EMILY DICKINSON AND ADRIENNE RICH
by Joelle Biele
Page 2In both Dickinson and Rich there is a movement away from conventionally formal verse when they were in their mid 30's. As Susan Howe has remarked in The Birth-Mark: unsettling the wilderness in American literary history, the fascicles and letters of the 1860's and later show Dickinson playing with the line, the space words make on the page and the page itself, creating what Martha Nell Smith calls in Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson a calligraphic orthography. We can see Dickinson playing off traditional forms, and even abandoning them, in order to let the forms expose and complicate the content. There are many poems in which we can see this experimentation in play, such as Howe's example of "The sea said 'Come' to the brook," and "The Mushroom is the Elf of Plants--". "The Mushroom is the Elf of Plants--" survives in multiple manuscripts, and these papers make clear that Dickinson worked in a variety of forms, in both the fascicles and on a turned sheet of paper. Dickinson experimented with the traditional quatrain by breaking the lines in different places both on and off the rhyme, even writing the poem in a mushroom shape that swells out before tapering in.
The appeal that the 1955 variorum had for Rich must have been great. Indeed, the book was the talk of the literary season. Louise Bogan reviewed the edition along with Rich's latest book, The Diamond Cutters, and Elizabeth Bishop's Poems: A Cold Spring--North & South, saying they "have absorbed what they needed from the poet and are openly faced toward the future" (191). Rich continued to have Dickinson in mind during this period as can been seen in poems from Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963) and Necessities of Life (1966). With these two books Rich's poetry underwent an opening of form and a loosening of rhythm, and it was this change which contributed to her breaking her first-read contract with The New Yorker. Her forms became more organic; she let the subject of her poem dictate the form instead of letting the form dictate the subject. Not only did the variorum offer Rich new models, it also offered Rich a new image of Dickinson herself. In the fourth section of the title poem, "Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law," Rich blurs Dickinson's identity with her own:
Knowing themselves too well in one another:The two are blurred after the ellipses as Rich imagines Dickinson reading her as she reads Dickinson. While Rich's voice gains an expansive quality with the rhetorical sweep and breadth that seems to stem from Walt Whitman, "the other genius" of the nineteenth century, her images also become compressed. The role of the image can be related to Dickinson since at this time Rich was called a poet of the deep image.
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