“The Poet is the Poetry”: Emily Dickinson and the Deficiencies of the Fixed Center
“Miss Dickinson was a recluse; but her poetry is rich with a profound and varied experience. Where did she get it?
There is none of whom it is truer to say that the poet is the poetry.”
-Allen Tate “Emily Dickinson” from Collected Essays 1932
Emily Dickinson and her work are a perfect example of the deficiencies present in traditional western thinking, which revolves around the idea of a fixed center, or unifying element. Nearly all critical analysis of Emily Dickinson focuses more on her life (the supposed “center/unifier” for her works) than on her works, trying to “explain” the poems through Dickinson’s life experiences. Critic Robert Weisbuch in “Prisming Dickinson; or Gathering Paradise by Letting Go” terms this phenomena the “biographical fallacy.” Tate’s statement in the epigraph, is the perfect example of this misguided way of thinking, stating “the poet is the poetry” (Tate 19). A poet is no more her poetry than a mathematician is his discovered equations, or a scientist her experiment. This paper will briefly explore the reasons for the “biographical fallacy” and attempt to show the benefits of reading the text more closely. The great irony of Dickinson’s poetry is that the poems actually express that Dickinson’s life is not meant to be used as a means of interpreting them, but that the poems are designed to create multiple meanings, and provoke reader introspection; discovery of these meanings can be achieved by critical approaches such as deconstruction, focusing narrowly on the text, rather on the broad, and highly guessed at life of Dickinson.
Why is it, that so many highly educated critics have fallen into the trap of the “biographical fallacy?” Karen Oakes in her 1988 essay “Welcome and Beware: The Reader and Emily Dickinson’s figurative language” states, “The poem resists an interpretation which gives it an extractable meaning because from a metonymic perspective, it doesn’t ‘develop,’ it only includes, signaling pure context; and its principle of ‘coherence’ is the intimate, troubling speaker-audience connection” (115). Weisbuch furthers this idea by stating, “It is my sense that readers of Dickinson experience a sense of extraordinary closeness to the writer and then get led to the biographical fallacy by not examining the nature of this feeling carefully enough. She must be telling us something about her life, they reason, because it feels so intimate” (Weisbuch 212). This feeling of intimacy is misconceived into the idea that Dickinson must have experienced something, and is now letting her readers experience it through her poetry. This, however, is a gross interpretation of intentionality, founded on very unsteady columns of “support” from Emily Dickinson’s life. Intentionality runs rampant in Dickinson criticism, in an essay entitled “Emily Dickinson: The Private Publication,” Louis Auchincloss states, “Several hundred poems were thus transmitted in letters. She lived in an age when people kept letters. That, to her, was publication enough” and then continues to say, “When an author writes to a famous editor out of the blue, there must be at least a consideration of the possibility of being printed” (72). This demonstrates how easily intentionality can be fallen into. Auchincloss does not know Dickinson’s true reasons for writing to a “famous editor,” or why she sent her poetry to people in letters, yet still tries to say that her intentions or reasons for doing this was to become published. This guess at Dickinson’s motivations for not publishing, is only that, a guess, founded on little or not actual facts. The pinnacle of intentionality can be found in an essay by John Crowe Ransom in 1956:
As Emily Dickinson went from poem to poem, I must suppose that she was systematically adapting her own experience, which by common standards was a humdrum affair of little distinction, into the magnificent image of her soul which she has created in the poems. It may have been imaginary in the first instance, but it becomes more and more actual as she finds the courage to live by it” (96).
So, now the reader/critic is not only guessing at the experience Emily Dickinson intended the poems to reflect, but also at the intended “image of her soul.” Even as this quote reaches the greatest depths of intentionality, it collapses in on its own rationality. If poems were meant to be read as biographical, how then can they contain imaginary instances?
Linking the idea of intentionality versus concrete evidence, perfectly with deconstructionist ideals David Porter states, “With Dickinson, our impassioned search for a similar thematic preoccupation leads to a formidable array of mysteries concerning her intellectual focus and her intentions. The centerless display of her brief and brilliant stanzas explains why biographical interpretations are so numerous” (Porter 183). The point that should be brought out is that of “centerless display,” Dickinson herself stated that, “Subjects hinder talk” (Weisbuch 197). Dickinson’s poetry is amazingly apt in the realm of deconstruction. Roland Hagenbuchle in an essay surveying the general interpretations of Dickinson through the most common critical theories states, “There has been no attempt so far to study Dickinson’s oeuvre from a strictly deconstructive vantage point. This is more surprising as her poetry is in many ways conflictual” (379).
To present the benefits of a close reading of Dickinson texts, it is first necessary to present the traditional readings of a couple of Dickinson’s most popular poems, and the gaps the biographical approach (though beneficial in many ways) leave in the critical dialog will become apparent. Dickinson’s poem, “I’m Nobody! Who are You?” (Appendix A) has conventionally been read in two ways: the feminist approach, exemplified in an essay by Karen Oakes: “‘Somebody’ carries a specifically sexual threat. In the cycle of the seasons, the ‘Frog’ announces himself in order to find a mate,” (Oakes 113) and the traditional biographical approach: “In short, the poem is about the private poets constant plight, her fear that her name will be bruited about and her poems dispersed among strangers, and that the poet that she is will become the subject of a distasteful l notoriety” (Monteiro 1). Although very different views, they are similar in that they focus more on the central meaning than on the highly intriguing contradictions found within the text. The paradox of the traditional readings is that the speaker explicitly states that he/she wishes to be “nobody,” yet critics and readers have spent much time discussing “Nobody” in terms of taking on the identity of Emily Dickinson.
