Emily Dickinson & Her Envelope Poems

Two years ago I bought a book for the local library called Envelope Poems (2016, Christine Burgin/New Directions, $14.95). Last week I saw it on the poetry shelf, half-hidden between two larger volumes.

Though most of her powers were spent by 1870, around this time Dickinson began writing notes and scraps of poetry on mail lying about her house. It seems she was working on a project connecting poetry with sending and receiving a letter. On one late piece she scribbled, “What a Hazard a Letter is…” (If you have written poetry, you probably feel the same way about a poem).

This little book has photos of the envelopes and the original text is transcribed, with Dickinson’s revision marks, on the adjacent page. None of them are complete poems, but there are bits of gold in the fragments. Here are two examples of why the work is worth a look:



In this short life

that merely lasts an hour

How much – how little –

is within our power


“There are those who are shallow intentionally and only profound by accident.”

Escape or Escapism?

When he sees me he waves an arm, flicks a wrist, and says strange phrases. He must be at least twelve years old. His thin-rimmed glasses constantly threaten to slide off his nose and his sandy brown hair needs no comb. The boy is a devoted fan of Harry Potter, and for reasons I do not know, he casts a curse my direction when our paths cross. As he grows up, his love for the wizarding world might cool. For now, it burns white-hot.

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Tell Me A Story

As Leland Ryken says, “one of the most universal human impulses can be summed up in the four words, ‘Tell me a story'” (Windows to the World). As time has passed and technology progressed, we have told our stories in different ways, but what unites novels, plays, radio tales, and movies is the storytelling act. While no one mode of expression seems necessary for our storytelling, there is one form that we should never let disappear: literature.

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