EMILY DICKINSON AND ADRIENNE RICH
by Joelle Biele
Page 3By subverting the reader's expectations for rhythmic unity, Rich's trochees and spondees go against the proper image of Dickinson that had been in the speaker's head. By examining the variorum, it becomes apparent that to make his preferred version of a poem Johnson typically chose the variant or line break that worked with the closure of the iamb instead of against it. Take his decision to remove the second half of the third line of "I taste a liquor never brewed" from "+ Not all the Frankfort Berries" to "Not all the Vats upon the Rhine". By moving "+ Vats upon the Rhine" up from the bottom of the page, he erased the last iamb. If he had replaced the entire line with "+ Vats upon the Rhine", the line would have been trochaic. The title of Rich's poem echoes Dickinson's letter to Higginson in which she said, "You think my gait 'spasmodic'--I am in danger- -Sir" (#265). If Dickinson is speaking of meter here, then she could be commenting on her reversal of metrical feet. Reading Dickinson in manuscript, it is not clear that she was an iambic writer tapping her foot to "The Yellow Rose of Texas" or "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" as she composed her poems. Indeed, she appears to work against the iamb, reversing the rhythms the first lines set up in order to generate the elliptical movement of the poem.
In "I am in Danger--Sir--" not only is Dickinson in danger of the "garbled versions" of her life and work but so is the woman poet and reader who encounter them. Rich asks Dickinson the question she imagines Dickinson posing to her readers, "Who are you?" Rich, as a woman writer in the 60's, needed to know Dickinson in order to know herself. Rich answers her question with paraphrases of Dickinson's poems and letters. Seen in the context of the period, Rich breaks apart traditional, western images of women and then rebuilds them with her feminist vision. Rich casts Dickinson as a woman performing household tasks who listens to the air "buzzing with spoiled language" until it sings in order to become a source of her own power. Rich's concern with biography and identity is evident, and she returned to these themes in her poem "Spirit of Place" and her essays, "Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson" and "Beginners." Rich calls our attention to the relationship between biography and reception and how it determines critical readings. In fact, it can be said that "Vesuvius at Home" altered the path of Dickinson criticism with Rich's reading of "My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun--" and her desire to take Dickinson on her own terms, reading her as she wrote.
Both Dickinson's and Rich's works in open forms have elicited strong responses from literary critics. The evidence of these responses is clear in editions of Dickinson's poetry. Millicent Todd Bingham says that Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd "knew that if [Dickinson] was to be read at all, she must be presented in a form not too disturbing to the reader of the nineties, who might be discouraged if a poem did not fit an accustomed mold" (Ancestor's Brocades 40). As has been noted in the debate since the publication of Ralph Franklin's Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, Dickinson's sense of play is obscured in each edition in order to make Dickinson's work conform to the literary style of the day. Rich says that she was "slapped on the wrists" for the changes in both form and content her poems underwent during the early 60's (Bulkin 50). As their poetry developed, Dickinson and Rich shifted their lines away from strict iambs and regular feet, and they began using the space on the page, letting their words flow from margin to margin. For editors of Dickinson and readers of Rich in the late 50's and early 60's, breaking away from established forms was unacceptable.
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