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2014 MLA Sessions
Submitted by RMooney on January 6, 2014 - 11:40am
EDIS Panels MLA 2014 Chicago
Language and Visuality in Dickinson's Poetry
1. Dickinson’s Hyper-Visual Manuscripts
Since the publication of Franklin’s facsimile edition of the fascicles in 1981, a considerable amount of attention has been paid to the visual dimension of Dickinson’s manuscripts. Critics have wondered about the meaning of these visually striking documents, focusing on her textual arrangements, such as line-breaks and handwriting, and, most recently, on the types of paper she used. That said, there is a special subset of her manuscripts that I would describe as “hyper-visual” since Dickinson foregrounds in a performative manner extreme questions of visuality. Sent mostly to family and friends in letters, these poem manuscripts include those that incorporate extra-textual objects, cut-out pictures, and pencil drawings, all of which are more than mere illustrations. They present challenges to the lyric reader nearly as much as they do to the editor of standard, print editions of the poems.
It is a truism that all poems have a visual and an aural component, or vision and resonance to borrow the suggestive title of a study by John Hollander. But Dickinson’s hyper-visual poem manuscripts contain elements that are purely visual and therefore silent, elements that are an incitement to seeing and cannot be read in the way that words can. What is the relation between the extra-textual and the textual in the hyper-visual manuscripts? What is the relation between the unspoken visual and the spoken words? I will argue that in her hyper-visual manuscripts Dickinson, a poet so afraid of losing her sight, achieves a kind of mimetic equivalence of certain objects, which is to say, coterminous representations of objects in two contrastive yet concordant media.
Aided by digital slides and an overhead projector, I will explore the significance of Dickinson’s hyper-visual manuscripts with regard to two examples I have looked at closely in the Frost and the Houghton libraries. First, I will consider a manuscript of “She laid her docile Crescent down” (H35a), which contains a cut-out picture of some gravestones. Taken from the Hampshire and Franklin Express, the cut-out (I discovered in the Jones Library last summer) belonged to an advertisement for the wares of O. M. Clapp, a local maker of gravestones. St. Armand and Monteiro have helpfully situated this manuscript in the emblem-book tradition, but by contrast I would suggest that Dickinson, like O. M. Clapp, is making a gravestone. The poem, which she referred to as “an Epitaph,” and the cut-outs together form the mise-en-pierre-tombal of a typical New England gravestone with its words and images. Second, I will consider a late manuscript of “Further in Summer than the Birds” (A66), sent by Dickinson to Mabel Loomis Todd in 1883 along with a cricket. The dead (now crumbling) cricket, in its very materiality, is not quite the thing itself, since it has died and been transformed into an art-object. Unattached to the paper, it has nonetheless been “fixed” to the poem Dickinson referred to as “My Cricket,” as though to invite, by comparison, an evaluation of the mimetic success of the poem.
2. Looking at This: Dickinson’s Manuscripts and the Visibility of Poetry
The problem of what we are to do with Dickinson’s manuscripts is rooted in questions about the poems’ visuality. We ask, for example, whether we should read her poems as visual artifacts wherein orthography, layout, and the implements of writing contribute to meaning. We ask, too, whether her poems look to figurative, abstract locations, or, as Virginia Jackson has argued, to private material contexts, to literal scenes of writing and reading, to this cricket or that person. When Dickinson handwrites “here” in a poem, does she mean here on the page, or does she mean here in the room in which she writes? Or does she mean here in the world in which we live? Or is “here” a figurative place, left for her readers to visualize as they read in new material contexts? When she writes that “All the letters I can write / Are not fair as this” (Fr380), or “This is my letter to the World” (Fr519) or “This is a Blossom of the Brain” (Fr1112), what are the poems looking at, and what are we supposed to look at when we read them?
This paper approaches these contemporary critical questions in a new way by juxtaposing them with the strained emphasis on visuality that was central to mid-nineteenth-century American Transcendentalists and other language theorists who argued that poetic language is not constructed but rather seen in the natural world prior to the writing down of the poem. Ironically, this intensification of the a priori visibility of poetic language effaces (or depends upon effacing) the materiality of writing, obscuring not only the constructedness of a poem’s expression but also the physicality of paper, pen, and written words. In the context of this cultural discourse that suppresses one kind of poetic visibility in order to heighten another, the questions we raise about Dickinson’s manuscripts—what do we do with their visual features? what are the poems looking at, and what are we supposed to look at when we read them?—take on added significance. Specifically, through readings of poems in which Dickinson uses deictic terms like “here” or “this,” I argue that she plays with the problem of a poem’s visibility in ways that escape the zero-sum game of her own culture’s discourse of poetic visibility, and I suggest that this play complicates the tendency toward exclusiveness in our approaches to the visuality of her manuscripts as well.
