[Wgcp-whc] WG/Poetics--Dickinson minutes, agenda

richard.deming at yale.edu richard.deming at yale.edu
Thu Feb 17 14:32:04 EST 2005


Dear friends,

On Friday, February 11, the Working Group in Poetics convened to 
discuss the work of Emily Dickinson.  The first question that we dealt 
with was how and why Dickinson might be read within a genealogy of the 
avant-garde or innovative/experimental tradition.  Aside from the sheer 
difficulty and even hermeticism of a large part of her body of work, 
the material condition of Dickinson’s poems would suggest her position 
within alternative traditions.  Susan Howe, among others, has argued 
that Dickinson eschewed (other than a small handful of exceptions) 
submitting her work for publication and that the authentic texts are 
the handwritten, bound fascicles that the poet distributed (when she 
did) to friends and family. These fascicles, it has been argued, 
constitute a form of alternative publishing.  Moreover, these versions 
included variant lines and substitutions and diacritical marks that 
fall outside the purview of conventional standards of publishing.  This 
raised questions about how publishing disciplines and defines reading 
practices. Dickinson’s editors, even the most sensitive, have tended to 
regularize the poems and normalize their individual and idiosyncratic 
poetics.  For instance, most of Dickinson’s work hovers around 
traditional hymn form.  The group also discussed why this form would be 
the bulwark that supported even her most densely metaphysical poems.  
There was some thought that the hymn form was simply at hand or that it 
was her attempt to be democrat, using a form that was recognizable to a 
larger populace and less identified as aristocratic.  There was also 
some thinking that the form also constituted a reworking of the hymns 
from the overtly religious (and institutional) to a more antinomian 
impulse.  In any event, the editors (principally Johnson and more 
contemporarily Ralph Franklin, former director of the Beinecke) made 
editorial decisions that made each poem cohere more rigidly to the 
regular stanzas.  Vary often this includes telling differences in how 
the lines are broken, which resituates rhymes and so forth. Franklin 
included the variant lines at the bottom of the poems, but numbered 
them, suggesting a sequentially that is presumed rather than certain.  
Indeed, throughout the discussion, we noted how scholars and critics on 
either side of the textual debate made bold claims about the poet and 
her intent that were intuitive rather than empirical.  This wasn’t 
indictment, the group made clear, but was an exploration of the ways 
the reading and meaning have insights that are often coming from other 
directions than just the poem.

One question that arose during the discussion concerned the role that 
cultural institutions have in conveying legitimacy and authority to 
texts, which goes beyond even the issues of what might constitute 
an “authoritative text.”  For instance, why don’t Dickinson’s fascicles 
themselves “count” as anything but manuscript materials—in other words 
that seem more likely to have editorial adjustments when transferred 
into “legitimate” print culture. This isn’t, we discussed, necessarily 
true of all writers, but is especially poignant in considering 
Dickinson because she didn’t intend a publication between that which 
she herself put together. Interestingly, Dickinson might be seen as a 
reverse version of Duchamp, whose famous piece “Fountain,” (a urinal 
that he signed as R. Mutt and then installed in a gallery exhibition) 
challenged the mechanisms of the institutionalization of art.    We 
have seen, of course, that the institution absorbed Duchamp’s work just 
as Dickinson’s resistant texts (which Susan Howe described as having “a 
halo of wildness”) have been absorbed and “disciplined” in terms of 
dominant literacy modes and reading practices.

The session also then included a long, engaged close reading of the 
poem “Publication - is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man.”  Clearly, 
this seems to be some kind of metacommentary on her own refusal of the 
publishing industry and there does seem to be some indication from the 
poem’s claims that publication commodifies art, which is, supposedly, 
a “higher” cultural function. We discussed, too, that there is a neo-
Platonic drift of Dickinson’s poem that suggests that language qua 
language is a kind of fallen state of some preverbal, idealized 
spiritual dimension of thought (this might be read interestingly in 
terms of Walter Benjamin, especially his essay “On Language as Such and 
the Language of Man”).  However, we noted the ways that the poem 
brought not only publication (and by “publication” does she mean 
publishing work, and thus entering the institution of literature ((cf. 
Peter Burger’s useful discussion of this process in general in Decline 
of Modernism)) or simply making a thought “public”—that is, bringing it 
outside of one’s private interior space) but poetry and language itself 
into question.  Thus, her work is a kind of self-critique as well.  
Indeed, we came up with various possible readings of the poem’s 
argument, only to see those arguments become (yes, I’ll say it) 
deconstructed by the poem itself.  We were also fascinated to look 
briefly at the ways that even Paul Celan, who translated Dickinson into 
German, ended up making the work far more straightforward in English.

We left Dickinson thinking perhaps whereas Whitman was radical more 
often in his rhetoric that her work is radical in its material 
practices and experimental in its sense of language and syntax. It was 
agreed that in the future at some point the group should return again 
to her work for further discussion since the implications go beyond 
just questions of a poem’s meaning and open up explorations into 
reading, authority, culture, and criticism as a whole.

The group has a special session, tomorrow February 18 at 1.45 in the 
Beinecke to look at Whitman manuscripts and primary materials.  Anyone 
interested in attending should e-mail Nancy Kuhl (nancy.kuhl at yale.edu) 
so we know how many to anticipate.

Our next regular meeting will be on Fri. February 25.  We will be 
joined by Professor David Jackson of Yale’s Spanish and Portuguese 
Department who will discuss the Brazilian Concretistas.  A packet of 
readings is being assembled and as soon as it is available I will e-
mail everyone.

Also, our group is cosponsoring a reading by Palestinian poet Taha 
Muhammad Ali, with translator Peter Cole on Wednesday, February 23, 
5:00pm.  The other co-sponsors include: Whitney Humanities Center, Yale 
Arabic Poetry Colloquium.  At a place where rare opportunities are 
commonplace, this seems to be especially exceptional.

In terms of the rest of the semester, some key dates include:
3/25—Visit from poet, translator Kent Johnson
4/15—visit from Cole Swenson, poet, translator, recent nominee for the 
national Book Award in poetry.

“The Working Group in Contemporary Poetry and Poetics meets every other 
Friday at 1:45 PM in room 116 at the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale 
University to discuss problems and issues of contemporary poetry within 
international alternative and /or avant-garde traditions of lyric 
poetry. All are welcome to attend.”  

---R. Deming, group secretary


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