Dickinson and the limits of form

Sunday, April 6th, 2014 by sdileonardi

          In the introduction to The Gorgeous Nothings Jen Bervin quotes Jerome McGann as writing: “Dickinson’s poetry was not written for a print medium, even though it was written in an age of print” (11). Bervin goes on to cite several of Dickinson’s writing practices that are curious by nature and deserve explanation, such as her insistence on using pencils and her manipulation and modification of paper envelopes. As McGann suggests, these examples convey a reaching, on Dickinson’s part, for an alternative to the—some might call—hegemony of print, as if an alternative form of expression were on the horizon. Likewise, Susan Howe asks, “Does form envelop everything? . . . Is there an unwritable unknown poem that exceeds anything the technique of writing can do?” (7). Again, this sentiment gestures toward that indefinable quality of Dickinson’s poetry that seems to resist the printed form by defying its conventions, especially in the poet’s resistance to traditional publication. If publication solidifies the written word for public consumption—a solidification that resembles the permanence of ink—then Dickinson’s methods seem to pursue a more fluid, less concrete form of expression. One in which editions can be prolonged and word choice held in limbo; thus the pencils, the self-publication, and those curious + marks that designate the substitution of one word for another without offering a final decision on the matter.

            This remarkable quality of Dickinson’s work seems to transcend her own practices within her lifetime and extend into the history of her posthumously published work. For some startlingly lucid evidence on the matter check out Sharon Cameron’s digital archive on Fascicle 16 (http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~ajf2j/emily/stab.html), which demonstrates the onerous journey Dickinson’s poetry has taken through 100 years of publication alterations.

            As a final thought on the matter, I wonder if this might also be a good time to look forward one week when we will be discussing Kittler’s Discourse Networks, especially the discourse network of 1900, of which Dickinson is a good example. The hegemony of print and universal alphabetization are characteristics of the previous discourse network—aptly called 1800. Therefore Dickinson’s experimentation preludes and takes part in the technological rupture of the era that introduces new modes of expression through the revolutionary mediums of phonograph and film. Food for thought.


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