Guided Reading: Emily Dickinson

In one of her most famous poems, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) wrote: “I’m Nobody. Who are you?” The single authenticated image of her, a photograph taken when she was sixteen or seventeen, gives us very little help if we want to fix her image in our minds. Her face has been romanticized and prettied up for a variety of commercial reasons, but the truth of her identity can only be found in the nearly two thousand poems only discovered in quantity and published after her death, and even then only after a long struggle to present her texts accurately. (During her lifetime she published ten poems, none of which were signed by her.) “The myth,” as her Amherst neighbors used to call her, speaks powerfully to us today of loneliness, isolation, death, love, family, friendship, living things, God, and the imagination that sustained her every moment. At its greatest, her poetry is breathtaking.

One goal in this course will be to read as much Dickinson as we can, including selections from the letters in which she often embedded poems. We might also glance at the contemporaries and greats whose work meant much to her—Emerson and Shakespeare, to name two. We’ll also have observations to make about her poetic techniques, all of which can still be useful to practicing poets. And we’ll try to write some poems in the Dickinson mode, which ought to be a lot of fun.

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Born and raised in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Bill Zavatsky worked as a pianist from the age of fifteen to twenty-five and studied jazz improvisation with Hall Overton at the New School. He is the author of Where X Marks the Spot, For Steve Royal and Other Poems and Theories of Rain and Other Poems. With Zack Rogow, he co-translated Earthlight: Poems by André Breton, which won the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize; with Ron Padgett he co-translated The Poems of A.O. Barnabooth by Valery Larbaud. His work has appeared in The Face of Poetry, Up Late, Rabbit Ears and other anthologies, and his poems serve as liner notes for CDs by the pianists Bill Evans and Marc Copland. He holds BA and MFA degrees from Columbia University. For many years he served as the director of SUN, a literary press, as well as SUN magazine, and taught in the high school at the Trinity School in Manhattan. He has also taught workshops for Teachers & Writers Collaborative, the Poetry Project, Long Island University, C.W. Post College, the University of Texas at Austin, Eugene Lang College and Poets House. He currently teaches a walk-in poetry workshop at the Morningside Heights Library on the Upper West Side. He lives in New York City.

Author photo by Margaretta K. Mitchell