Book-writer’s almanac: Some thoughts on Emily’s 187th birthday (December 10, 2017)

December 10, 2017

It’s Emily Dickinson’s birthday and I find myself thinking about one of the birthday messages for her that won’t be coming this year.

Every December 10 for just shy of a quarter century, Garrison Keillor, the honey-toned host of public radio and podcast’s The Writer’s Almanac, made certain to have a special segment on Emily. A quick Google search yields dozens of hits linking the reclusive Amherst poet and the gregarious Minnesota-based writer/poet/radio host.

But you can’t do more than see those short summaries now, because as of the end of November, Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media cut their ties with Keillor over allegations of “inappropriate behavior.” Click on one of those links and you’re informed, “MPR has ended our contract with the company that owns the rights for production and public distribution of The Writers Almanac and MPR no longer has the rights to post the archives.”

As a long-time fan of both The Writer’s Almanac and the iconic Prairie Home Companion, I was saddened to learn that Keillor had been swept up in the veritable storm of men brought down by their own bad behavior. But I’m especially saddened because The Writer’s Almanac was one of the few venues for hearing poetry read aloud. Poems need to be heard to be fully appreciated.

Keillor read from poets long dead, poets from not long ago, and newer voices to whom he introduced us. The broadcast reached more than 2 million listeners each week; apparently you could directly track mention of a poet on this show with a jump in sales of that poet’s work on Amazon. (Here’s a link to a story about The Writer’s Almanac and what its demise means that aired on WBUR:

The end of this show certainly won’t mean that people stop reading Emily’s poetry, nor that new generations will cease to find wonder when they’re introduced to her work. It’s clear that we have Mabel Loomis Todd and Millicent Todd Bingham to thank for that, since without them, Emily’s poetry might never have been published, at all.

Mabel realized Emily’s brilliance the first time she was introduced to her poetry in the early 1880s. And when, after Emily’s death, Mabel agreed to try to get the poems published, she approached Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the 19th century abolitionist, Unitarian minister and literary advocate, to help. Higginson had read Emily’s poetry and thought it wonderful but its form too difficult and crude to publish. It took Mabel reading some of the poems aloud to him to convince Higginson that in fact, he must sign on to this important project of getting Emily’s poetry published and bringing it to the world.

While I suspect that Emily, herself, would have been both somewhat horrified and also incredulous to know that her poems could somehow be broadcast so widely, Mabel would surely have been thrilled. Her own very considerable work to promote Emily’s verse and ensure it had a wide readership was limited by the tools at her disposal to disperse it. I somehow think that were Mabel alive today, she would have seen Garrison Keillor’s departure as an opportunity. She would have come up with a plan for a show to replace The Writer’s Almanac, pitched it, and offered herself up as host. And I am certain that she would have sparkled in this role.

But because they’ll be no broadcasts today of Emily’s poems, read one aloud instead – even if you’re the only one in the room. The Emily Dickinson Museum offers a number of tips for reading the poetry:

And they do conclude that Emily’s poems, like all poems, derive from an oral tradition. You can learn new things from a poem by hearing it.

So happy birthday, Emily! I’ll be reading some of your poems out loud today in celebration.