EMILY DICKINSON AND ADRIENNE RICH
by Joelle Biele
Page 1"You inquire my Books," Emily Dickinson wrote Thomas Higginson. "For Poets--I have Keats--and Mr. and Mrs. Browning. For Prose--Mr. Ruskin--Sir Thomas Browne--and the Revelations." It was her second letter to Higginson, with whom, along with her sister-in-law Susan, she would correspond and discuss poetry for the rest of her life. By pointing to her predecessors and surveying her contemporaries, she told him how to read her poems. Likewise, Adrienne Rich charted Dickinson's role in her poetry's evolution with her ground-breaking essay, "Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson," which arguably shaped a generation of readers. Paula Bennett, Wendy Martin, and most recently Betsy Erkkila have extensively examined the importance of Dickinson's poetry to Rich, mapping female lines of influence. Dickinson figures not only in the development of Rich's political consciousness but also in her craft. For Rich, politics and craft are inseparable, and as David Kalstone says, her commitment to form is unquestionable (137). Indeed, perhaps Dickinson's most profound influence on Rich lies in her approach to form. Dickinson's approach to form is, as she said in "Myself was formed--a Carpenter--" (#488), that of an artisan building temples, measuring her attainments with words. By reading Dickinson through Rich we can gain an array of insights into how Dickinson uses language to build her poems.
Like Dickinson, Rich's early work is in forms. Writing in conventional forms is what Rich was praised for by W.H. Auden when she became the 1951 Yale Younger Poet; in the introduction to A Change of World, Auden emphasized the fact that Rich's poems are not "shoddily made." Rich remarked in her essay "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision" that conventional form, for her, was like "asbestos gloves," helping her handle otherwise unapproachable material (40). She now considers her first two books "exercises in style" and reads her early poems as "at best, facile ungrounded imitations of other poets" (Collected Early Poems xix). This statement is not unlike Dickinson's 1862 remark to Thomas Higginson in one of her early letters, "I made no verse--but one or two--until this winter--Sir--" (#261). Formal poems were like gowns, she said, constricting her ideas and the movement of her poems. And like Dickinson, Rich had to define and recreate form in order to write. Her life had changed. As Randall Jarrell said to Rich after reading Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, "you had to make [the change] to get the poems an expression of what you'd become and what your life had become. . ." (469). Both Dickinson and Rich learned to make traditional forms "new."
In the early 1960's Dickinson's influence on Rich's poetry can be most clearly discerned. Like many poets of her generation, Rich's early work was praised for its imitative style. It called to mind W.B. Yeats, and formally and tonally it stayed within the confines of 1950's academic verse. And like many poets of her generation, she found a need to reshape her poems in order to address her changing world. In poems like "Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law" and "I Am in Danger--Sir--" Dickinson's influence can be discerned in the play with punctuation and syntax. In "Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law" Rich examines the daughter-in-law's relationship to Dickinson. This play signals her break with academic verse. In "The Roofwalker," a poem dedicated to Denise Levertov, who Rich also credits with her development, Rich writes:
Was it worth while to lay--Rich is clearly working with the dash in order to trace a mind thinking. The dashes allow her to link disparate thoughts as the speaker questions her situation. The punctuation functions like the boards and planes of temples. Rich's new use of punctuation is similar to Dickinson's. As can be seen in her reaction to the publication of her poem, "The Snake," in the Springfield Weekly Republican, Dickinson placed great importance on her punctuation's placement (#316). With her punctuation we can see the poems folding back on themselves and retracing their steps as Dickinson recreates patterns of thought. Dickinson provided Rich with a necessary model for her work's growth.
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