THE DARKEST GUSH: EMILY DICKINSON AND THE TEXTUAL MARK
by Rachel Blau DuPlessis
In proposing, recording, registering the alternative words (whether synonymous or contrastive), Dickinson was registering several deep facts about the profession or practices of poetry. First, when writing, one is intensely inside language. Playing with the medium, one admires both it and one's own power in seeing how individual words change weights, balances, forces, and vectors. Not for nothing did Dickinson note to Higginson that her companion was Noah Webster. The dictionary, perhaps, was her mysterious Master.
Second, as the theoretical statements of Roman Jakobson in "Linguistics and Poetics" (Language and Literature, eds. Pomorska and Rudy, Harvard UP 1987) so succinctly propose: poetry moves material from the axis of selection/substitution to the axis of contiguity/combination by the principle of equivalence. These practices of Dickinson play with substitution and play with equivalence--two of the core acts or assessments involved in poetic practice.
I became convinced that Dickinson wanted the alternative as such. By disturbing the axis of selection and the notion of equivalence, she wanted to break the iconicity of a one-way text. Of course a (normal) poem must have only one word in any one spot! Of course a (real) poem couldn't have two words in one place! Yet Dickinson's did. In a poem, every mark has meaning. If there are alternative marks for the same place in the poem, meaning is destabilized, rendered at least momentarily undecidable, jostled, made both more complex and even permanently unfixed.
In my view, Emily Dickinson made a critique of authority and the authoritative in her textual practices. She denied copy text by her alternative words and lines, even as she produced a kind of personal book in the fascicles. She deliberately constructed an approach to her text that plays havoc with the finality of "final intention" and the authority of "author's ultimate choice." It seemed to me that the graduate school question (circa 1965) of "which was the better alternative" for certain Dickinson words was peculiarly limited, for of course it made a hierarchy of good, better, best, pointing toward copy text (the final text ratified by the author). And when the author "couldn't" or "didn't" decide for herself, the editor "naturally" had to exercise his good sense. The question is not which one or the other word does Dickinson "really" want, but what does it mean that she often provided both this word and another? What do these pockets of plurality mean? I thought that Dickinson sometimes eschewed (on principle) the authorial function of choice, being more fascinated by the wobble she could create than the authority of which she was clearly, decisively capable. She worked (very hard, like Penelope) to undo the work she had worked. What had she wrought? She wrought the non-authoritative author--certainly a criticism of patriarchal practices of authorship, practices that persist and flourish to this very day. By doubling some of her meanings, Dickinson seemed, even, to be playing with an edge of un-meaning, as if the poem were a cliff from which she almost jumped.
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