INTRODUCTION: AMERICAN WOMEN'S POETRY
& DICKINSON'S LEGACY
by Martha Nell Smith
Page 3In May 1986, I attended the aforementioned event in New Jersey--state of Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Joyce Kilmer, Allen Ginsberg, and Bruce Springsteen--two days of contemporary women poets talking about some of hers and reading their own poems "in tribute to Emily Dickinson." As a Dickinson scholar, I was particularly interested in the many centennials held to commemorate the poet ten decades after her death, and, of all the festivals, this one-- featuring women whose primary identification is as poets and not as critics, biographers, textual scholars, or literary theorists--was arguably the most celebratory, astutely critical, and boldly theoretical as writer after writer mused on Dickinson's poetic project and its continuing meanings for her readers. The two points that struck me most those sultry spring afternoons more than a decade ago has impressed me time and again since as I have listened to, talked with, and read contemporary women poets speaking about Dickinson as influence, as forebear, as foremother, as wicked stepmother, as daughter, as sister, as inspiration, as irritation, as model, as rival.
The two points--one about gender and one about connectedness--are embodied by a series of remarks that I'll recount for you. From one of the earliest reviews of her work, specifically in the London Times--that Dickinson's writing is "immeasurably obscure"--to judgments rendered by prominent poet/critics like R.P. Blackmur--that she wrote a happenstance body of nearly 2,000 lyrics instead of knitting antimacassars--to recent widely admired (including by me) criticism--that her incomprehensibility was proto-modernist. Whatever the reading of her literary practices and her personality, Emily Dickinson is seen as solitary, as a single soul selecting its own society, itself. Almost all critics say with great confidence, as if it is an indisputable fact and as if they know her--Dickinson worked alone. Christopher Benfey concludes that, after consulting with Susan Dickinson, Emily Dickinson sent a copy of "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers" to Thomas W. Higginson because she was "frustrated with Susan's response." Committed to the "Emily Dickinson wrote alone, always" school, Benfey states in a The New York Review of Books review essay, as if he knows it to be a fact, that Dickinson turned to Higginson because sharing her work with Susan turned out to be a failed experiment. He has no way of knowing this, however. Nor does he have a way of knowing whether Emily decided to contact Higginson all by herself or whether she did this in further consultation with Susan. The fact that Susan sent some of Emily's poems to some editors certainly suggests that forwarding this poem to the prominent editor widely regarded for his championing of the rights of women and blacks would likely have been discussed by Emily with her. But Benfey cannot imagine that Emily could be anything but disappointed with Susan, so it does not even occur to him that, after not being able to come to agreement on which was the better version of the poem, or, through dialogue and exchange about the poem, its different stanzas, and what might be its best configuration, Emily and Susan, together, decide to send the poem as one of the first four by which Emily could introduce herself to Higginson. In turn, they could well have decided that the second stanza beginning "Grand go the Years" is most likely to resonate with him. Unless new evidence surfaces, no reader can ever be entirely certain what motivated Emily and who knew aobut it. But other pieces of knowledge are within our grasp, and are valuable to claim.
As Josephine Jacobsen observes, for most literary women throughout time, and even
within the past couple of hundred years, making a profession of poetry, "being a poet was not a
practical, emotional, or mental option" (53). For Emily, intense preoccupation with writing
poetry, working over draft after draft, proved a practical option, an emotional option, a mental
option. And Susan proved a most appreciative reader. We can know that. "'The Poems' will ever be to me
marvellous whether in manuscript or type" (December 1890 letter quoted by Bingham in AB 86-
87). From Susan's obituary of Emily Dickinson, one sees the writer, constantly at work, known and
admired as such:
Her talk and writing were like no one's else, and although she never published a line, now and then some enthusiastic literary friend would turn love to larceny, and cause a few verses surreptitiously obtained to be printed. Thus, and through other natural ways, many saw and admired her verses, and in consequence frequently notable persons paid her visits, hoping to overcome the protest of her own nature and gain a promise of occasional contributions, at least, to various magazines. . . . (WSD online).Susan is thinking about Emily as a poet, and encouraging readers to own what they can know about that. A century later, women poets are preoccupied with much the same thing.
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