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2015 MLA Sessions

EDIS Panels, MLA 2015

Thursday, 8 January
24. Sounding Dickinson
12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., West 204, VCC West

Presiding: Eliza Richards, Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

1. "The Soundscapes of the Industrial and Urban Dickinson," Justin C. Tackett, Stanford Univ.
2. "Dickinson, the Lyric, and Sonic Ambivalence," Christina Pugh, Univ. of Illinois, Chicago
3. "Dickinson's 'Human Nature' as Transcendental Auditor," Beth Staley, West Virginia Univ., Morgantown
4. "Reading in the Dark," Nicole Panizza, Coventry Univ.

Sounding Dickinson overview

As counterpoint to last year’s EDIS MLA session, “Dickinson, Language and Visuality,” this year we propose to explore the sonic properties and engagements of her writings. When RW Franklin’s The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson appeared in 1981, it inaugurated more than three decades of intensive study and theorization of Dickinson’s visual and material practices: her handwriting, her midcareer practice of sewing manuscript pages into fascicles, her late career tendency to write on scraps of paper, her epistolary exchanges in their many forms, and the intimacies they registered and afforded. Martha Nell Smith, Susan Howe, Marta Werner, Alexandra Socarides, and many others have pioneered in this rich field of research and analysis. Two recent publications, one artisanal, one digital, underscore the current dominance of visual approaches in Dickinson studies: the beautiful Gorgeous Nothings, created and edited by Jen Bervin and Marta Werner, and Harvard’s Emily Dickinson Archive, which makes available in one place most of Dickinson’s manuscript poems in high-resolution digital images, with transcriptions and editorial histories. Last year’s MLA session reflected on this visual turn, and imagined ways to move forward conceptually from this moment. Most of the papers on the panel challenged the dominance of visual and material paradigms in Dickinson studies and sought to return to a renewed contemplation of the philosophical, environmental, and sonic elements of her writings launched from this new foundation of visual and archival sophistication.

In acknowledgement of this turn away from the visual aspects of Dickinson’s work, or at least the desire to add additional dimensions to that focus, this panel offers four perspectives on Dickinson’s investments in sound, both in her writings and her environment. Sound studies is one of the most exciting areas of contemporary literary and studies; scholars are just beginning to explore what Jonathan Sterne has called “the audible past” as it registers in the literature of the nineteenth century United States. This sonic turn has particularly exciting implications for poetry studies, which have emphasized the written qualities of verse since Derrida’s rejection of the primacy of orality that had been given primacy in poetry studies in English. Sound studies offers ways to put poetry’s sonic aspects in historical contexts and to move beyond entrenched associations of poetry with the poet’s “voice.” (Cristanne Miller’s new book Reading in Time makes a provocative step in this direction by locating Dickinson’s work within conventional and popular metrical and rhyming practices of her time.) This association, as Virginia Jackson has argued in Dickinson’s Misery, has constrained scholarly studies unduly within fantasies of direct vocal transmission of personal thoughts and feelings.

None of the papers on this panel approach Dickinson’s sonic engagements from this vocalized perspective on lyric. In four brief, 12-minute papers that will allow ample time for discussion, the panelists will offer provocative new ways to sound Dickinson. In “Dickinson, the Lyric, and Sonic Ambivalence,” Christina Pugh addresses the ways that visual and material studies have generated and enabled a skepticism about the significance of sound in her poems. Pugh notes that trying to read Dickinson’s poems aloud, especially from Bervin and Werner’s edition of “envelope” poems – The Gorgeous Nothings – inevitably generates a sense that the beauty of the envelope pictures have been lost in the aural translation. Pugh considers why an attention to Dickinson’s richly sonic metrical and rhythmic practices have come to seem synonymous with the impoverishment of a reading. Without rejecting the significance of the visual components of Dickinson’s work, Pugh suggests instead that the poetry itself allegorizes ambivalence around, and even resistance to, sound. Yet the difference between Dickinson and her recent critical readers is that Dickinson wants to retain lyrical structures even as she questions them. Through slant rhymes and metrical torsion, among other strategies, she shows that the musicality of lyric can be a vessel for a poetic practice in which the element of sound is treated with skepticism.

