn all around her room.

The cemetery where she and her family are buried (about half a mile cross-country to the north of the house) is also barely protected. There is a small fence around her immediate family’s graves but that is mostly decorative although it does deter people from trampling the area. She was quite clear in writing instructions about her wishes for final disposition: no funeral carriage and she wanted family servants as pallbearers. Her casket was to be carried out the back kitchen door and over land to the cemetery. She was also specific that her brother Austin’s directives were not to supersede her own.

In addition to 1,789 poems, she was a prolific letter writer and deeply expressive in them—hardly characteristic of reclusive behavior although in later life she avoided people and seldom left the house. Still she wrote letters right up until her death. In today’s high tech and truncated technology she still serves as a model for epistolary communication.

I was attracted first to her poetry but her world, her life and her letters are bottomless layers of complexity worthy of study to understand and learn from one of the world’s greatest poets.

Poetry: The Time has Come

Gentle Reader: Yesterday, I spent a fair amount of time re-centering myself after several weeks of work-related busyness which left me out of sorts and, frankly, cranky.

That kind of hubbub was my norm for so many years that I’ve needed time to shift my focus and reprioritize my time. The first step came about 3 years ago during a seminar on work-life balance. As a result, I chose to set aside the early morning hours each day for poetry: writing, revising, study and reading. This has worked well since I’m usually awake around 4-4:30am. A second goal was to take 1-2 poetry workshops or classes each year. bookcase

While I am accomplishing both goals, my morning study has been random and I recently realized it lacked order.

Another breakthrough came couple weeks ago when I moved a bunch of books around and now all my poetry books are in a more accessible place. Looking at them staring back at me, I realize the wealth of poems/poets at my fingertips. I decided to study one poet a week. Yes, there will always be diversions and distractions, but the overall strategy sets me on a path of achievement.

I begin with the list of poets recommended to me for further study and to hone my craft by Ilya Kaminsky, faculty poet I studied with at a Iowa Summer Writers Festival. Some examples he suggested are: Kay Ryan, Frank Bidart, Derek Walcott, Paul Celan, and Yehuda Amichai.

But my plan already starts with the first diversion. The recently released translation by Emily Wilson of Homer’s The Odyssey has caught my attention along with many favorable reviewers. Confession: not sure how I avoided it in school but I’ve never read it. Based on the press buzz, it seems like the time to start both the epic poem and my new goal.

To Write, or Not to Write: That is the Question — Subtitle: Confessions of an Occasional Poet

Gentle Reader: A recent conversation with a fellow writer has prompted me to give thought to what I might do with my time if I were to retire –and that won’t be any time soon! First, I still love what I do professionally and I now have a refreshed mortgage which is part of my Someday Retirement Plan.

What occurs to me, in the context of an alternate use of time and inclination is that I would like to write as an avocation –and more than just dabbling. I use the word alternate because the personal well from which I dip for creative writing also seems to be drawn upon for any creativity needed for professional demands. Often that well is depleted without a single poem –or blog post– to show for it.

However, I am prodded and perhaps a bit haunted by Shakespeare’s admonition about the responsibility of poets to both portray and confront the world. I know in my core that is what I am compelled to do. In the meantime, I scratch seeds of poems and poem parts on napkins and business cards—saved for another day. All too often, I turn my back on emergent poems leaving them to die of neglect.

While entertaining the thought of writing as it could naturally flow, I am quickly confronted with my own demons. Alas, I confess the well is not dry but capped—at my own hands. You see, there have been times when the muse has been more of a relentless curse than a companion.

I suspect—and must admit–I fear becoming lost in that realm. “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer” . . . I think not.