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Tuesday, December 29, 2020

My Emily Dickinson

 When I first started reading Emily Dickinson in high school in the 1970s, she seemed to be either a tame poet, good for holiday cards, or a morose poet of the kind satirized by Mark Twain in Huck Finn, Emmiline Grangerford, with her creepy sub-Poe fascination with funerals. She was the farthest thing from the wilder shore of Walt Whitman, I thought.

I read Dickinson as she was edited and domesticated, starting with her first posthumous editors, her brother’s lover, Mabel Loomis Todd, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. It was only in the 60s that the wilder shore of Dickinson’s poetry started to emerge, beginning with the complete edition of her poems edited by Thomas H. Johnson in 1960. Crucially, Johnson restored the dashes to the poems – which are to the poems what the axe was to Lizzie Borden. The dash, that punctuation interruptus, gave the poems back their sanguinary impulse. We could finally read Dickinson.
It is perhaps appropriate that it took one hundred years. I’ve been reading the Christane Miller edition(the poems “as Dickinson wrote them”) and the great book by Susan Howe – My Emily Dickinson. Howe’s book is in that rare vein of poet’s books – Williams In the American Grain, Zukofsky’s Apollinaire, Olson’s Melville – that shifts your vision. For Howe, Dickinson was the most radical poet of the 19th century. To make a comparison she doesn’t make – just as Georg Buchner seemed to invent the theater of the 1920s in the plays he wrote in the 1830s, so, too, Dickinson seems to have invented the lyric difficulty we associate with the poets of the end of modernism – poets as different as John Ashbery and Adrienne Rich - around the time of the American civil war.
Howe adroitly inserts Jonathan Edwards into Dickinson’s intellectual background, and Emily Bronte as her true contemporary. One poet she doesn’t mention is Lord Byron.
Thomas Moore’s edition of Byron’s Letters and Journals was published in the U.S. in the 1840s. The letters were defanged, but the journals retained Byron’s characteristic skipping dash, for instance: “While you are under the influence of passions, you only feel, but cannot describe them, — any more than, when in action, you could turn round and tell the story to your next neighbour! When all is over, — all, all, and irrevocable, — trust to memory — she is then but too faithful.” Byron’s dashes, unlike Dickinson’s, have an aristocratic disdain for the mere plebe assemblies of rote classroom English. Dickinson, though, if she read Moore’s edition, would certainly have seen how they could work.
Of course, Dickinson was a pretty radical DIY type of poet, and may well have done without prompts. But I would love some genealogy of the dashes, on the lines of the way Guy Davenport, in his essay on Cummings in Every Force Evolves a Form, saw how Cummings saw the opportunity in the way Greek verses, as for instance Sapho’s, were published with scholarly apparatus in the Loeb Library editions.
"And when these early poems, none of which has survived entire but exist on torn, rotted, ratgnawn papyrus or parchment, are set in type for the modern student of Greek, such as Edward Estlin Cummings, Greek major at Harvard (1911-1916), the text is a frail scatter of lacunae, conjectures, brackets, and parentheses. They look, in fact, very like an E. E. Cummings poem. His eccentric margins, capricious word divisions, vagrant punctuation, tmeses, and promiscuously embracing parentheses, can be traced to the scholarly trappings which a Greek poem wears on a textbook page. Cummings' playfulness in writing a word like "l(oo)k"-a pair of eyes looking from inside the word – must have been generated by the way scholars restore missing letters in botched texts, a Greek l[oo]k, where the 1 and k are legible on a papyrus, there's space for two letters between them, and an editor has inserted a conjectural
oo."
I think Dickinson unleashed is such a different spirit from Dickinson leashed that to read her poems in the normalized editions is not to see her at all. Compare:
Wild nights – Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile – the winds –
To a Heart in port –
Done with the Compass –
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden –
Ah – the Sea!
Might I but moor – tonight –
In thee!

As compared to this:

Wild nights! Wild nights!
Were I with thee,
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!
Futile the winds
To a heart in port, —
Done with the compass,
Done with the chart.
Rowing in Eden!
Ah! the sea!
Might I but moor
To-night in thee!
This is of course one of the famous poems. The referential strangeness – rowing in Eden? – is subdued, I’d claim, in the second version, just as the Wild Nights, a repetition that is divided by a repelling dash to create a sort of negative identity, is annealed in the double exclamation marks of the more conventional, the more romantic exclamation of the second version. The placement of the exclamation marks in the second version – and the erasure of the exclamation marks in the second stanza - seems, similarly, to take us to the stylistics of romantic poetry, rather than the asperities that Howe sees in the Puritan doctrine underneath the lines, asperities that tossing away the Chart makes more vivid.

I haven’t yet gotten to the point that I could say “my Emily Dickinson” – but Howe is definitely an aid.

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