Thursday, January 26, 2012

Emily Dickinson at Poets House

This blog entry comes from Byron Bartlett, Library Intern at Poets House. Since they are currently showing an ongoing exhibition about the life and work of Emily Dickinson, we asked them to blog about the Belle of Amherst, who was almost a contemporary of Emma Lazarus. They even shared a friend in common — Emily Dickinson’s mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

Emily Dickinson (1830 - 1886) of Amherst, Massachusetts, was one of the greatest American poets. She made hand-bound books of her poems; yet, save for an occasional appearance in correspondence with friends and family, these poems remained unknown during her lifetime. After her death, her family discovered 40 of her manuscript books, and thus began her publishing career.

This winter at Poets House marks an unique exhibition: Donald and Patricia Oresman have been kind enough to lend us pages of Dickinson’s manuscripts from their private collection, which are now on display in our Cheney Chappell Exhibition Space. It is an understatement to say that opportunities to see Dickinson’s papers are few and far between. The exhibit includes rare manuscripts, letters, fragments and even a recipe along with books and other archival materials.

In addition, poet and artist Jen Bervin, who curated the Oresmans’ exhibit, is showing her remarkable “composite quilts” inspired by Dickinson’s manuscripts and Dickinson’s attention to punctuation. Each quilt represents the careful overlaying of all of the pages of a particular manuscript book (now sometimes called “fascicles”) onto one surface. The marks are displayed on one folio-like “page,” (i.e. two facing pages) enlarged to 6 feet by 8 feet. The written words are removed. These quilts are an apt accompaniment to Dickinson’s hand; for Bervin has made a landscape of the marks of Dickinson’s intelligence.

Dickinson’s manuscript books were assembled from earlier drafts of the included poems. The creation of the manuscript book, differing from an artisan’s manufacture of an edition for public purchase, nevertheless seems to have been a private way for Dickinson to create an authoritative work of art.

The printed editions of Dickinson’s work have reduced the variation of punctuation present in her manuscripts. The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, edited by Ralph Franklin, is an indispensable reference on the subject. Certain of her famous dashes, in manuscript, are actually small and sit at the lower line of the text, aligned with periods and commas. Others are more like the printed “—”, sitting on the median line of text. For those of us who have read her in textbooks and in anthologies, the manuscripts are quite a revelation.

Another example of the uniqueness of the manuscripts, left out of her printed poems, is the “+” mark. In her manuscript books, she often includes alternate word choices, listed below the final line of each poem in the sequence in which they would appear, and marked in the text by a plus sign next to the word replaced.

One can feel Dickinson’s mind searching for alternate matrices of thought that might articulate the ideal state of a poem. While the syntactical structure of each poem may remain the same, she is not content with one word-choice within that syntax. Her additions may be an unconscious acknowledgement that the poem can never be the idea of the poem: she suggests it by allowing there to be no one finished version.

We hope that the manuscripts, Jen Bervin's works, as well as the related public programs will evoke the radical nature of Dickinson's life and work, opening new doors for Dickinson lovers and inspiring Dickinson neophytes.

Come visit us at 10 River Terrace, quite literally minutes away from the Museum of Jewish Heritage. The exhibitions will be open through February 18.

Images: "A blossom" - Letter 803 from Emily Dickinson to Forrest F. Emerson, who briefly served as the pastor of the First Church at Amherst from June 12, 1879 until he was dismissed on February 21, 1883. (c) President and Fellows of Harvard College

Quilt: Courtesy of Poets House

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