Emily Dickinson was born 181 years ago today. A "nobody" in her lifetime and canonized after death, she wrote strange, affecting poems built as much by words as by punctuation. Her revolutionary take on language prophesied modernism and resists stodginess, so she is seemingly always "having a cultural moment," as a New York Times writer put it last year.
This year was no exception. Cementing her reputation as "the poet most set to music, ever," Jeff Tweedy confessed to plucking and reorganizing Dickinson's words to write songs for Wilco's "most adventurous album in a decade," The Whole Love. It was a quiet intrusion: Amherst's most famous loner, helping script a conversation a hundred years past her time.
According to Cristanne Miller, a Dickinson expert who teaches at the University of Buffalo, the switch works because Dickinson -- herself an accomplished pianist who fretted over her sister's inability to learn their duets -- essentially wrote songs. Her poems are short, modified forms of ballads or hymns. She referred to her poems as "ditties"; in them she was a "songbird." Indeed, she may even have written melodic compositions of her own. In a letter Miller quoted, a friend of the Dickinson family recalled "those blissful evenings at Austin, when Emily was at the piano playing weird and beautiful music all from her own inspiration."
To celebrate Dickinson's lasting imprint on the way we shape language, and in honor of her birthday today, we've compiled a sampling of modern musical adaptations -- penned by alternative rockers, opera composers, and even the first lady of France -- along with an explanation of their writing process in their own words. Read on for John Eaton, Melissa Swingle, Jeff Tweedy, Carla Bruni and more, on the science of channeling Dickinson's "weird and beautiful music" a hundred years on.
(And because birthdays come only once a year, don't miss a Dickinson expert's tribute to one of the greatest poems ever written.)