Letter-Poem, A Dickinson Genre


"Letter-Poem, a Dickinson Genre" does not contend that Emily Dickinson was the only or the first poet to use letters to transmit poetry, to formulate letters as poetry, to exploit the poetic and epistolary so that they inflect, enrich, even become one another. Keats and other of her forebears, as well as a host of her descendants, blend the genres in various ways and for a wide range of purposes resulting in an even wider range of effects. In his 1958 introduction to The Letters of Emily Dickinson, Thomas H. Johnson remarked the oft-quoted editorial "doubt where the letter leaves off and the poem begins" (L, p. xv). Sixteen years later, her eminent biographer Richard B. Sewall identified producing "letter-poems" as a familial as well as an artistic practice: "[Dickinson's father] Edward's sister Elizabeth was not only the chronicler but the bard of her generation. She once sent her young nephew Austin a rhymed letter of fifty stanzas on his toothache" (Life 32). Sometimes Dickinson enclosed poems on a separate sheet with a letter; sometimes poems (especially to Susan Dickinson) constitute the entire text of a letter; sometimes a few lines of a poem recorded in the fascicles or in another letter or on a sheet not bound to any manuscript book, either literally with string or figuratively by being sent to a particular addressee, are woven into the prose of a letter.

This site extends some of the questions posed in "Emily Dickinson Writing a Poem" to interrogate Emily Dickinson's making of letter-poems, and begins by reexamining a text that Johnson and coeditor Theodora Ward identified as "Letter 912" and Ellen Louise Hart identifies as the poem, "Morning / might come / by Accident" ("Encoding" 263-266). To contextualize this document, also featured are two other epistolary writings, "So sorry for / Sister's hardships - " (which may be a poem) and "Sister / Our parting was somewhat / interspersed" (which, limited to but a few words per line, resembles in form some of Dickinson's layouts for her lyrics, but appears to be a letter). Each is written later in Dickinson's life, during or after the mid-1870s. Examining them raises questions about the Dickinson corpus as a whole:

· What counts as a "poem" and what counts as a "letter" in Dickinson's writings?

· How useful is the appellation "letter-poem," which foregrounds the genre traditionally devalued as "lesser" and "private" when compared to "poems"?

· What criteria should be used for distinguishing between "poems," "letters," and "letter-poems" and how useful are those for analyzing Emily Dickinson's artistic project?

· What sorts of insights are enabled by the twentieth-century conventions of marking manuscripts as "private" and print documents as "public"? How are critical understandings and interpretations constrained by these conventions equating the "public sphere" and the origins of print culture?

· What sorts of insights are enabled by conventional genre distinctions between the epistolary and the poetic and what critical understandings and interpretations are constrained by these conventions of genre reinforced by print bookmaking?

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without permission. Transcription and commentary copyright 1999 by
Martha Nell Smith, all rights reserved.
Maintained by Lara Vetter <lvetter@uncc.edu>
Last updated on March 10, 2008

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