“Out Of Print,” by Dan Chiasson. The New Yorker, 12/5/2016.
Why do I find her name so familiar? I haven’t read anything she wrote. She had no widely quoted, pithy one-liners. I don’t remember any of our teachers enthralled with her. I don’t even know anything about her life. Yet asked to name an American poet, her name pops into my head right along with Robert Frost and Walt Whitman.
But now, thanks to Chiasson, I know much more about her. Strange lady. She was a prolific writer, but only ten of her poems were published in her lifetime, all anonymously (but many more since).
Dickinson was born in 1830 in Amherst, Mass. where her father was a prosperous lawyer. She died in 1886. She briefly attended Mount Holyoke, but returned to the family home where she lived the rest of her life as a recluse, eventually not even leaving her bedroom. Locals considered her an eccentric, and today she would certainly be treated for a mental disorder, perhaps agoraphobia. Another theory suggests she may have been epileptic and feared having a seizure in public.
The story of her poetry is still unfolding. She did not intend for her poems to go unread—she often sent them in letters. She did not like dealing with publishers who often altered her poems. She wrote her poems on scraps of paper throughout the day and stuffed them into her pockets. At one point, she copied finished ones on standard paper folded in half and stitched them herself into 40 homemade books she called “fascieles.” These books were only found after she died by her younger sister, Lavinia. Her sister also found hundreds of other poems in various stages of completion scribbled on the backs of envelopes, bits of newspapers, even chocolate wrappers.
The bulk of her poems are now in two separate troves: those from her bedroom found by Lavinia, and more than 300 sent in letters held by Susan Gilbert Dickinson, the wife of Emily’s brother. Eventually, her posthumous fame grew as word of these poems spread. Many of those held by Lavinia are now at Amherst College. Susan Dickinson’s are at Harvard.
As an example of her quarrels with publishers, she had submitted:
You may have met Him—did you not
His notice sudden is—.
The publishers changed it to:
You may have met Him—did you not?
His notice instant is.
Her strenuous objection was with the added question mark in the second line. The question mark makes the coming third line auxiliary to the first. She, herself, apparently preferred “instant” over “sudden” in later drafts.
All of this is over my head, but she was right in believing her poems do not translate well into print. Many feel they have to be seen as they were written on the scraps of paper. Her unique handwriting has been compared with “fossil bird-tracks.” Even the layout is thought to be deliberate with capital letters of various sizes, the varying spaces between letters, words, lines, and in margins. Author Chiasson examined the poems written on envelopes. She wrote within and across the folds and creases that formed the four quarters. You have turn the page counterclockwise as you read the lines.
The handwritten versions are far more expressive than the print versions could ever be, and computer representation is a better media than print for her poetry. Today, their reproductions are widely and freely available online.
(I am a plebeian and probably incapable of appreciating the subtleties of Dickinson’s poetry, and I get the uncomfortable feeling many people are making a living by exploiting a sick mind. But, I am willing to be educated.)
Sorry for ending with a zinger.