Poets of the Neighborhood

Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost

Short Program: Poets of the Neighborhood:Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost July 20 - 23, 2022


The poetry of Emily Dickinson (1830-1885) and Robert Frost (1874-1963) is familiar to us not merely because it is distinctively American but also because it is local. While New England was their common ground, their most frequent subjects were found in their neighborhoods. Dickinson's poetic perceptions investigated her immediate  surroundings, the birds and plants of her backyard. In "The Robin's my Criterion for Tune," for example, she contrasts England and New England, directly connecting her style and voice to the birdsongs and blooming flowers nearby. The robin sings an "ode familiar," and in response to that song Dickinson fashions her own highly original American poetry. The buttercup and daisy, the nut of oak or hickory, the deep snows of winter — these are the inspirations for Dickinson's poetic tableaus.

For Frost, a poem like "Birches" begins with a simple observation of young birch trees bent over against a line of straighter, darker trees. The poet imagines a young boy riding the birches, swinging up and down on them in the exuberance of youth. He then recalls that he himself was "once a swinger of birches," until the poem takes all of us to a farther place, "toward heaven." Local observation grounds meditation, memory and reflection. Another famous New England poem, "Mending Wall," ponders whether "good fences make good neighbors." The seasonal ritual of replacing the fallen stones of a wall separating the neighbors' properties becomes the poet's ground for teasing his neighbor with new questions and insights. But like the swinger of birches, or like a good neighbor, Frost always returns to earth, close to home.

As different as they are in style, vision and voice, Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost are good neighbors to one another, and also to the natural world they explore in striking ways. Helping us appreciate their remarkable poetry will be Jim Warren, Mason Professor of English emeritus, and guest faculty Laura-Gray Street, Associate Professor of English at Randolph College, and Mark Long, professor of English at Keene State College in New Hampshire.

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