Emily Dickinson's Singular Scrap Poetry

The poems of Emily Dickinson began as marks made in ink or pencil on paper, usually the standard stationery that came into her family’s household. Most were composed in Dickinson’s large, airy bedroom, with two big windows facing south and two facing west, at a small table that her niece described as “18-inches square, with a drawer deep enough to take in her ink bottle, paper and pen.” It looked out over the family’s property on Main Street, in Amherst, Massachusetts, toward the Evergreens, her brother’s grand Italianate mansion, nestled among the pines a few hundred yards away. Dickinson had a Franklin stove fitted to a bricked-up fireplace to keep her warm, which meant that she could write by candlelight, with the door closed, for as long as she wanted. In much of the rest of the house, the winter temperature would have been around fifty degrees. Though she usually composed at night, Dickinson sometimes jotted down lines during the day, while gardening or doing chores, wearing a simple white dress with pockets for her pencils and scraps of paper. A younger cousin recalled her reciting the “most emphatic things in the pantry” while skimming the milk.

The way that Dickinson’s poems made it out of that house, eventually reshaping American literature, is a story that is still unfolding. Only ten of her poems were published in her lifetime, all anonymously; publication was, as she put it, as “foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin.” Not that she intended her poems to go unread—she often sent them in letters to friends, sometimes with other enclosures: dried flowers, a three-cent stamp, a dead cricket. She also tried a form of self-publishing: from around 1858 until roughly 1864, she gathered her poems into forty homemade books, known as “fascicles,” by folding single sheets of blank paper in half to form four consecutive pages, which she then wrote on and, later, bound, one folded sheet on another, with red-and-white thread strung through crudely punched holes. These books were found in Dickinson’s room after her death, in 1886, by her sister, Lavinia, along with hundreds more poems in various states of composition, plus, intriguingly, the “scraps,” a cache of lines that Dickinson wrote on scavenged paper: the flap of a manila envelope, the backs of letters, chocolate wrappers, bits of newspaper.

There were now two separate troves of Dickinson’s poems. The ones from her bedroom belonged to Lavinia. A second group, of more than three hundred poems sent in letters, belonged to Susan Gilbert Dickinson, the wife of Emily’s brother, Austin. Lavinia, soon after entrusting her collection to Susan for editing, abruptly reclaimed it, and delivered the work instead to Austin’s mistress (and Susan’s nemesis), Mabel Loomis Todd, who, with Thomas Higginson, a mentor of sorts to Dickinson, put out the first editions of Dickinson’s poems, in the eighteen-nineties.

Soon, a wide readership formed and her posthumous fame grew, nourished by the stories people passed around. After a gregarious girlhood, it was said, Dickinson had gradually become a near-total recluse, known around Amherst as “the myth.” Children boasted of catching a glimpse of her at an upstairs window. Some thought she was a mystic. Later readers assumed that she was in love with Susan. Lyndall Gordon, a recent biographer, argued that Dickinson was epileptic and feared suffering one of her seizures in public. You can find support for any of these theories, and many others, in the poems; their quirks, though evened out by her early editors, nevertheless lend credence to the idea that she was a familiar New England stereotype, the flighty, eccentric, proto-spinster daughter.

Much of Lavinia’s pile ended up at Amherst College, the cornerstone of its special collections; Susan Dickinson’s batch went to Harvard, along with several household treasures that had been preserved at the Evergreens. Most of the scraps remained in Amherst’s archive, curiosities sought out by tenacious Dickinson scholars but unknown to the public at large. Then, in 2013, a handsome facsimile edition, “The Gorgeous Nothings,” was published by New Directions, followed, this fall, by a compact selected edition, “Envelope Poems,” the fruits of a collaboration between the Dickinson scholar Marta Werner and the poet and visual artist Jen Bervin. These volumes complement an astounding new digital resource. In 2013, Harvard launched the Emily Dickinson Archive, with the coöperation, if not exactly the blessing, of Amherst, which insisted on open access to all manuscripts. (Harvard, which hoards its Dickinson materials in Houghton Library, reportedly wanted users to buy subscriptions.) Readers can now find Dickinson’s scraps in print and in digital facsimile. Like many previous Dickinson drops, going back to the eighteen-nineties, they radically alter our vision of perhaps the greatest poet to write on American soil—and, somehow, they’ve emerged on the other side of print culture. It is a pleasant fancy to imagine that Dickinson, ever the tortoise in relation to rushing time, knew that, in the end, we would catch up to her.

