case western reserve university



Here-there is one seamless talk for Case English professor

Gary Stonum

"Good evening and welcome to a high-tech talk about a very low-tech poet, Emily Dickinson." With these words, Gary Stonum, Case Western Reserve University's Oviatt Professor of English, began a pre-concert talk, "Emily Dickinson: Bolts of Melody," for the New World Symphony in Miami, Fl., on January 12.

In December, Stonum, a Dickinson scholar and editor of the Emily Dickinson Journal, was invited to provide the Miami audience with a glimpse of the 19th century poet's life and work. After his talk, the New World Symphony's founder and artistic director, Michael Tilson-Thomas, conducted a program of songs based on Dickinson's poems.

The twist to this story is that Stonum did not travel to Florida, but shared his knowledge with the audience via a high-speed Internet2 connection between the Case campus in Cleveland and Miami. Thomas Knab, chief information officer for the College of Arts and Sciences, set up the connection with support from Case's MediaVision technicians Michael Kubit and Ron Petransky.

What did the Miami audience learn about the poet? Stonum elaborated upon certain well-known facts: that Dickinson was obsessed with death, wore only white, never left her home and had a habit of writing "short, skinny poems filled with dashes and capital letters in odd places."

A fifth fact, and one well known by scholars, is that most of her poems could be set to the tune of "Yellow Rose of Texas."

"It's true," Stonum said. "The majority of Dickinson's poems, like the song, use one or another form of ballad meter, as do many, many 19th century lyrics."

Fact One: Death and Dying

Stonum observed that Dickinson's obsession with death was characteristic of her time. During the 1800s, there was a vogue for sentimental verse and fiction by women writers; indeed, the inscription on Dickinson's gravestone—"Called Back"—was the "title of a novel in that sentimental vein."

But the theme of death and dying had richer and deeper meaning for the poet than this borrowing implies. For Dickinson, death was the "dividing line" between heaven and earth, time and eternity, life and the afterlife, said Stonum. "Nearly every value, every feeling and every idea she entertained depended upon the ratio between the terms on either side."

Fact Two: The Reclusive Life

Dickinson, who in early life was known as the vivacious granddaughter of the founder of Amherst College, suddenly turned shy in her twenties and broke off contact with almost everyone except her family.

But she found her own way of connecting with the outside world—through correspondence. Her surviving letters to friends, editors, relatives and near strangers—letters that often include lines of poetry—fill three volumes.

"In one of her poems, she described her literary work as her letter to the world," said Stonum. And in her life situation, he added, "the phrase was not simply a metaphor."

Fact Three: The White Dress

Shy of strangers, Dickinson sent her sister Lavinia, who was almost the same size, to be fitted by the seamstress for a white dress (made famous by Julie Harris in The Belle of Amherst).

Like today's popular entertainers with their signature clothing, eyeglasses or hair styles, the white dress came to be Dickinson's signature in her time, said Stonum. Nor did it escape mention in her poetry where it appears in such lines as "A Woman—white—to be—."

Fact Four: Odd Dashes Here, There

"I tell my students that you can recognize a Dickinson poem from across the room—short poems, skinny lines, dashes everywhere but hardly another punctuation mark, and capital letters strewn profusely about, as if the poem had been translated from the original German," Stonum told the audience.

He added, "She clearly had her own style, unlike anyone before or since."

But that style remained largely unknown during Dickinson's lifetime, because she allowed only a few of her poems to appear in print. "Publication—is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man—," she wrote dismissively.

As Stonum glosses the line, Dickinson "compares publishing one's poems to making visible to the world one's indigence or profligacy through the shame attending a sheriff's auction of one's goods as the result of bankruptcy."

Fact Five: "The Yellow Rose of Texas" Tune

"Her poetry has long been attractive to composers, beginning most famously with Aaron Copland, but you ought to know that in putting poems to music, composers have not—or not simply—been having their way with Miss Dickinson," said Stonum.

A few years ago, one of Dickinson's descendants claimed that she would sing her poems while doing household chores.

"There is no way of measuring the reliability of this anecdote," said Stonum. If true, however, it suggests that Dickinson was not altogether private about her poems, and that she regarded some of them as vocal compositions.

Given that Dickinson generally hoarded her poems, what was her purpose in writing them?

"One answer is clear," Stonum said. "She wanted from poetry exactly what she got from it—an intense, even violent stimulus to the mind and body that held out the promise of exultation and empowerment."


About Case Western Reserve University

Case is among the nation's leading research institutions. Founded in 1826 and shaped by the unique merger of the Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve University, Case is distinguished by its strengths in education, research, service, and experiential learning. Located in Cleveland, Case offers nationally recognized programs in the Arts and Sciences, Dental Medicine, Engineering, Law, Management, Medicine, Nursing, and Social Work.