The next two papers explore the ways external sounds register in Dickinson’s poems about environment. In “The Soundscapes of the Industrial and Urban Emily Dickinson,” Justin Tackett challenges a persistent tendency to conceptualize Dickinson’s poetry within the framework of the pastoral—scholars have amply attended to the way bird songs, buzzing bees, and whistling wind enter her writing. Tackett explores instead Dickinson’s persistent registering of the sounds of industrialization, the clamor of the increasing “suddenness” of nineteenth-century life as it moves through the processes of mechanization: the train, the drill, sounds of metalworking all appear in Dickinson’s writing. Tackett explores the significance of the way Dickinson’s writings absorb and meditate on the sounds of the industrializing landscape, especially in relation to the acceleration of time that accompanies mechanization. He argues that Dickinson’s attention to industrial sounds affects her portrayal of time and space as well as the temporal aspects of her poetic practices.

In “Dickinson’s ‘Human Nature’ as Transcendental Auditor,” Beth Staley attends to an American soundscape rife with religious meaning, transcendental promise, sectional dialect, political debate, modern noise, and scientific inquiry. But Staley aims to frame these noises within nineteenth-century understandings of sound and audition.
Nature figures largely in these conceptualizations. Listening to the sounds of the natural world is understood as a lesson for human nature in the nineteenth-century United States. Staley argues that perceiving and defining auditory limits enables Dickinson’s interrogation of human nature – a concept she defines as a transcendental auditor with questionable agency. Via sonic control, the verse container, so well theorized in Dickinson scholarship, lends itself to this outcome, especially as it prioritizes sonic clarity over accuracy or immediacy. Even with elision, notation, variant, and experiment, Dicksinson’s poems apprehend a sonic clarity readable alongside Emerson’s impact and John Tyndall’s compatible discoveries on sound. But like an emergency bell, fog horn, heartbeat, birdcall, or pause, a clear sound is a comfort sign endangered by its limit – a fate shared in nature and human nature.

In the final paper, “Reading in the Dark,” vocalist Nicole Panizza explores the way that music serves as both the foundation of Dickinson’s poetic thought and a condition towards which it aspired through a study of musical settings of her poems. Her presentation examines two contrary responses that Dickinson’s insistently musical sensibility has elicited from American composers: there are those who have embraced and worked to serve the musical imperatives encoded in Dickinson’s verse; and those who have consciously worked against the “given” musical qualities of Dickinson’s poetry. Panizza’s presentation focuses on Dickinson’s assumption of the role of musician, composer, and performer in her poetry, and the way in which the interaction between these ‘players’ in her drama of self is reflected and expressed in composers’ settings of her poems.

New Work on Emily Dickinson: Flash Talks

12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., West 114, VCC West

Presiding: Eliza Richards, Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Speakers: Karen Anderson, St. Mary’s College of Maryland.; Sue E. Barker, Graduate Center, City Univ. of New York; Logan Esdale, Chapman Univ.; Stephanie Farrar, Univ. of Wisconsin, Eau Claire; Julie Lein, Univ. of Utah; Amy R. Nestor, Georgetown Univ.; Susan VanZanten, Seattle Pacific Univ.
This session showcases new work on Emily Dickinson's writings through a series of 5–7-minute talks; each presentation may be accompanied by a single slide. Time limits will be strictly enforced to accommodate as many new perspectives as possible and to allow for ample discussion.

