Legendary 19th century poet Emily Dickinson was remembered in a big way Saturday, with the marathon reading of all 1,789 of her poems over 14 hours.
From 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., members of the community, Dickinson fans and even a few newsmakers took turns reading her poetry aloud.
The event, which was free to the public, was held in the Holmes Chapel of Westminster Presbyterian Church on Delaware Avenue. Anyone was welcome to stop by and read or just kick back and listen.
Paying homage to the 19th century American poet was a way to celebrate National Poetry Month, organizers said.
“This is a wonderful and fun way to get to know the extraordinary corpus of Dickinson’s poems. Hearing the poems read in different voices brings to life the many ways they can be spoken and understood,” said Dickinson scholar Cristanne Miller, who is also a SUNY distinguished professor and chairwoman of the University at Buffalo English department.
Dickinson was honored because “she’s the only poet that we’re aware of whose entire work can be read in one day. Lots of poets have less work, but there’s no poet that comes to mind who has so many short poems,” said Ansie Baird, who helped Miller organize the event.
“We picked her because her poems are short, they are perfect for reading. No one of her poems is larger than a few stanzas,” Miller said.
About 250 people attended the debut Dickinson marathon in 2009. Organizers expected an even larger group this year.
Most of Dickinson’s poems were published after her death. At Saturday’s event, participants sat in a circle and took turns reading the poems in the chronological order of their publishing in, “The Poems of Emily Dickinson,” edited by Ralph W. Franklin.
“In this way, the reader and listeners get an understanding of how Dickinson matured over the years,” Miller said.
“Her early poems are different than the latter ones, when she becomes solemn,” Miller added. “Many of her early ones are about nature. Many are whimsical. They also are not quite in the meter and structure like later poems [that] become a little shorter and a little more abstract.”
Many of Dickinson’s works were “very witty. There are poems about spring. There is one that says, ‘It will be summer - eventually,’ ” Miller said. “That’s just perfect for Buffalo.”
Another trademark of Dickinson’s poetry is that there are no titles on her work. Every poem is known by the opening, Baird said.
“Emily Dickinson is deep, deep, deep. She was a woman of enormous complexity,” Baird said.
Some of the readers scheduled for the event included UB President Satish Tripathi, Mayor Byron W. Brown, former Rep. Kathy Hochul, Tony Award-winning actor Stephen McKinley Henderson and the Rev. Thomas Yorty of Westminster Church.
The readers did break for a musical performance by Bolts of Melody, a group made up of Buffalo residents and UB graduate students, which sang five songs set to Dickinson’s poems.
Attendees also were treated to refreshments, including samples of “black cake,” a rich, molasses-based fruit confection often served by Dickinson, who was an accomplished baker, Miller said.
The marathon reading was presented by the UB Department of English, Just Buffalo Literary Center and community volunteers.