By Maureen Morehead
Two winters ago, when I visited Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts, I wanted to see the room in which she wrote her poems. Years before, I’d visited the homes of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Louisa May Alcott in Concord. I stood in the tower in which Hawthorne wrote, like Earnest Hemingway, standing up; and in the Alcott parlor where Emerson waited many times to engage Louisa’s father in conversation.
Dickinson’s bedroom, where she wrote her poems, is spacious but spare. The room is up a flight of stairs; it includes a small bed; three windows—two overlooking the main road, the third facing her brother’s house; a wooden floor; a dresser; and a tiny square writing desk. On the desk is a lamp, and beneath it a chair, small, befitting Emily’s small body. Someone had placed a photocopied example of one of her fascicles on the bed, which was to me the most astonishing thing in the room. Sixteen pages of poems in Emily’s handwriting, the original arranged and sewn together by the poet herself, caused me to whisper a silent thank you to her sister Lavinia for saving the poetry.
We’re interested in the places writers compose their work, especially those whose writing we’ve studied and loved. Place tells us about them in ways the writing doesn’t. We can also learn from evidence (the drafts, revisions and letters) preserved, often in libraries, and archived for scholars to study and examine. Dickinson’s sister, upon Emily’s death, found in her room a box filled with years of writing. Even though she lived in the house with Emily, she had no idea how prolific her sister had been. Lavinia could have burned the poems, as she did her sister’s correspondence and which was customary at the time, but she didn’t. What she did do is determine the poems needed to be published. When she couldn’t do it herself, she gave the poetry to T.W. Higginson, Emily’s long-time correspondent, and her brother Austin’s mistress, an educated woman with whom Emily had shared poems. In 1890 the first collection of poems by Emily Dickinson came out in print.
I’ve written often about my writing place, a family room in my house decorated with Bybee Pottery, Louisville Stoneware and colorful Ball jars used by family in eastern and western Kentucky to preserve their goods. From where I sit across from three tall windows, I have a view of leafless trees, oak and ash and walnut, native to Kentucky. Deer, squirrels, raccoons, the occasional hawk, woodpeckers, cardinals, bluejays, finches, and titmice populate the wood and gather at my feeders, especially in winter. The images around me, exterior and interior, provide the images, often used as metaphors, for my poems.
For Kentucky Writers’ Day let me emphasize the relevance of writers to save the notes, jottings and drafts along with the final copies of their writing, whatever the genre. We delete our drafts frequently as easy as it is on a word processor, denying ourselves access to our original drafts and to revisions that may be better than our final changes. Deleting works in progress, we deny access to others, students and scholars, who desire to examine our writing processes to figure out the nature of our creativity. And there is another group who may find writings invaluable. A writer’s children, friends, grandchildren and their children will learn so much about us from our writings, even if our poems, stories, plays and journal entries aren’t the quality of a Dickinson, a Robert Penn Warren or a Bobbie Ann Mason. I believe our readers will find our interests, ideas, stories, personalities and concerns in our writings. And they just might be taken to the places where their ancestors wrote their poems.
Please join the Kentucky Arts Council on Kentucky Writers’ Day, 10 a.m. April 24 in the Capitol Rotunda for the induction of George Ella Lyon as Kentucky Poet Laureate.