Flash talks abstracts

Emily Dickinson and the Epistemology of Sound
Karen Anderson

Through what Gaston Bachelard has called the strategy of containing “the vast…within the miniature,” Emily Dickinson, I argue, uses the juxtaposition of small and large sounds to address the inadequacies of inductive reasoning; these inadequacies, in turn, cast doubt on compliant, beneficent representations of the nonhuman world from which they issue. In poems such as “Nature is what we see--,” Dickinson’s use of sounds small (the bobolink) and large (the sea) demonstrates the shaping, deductive consciousness that leaps beyond the logic of identification to analogical invention and reinvention, which, in turn, authorizes a rewriting of the conventional tropes of the nonhuman world. I will argue that Dickinson’s more mainstream protests against the most rigid classificatory practices of scientific empiricism were increasingly supplanted by her use of “small” sounds’ capacity to create both the referential dissonance and referential possibility necessary to fuel a re-imagination of a “vast” nonhuman world as a wily, resistant, and sometimes threatening opponent to violent or dominating versions of human knowledge.

Federal Dickinson
Sue Barker

This talk extends ongoing debates on the reach of Emily Dickinson’s national and political interests to include consideration of her engagement with federal authorship and federal texts. The U.S. government’s ongoing role as prolific author and publisher of culturally and politically significant texts, I argue, exerted considerable influence on Dickinson, and her relations to federal influences are sketched and explored as important to her sense of authorship and her challenging of the national cultural authority of federal texts. While Dickinson herself was excluded from participation in the producing of any of the myriad of laws, court rulings, executive orders, reports, journals and other works produced by the federal government, she spent her adulthood in production of an alternative national literature.

Responses to specific federal texts and political figures have been noted, such as John Shoptaw’s 2010 article in the Emily Dickinson Journal on Dickinson’s response to the Enrollment Act and the death of Abraham Lincoln, whose intertwined political and authorial power as President Dickinson challenged through her own creation of complex national texts in memorializing him. More recently, Phoebe Putnam in her January PLMA article writes on Dickinson’s engagement with a poem of John Quincy Adams, relating it to other instances of Dickinson’s challenging of the authority of influential men.
Building on such scholarship, this talk suggests that Dickinson’s several more personal connections to the federal are important to her own sense of development as an author of national stature. Following Edward Dickinson’s election to Congress in 1852 she became intimately and domestically related to one of the handful in the nation chosen to make the nation’s laws, and her father’s time in Washington D.C. became the impetus for a rare trip outside of her native state when she visited the capital. When Dickinson reached out to a literary mentor, in Thomas Wentworth Higginson she choose a man of numerous past contentious federal engagements. A prominent abolitionist, Higginson had failed in his own run for Congress as a Free Soil Candidate, had helped to storm the Boston federal courthouse to attempt to free Anthony Burns and was an active supporter of John Brown, suggesting that his challenging of federal authority was perhaps one of his attractions for Dickinson.

Lapland’s Necessity
Logan Esdale

I have pictured the speaker of “There’s a certain Slant of light” (320) indoors, sitting in a chair in a room with a window, and I have compared the house she’s in to those old structures built with aperture and astronomical knowledge so that once a year a certain slant of light strikes an object deep within. I felt that the “Slant” in Dickinson’s poem had to be human-caused—the light had to come through something (like a window)—it had to be focalized or even bent—even the undisturbed “Shadows” in the corner of the room, behind a chair or bed, “hold their breath.” The light of each day is different over the course of a year. Our calendars and concept of anniversary create reminders of loss and doom: “There’s a certain Slant of light” once a year. But as is common in Dickinson’s poems, the speaker’s situation within is metaphorically extended without: “When it comes, [even] the Landscape listens.” The light now appears far less focalized. The speaker and the landscape both hold unnaturally still. What if the speaker is outside, what if the light does not come through anything, and what if the slant can occur at any time of day or year? What if it’s a light that absolutely fills a room as it would a desert landscape, breaking down the indoors-outdoors distinction?

