Friday, September 11, 2009

Aimless Reading: The D's, Part 27 (Emily Dickinson)

Dickinson, Emily
The Poems of Emily Dickinson
(Varorium Edition)

Purchased from Kristen Gallagher for $75 when she was clearing out her Buffalo library in order to move to to New York.

Coming to Emily Dickinson's work in Buffalo, under the tutelage of Susan Howe, which is how I came to it, is quite an experience. Before being able to quote more than a line or two of her work, I was thinking about all of the horrible things editors had done to it and whether or not the length of each dash in each poem signified differently than each other dash in each other poem and how some of the fragments in her fascicles were shaped like tombstones and others were shaped like birds in flight and whether or not the variations that comprise the varorium edition should each be included in one's reading of the poem or whether one should choose from among them and so on and so forth.

Susan Howe's enthusiasm for Dickinson has the quality of a force in nature and is quite infectious. I think everyone who studied with her found themselves at one point personally concerned with the aforementioned issues of Dickinson textual scholarship, whether they planned to study Dickinson seriously or not. Howe's readings of Dickinson are so personal, so infused with passion, that it is hard now to even read Emily Dickinson without thinking of Susan Howe's readings of Emily Dickinson.

The problem with trying to read Emily Dickinson "after the fall" so to speak is that your reading experience is forever complicated by these questions. Which version of each poem should I read? Has this version been properly edited? Has the poem at hand been grammatically regularized? Is there a political motivation to this regularization? Was the editor a man and how does that change our understanding of the text? Is it possible to read Emily Dickinson in anything other than manuscript form?

There's a part of me that loves grappling with these questions and then there's another part that just wants to read the words and hear the music and think about the meaning of the poem. But then I ask myself, which words? Which poem? Which Emily Dickinson? Whose Emily Dickinson?

My personal favorite Emily poem, 280, in manuscript form.

1 comment:

Ron said...

Good questions all, Mike. My own Dickinson moment was almost diametrically opposed to yours, though--about 15 years ago I reviewed a suburban performance of The Belle of Amherst, the most romanticized version of her life and work imaginable. I was fully inclined to cringe, but I'll be damned if it didn't totally work on me. Hearing the poems aloud, performed by someone who was really good at it--stripped of all those typographic issues altogether--made me realize just how radical and weird and wonderful they were.

(Susan Howe = Belle of Amherst Campus? I can't be the first person to come up with this.)

BTW, I always enjoy peeking in on this amazing ongoing project of yours from time to time. If only it would inspire me to read all the unread stuff collecting dust on my shelves. But no.