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Deciphering Dickinson

The Importance of Paratext and Dickinson's Manuscripts 

By Alyssa Bridgman 

May 16, 2016

Recently, I have been fascinated with Emily Dickinson’s manuscript poems and unpublished poems. When looking through Susan Howe’s edition of Dickinson’s previously unpublished poems, The Gorgeous Nothings, I realized how important paratext is in deciphering Dickinson’s poetry.

The scraps of paper that Dickinson’s poems were written on add another level to the physical poem and interpretations of the poem. Dickinson’s choice of paper — commonly scraps, fragments, and the backs of opened envelopes — give insight into her writing method, creative process, and intention. The image below, as all further images, are from The Gorgeous Nothings, which shows some of Dickinson's scrap poems. 

Dickinson bound her own fascicles, and when her poems were first published, they were taken apart and her works regularized to the poetic standard of the time. These self-bound collections of poems allow us to piece together Dickinson’s intended orderings, and because the manuscripts still exist, scholars are able to analyze not only her words, but also the paratext central to understanding her highly personal poems. The unbound poems collected in The Gorgeous Nothings give us a new perspective into Dickinson’s paratext, as Dickinson did not rewrite these scraps and finalize them in bound collections. They are uniquely imperfect, a glimpse into Dickinson’s mind. I like to think that, while turning over a word in her head, Dickinson would be suddenly struck by a phrase or line and, grabbing the closest scrap she could find, furiously jot down the phrase on the back of an envelope, perhaps from her sister-in-law, Susan. These fragments of paper, unedited and unbound as they are, are the very essence of Dickinson’s poetry — the inspiration, the idea, the poem’s beginning.

The scrap-poems reveal Dickinson’s methodology when writing: she crossed out words, added substitute words, and placed words with intention. The image below is of a deciphered poem, which would sit next to an image of the original poem, almost as a transcription of Dickinson’s cursive, a transliteration of her poetic language. One word is crossed out and the line revised.

Dickinson’s writing process is at work before our very eyes, and we do not see this in conventionally edited versions of Dickinson’s poems. The natural progression of Dickinson’s handwriting with age allows scholars to date her poems and arrange them in a rough order of when they were written. Without the original manuscripts, this would not be possible, though I believe there is much more to be learned from the manuscripts than simply the time in which they were written.

Dickinson’s word placement adds another level to the brilliance of her poems, lost by the conventional publication of her lines. The other day, I was chatting with Michael Everton about Dickinson’s manuscripts, and he noted that some of Dickinson’s offset words intentionally align with other words, creating puns and nuances that do not translate into print. This made me realize that by publishing Dickinson’s poems without accompanying images of the handwritten manuscripts lessens Dickinson’s craftsmanship. Her intentionally placed words are rearranged when editors type them in a regularized line. The poems lose something special, depreciate from the original poem.

Dickinson’s poems were not written to be published, in fact, they were never meant to see the light of day. Because of their intentionally exclusive nature, the very personal poems do not translate into print as does a manuscript written to be published. Dickinson did not need to conform to the conventions and limitations of publication when writing her poetry; she was free to experiment with form. How then can poems be put into print when they have been written in a way that transcends the limitations of the craft? The Gorgeous Nothings finds a way to combine the manuscripts with print in a way that remains true to Dickinson’s handwritten scrap poems, but even this form has limitations. The entirety of Dickinson’s original manuscripts, nestled away in Harvard and Amherst, are the closest we can get to Dickinson’s poems, to the physical paper, but they are not universally accessible. I cannot easily cross the continent and access these pages, although donations to the ‘Alyssa makes a pilgrimage to New England’ fund are welcome.

Alyssa Bridgman begins her third year at Simon Fraser University in the fall. Her areas of interest are eighteenth and nineteenth century literature, especially anything Emily Dickinson related.