It’s anyone’s guess how long this is going to take, but someone will start reading Emily Dickinson’s poem No. 1 at 8 a.m. Friday, April 25, in the comfy O’Shaughnessy Room of the University of St. Thomas library. Many hours later, someone else will read Dickinson’s last poem, No. 1,789.
“While we’re calling it a marathon, it’s not really a race to see how fast we can read aloud all of her poems,” explained Dr. Erika Scheurer, a Dickinson scholar who teaches writing and literature and directs the university’s Writing Across the Curriculum program. “The idea is to savor the language and live in the mystery of her poems. And to have some fun, too.”
The marathon is free and all are welcome.
Most of Dickinson’s poems are short and will take a minute or less to read. “When we did this six years ago, it took 14 hours to read them all, so the marathon will probably last until around 9 or 10 p.m.,” she estimated.
While some marathons like this feature scheduled celebrity readers and prominent scholars, “we like the idea of a more democratic marathon,” Scheurer said. “Everyone who shows up can join the circle of readers. It’s great to hear the poems in a variety of voices: a football player, then a college president, then a child, a professor, a neighbor, a first-year student going for extra credit, a senior citizen … .”
The O’Shaughnessy Room, located on the main floor of St. Thomas’ O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library on the university’s St. Paul campus, is well-known on campus for its comfortable (sometimes nap-inducing) leather chairs.
“If you want to read, you don’t have to bring anything … just show up. You can come and go as you please,” Scheurer said. “We sit in a circle and read the poems in turn. Six years ago we had more than 100 readers; it just grew and grew. I’m not aware of any other marathons that do it like that.”
Readers on April 25 will use Ralph W. Franklin’s The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Common Good Books, located at Grand and Snelling avenues, donated 15 copies. All those attending the event are welcome to put their name in a box for a chance to win one of them at the end of the day. In addition to Common Good Books, other sponsors are St. Thomas’ Department of English, the Luann Dummer Center for Women, and the library.
So no one gets weak from hunger, there’s a Coffee Bené outside the O’Shaughnessy Room. Other refreshments will include black cake and coconut cake, two Dickinson favorites. She was an accomplished cook who was especially good at breads and cakes. (You can see a photo of her handwritten coconut cake recipe here.)
Scheurer and students in her graduate Dickinson seminar will have a number of posters and interactive displays on hand, including copies of some original manuscripts. She was known for writing many of her poems on scraps of paper or the backs of envelopes. While Dickinson is regarded as one of the United States’ best-known poets, fewer than a dozen of her works were published while she was alive. Most of her poems were found in a locked chest after her death in 1886, at the age of 55.
In keeping with the times, one of Scheurer’s students has created a Dickinson Twitter account (https://twitter.com/EmDickinson101); another is creating a Pinterest page; and the library plans to have a live audio stream of the marathon on its website here.
When Scheurer was a doctoral student the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, she wrote her dissertation on Dickinson and the teaching of writing. She remembers visiting the Dickinson home: “I had the opportunity to read a poem in her bedroom, where she wrote many of her poems, and I remember especially how tiny her writing table was.”
April is National Poetry Month, a good time to hold a Dickinson marathon and recall her poem No. 278:
A word is dead, when it is said
Some say –
I say it just begins to live
If you have questions about the marathon, email Scheurer at firstname.lastname@example.org.