Emily Dickinson was born 184 years ago today. To celebrate, the Library of Congress invited poetry lovers this Monday to enter “A fairer House than Prose” with a marathon reading of Emily Dickinson’s poems and a special display of Dickinson materials from its Rare Book and Special Collections Division.
The event, held in Room 119 of the Thomas Jefferson Building, was the brainchild of Eleanor Elson Heginbotham, Professor Emerita of English at Concordia University and board member of the Emily Dickinson International Society. Dr. Heginbotham, who previously coordinated several marathon readings of Dickinson’s entire poetic oevre–some 1,789 poems–gave a brief introduction to Dickinson’s life before turning the stage over to the first reader of the day, From the Catbird Seat‘s very own guest blogger Rebecca Newland.
Beginning with Rebecca, who launched into the eight-hour chronological reading (which followed the order of Dickinson’s poems established by R. W. Franklin) with “Awake ye muses nine,” dozens of readers—consisting of Library staff, Dickinson scholars, and the general public—took five-to-ten-minute turns reading Dickinson’s poems. By the end of the session at 5 p.m., approximately 500 poems had been read. Though the reading encompassed not quite a third of Dickinson’s canon, the extended encounter with Dickinson mastery of the form was enough, she’d be pleased to know, to take the top off many a person’s head.
In conjunction with the marathon reading, the Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division (RBSCD) displayed a selection of Dickinson-related books from its collections, including various editions of Dickinson’s poetry and letters, several artist books, and works by friends and mentors such as Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Helen Hunt Jackson. Rosemary Plakas, American History Specialist for RBSCD and organizer of the display, has kindly made available a bibliography of items that could be seen by visitors.
As I browsed the display, one of the many items that caught my eye was Slant of light = Sesgo de luz (Ediciones Vigía, 1998), a handcrafted book featuring a selection of Dickinson’s poems in English and Spanish. The book comes with a carefully constructed recreation of Dickinson’s house in Amherst, along with accompanying tree, sky, moon, and stars, and is made mostly from recycled and found materials. It was a wonderful reminder not only of the surprising and delightful ways that modern fine presses and book artists are able to revision literary texts, but also that these artistic creations can be found, along with more standard print editions of literary works, at the Library.
As you can tell, one of the advantages of attending special literary events at the Library, such as those from our Literary Birthday Celebration series, are the frequent opportunities to view associated displays that draw upon materials from the Library’s collections. These displays typically last for only several hours, and give a unique opportunity for the general public–especially visitors who aren’t conducting in-depth research in the Library’s special collections–to get a glimpse of some of the Library’s most important, but sometimes hidden, literary treasures.
Your next opportunity to take advantage of a special one-day literary display is January 7 at noon, when our Literary Birthday Celebration for Zora Neal Hurston will feature a selection of Hurston-related materials from our collections. If you’ll be in the D.C. area then, we’d love to see you! In the meantime, we encourage you to celebrate Emily Dickinson’s birthday by spending a wild night curled up with her poems in bed.