Julie Harris died recently (her obituary in the New York Times is here). Some praise her as the first lady of the American theater. This I do not doubt.
But what I know of Ms. Harris is from William Luce’s “The Belle of Amherst,” a one-woman show about Emily Dickinson I saw on public television when I was young.
I cannot remember much of the production. What I remember is Ms. Harris brought Ms. Dickinson to life, and introduced me to poetry that was true. I had yet to see a play by Shakespeare, to hear the cadence of words stepping toward their meaningfulness. Up to then, poetry was something I played with without knowing its power, like a child playing with matches. I had never been to poetry reading, I had yet to hear Ginsberg recite “Howl” or any meaningful rendering of Auden or cummings or O’Hara or Plath or Woolf.
What I remember from the telecast was the power of the word, the gift of the actor, the lilt of Dickinson’s verse. These things helped propel me toward words, toward storytelling, this small idea of a suitable occupation I had for myself. It has been mostly hidden under the cover of journalism, telling the stories of the lives of others in the safe recitation of facts and quotes.
But what rings true, we call poetry.
I know it because I first heard it from the lips of Ms. Harris.
For that I thank her.