My presentation would address the place of the desert in Dickinson’s geographical imagination. I am interested in what she and her contemporaries knew of actual desert spaces around the world, both sandy and snowy, in North America and abroad. I am interested in this historical context in part because I want to understand whether the desert is more than a metaphor to describe emotional and spiritual exigencies. Was Dickinson responding to particular texts? There is also Dickinson’s posthumous reputation as a desert poet, a woman who walked metaphorically into the world’s marginal spaces and along its edges. The list of writers who see Dickinson outdoors includes Stephen Crane (in Black Riders [1895]), Robert Frost, Rae Armantrout (the title poem to her 1978 book Extremities is below) and Jen Bervin, whose 2011 book The Desert, an erasure of John C. Van Dyke’s pastoral account of the American Southwest, The Desert: Further Studies in Natural Appearances (1901), is composed in, I believe, a Dickinsonian voice and therefore comes closest to imagining her in an actual desert.

Prompted by Bervin’s The Desert, my presentation will suggest that Dickinson was drawn to the desert not only for the solitude and giant power it offers—as we see, for example, in “Of Bronze - and Blaze - / The North - tonight” (319)—but its contradictory significance. On the one hand, it’s known for staying the same year round; on earth, that is, the desert is the closest we have to heaven, a place (like outer space) where people are apparently not meant to live. On the other, no matter where on earth you are, the planet spins and flies and “Mountains - grow unnoticed” (768); as well, there is “Seed of Palm, by Lybian Sun / Fructified in Sand” (862). Undecided, Dickinson finds life in apparently uninhabitable spaces.

“The Other Dickinson Sister: Lavinia’s Experimental Poetry”
Stephanie Farrar, University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire

In 1898, eight years after the first edition of Emily Dickinson’s poetry was published, Lavinia Dickinson had a manuscript of her own poetry typeset. This recently digitized hand-corrected manuscript reveals that after her sister’s death, Lavinia’s experiments with poetic form at times surpass her sister’s practice of radical concision, even while elaborating on themes—and even mimicking the sound—of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Although Dickinson’s influence on other poets has long been of interest, to date no one has yet explored her influence on her sister’s verse in any detail.

Ranging from a single line on a page, to two unrhymed offset lines, to four-line unrhymed stanzas, Lavinia’s poems use page space and economy of phrase in ways that anticipate the height of modernist experiment. Notwithstanding these formal departures, some of Lavinia Dickinson’s first lines, such as “The ingenuity of pain” and “Indifference is as sure to kill,” can be read as imitative of Emily’s distinctive “sound”—couching surprising, condensed descriptions or assertions within a recognizable iambic tetrameter metrical pattern. Others, such as the following aphoristic two-line poem work against categorization, even as they can be read metrically:

Circumstances shatter vows, as autumn wind
the leaves.

This talk will briefly summarize the variety of Lavinia’s formal experiments in short verse and suggest ways in which we might identify Emily Dickinson’s influence while also locating Lavinia’s own unique innovations. It will also draw attention to new work made possible by Harvard’s recent digitization of the Dickinson Family materials.

Digital Humanities and Dickinson’s “Tell”: Recounting Poetic Encounter
Julie Lein

Since 2012 I have been part of an NEH-funded interdisciplinary team of poets and computer scientists designing and developing original poetry visualization software. In the course of that research, our team has continually asked how, and to what extent, a computer’s strengths and limitations might meaningfully contribute to the qualitative human experience of close reading. That question helps fuel our advancement toward new technology, but it has also prompted me to reconsider my own perspectives on literary theory and specific poems.

