Dickinson’s Music: Beyond “Amazing Grace”

When I was an undergrad taking graduate courses in the Poetics Program, one of the courses I missed out on was Susan Howe’s Emily Dickinson course (I later took her very interesting Wallace Stevens course).  I loved Howe’s work but was extremely intimidated by her in the way that 20 year olds often are intimidated by those they admire; I’ve since realized that poets aren’t that scary.  Anyway, I didn’t take the class, but it was one of “those” classes at UB that becomes a zeitgeist, as Liz Grosz’s “Time and Becoming” course (including Deleuze and Darwin) and Charles Bernstein’s “Blank” course were.  So for awhile everyone was talking about Dickinson, and some people were more taken up by the wave than others, changing their dissertations topics and such.

Last night I couldn’t sleep so I was Twittering, and Lori Emerson (a Poetics alumna) wrote:

I’m struck, over & over again, w/how Dickinson’s line-breaks are so perfectly coordinated w/width of the page – – and the height/width of her handwriting never expands or contracts to fill up the available space. space is *in* her poetry

It’s true, look:

(cite) Space is in her poetry, or rather it isn’t– her sense of white space is not what Eigner’s is, for instance (cf. Steve’s blog)– the only blankness is between words and strophes,  and even this blank space is often taken up with a dash or dot.  The space is all marked up– the poem is contained in one page, as the poem’s material is contained in a few short lines– there’s a sense of completion or microcosm.

You know I’m the last person to use the tired comparison of poetry to music (at least without deconstructing it), but I can’t help seeing this as a scored page where even the rests are marked as such.  The sonic implications of space here are different than simple line breaks or spaces where the time between sounds (rhythm) is left up to the reader; Dickinson seems to want a more controlled sonic territory.

Here a second observation: last year in Buffalo we had a marathon reading of all of Dickinson’s poems.  I attended about two hours of the reading.  We sat in a circle with readers numbering from a handful to a few dozen.  Each reader read a poem, in order, from the Franklin edition.  There were two types of readers: those who wanted to stand out and those who wanted to fade into the mass.  These two groups read differently (louder, with more “style,” vs. quietly and humbly), but the poems ended up sounding the same.*  You can’t mute or mutate Dickinson’s rhythm.  It’s its own machine.

Again this reminds me of music, especially spiritual music, where individual singers and styles succumb to the simple melodies and rhythms of the songs.  Even without the musical/spatial markers of the manuscripts, the poems take over individual voices and Dickinson’s sense of sound emerges.

And a third observation, this one an indication of what happens when you’re reading Finnegans Wake and Dickinson at the same time: many of Dickinson’s poems are circular.  That is, you can get to the last line and start over at the first line and get stuck in a loop.  Not all the poems do this and some do it more successfully than others; some of the more simply self-contained poems may be repeated without the same sense of circularity, and the circularity seems to complete those that are not as tight little things.  Thematically, this incident of form echoes her major interests: life and death, seasons, war and peace all occur in turn.  Musically, this reminds me of singing in “rounds,” a common practice in Sunday school, or the less obviously musical practice of repeating rhythmic prayers to oneself (such as the almost conjurative rhythm of the Lord’s Prayer) (implications regarding what is being conjured when Dickinson makes us revive her rhythm may be drawn by the reader).

* Not only did all the poems sound the same, like a long chant, but from year to year the rhythm remained the same.  Such obsession left me with a new sense of Dickinson as a person.


About Jessica Smith

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3 Responses to Dickinson’s Music: Beyond “Amazing Grace”

  1. Ian says:

    Ted Berrigan’s favorite song was Amazing Grace

  2. You know, right, that a typical high school teaching strategy with Dickinson’s poems is to say you can sing them to Amazing Grace (or the Yellow Rose of Texas). Not sure who first came up with that one, but it’s a big hit in 6-12.

  3. Lori Emerson says:

    Nice post Jessica! I noticed I tend to read her poems in a flat, quiet voice – there’s something about them that demands it, to my ears anyways. It’s humility but also not humility – a quiet firmness, I think.

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