A closer reading through the deconstructive view point sheds light on the binary of “Nobody” and “Somebody” which is interesting because of the way the words are used in the poem. They are usually descriptions, yet, in the poem they are capitalized, and also set apart from the rest of the text by dashes, giving them seemingly separate identities, adding to the use of “nobody” and “somebody” as pronouns. This brings out a fundamental contradiction. If “Nobody” is considered a name, and it is “dreary” to be “Somebody” announcing your name, how is it any less “dreary to announce your name as “I’m Nobody!”? By doing this, the unstable relationship (supplement) these binaries lean upon, is taken away. Names are, in the English custom, arbitrarily given. Unlike some native American cultures, names do not reflect a physical or personality trait. This poem strives to create difference between “Nobody” and “Somebody” by using them as pronouns, yet, by doing this, the meaning of the words becomes insignificant because the illusionary difference is that “Somebody” tells their name, and “Nobodies” “don’t tell” when in all actuality, the “Nobody” tells their name just as the “Somebody” maybe even more dramatically with the first line “I’m Nobody!”
Another of Dickinson’s poems just as well known is “This is my letter to the world” (Appendix A) commonly interpreted to, in the words of Louis Auchincloss, express, “That she [Dickinson] was desperately frustrated, that she was held back from publishing by shyness, fear of failure, dread of exposure, or possibly simply by the negative attitude of Thomas Wentworth Higginson” (Auchincloss 72). This surface reading seems to suffice, if a reader looks at the first few lines, “This is my letter to the World/That never wrote to me–,” and the last few lines “For love of her-sweet-Countrymen–/Judge tenderly-of Me,” but what is to be made of the middle lines? The reason these lines are so hard to use to contribute to an all encompassing central meaning, is that they employ Dickinson’s famous trademark, the dash. Suzanne Juhasz illuminates some of the functions of the dash, “Dickinson herself establishes an environment of suspended animation in her poetry by her peculiar use of punctuation: in particular, the dash. Her dashes, both within individual lines and at the end of them, imply both discreetness and connection. What connection, however, they do not, as do periods or semicolons, signify.” In other words, just as some words have contradictory meanings, so do dashes; they represent both sides of a binary: they can either cut ideas apart, or link them together.
Applying the binary of the dash to this poem, the third and fourth lines are very contradictory. They can be read as, “The simple News that Nature told [,]/ With tender Majesty,” here, “tender Majesty” describes the way “Nature” tells its message, directing “with” to mean “using” or, it can be read as “The simple News that Nature told–/With tender Majesty,” applying the meaning “possessing” to the word “with.” This reading implies that “Nature’s message,” is “tender Majesty.” Though subtle in difference the two readings give different connotations to the meaning of “tenderly” in the final line of the poem. “Tenderly” based upon the reading used can be a way of “Judging;” (how the speaker wishes to be “Judged,” tenderly, or with mercy) or, it can be read as tenderly being the judgment. The word “tenderly” finds its origins in the Indo-European root ten- which means “to stretch,” (American Heritage Dictionary 1545) and majesty in the Middle English usage means, “greatness of God,” (Chantrell). So, tenderly as a final verdict, could be extrapolated to mean that the speaker, should be included under the judgment of God’s work, thus, the “greatness of God,” is “stretched” to include the speaker. This deep richness of understanding, and awareness of multiplicity of meaning, are all derived from the placement of one punctuation mark, prevalent throughout all of Dickinson’s work-the dash. The presence of the dash alone, and its two contradictory meanings, brings out a new dimension of looking at Dickinson’s texts, which has been rarely visited.
Another way in which Dickinson’s poetry is linked to the deconstruction approach is in the fact that Dickinson did not title the poems. In an essay entitled “Why Dickinson Didn’t Title,” John Mulvihill quotes David Porter, “She was unable to recognize the definiteness involved in putting a title to a poem. With no particular subject to her parabolic sweeps, no presiding project, and no sense of form fulfilling itself, there were no titles.” Titles connote subject, or some unifying idea; however, as mentioned before, Dickinson felt that “Subjects hinder talk,” hence a title would be contradictory and difficult to attach to the poems. This lack of unity, lack of subject and lack of definite purpose are all major tenants of the ideas of deconstruction.
It is quite obvious that there are huge reservoirs of ideas, and knowledge not yet explored in Dickinson’s poetry, due, mostly to the fact that Dickinson’s poetry is “centerless;” a concept not easily grasped by western thinking readers. Yet, as demonstrated with the two poems “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” and “This is my letter to the World,” it is extremely beneficial to take the time to sort through the multiple contradictions found in Dickinson’s poetry. The “biographical fallacy” trap, as articulated by Allen Tate in the epigraph is an example of the types of questions posed by most critics thus far in Dickinson criticism, “Where did she get it?” In all actuality, this question is irrelevant, it is like asking a composer where the idea for a melody came from, or an artist where he got his abilities; what really matters, is that critics, as well as readers not undermine or ignore the brilliancy of Dickinson’s work because they are asking unanswerable questions.
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This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me–
The simple News that Nature told–
With tender Majesty
Her Message is committed
To Hands I connot see–
For love of her-Sweet– Countrymen–
Judge tenderly– of Me
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! They’d banish us– you know!
How dreary– to be– Somebody!
How public– like a Frog–
To tell your name– the livelong June–
To an admiring Bog!