BUFFALO, N.Y. – Community members will get the chance to
celebrate National Poetry Month in April by paying homage to the
poems of 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson in an epic
community marathon reading in which all 1,789 of Dickinson’s
poems will be read aloud in 14 hours.
Organized by the University at Buffalo’s Department of
English, with Just Buffalo Literary Center and volunteers from the
community, the reading will begin at 8 a.m. April 13 in the
historic Westminster Presbyterian Church, 724 Delaware Ave.,
The event is free and open to the public. Anyone is welcome to
come and read or just attend and listen. No pre-registration is
required. Participants will sit in a circle and take turns reading
the poems. Attendees may sample “black cake,” an
Emily Dickinson fruity treat, while at the reading.
There is no formal schedule of readers, but two familiar names
will kick off the reading at 8 a.m.: UB President Satish K.
Tripathi and Stephen McKinley Henderson, UB professor of theater
Henderson, an accomplished Tony Award-winning actor and
director, recently appeared in “Lincoln,” Steven
Spielberg’s 2012 critically acclaimed film.
“This is a wonderful and fun way to get to know the
extraordinary corpus of Dickinson’s poems,” says
Cristanne Miller, PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor and chair of
the UB English department. “Hearing the poems read in
different voices brings to life the many ways they can be spoken
All 1,789 poems will be read in the order they are published in
“The Poems of Emily Dickinson,” edited by Ralph W.
Franklin, copies of which will be provided at the event.
Independent bookstore Talking Leaves Books also will sell editions
of the poems and books on Dickinson.
The marathon will break for a musical performance at 1 p.m. A
musical group made up of Buffalo residents and UB graduate students
called “Bolts of Melody,” borrowing a phrase from one
of Dickinson’s poems, will sing five songs set to
Dickinson’s poems, two of which were written by the late
composer Leo Smit. A professor in the UB Department of Music
from 1962-84, Smit set more than 100 of Dickinson’s poems to
Tea, coffee and food will be available to readers at various
times during the day. Readers also will be able to sample the
Dickinson delicacy “black cake,” a molasses-based
raisin cake made from the poet’s recipe. Event organizers
encourage readers planning to stay for several hours to bring a
bottle of water.
Two hundred and fifty people showed up to read at the first
Dickinson marathon in 2009. Organizers expect an even larger group
Speaking of her experience organizing the previous reading,
Miller, an eminent Dickinson scholar, says hearing
Dickinson’s poems read by people of all ages in various
styles and voices can be a rewarding experience.
“One reader was a 7-year-old girl who came with her
mother. She had trouble with some of the longer words,”
Miller says, “but with some help from the other readers she
delivered an excellent reading, of which she was rightfully
Much has been said about the dwindling popularity of literature
in general and poetry in particular, but Miller believes
Dickinson’s poetry endures and endears because of its lyric
“Dickinson helps to remind us as a community of the many
profound things that matter in our lives,” Miller says,
“through both the art and music of the poems’ language,
and through the themes that recur, including joy, pain, death,
grief, the variety and vitality of nature, and the particular
wonders of each season.”
For someone like George DeTitta, professor of structural biology
at UB who is helping Miller organize this marathon reading, reading
Dickinson is an earnest and sober pursuit that reflects the themes
DeTitta has been in the midst of an Emily Dickinson reading
project since April 2009, two days after a friend dear to him and
his wife passed away.
“Every day I come into the office or lab and read one poem
and then post it online on my Facebook page,” DeTitta says.
“If my calculation is right, I should be getting to the last
poem around December 2018.”
Such admiration of Dickinson would not be lost on people
familiar with the film version of “Sophie’s
Choice,” which featured one of Dickinson’s poems.
That poem, “Ample make this bed,” is beautifully
read by the romantic but schizophrenic Nathan Landau, played by a
youthful Kevin Kline, to Meryl Streep in an Academy Award-winning
role as the eponymous Sophie Zawistowska, a Polish Holocaust
survivor recently immigrated to New York. This scene —
tender, loving, heartfelt — movingly evokes a theme central
to both Dickinson and the movie: the inevitability of death.
Marathon readings of Emily Dickinson’s poems are common
around the country. They most often are held in celebration of
Dickinson’s birthday on Dec. 10. Miller chose the more
forgiving month of April, in part because it is National Poetry
“This event is really wonderful because it combines a
celebration of poetry and of local community in appreciation of one
of the world’s greatest poets,” Miller says.
“Hearing her work read, for example, by a 7-year-old, a high
school teacher, a lawyer and a retired person from the community in
a single event brilliantly illustrates the many voices in her
For more information on the reading, Emily Dickinson’s
biography and poems, or related events, visit www.edmarathonreading.com.