EMILY DICKINSON AND ADRIENNE RICH
by Joelle Biele
Page 4Perhaps Dickinson's greatest impact on Rich at this time was the blurring of genres. Dickinson mixes poetry and prose in her letters, giving her letters an elliptical beat. Dickinson's famous October 1883 letter to Susan Gilbert Dickinson is an example of this mixture of poetry and prose and of Dickinson's reversal of rhythms:
The letter closes with what has been called, "Pass to thy Rendezvous of Light," since Johnson took it out of the letter and assigned it #1564. In these quoted lines Dickinson plays with rhythms with her use of capitalization and reverses our expectations for a steady beat. Like Dickinson in her letters, Rich mixes genres in her sectional poems. These poems first appeared at the same time the Dickinson variorum and letters were released. In addition Rich began to date her poems, giving them the quality of a letter or journal entry. She wanted to mark the changes she was undergoing during the 60's, and it is a practice she continues today. Both writers give an unrehearsed impression, one that is instinctive with an almost romantic overflow of emotion. This blurring of genres has been a long established practice, yet Dickinson's letters and letter-poems have an appealing freshness and spontaneity precisely because they are letters. Reading Dickinson through Rich makes Dickinson's poetry a clear antecedent to high modernism.
Dickinson's and Rich's work with form and the discussions that have followed cut to the heart of the discussion over what makes a poem. The reception of Rich's work reminds us that form is a political choice and offers a commentary on the poetic practices and social norms of the day. In reading the variorum editions, Rich heard the force of Dickinson's poetry. Despite Johnson's decisions about which variants corresponded to which words, in the variorum the space of the poem is opened up and connections between words and lines are available, connections unavailable to earlier readers. With the publication of the variorum, Dickinson's experiments with form began to surface. Bishop said the edition allowed readers to encounter Dickinson as she had written, with all her force and wit. Readers were then able to discover her again. She could no longer be read as the genteel New Englander, whose poems mind their manners and stand up straight, but a poet creating a new space for her work. As can be seen in the manuscript books, Dickinson's poems pre-figure many of the experiments in form previously attributed to the modernists. Her concentration of the image is not unlike Pound's vortex of language, "from which and through which and into which ideas are constantly rushing."
There is much to be gained from looking at Dickinson's work through the poems that came after hers. As Dickinson said herself, "Did you ever read one of her Poems backwards, because the plunge from the front overturned you?" (Letters, Prose Fragment #30). Dickinson's biography has been obscured through the various tellings and retellings of her life and through the numerous editions of her work. Like a little girl, she is shut up in a closet of prose. As Rich says, we need to look at the actual manuscripts in order to discover the poems that can be found there.
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