A More Ordinary Poet
Seeking Emily Dickinson
May 17, 2013
May 17, 2013
9 Min read time
With Emily Dickinson, the challenge is to understand a flesh-and-blood woman whose life took place on paper.
For many of her readers, Emily Dickinson remains the quintessential nineteenth-century poetess: the Belle of Amherst, spooking into high school English classes in virginal white, a real-life Ophelia, her poems full of spiders, flowers, and carriage rides with death. And yet, at least since the publication of R.W. Franklin’s 1981 volume charting Dickinson’s manuscripts and his 1998 variorum edition of her complete poems—both of which reveal the textual complexity of Dickinson’s originals, their variants, and their positions in letters and fascicles or sets—this poet has also been read as a nineteenth-century Gertrude Stein. Dickinson has been seen as a proto-modernist whose white heat was silenced by both patriarchal prejudice and the poetic preferences of her time.
In both of these versions, Dickinson poses a challenge. In the first, the poet’s storied retreat from the world creates a biographical stumbling block. How do we understand the work of a person who chose not to live in the world the way most of us do? In the second version, textual complexities push Dickinson’s poetry toward what Charles Bernstein, writing about postmodern verse, called the “difficult” poem—a linguistic experiment that disorients, activating the imagination in unpredictable ways.
While the fascination with Dickinson’s biography and the complexity of her words have long kept her readers, critics, and poetic inheritors engaged in unraveling her, Dickinson criticism has recently shown a marked interest in combining these two challenges—the biographical and the textual—in order to study Dickinson’s material trace: a real woman whose life took place on paper.
There’s a contradiction here, a frisson of the real and the linguistic. Virginia Jackson’s Dickinson’s Misery (2005) energized criticism of the poet by pitting twentieth-century practices of “lyric reading”—epitomized by the “close reading” techniques of the New Critics that continue to shape classroom interactions with poetry today—against the tangible wildness of Dickinson’s manuscripts. (The best example of this is a cricket Dickinson folded up in paper and mailed along with “Farther in Summer than the Birds—” to Mabel Loomis Todd.) Interpretations of Dickinson’s materials reach a culmination in Alexandra Socarides’s Dickinson Unbound: Paper, Process, Poetics (2012).
Socarides’s study of the writer she calls “America’s seemingly most inaccessible poetic genius” emphasizes “a poetics that is guided by paper.” She returns to Dickinson’s “workshop” to recount how the poet penciled her poems on a particular kind of stationery, bound and stitched them, and, toward the end of her career, composed directly onto household scraps—the back of a cake recipe, the flap of an envelope. The physicality of these papery remains, Socarides argues, shaped what Dickinson wrote. Or, Dickinson was drawn to their particular limitations and interruptions precisely because she was interested in a poetics that confronted ambiguities of endings and tensions between the space of the poem and the material of the world. Socarides asks us not to read too much into words alone. In Dickinson’s fascicles and sets of unbound poems, in which other critics have found interrelated sequences or even narrative arcs, Socarides finds the “sheet” to be the primary unit of composition, reining in readings to the space of a single page. The “poems are the paper,” she writes.
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This emphasis on the procedural and material sides of Dickinson also underlies three recent books of poetry, all of which take Dickinson’s work as a starting ground from which to produce their own poems. Janet Holmes’s The ms of m y kin (2009), its title an erasure of “The Poems of Emily Dickinson,” erases portions of poems Dickinson composed during the first two years of the Civil War. The results unearth a latent violence that becomes a fractured meditation on the American invasion of Iraq. Rebecca Hazelton’s Fair Copy (2012) uses the first line of every 29th poem of Thomas Johnson’s edition of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Hazelton began the project on her 29th birthday) to compose acrostics. And Paul Legault’s The Emily Dickinson Reader (2012) “translates” each poem in Franklin’s reading edition into “Standard English.”
Unlike their spinsterly, gnomic, or radical predecessors, these Dickinsons are flattened out and almost as approachable as paper. By directing attention away from the difficulties of Dickinson’s words, these four recent interpretations, despite their differences, present a more ordinary poet. Socarides concludes her study by reminding us that Dickinson was one of many nineteenth-century American female poets. And Legault’s Dickinson might be haunting San Francisco’s Mission District this very moment, hung-over and slinking home after a one-night stand, her poems the equivalent of crotchety text messages. By prioritizing the paper and string that participated in Dickinson’s compositions over the more ephemeral nature of the words themselves, or by taking these words as an invitation for overwriting, rewriting, or erasure, these new works make reading Dickinson secondary to encountering her. In doing so, they amplify a cult of personality that has attended this poet since the initial publication of her work, while at the same time imbuing her personality with a less otherworldly demeanor.
The rift between the smallness of Dickinson’s life and the magnitude of her work keeps readers wondering.
Enter an image. Since the public unveiling of a possible “new” daguerreotype of Dickinson in August 2012, readers have been buzzing not only about whether this image shows the real Dickinson, but also about how the portrait might rearrange our understanding of her. In an essay on “iconic power” for the Dickinson Electronic Archives, Martha Nell Smith catalogues many points of Dickinson’s entry into the popular imagination—from a song by Simon and Garfunkel to a recent reference on Tina Fey’s 30 Rock. Smith asks how this putative Dickinson—not the lank and dour teenager with one eye slightly wandering per the famous mid-1840s daguerreotype, but instead “a bold, assertive woman in her late twenties with her arm around another woman”—might offer us an entirely new way to access Dickinson’s work. Here, at last, is a Dickinson who could overturn difficulties, a recognizable figure, regardless of the disorientations her poems still induce.
