At Home: Domestic Technologies and Editing Emily Dickinson
You cannot edit Emily Dickinson. She edits you. This is not an excuse to be unaware, but it's satisfying--and educational-- to see the many ways we fail. And we will fail again and again even when we succeed. An in that sense, I guess the greater art always prevails.
First Lines of Poems included in Fascicle
(#9, Franklin. His order is assumed to be that of Dickinson's or very near)
What shall I do -- it whimpers so --
How many times these low feet staggered --
Make me a picture of the sun --
Bound -- a trouble --
What is -- "Paradise" --
The Murmur of a Bee
You love me -- you are sure --
My River runs to Thee --
It's such a little thing to weep --
He was weak, and I was strong -- then --
The Skies can't keep their secret!
Poor little Heart!
I shall know why -- when Time is over --
On this long storm the Rainbow rose --
Musicians wrestle everywhere --
For this -- accepted Breath --
We don't cry -- Tim and I,
Dying! Dying in the night!
Morning -- is the place for Dew --
An awful Tempest mashed the air --
I'm "wife" -- I've finished that --
I stole them from a Bee --
Two swimmers wrestled on the spar --
My eye is fuller than my vase --
He forgot -- and I -- remembered --
A Slash of Blue! A sweep of Gray!
I should not dare to leave my friend,
The Flower must not blame the Bee --
Some -- keep the Sabbath -- going to church --
Production and Transmission
A poem beginning "My River runs to Thee --" was first anthologized as "The Outlet" in the inaugural edition "Poems by Emily Dickinson" (Eds. Todd-Higginson, 1890). Edited under the poetics of 19th century convention, this not insignificant departure from Dickinson's work was disseminated under her name for more than 60 years (and continues to be printed as such in some contemporary popular editions). Titled, regularized, re-lineated, and stripped of certain marks of punctuation, the poem lacks innovation-- the irregularities and raw vitality that Dickinson deliberately assigned her poems. In 1955, Thomas H. Johnson's variorum edition made an effort to edit Dickinson with "variant readings critically compared with all known manuscripts". This editorial project began to piece together a history of Dickinson's production and transmission; Johnson's representation of "My River runs to Thee --", reveals the poet of variation, of innovative lineation and punctuation. Importantly, Johnson also records what he calls "copies" of the poem (as opposed to versions or separate poems) and "variants" in word choice are noted as well.
According to Johnson, the "known" manuscripts include a poem copied into a fascicle with stanzas,a loose copy with variant stanzas, and a letter composed for Mary Bowles containing the same text of that poem without stanzas. Because the letter testifies to the latest date, Johnson constructs the disembodied excerpt as copy-text and elevates it above the other available "copies" under the rationale of final intentions. Here, I argue Johnson makes a misleading editorial choice still supported and maintained by his widely referenced reader's edition. The text we have come to accept as "My river runs to Thee --" is not an attachment or an enclosure. Without demarcation separating, without introduction or transition from "prose" to "poem", some critics have suggested this poem and others like it point to Dickinson's experimentation with a "letter-poem" form. Whatever name given to that text, the visual, literal artifact leads me to believe that it should never be easy for us to separate prose from poem--they have been written together by the poet. The consideration to space and context given the letter-poem has in many ways shaped, informed, even justified, my own editing and presentation of the context and spatial configurations of Dickinson's fascicle page.
Philosophy and Method
The obvious question: why not simply rely on R.W. Franklin's facsimile edition (1967) to represent the fascicle version of Dickinson's "My River runs to Thee --" ? For a number of reasons. One: Our reading culture uses the equation author = print almost without exception. It's a dominant language we think in. So, in its own odd way, the bilingual translation hopes to reach us and ask us to listen in a way we might not listen to the text of manuscript. This kind of comparative translation forces us, in its backwards way, to more fully interrogate and hopefully replace the insidious, assumed authority of other print versions with a series of questions. It is less hopeful of providing answers. In fact, the ways in which the translation fails may, in the end, be the most worthy contribution, failures provoking, as they do, further thought... Also, we tend to see editions like Franklin's as adjunct or peripheral to print materials--inferior in some way to print. In the end, the hybrid presented here, as awkward and ugly a creature as it is, makes a better case for a turn and return and return to the manuscript. Second: I argue the ugly hybrid is more honestly representative of the daily experience of our consuming/producing worlds than solely manuscript or print translations can be. While we type furiously on our keyboards, we still make use of our hands, we write with them are physically connected to them-- this too is an important language we think in. Perhaps it is strange to look at because we are not totally honest with ourselves about the accepted equation of script with private (it is the not author medium). Third and last: the literal experience of my hand (my pen) forces the reader to think about the way in which an editor always participates in the making of a poem and changes the poem by doing so, even when those changes are masked by "pure" print translations. My presence in the editing can not be overlooked; the poem as a subjective choice is irrefutable.
While the debt to Johnson's variorum project is great, in at least the case of "My River runs to Thee-, his deletions and reconstructions underestimate the importance of the context of a poem, the conditions of its production, the motive and form of its transmission. It is precisely that kind of underestimating with Dickinson that limits the experience of her project and which drove me forward in my own collaboration on the domestic publication of "My river runs to Thee--" Though I would like to see the letter-poem edited and printed in full, I have turned my focus to the space and context carefully constructed by Dickinson in her fascicle production of "My River...". This version of the poem, almost completely overlooked, has never been edited in a print edition, much less presented in the context of its fascicle and page presentation. So here, I take as much the opportunity to edit Dickinson's poem as I do the space it occupies-- the more I experience of her manuscripts the more convinced I am that the two cannot be separated. In thinking about space and how it can be used and left unused, how it makes a poem-- is part of a poem, I have found a philosophy of editing--or rather I have in some way allowed Dickinson's aesthetic, her poetics to edit me and my project even while I mount that project with my own domestic desk-top technology.