I bet the real Emily Dickinson would never have walked onto a stage and read her poems aloud in something called a “poetry knockout.” Walt Whitman, though? The no holds barred self-proclaimed “America’s Poet” would, and I bet he would have loved the chance to “celebrate myself and sing myself” in front of an audience. And to hold the company of a recluse, for a man like Whitman, would seem a compliment of sorts.
The Marion Art Center (MAC) was onto something when it included this particular event in its Art Week lineup. “Dickinson vs. Whitman, the Poetry Knockout” was an idea that folded together the arts of theater and poetry and presented us with Annemarie Fredericks as Emily Dickinson and Stephen Collins as Walt Whitman in a box topped with a bow of sublime purple lighting.
With the event came the assumptions, like the one in me very first sentence – the two are polar opposites; their poetry is so different – her poems short and structured, and his prose book-length, rambling, and untamed – their lives so unalike, she secluded in her home while his home was ‘out there’ in the world. But as two of the most influential poets of the 19thcentury, how might they be the same?
Emcee and poetry referee Kate Fishman helped build the connection between Emily and Walt in our perception of the pair by restricting their poetic punches to the topics of immortality, nature, love, society, and God – by far each poet’s most obsessed about subjects. And while Fredericks presented Dickinson in the quiet, reserved reverie many imagine her, and Collins bellowed his breath into the life of his character, the two indeed appear distinctly unrelated. But even without the history lesson behind the performance, some similarities were clear: the two poets exposed themselves in their poems, they contradicted themselves in their poems, their final lines hit you with a figurative blow to the chest, and they both defied the conventional in their work, which was characteristic of a new 19thcentury poetry – an American poetry, to which they both influenced equally.
‘Emily’ was first to throw a ‘punch’.
“What I see not, I better see –/Through Faith – my Hazel Eye…” She stood still in her full, long dress in her side of the stage as ‘Walt’ leaned back in his chair in a relaxed, confident pose, ready to throw his first poem across at Emily.
“It’s stuffy in here, I think!” he said taking a jab at Emily as he took to his feet.
“Is it wonderful that I should be immortal?” Then, taking from another of his leaves of grass, “Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself.”
Come on now, girl. Team Emily is waiting for your comeback!
“A Coffin – is a small Domain,/Yet able to contain/A Citizen of Paradise/ In it diminished Plane…”
So reserved, so mildly she stood and read and stood as Walt read and boasted, book in hand.
“Because I could not stop for Death…”
“And as to you, Death, and you bitter hug of Mortality, it is idle to try to alarm me…” he tossed back at her defiantly.
“I heard a Fly buzz – when I died … And then the Windows failed –/ I could not see to see,” she began and ended her poem, eliciting a giggle from Walt before he stood to say, “Your fly makes me think of my spider…
“A noiseless, patient spider…” he spoke, commanding our attention while also mildly taunting Emily.
Their shadows floated nearby them on the wall outlined by the violet haze of the purple lights above that spattered onto the stage floor like spilled wine.
“My life had stood – a Loaded Gun…” she recited from a poem written in alternating lines of iambic trimeter and tetrameter. “For I have the power to kill,/ Without – the power to die –“
Walt (or, perhaps, Stephen) let out a sigh.
For some time thereafter the pair led the proverbial punches with their proverbial knuckles, knocking at each other places where they each found their weak spots. For Emily, it was the sensual; she stood silent as each descriptive anatomical image tried to knock her down. For Walt, it appeared the element of pure surprise at her words that seemed to shake him.
“Sweet – You forgot – But I remembered/ Every time – for Two –/ So that the Sum be never hindered/ Through Decay of You.”
At times, Walt appeared barely able to take a sip from the cup he could barely hold. He was tossed to his knees at times as he recited his next assault, but she stood her ground as if she had heard it all before; which, perhaps, she had, since Walt was a self-published man in Emily’s time. Ten of Emily’s poems appeared in newspapers, all anonymously and possibly without her consent.
At one point Walt admitted, “I’m getting kind of tired,” and he acquiesced to allowing Emily one final punch.
“It’s all I have to bring today –/ This, and my heart beside/ This, and my heart, and all the fields,/ And all the meadows wide./ Be sure you count, should I forget,/ Some one the sum could tell, –/This, and my heart, and all the bees/ Which in the clover dwell.”
By Jean Perry