A Poem a Day Keeps Blues Away: Dickinson and Amherst

I dwell in Possibility –

A fairer house than prose –

Emily Dickinson

It was a family wedding that took me to Amherst Mass. last weekend. I had never been there before although I felt as if I had because I had read so much about its famous poet, Emily Dickinson. She is the one who wrote those enigmatic four line stanzas beginning with such lines as “A narrow fellow in the grass” or “Because I could not stop for death” or “I taste a liquor never brewed”. Her poems turn up in high school and college anthologies and seem at first glance simple enough, but they are full of surprising insight. The lines I have just quoted, have a hopeful sweep upward at first glance. Ok, it’s a dull day, rain forecast, I’ve got that emotional hangover from a glorious event, but -look- here is a little poem that reminds me that the “prose” of this morning is not the whole picture, that I too can “dwell in Possibilty”. (Yes, grammar check, I do want a capital “P”.) Dwelling is not visiting.

Dickinson goes on to describe the beautiful house that Possibility gives with its fairer windows, more numerous doors, and gambrelled roofs that the ordinary house of prose cannot provide. She is talking about poetry, of course, but you don’t need to know that at first. You may figure it out after a few readings but you don’t have to.

Dickinson didn’t title her poems. An early editor Mabel Loomis Todd, did put titles on them and “corrected” the quirky punctuation -dashes- We don’t approve of that now, we Dickinson aficionados, and in modern texts, we have to look up poems by their first lines. The “right” books of her poetry are published by Harvard University. Amherst College has many of the original manuscripts, but Harvard holds the copyright.

We made the long drive -almost 10 hours, what with traffic- from Toronto to Amherst while others were flying in from the west coast, Texas, Arkansas and the Yukon or just skimming up the throughway from NYC, arriving on Friday night. The wedding was scheduled for Sunday afternoon. What now? Five of us met for breakfast in the Lone Wolf, across the road, more or less, from the Dickinson museum. What to do became obvious.

The docent led us to past the dining room to the library.”Isn’t this where Austin used to meet Mabel..” I began enthusiastically and bit my tongue. It was too late. The docent pegged me for a know-it-all who was spoiling her story by getting to the scandal too soon. Dickinson’s brother, who lived with his wife in the Evergreens next door, met his mistress here in the house where his sisters lived. Since he supported both houses, he presumed such rights apparently.

As our little group followed the leader from room to room listening to her stories, she kept throwing questions at me. Did I know that the Dickinsons had lived in another house in Amherst as well? I nodded.  They fell on hard times early on, she said, but bought this house back eventually. At least, she didn’t demand an answer from me. Later the others laughed at that. I was too busy melting into the background to care at the time. When we came to the last room with its display of how Emily experimented with different words -“gables of the sky” for example, instead of “gambrels”, the docent asked one of us to volunteer to read the poem posted on the wall. Silence fell. Well, it needed to be read aloud. “I will,” I said. What have I done, I wondered. I have no idea what this poem means. I began and the most surprising thing happened. “I dwell in Possibility,” I began and the poem read itself through my mouth until it closed with “spreading wide my narrow Hands/ to gather Paradise”.

Here’s an idea: read a poem. If there’s no book of poems beside your bed – an excellent sleep aid -it’s easy enough to find one on the internet. Better yet, read it aloud. Better yet, read an Emily Dickinson poem aloud. It will surprise and delight you.

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