by Martha Nell Smith

Page 2

This contribution to Dickinson studies has not received nearly the attention that some of my other work has. To reflect upon this ever growing, ever changing online venture, I want to place firmly in our minds a sense of what poet Alice Fulton has called a "Poetry of inconvenient knowledge," which captures so well what I think is important about much women's poetry and why I believe poetry itself to be a crucial force for mapping our educational ways over the next few years. Much that is in Titanic Operas meets the criteria for poetry that Fulton celebrates, that of "inconvenient knowledge." Fulton writes, "I refer to the poem's content. In an effort to distance myself from naive or literal readings, I (and other poets) often go to some lengths to avoid beginning a sentence 'This poem is about. . . .' After years of circumlocution, perhaps it's time to admit that yes, poems are about something. Because of the engagement entailed in creating an aesthetic, all poems worthy of the name evince a praxis that amounts to meaning, however embedded. What poems are saying--and what they are failing to say--is an issue of considerable complexity" (40).

Since for more than a decade I've had the idea of the publication now realized online, in a new materiality, I've drafted it more than a couple of times. As far as working on it goes, one might say that I've been working on it all along, and it's been working on me, as I've been working on other Dickinson related projects--Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson (1992), Comic Power in Emily Dickinson (with Suzanne Juhasz and Cristanne Miller; 1993), the Dickinson Electronic Archives Project (1994 to the present at, Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson (with Ellen Louise Hart; 1998). Titanic Operas has needed this kind of long-lived attention, and the online edition is by no means the culmination of my thinking about American women's poetry, women poets, and their complex, contradictory, always inspiring responses to the nineteenth- century American poet Emily Dickinson. Let's begin by mulling over perhaps Dickinson's most famous response to a contemporary woman poet, a British sister who was one half of the most celebrated couple in all of poetry written in English -- Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning:

   I think I was Enchanted
When first a +sombre Girl -
I read that Foreign Lady -
The Dark - felt beautiful -

And whether it was Noon
at Night -
Or only Heaven - at Noon -
For very Lunacy of Light
I had not power to tell -

The Bees - became as
Butterflies -
The Butterflies - as +Swans -
Approached - and spurned
the narrow Grass -
And just the +meanest Tunes

That Nature murmured to
To keep herself in Cheer -
I took for Giants - practising
Titanic Opera -

The Days - to Mighty Metres
   stept -
The Homeliest - adorned
As if unto a + Jubilee
'Twere suddenly + Confirmed -

I could not have defined the
change -
Conversion of the Mind
Like Sanctifying in the Soul -
Is witnessed - not Explained -

'Twas a Divine Insanity -
The + Danger to be Sane
Should I again Experience -
'Tis Antidote to turn -

To Tomes of Solid Witchcraft -
Magicians be asleep -
But Magic - hath an Element
Like Deity - to keep -

+ little Girl + As Moons -
lit up the low - inferior Grass -
+ Common Tunes - faintest -
+ Sacrament + Ordained + Sorrow
(F 29; P 593)

As it was for her sister-in-law Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson (also a poet), for Emily Dickinson poetry was a serious business, so serious that it was gleeful, silly, a revelry, as well as a sacrament. Poetry was, in Susan's words, their sermon - their hope - their solace - their life.1

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Last updated on March 10, 2008
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