This flash talk begins with an abbreviated reading of “Tell all the Truth” generated in response to the requirements and context of my DH research. At the same time, it suggests broader implications for critical practice. The poem so often is considered ars poetica, but its familiar second-person address offers direction for reading a poem as much as writing one: Dear Reader, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.” An opening invitation to the experience of the poem, this first line could describe a goal of criticism more generally: a vanishing point deliberately skewed that advocates fullness, abundance, even exhaustion (“all”) but—tellingly—never completion. The term “Tell,” formally prominent because of its placement, metrical stress and repetition, nicely joins individual narrative, performative, qualitative and, yes, quantitative modes of reckoning: of revelation, recognition and explanation. Present tense, its work is manifold and continual. In one sense we could “Tell all the Truth” of a poem simply by reciting it; but recounting it, or our experience of it, necessarily requires a particular “slant.” Possible relationships between such specific lines of approach and multiple modes of telling are important critical considerations whether or not interpretive readings are conducted with input from a computer. As I will explain, DH perspectives encouraged me to encounter the entirety of this poem anew, in a way that reciprocally enlarges my sense of Dickinson’s work and the wise guidance she extends to literary readers.

The Heft of Things: Dickinson, Vision, New Materialism
Amy R. Nestor

This brief talk sketches out a reading Dickinson’s poetry through the recent materialist turn in criticism. For despite the fine attention her work has gained from ecocriticism, and despite very productive materialist readings of her manuscripts, her poetry itself has been but lightly touched by visions of matter as mobile, endowed with emergent—agentic—powers. Such a vision inheres in Dickinson’s poetry, inheres on so fundamental a level that the experience of the spiritual is itself rooted deeply in an engagement with the material world. Spirit tips off the edge of things—Circumference—becoming caught in textual space, rendered visible and thingly, palpable.

At the same time, so intense is Dickinson’s engagement in things—flowers to bees to breeze—that it sets slipping the bounds between human and animal, animal and thing, thing and spirit. In this slippage, a vision of the externality of things—their being beyond the realm of human knowing and power, glimpses itself, and in speaking this glimpse, Dickinson’s language displaces the centre of poetic voice, such that it belongs, properly, no longer to the subject, bodying forth the subject’s own externality to her self, at once estranging and enthralling.

Not only does the apperception of spirit emerge though matter, but Dickinson’s visionary poetics descries that dimension of matter articulated at the far reaches of new materialist thought: a non-phenomenal materiality through which an altered possibility of relation, fragile yet vibrant, fitfully glimmering with the promise of the ethical, emerges. This dimension manifests itself in the workings of figurative language and the resultant play of affect, inscribed as matter emergent, a level of sense exceeding the determinations of semiosis. The word thus becomes the site where powers material and spiritual intersect: no longer image, but the centre of its force.

“As Syllable from Sound”: Dickinson’s Audible Paradoxes
Susan VanZanten

Nineteenth-century American poetry, Cristanne Miller has demonstrated, was often written for the ear rather than the eye, and Emily Dickinson, despite the current interest in unusual visual elements of her work, insistently grounded her poems in sound, both thematically and formally. Dickinson associates sounds, especially musical sounds, with poetry; depicts the poet as a songbird; and crafts meticulous sound patterns through rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, assonance, and consonance. But Dickinson’s poetry also manifests a keen interest in the deep paradoxes of sound: the sounds of silence, the omnipresence of sound, the simultaneous singularity and duality of sound, the infamous tree falling in the forest. For example, poem 598 raises the issue of the differences between “syllable” and “sound,” while Poem 373 describes the mysterious form of life existing beyond “This World” as “Invisible, as Music - / But positive, as Sound -.”
As a skillful pianist, Dickinson was familiar with the audible mysteries at the heart of music. Most music relies on sound mixing—two or more notes sounding simultaneously in reverberations, chords, or harmony. When middle C and the E above it are played together, the notes interpenetrate, but also can be heard as different notes in the same aural space. Dickinson’s poems similarly open up a different conception of space—not the space of mutual exclusion created by visual inputs, but a space that allows for overlapping and interpenetration.
This paper will explore how Dickinson’s poetry both thematically addresses and formally employs such audible paradoxes (in its use of ingenious puns and unconventional rhymes). Just as a “Phraseless Melody” (poem 334) is capable of conveying meaning without language and words, the aural paradoxes embedded in Dickinson’s poems have ineffable or possibly even apophatic implications.