While Smith introduces this new image of Dickinson as a jolt to received impressions of the poet, Legault already seems familiar with a more brazen Emily: in his “Translator’s Note,” he calls her “the most infamous lesbian vampire of the nineteenth century” and “the father of American poetry.” The Emily Dickinson Reader includes six reproductions of the familiar daguerreotype of the teenage Dickinson, each with a modifying caption: “Dickinson, simultaneously aroused and disgusted by the thought of sex” or “Dickinson, asleep with her eyes open.” These recurrent images, repositioned by their shifting captions, are yet another example of how the language surrounding Dickinson presents us with multiple versions of the poet. Our Emily Dickinsons may be dressed the same, but they’re capable of otherness on the inside.
Legault’s project is “personal,” he says. In this way, it is part of a tradition that produced Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson (1985), a book that features the same teenage portrait on its cover. Howe’s Dickinson is the radical one—a ferocious mind, a loaded gun. Legault’s Dickinson, by contrast, is a crazy girl extraordinaire: “unbalanced,” “clingy,” promiscuous, sexually unsatisfied, a stalker, a mean girl, hip enough to be both vampire and zombie. Legault’s translations bring to light a humor that is certainly present and often overlooked in Dickinson’s originals. He creates stripped-down versions of recognizably Dickinsonian sentiments—“I want to spend my life on my life,” is his translation of “One Life of so much Consequence!” “There is a pain—so utter” becomes, “I like extreme pain because it distracts me from the dull, constant pain of living.” Whereas Howe presents a Dickinson of plenitude, bursting with intellectual history and experimental zeal, Legault’s Dickinson is a depleted one. And though this depletion is comedic by design, it is hard not to be disappointed by a Dickinson who worries about being stupid, who spurts such banalities as “I hate Mondays” or “Today sucks balls” (translations in their entirety of “A Day! Help! Help!” and “My Portion is Defeat—today—”).
Hazelton also presents her project as personal, “a conversation” with a poetic predecessor. Fair Copy reads like a book of love poems—not to a dead poet but instead to a man, a master at times, or a huntsman—rather than an invocation of Dickinson herself. The speaker of these poems is “a yes girl,” a lover pitched into a plane of textual and sexual intersection. There are resonances with some of Dickinson’s great epithalamiums, in which a speaker marries God, a master, or death. In “[To Love thee Year by Year—],” the speaker’s lover is cleaning out her head: “he / yawns it open, scoops out dark foam, / yeses I’ve regretted.” Lucie Brock-Broido, in The Master Letters (1997), likewise sought to converse with Dickinson by conjuring her in “a series of latter-day Master Letters,” those baroque and mysterious epistles Dickinson penciled to some creature of power whose reality or fantastical presence remains unconfirmed. Brock-Broido’s book is a work of ventriloquy, a collection of poems that “echo formal and rhetorical devices from Dickinson’s work.” Hazelton’s language, by contrast, remains more her own than Dickinson’s, and her project is one of straining against constraint, exploding a single Dickinson line into a recognizably contemporary poem. Nevertheless Fair Copy follows The Master Letters insofar as Dickinson, when she does surface, appears as elfin, otherworldly, masochistic, and enamored.
While Howe and Brock-Broido’s approaches to Dickinson are diffuse, Legault, Hazelton, and Holmes follow firmer strictures. Holmes’s is perhaps the most surprising. Dickinson is not an obvious choice for thinking about war. Whitman wrote Drum Taps (1865) and Melville Battle-Pieces (1866), but the Civil War remains an elusive presence in Dickinson’s work. Holmes’s use of Dickinson does not feel like a justification of these omissions, but it is startling to find a war, especially a war that belongs so immediately to us, surfacing from these poems. As the Dickinson originals disappear, we find that “It matters / that the oil / is gone.” “Bush” enters the speaker’s life, and “Wilderness—can be / Desert Noon.” In her notes, Holmes lists Bush, bin Laden, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Congress, “soldiers, terrorists, occupiers, insurgents, and combatants on both sides of both wars in Afghanistan and Iraq” as “occasional speakers” in the poems. In The ms of m y kin, Dickinson goes under as our world breaches, punctured and wounded.
Who is this Emily Dickinson? Socarides, dedicated to exploring “how a real woman living in Amherst, Massachusetts in the middle of the nineteenth century put words on a page (or a slip, or a shopping list, or a flyer),” promises to “look at that paper instead of hearing voices.”
But does the real always arrive consolidated by what has been written down, or necessarily marred by the residual murmurs of voices? In one of her letters to her friend and mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Dickinson anticipates T.S. Eliot’s notion of the poet’s impersonality: “When I state myself, as the representative of the verse,” she writes, “it does not mean me, but a supposed person.” The rift that seemingly exists between the smallness of Dickinson’s life and the resounding magnitude of her work has kept readers wondering about the person behind this “supposed person.”
In her introduction to one of the early editions of Dickinson’s poems, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, the poet’s niece, considers whether her aunt missed something in living the life that she did: “One may ask of the Sphinx, if life would not have been dearer to her, lived as other women lived it? . . . Or if, in so doing and so being, she would have missed that inordinate compulsion, that inquisitive comprehension that made her Emily Dickinson?” These new explorations invite us to ask again: What makes Emily Dickinson Emily Dickinson? At least one answer still dwells in the possibility of her poems.
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May 17, 2013
9 Min read time