Dec. 10, 2004

1277 While we were fearing it, it came --

by Emily Dickinson

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "1142" and "1277" by Emily Dickinson, from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson © Little, Brown and Company. Reprinted with permission.


The Props assist the House
Until the House is built
And then the Props withdraw
And adequate, erect,
The House support itself
And cease to recollect
The Auger and the Carpenter -
Just such a retrospect
Hath the perfected Life -
A past of Plank and Nail
And slowness - then the Scaffolds drop
Affirming it a Soul.


While we were fearing it, it came -
But came with less of fear
Because that fearing it so long
Had almost made it fair -

There is a Fitting - a Dismay -
A Fitting - a Despair -
'Tis 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.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It is the birthday of poet Thomas Lux, born in Northampton, Massachusetts (1946). He grew up on a dairy farm and was the son of a milkman and a Sears & Roebuck switchboard operator. Neither of his parents graduated from high school. Some of the first contemporary poems he ever read came from the back of Bob Dylan albums, because in high school he had never seen a book of contemporary poetry. He is known as a promoter of accessible poetry, and believes that poems should not be difficult to understand or dark just for the sake of being so.

After graduating from Emerson College, he worked at the YMCA in Boston, first as a dishwasher and then as a night watchman. He said, "What I should be doing is working in a box factory in my hometown or the Elastic Web factory, where my whole family worked. Given where I come from, I probably shouldn't be a poet. So I think I'm lucky."

Lux has said he has his hardest time starting poems. He said, "I find that work awful and agonizing and slow, and I do nearly anything I can to avoid it."

Lux is a big fan of the Boston Red Sox, and he still dreams of playing center field on a major league baseball team. He said, "If the devil came to me and gave me a fifty-year career as a poet and one year as a center-fielder for the Boston Red Sox, I'd have to think about it." He is the author of many collections of poetry, and his most recent is The Cradle Place (2004).

It's the birthday of poet Carolyn Kizer, born in Spokane, Washington (1925). She is best known for her feminist poetry. Her books of poetry include The Ungrateful Garden (1961) and Mermaids in the Basement (1984). She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for her collection Yin (1984).

Kizer began writing poems at the age of eight, when she wrote a love poem to an Episcopal bishop. The New Yorker printed one of her poems when she was seventeen years old. She was a founding editor of Poetry Northwest and she worked briefly for the State Department as an adviser on Pakistan. In 1966, she resigned as the editor of Poetry Northwest to become the first director of literary programs for the National Endowment for the Arts. One of her best-known poems is "Pro Femina," a satiric work about women writers.

Kizer said, "Our masks, always in peril of smearing or cracking, in need of continuous check in the mirror or silverware, keep us in thrall to ourselves, concerned with our surfaces."

It's the birthday of librarian Melvil Dewey, born in Adams Center, New York (1851). The youngest of five children, Dewey was gifted at math, amazing his family by making quick calculations and organizing his mother's cupboards. He saved the few cents he made doing chores to make his first major book purchase, that of a Webster's Unabridged Dictionary. It remained his favorite book, and when he was older he had five copies of the book placed in various rooms in his house.

Dewey went to college at Amherst, where he worked in the library and taught classes on shorthand. He also worked as the business manager for Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity. He was firmly against any use of alcohol or tobacco, and for a while he couldn't decide if he wanted to be a religious missionary or if he should devote himself to library organization.

It was at Amherst in 1876 where Dewey first publicized what we now know as the Dewey Decimal System. He worked with the American Metric Bureau and fought for the adoption of the metric system. He also was involved with the Spelling Reform Association, wanting to spell things phonetically because he thought it as the most efficient system. He went on to help found the American Library Association.

Dewey was an early advocate of training and employing women as librarians and he was important to opening the library profession to women. He is also credited with inventing the vertical office file cabinet.

It's the birthday of poet Emily Dickinson, born in Amherst, Massachusetts (1830). She wrote over 1,700 poems, but only seven of them were published while she was living, and editors altered all seven of those.

Emily's family was wealthy and deeply religious. Her grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson, was one of the founders of Amherst College. Her father served in Congress as a member of the Whig party in the House of Representatives.

Dickinson's father censored the books she read because he felt they might draw her away from her faith. She believed in God, but she became infamous while at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary because she was the one student unwilling to publicly confess faith in Christ. She said, "They say that God is everywhere, and yet we always think of Him as somewhat of a recluse."

Emily started writing poems in 1850. She wrote her poems in secret on scraps of paper, rolled and tied with a thread and then hidden in bureau drawers. After a few years of writing, she began collecting her hand-written poems into packets of folded paper, stitching the spines herself. Dickinson wrote the majority of her poems during the years of the Civil War.

Emily often included poems in her numerous letters to friends. In 1860 she sent some of her poems to Thomas Wentworth Higginson of the Atlantic Monthly. He advised her not to publish and she didn't try again after that.

Dickinson said, "Celebrity is the chastisement of merit and the punishment of talent."

Dickinson also wrote, "How dreary - to be - somebody! How public - like a frog - to tell your name - the livelong June - to an admiring bog!" Her younger sister, Lavinia, was instrumental to the publication of her poems after her death in 1886.

Dickinson rarely traveled. She visited her father once in Washington, D.C. while he was in Congress. She had persistent eye trouble and spent several months receiving treatment in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1864 and 1865. She never traveled again and hardly ever even left the family's property. She was the baker of the family bread, the caretaker of the family's conservatory and garden.

Dickinson lived in almost complete isolation by the late 1860s, occasionally even refusing to come downstairs when friends came to visit. Her seclusion was fiercely guarded by her sister. She took to wearing only white and devoted herself, along with her sister, to the long-term care of her aging mother.

Emily's physical isolation was only from other adults and did not extend to the neighborhood children. She baked gingerbread and lowered it to them in a basket from her window. She often helped them in their games by fending off the maid as they raided the home's pantry.

Of all American poets, Dickinson ranks third behind Longfellow and Whitman in the number of poems that have been set to music. Dickinson died of what would today be called nephritis, or an inflammation of the kidneys. Her last words were, "I must go in, for the fog is rising."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show