3. Dickinson and the Critique of the Senses
Although Dickinson’s poems written from the position of the dead evoke the extension of sensation into death depicted in Elizabeth Phelps’s The Gates Ajar, they actually render unreal the presumptive centrality of sensory apprehension. To speak of “Gazing Grain” (“Because I could not stop for Death –“ ), is to suggest that seeing can be projected onto the objects it sees, or that gazing can be done without eyes, even without consciousness. Moreover, the alliteration foists attention on sound rather than vision, pitting one sense against the other and taking us unnervingly far from the common experiences of seeing or hearing. Another post-mortem poem, “I heard a Fly buzz” (591) speaks from a position where “I could not see—to see,” in which the end of visuality is the end of one kind of knowing, but not of knowing, or even speaking. Beyond the group of poems speaking from death, Dickinson’s imagery often links internal experiences and abstractions which are not apprehendable by the senses to objects which are, but in ways that destabilize the expectation that knowing is analogous to physical apprehension. Despite the emphasis in recent scholarship upon Dickinson’s investment in the visual appearance of her writing and its tactile presence, I will argue that Dickinson works to break her and our identification with sensory apprehension, including vision. Insofar as she is committed to a world that exists apart from its framing in linguistic form, she does not think of this as a world which we know through the five physical senses as they are casually identified with, and organize by, by a presumptively abled subject. Rather, Dickinson seeks to estrange visuality, and to make us realize the non-essentialness of all forms of sensory perception.
II. Emotion, Embodiment, and Reading in Poe and Dickinson
1. Mechanical Form & Embodied Metrics in Dickinson & Poe
This paper will position the work of Dickinson and Poe as opening up a space for both metrical mechanism and compositional embodiment within Transatlantic and Trans-romantic nineteenth century theories of “organic form.” The idea of poetic form as generated “from within”—as a plant produces branches, fruits, or goes to seed—found its way to America from German Romanticism via Coleridge. While Transcendentalists like Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, and Higginson celebrated the seemingly natural sprouting heralded by organic form, Dickinson and Poe were invested in different permutations of what makes poetry distinctly “unnatural,” or inorganic. Their work opens up interesting points of tension between the mechanical seeming nature of metrics, and the embodied experience of a poet engaged with charting rhythm, meter, and rhyme. Poe describes a poem as the “rigid consequence of a mathematical problem” which nevertheless conveys “some amount of suggestiveness—some under current, however indefinite of meaning.” Through readings of recursive sound within his poems—what Poe’s critics dismissed as his jingling—I attempt to locate this suggestiveness not in opaque “mystery” alone, but also in the intuited presence of a body experiencing poetry as an oral and auditory form. I extend readings of the problematic “material” nature of Dickinson’s manuscripts, and her reinventions of “common meter,” both of which depend upon the presence of words on a page, by turning to poems in which Dickinson specifically imagines the “breath” as an organizing poetic principle. I conclude by linking this attention to the body as a force whose functioning depends upon a confluence of the organic and mechanical in Dickinson and Poe to a broader Victorian fascination with what Oliver Wendell Holmes “The Physiology of Versification.”
2. Dickinson, Poe and the Embodiment of Pain
This paper proposes to compare Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson in terms of a shared poetic interest in figures of grief, loss, and mourning. The paper will compare the ways in which Poe and Dickinson conceive, figure and imagine grief and its analogues; how each author distinguishes grief from other painful emotional conditions, and how the understand the potentialities of grief in relation to creativity and poetic practice in general. The language of grief is central to the vocabularies of both Poe and Dickinson. For Poe, conditions of perpetual grief, figurations of “mournful and never-ending remembrance” are central to his fictions, his poetic persona, and his biography. Poetic muses such as lost Lenore and Annabel Leigh; fictional women such as Ligeia and Berenice; biographical woman such as Poe’s mother, Eliza and wife Virginia, all become occasions for the activation of grief in public. For Poe grief is concentric; its motives are specified and all ancillary motives devolve into it. For Dickinson, the motives for grief are omnipresent and unspecified, something to be waded and overcome; stealthy like a mouse in the wainscoting. Special attention will be paid to the ways in which these figuration of grief are embodied—in terms, as my title suggests, of expressibility for Dickinson and visuality for Poe. The implications of this analysis will extend to the affective politics of gender in relation to romanticism, poetic voice, and the relationship between ritual acts of mourning and the experience of suffering.
