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“How good—to be alive!” Happy Birthday Emily Dickinson

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Even for a Victorian poet, Emily Dickinson was unusually obsessed with death. But today, we celebrate her birth, which took place 183 years ago, on December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts. Of her nearly 1,800 poems, only a handful were published during her lifetime. Although she circulated some among her friends, it was not until after her death that her sister Lavinia discovered forty packets of poems and arranged to have them published.

The first edition of Dickinson’s works, which appeared in 1890, contained 115 poems and was heavily edited to conform to contemporary tastes. A scholarly edition, based on Dickinson’s original manuscripts, would not appear until 1955, and only in 1981 was a full facsimile edition of the manuscripts published. Fine printers and book artists have been as much drawn to Dickinson’s poetry as have scholars. The LSU Libraries Special Collections has several examples of their works, a selection of which is featured here.


Emily: Opposites Attract, published by Horse Whisper Press in 2004, contains wood engravings by Barry Moser, Andy English, Simon Brett, Richard Wagener, and Peter Lazarov.


Sampler: Poetry by Emily Dickinson (Arion Press, 2007), features images and a decorative cover by Kiki Smith in the style of a nineteenth-century sewn sampler.


The needlepoint motif is also employed, in a darker fashion, in Compound Frame: Seven Poems by Emily Dickinson (Janus Press, 1998). Inside are several relief prints incorporating sewing pins.


Jen Bervin’s The Dickinson Composites (Granary Books, 2010) is an interpretation of the mysterious punctuation markings in Dickinson’s manuscripts, which have been left out of many editions of her works and are the subject of much editorial debate. “The first time I saw the manuscript punctuation markings,” Bervin writes, “I thought they looked like electron clouds in and around the poems.” Bervin was so struck by the marks that she reproduced them on a large quilt “to visually reassert the vital presence of the omitted marks, to raise questions about them.”


Special Collections also recently acquired a copy of The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems (New Directions, 2013). The work reproduces, in full color, 52 envelopes on which Dickinson wrote poetry.


Though not an edition of Dickinson’s works, Billy Collins’s Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes (2002) is about one modern reader’s intimate relationship with the poet. The limited edition of thirty copies, by book artist Charles Hobson, “uses buttons, ribbons, feathers, and a pastel monotype… which evokes, for the artist, a sense of clothing as plumage.”

Feel free to view any of these materials in the Hill Memorial Library Reading Room. And if you are in Baton Rouge tonight, don’t miss the Emily Dickinson Birthday Celebration at the LSU Museum of Art, beginning at six o’clock. Louisiana poet laureate Ava Haymon will connect her own poetry with the work of Dickinson and contemporary artist Lesley Dill, whose works are currently on exhibit. Champagne and cupcakes will be served. For more info, click here.


Michael Taylor is Curator of Books, LSU Libraries’ Special Collections

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