More Than Just an Assignment


My first deep-dive into poetry occurred when I was a junior in high school and selected Emily Dickinson as the subject for my English class research paper. I knew little to nothing about Emily Dickinson prior to making the decision to spend weeks filling note cards with information about her life in Amherst, Massachusetts and jotting down examples of her innovative poetry – all in preparation for crafting a 10-page paper. And yes, I was the only one in my class to select a poet as the subject for this assignment. I was always one who liked to take the opportunity to set myself above the fray, in an unassuming way. Maybe that’s another reason I decided to spend time learning about Emily Dickinson.

So, while my success was counted sweet (borrowing a bit from one of her most famous poems, Success is Counted Sweetest to simply to set up my boast that I earned an A+ on the paper), I think that “To comprehend a nectar/Requires sorest need” – another line from that poem− offers a better description of how I can appreciate poetry in a much more enlightened way than I did when I was only 17.

As I did the research and writing, it became abundantly clear that Emily Dickinson was just an assignment to me. I didn’t embrace her poetry. I didn’t understand or care much about her life. Then, she seemed like a sad and solitary woman, comforted only by her words, and not much else.

With age comes wisdom and all of that. I’ve learned more about her and can now appreciate a life that was fuller and more nuanced than I understood then.

And now my deep-dive into poetry, my own “sorest need,” has me seeking beauty during this middle portion of my life. Poetry, in its words and images, artfully woven through small stories that feel familiar, is the place where I need to discover the common ground that connects me to the larger world. But poetry also provides a chance to seek illumination about worlds to which I have had no exposure, where the common ground can also be found upon close examination.  

An example

In Hitman-Baker-Casketmaker: Aftermath of an American’s Clash with Ice by Klecko (coming in March 2019), a segment from the poem called Fight of the Century shines a light on a boxing match at Met Center he attended with a father he rarely saw, and how he felt out of place both in the crowd and in a sense, with the man sitting next to him.


My father only hung out with me once when I was a kid
It was a Monday, and he took me to the Metropolitan Sports Center
To watch the Ali/Frazier fight
This was way before cable television
I was one of only 17,000 people in Minnesota
That got to witness this historic event
The arena was filled with cigar smoke
And old men wearing plaid sports coats
I was the only child in attendance


I’ve never been to a fight, but, for me, the common ground I can find in this poem calls up feelings of what it means to be isolated in a crowd of people, how strange situations can be both gratifying and puzzling, and how moments can become permanently lodged in memory for many reasons.

Or as Emily Dickinson once wrote, Forever- is composed of Nows. Through the enlightenment of age, experience, and the discovery of poetry that is both gentle and powerful, I believe I understand my real assignment.

Audrey Campbell