3. Enchantment and Rereading in Barrett Browning, Poe, and Dickinson
“Edgar Allan Poe” never appears in Jack Capps’s Emily Dickinson’s Reading (1966). However, Capps’s book includes fifteen references to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Dickinson wrote at least three elegies for Barrett’s death. If Barrett was an unequivocally major figure for Dickinson, Poe also admired her: Lady Geraldine’s Courtship (1844) served as a metrical model for “The Raven” (1845). This paper seeks to create a conversation between Poe’s and Dickinson’s aesthetic practices by considering their individual engagements with Barrett and the trope of reading as enchantment. More specifically, I am interested in the problems and promises created by rereading, and the way that rereading as repetition figures in poems by all three poets. The question this paper seeks to address is: does rereading pose different dangers and potentials than simply "reading" in the nineteenth-century? Beginning with Lady Geraldine’s Courtship, I focus on how rereading (within the narrative) creates poetic and personal problems (as well as possibilities) for Bertram. Bertram’s inability to voice his own poems results from a kind of self-syncopation whereby Bertram-as-writer cannot unite with Bertram-as-reader. This awkward voicing is echoed within the text by the role of rereading in Bertram’s disillusionment, Bertram’s “read all backward” life, and the poem’s concluding, trance-like repetition that rereads Lady Geraldine’s earlier speech. Pairing these moments in the narrative with the tension between the poem’s temporal frame and visionary conclusion, I explore the poem’s theory of rereading, using this to ground my readings of Poe and Dickinson. While Poe’s poem opens with his speaker reading “forgotten lore” in order to forget Lenore, rereading is replaced by the Raven’s arrival and repetition of one word: “Nevermore.” Privileging sensation over forgetting, verbal repetition over rereading, the poem makes “Nevermore” into a repeatable thrill. Likewise, Dickinson’s “I think I was enchanted” explores a sustainable means to experience thrilling perceptual disorder; unlike Poe, however, Dickinson locates her renewable source within “Tomes of Solid Witchcraft,” or books of poetry, specifically the poems of “that Foreign Lady” Barrett Browning. The idea that a particular poem can, over time, serve as a repeated “Antidote” to conventionality inverts Poe’s replacement of rereading with mimicry; it also complicates Barrett’s exploration of whether rereading can enact meaningful social change. Taken together, these readings promote a new understanding of nineteenth-century rereading, while also inviting us to examine our own investments in rereading Poe and Dickinson through comparison.
4. Emily Dickinson and Solitude’s Queer Spaces
This paper uses Poe’s “Annabel Lee” and a selection of Dickinson’s Civil War-era lyric poems about loneliness in order to imagine a template for how social formations in nineteenth-century lyric poetry stage affinities between gender, sexuality, and the emotions associated with solitude. Framing how gender and sexuality gesture toward feelings of longing in “Annabel Lee,” I demonstrate how Dickinson’s lyric personas could be said to internalize the conflicted social realm of Poe’s obsessed speaker, thereby re-spatializing the conditions of gendered and object-based desires. Thinking through Sianne Ngai’s differentiation between objective and subjective emotions, I read Dickinson as creating lyric personas that eschew the manner in which a gendered social sphere constructs and imagines interiority. Ngai’s reading of “minor affects” positions Dickinson’s loneliness as a “far less intentional or object-directed” feeling than Poe’s portrayal of the feelings of loss. Following Cristanne Miller’s sense of a Dickinson who (through print culture) uses poetry to engage with a world outside her domestic sphere and Alexandra Socarides’s recent work on how the material history of Dickinson’s compositions problematize scholarly notions of a unitary lyric speaker, I read Dickinson’s poetry as imagining new ways to spatialize social relations. As a conclusion, I argue that Dickinson’s lyric personas imagine emergent formations of the social that—through reconfiguring the relation between loneliness and solitude—queer notions of normative attachment.