There are countless expressive features of a Dickinson manuscript, all but a few of them effaced when her poems enter a standard print edition. First, there is Dickinson’s handwriting, long a source of fascination. Higginson famously compared Dickinson’s hand to “fossil bird-tracks,” an insight about the shape and the saturation of her letters, and also about their flickering gait as they cross the white of the page. The Dickinson scholar Domhnall Mitchell and others have suggested that “the layout of a Dickinson autograph is deliberate or motivated” in potentially every regard, from the capital letters of various sizes, to the spaces between letters and words and lines, to the marginalia, which are often crammed with variant choices of word or phrase. Dickinson’s dashes are ubiquitous in all but the earliest editions of her poems, but fewer editions reproduce her plus signs, which mark an unfinished or provisory line, later to be filled in. There are watermarks and embossments around which Dickinson steers her words. The paper is ruled, except when it is not. Now that the Internet has destabilized the conventions of the printed page—in which a poem is a block of language so many inches wide and so many inches long, with pure white space surrounding letters and phrases set at fixed intervals—it is harder than ever to defend the translation of Dickinson’s wild, dynamic graphic surfaces into such confines.

It has been argued that Dickinson refused publication exactly because it was synonymous with print, whose standardizing tendencies she knew would miscarry her precision effects. When, in 1866, Dickinson’s “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” appeared in the Springfield Daily Republican (under a title likely chosen by its editors, “The Snake”), Dickinson complained to Higginson that, among other problems, she was “defeated . . . of the third line by punctuation.” Her manuscript had read, “You may have met Him—did you not / His notice sudden is—.” But, when the poem appeared, the editors had supplied a question mark: “You may have met him—did you not? / His notice instant is.”

The question mark makes the second half of line three auxiliary to the first: “You may have met him—did you not [meet him] ? / His notice instant is.” But Dickinson’s preferred punctuation, while it leaves the possibility of the auxiliary clause intact, allows for other syntactical relations: “You may have met him—[if you haven’t, you should know that] / His notice instant is.” The words “notice” and “not” reflect each other more vividly without the hard stop of the intervening question mark. Dickinson seems to have preferred “instant” over “sudden” in later drafts of the poem, but when it appeared in the second edition of her work, edited by Todd and Higginson, a comma materialized in the spot where the question mark had gone. “I had told you I did not print,” Dickinson once wrote to Higginson, suggesting that it wasn’t shyness or modesty that kept her from publishing; it was a fierce constancy to her vision of the page.

The envelope poems suggest the current exhilarating paradox of Dickinson’s work: her unique actions of mind are bound in unusually dramatic ways to slips of paper a hundred and fifty years old or more, rarities whose near-perfect reproductions are nevertheless now widely and freely available online. It sometimes feels as though Dickinson’s sojourn in print, so fraught from its inception, was a temporary measure, now nearing its end as it’s replaced by a better technology. To write this paragraph, I looked hard at an envelope: what a mercurial object it is, more like origami than like a sheet of paper. If you use the back of a closed envelope, as Dickinson did in “A 496/497,” you get three squat triangles, like faces of a flattened jewel. She wrote within, and occasionally across, the folds and creases of this complex surface. To read the lines, you have to turn the image counterclockwise. The vertical column of the first panel then becomes a broad horizon, which, when the poet runs out of space, picks up on the third blank panel. The pleasures and the challenges of this kind of reading are impossible to ignore; next to a clear facsimile of these manuscripts, a print version seems, at best, a kind of crude trot. “Letters are sounds we see,” the poet Susan Howe, a major force in Dickinson studies, wrote. Handwritten letters express a far greater variety of sounds than printed ones. And, if the letters are sounds, so, too, are the spaces between the letters, the margins and gaps, the shape and other material aspects of the paper she chose.

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