Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

The recent release of the powerful film A Quiet Passion, starring Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson inspires me to share with you my passion for my favorite 19th century American poet.

When she died on May 15, 1886, no one alive, least of all she herself, dared imagine that she would become recognized as one of the most original of all poets. When she died, in Amherst, Massachusetts, none of her contemporaries dreamed that she would one day be ranked among the greatest poets who ever used the English language. To them she cast a small, pale shadow when measured against the American giants of her time — Longfellow, Whittier and Lowell. Yet those poets are hardly read at all today, while she, living alone and unattended, sings to us across the years and continues to influence the course of 20th-century verse.

Emily Dickinson lived what appeared to be a reclusive, invisible and inaudible life. Dressed in the symbolic white that she ever afterward wore, she gradually withdrew into her home and garden, and scarcely ever left. No one knows why.

She described herself as “small, like the wren, and my hair is bold, like the chestnut burr, and my eyes like the sherry glasses that the guests leave behind.” But those eyes of hers, which she pictured as discarded, used-up objects, were brimful with a dazzling vision. As Robert Frost once remarked about her, “To write about falling water, one doesn’t have to go to Niagara”:

I never saw a Moor
I never saw the Sea
Yet know I how the heather looks
And what a billow be.

 

I never spoke with God
Nor visited in heaven
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the Checks were given.

Emily Dickinson never wrote anything big, like a novel or a play or an epic poem. But year after year, on odd scraps of paper and the backs of envelopes, she composed 1,775 little things, “tied together with twine in 60 little bundles.” Within the tight confines of the hymnal stanza she knew so well from church and within the boundaries of the garden she came increasingly to inhabit, she used language to explore the trackless reaches of the human condition.

Like her garden, she cultivated her poetry for her own pleasure, not for public display. “Publication is the auction of the mind,” she wrote, “as foreign to my thought as Firmament to Fin” She never arranged her poems in any order, and she never gave them titles. Only ten were published during her lifetime, and they anonymously. She seemed afraid that fame, even posthumous fame, would brush her with its wings, and she left instructions for all her manuscripts to be destroyed:

Such methodical arrangements for obscurity would seem to have been perfect. Yet they failed. Emily Dickinson may have hidden her life from public view, but she could not bury her genius. Today, 121 years after her death, we still find ourselves pulsating to her strange and beautiful verse.

The so-called Belle of Amherst wrote many poems about death. While most of her contemporaries described death in mawkish clichés as rude, sudden and impersonal, she transformed him into a kindly and patient gentleman caller. Seeing that the speaker in “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” is caught up in the hum and buzz of life, Death comes by her house to pay a leisurely visit:     

Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me
The Carriage held but just Ourselves
And Immortality.

 

We slowly drove He knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For his Civility

Using the hymnal stanza that Dickinson so loved, the American poet Melville Crane has written her a luminous epitaph:

Inclosed within a hedge
Of privet, doubts and nays,
A burning spinster paced
Her clipped New England days.

 

While pretty singers droned
A local, nasal hymn,
She raised a timeless voice;
It reached a spatial rim.

 

She never saw a moor.
She never saw the sea.
Yet from a hilltop in her heart
She scanned infinity.