“The trying on the utmost, / The morning it is new, / Is terribler than wearing it / A whole existence through.”
For more than a century and a half, Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886) has endured as one of the most beloved and influential poets in the English language. And yet of her 1,800 known poems, only a dozen were published in her lifetime, most anonymously. Like Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the early posthumous publications of her work were met with some unfavorable reviews and general indifference. It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that her poetry began to be recognized for its unadorned poignancy and its uncommon elegance of thought and image. Dickinson’s poetic genius rose in the public imagination in proportion with the allure of her eccentric, enigmatic persona — a poet perhaps as eccentric as Marianne Moore, one who lived her latter years in seclusion, was possessed by an intense romantic friendship, and dressed in white.
Some 130 years after Dickinson’s death, her reclusive life of creative insurgency was given new vitality in Terence Davies’s feature film A Quiet Passion, starring the transcendent Cynthia Nixon as the poet. In 2015, Hurricane Films, who had produced the feature, set out to deepen the cinematic celebration of Dickinson with a crowdfunded documentary about the beloved poet, narrated by Nixon.
I was among the many, though evidently not enough, backers supporting the project, which failed to meet its Kickstarter goal of $50,000 and was thus never funded. It broke my heart to see that while a potato salad — a potato salad — had no trouble raising more than $50,000 on Kickstarter, a documentary about one of the greatest writers who ever lived couldn’t translate into something tangible the fierce and grateful love that so many of us feel for Dickinson. (Why do we so easily forget that while appreciation is what makes artists thrive, it alone is insufficient in helping them survive? That artists are creatures of flesh and blood who can’t feed on the spiritual pixie dust of inspiration and praise? That making art is at bottom making — a material act that requires material means?)
In this beautiful recording — a bittersweet memento from the ill-fated Kickstarter campaign — Nixon brings to life Dickinson’s poem “While I was fearing it, it came,” found in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (free ebook | public library).
While I was fearing it, it came,
But came with less of fear,
Because that fearing it so long
Had almost made it dear.
There is a fitting a dismay,
A fitting a despair.
’T is harder knowing it is due,
Than knowing it is here.
The trying on the utmost,
The morning it is new,
Is terribler than wearing it
A whole existence through.
Complement with Dickinson’s poetry set to music by Israeli singer-songwriter Efrat Ben Zur and these wonderful hand-lettered illustrations of her verses by artist David Clemesha, then revisit other beautiful readings of beloved poets’ work: Amanda Palmer reading Wisława Szymborska, Sylvia Boorstein reading Pablo Neruda, Jon Kabat-Zinn reading Derek Walcott, Orson Welles reading Walt Whitman, and Amanda Palmer reading E.E. Cummings.
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