Mark Ford

  • BuyThe Gorgeous Nothings by Emily Dickinson
    New Directions, 255 pp, £26.50, October 2013, ISBN 978 0 8112 2175 7
  • BuyThe Marvel of Biographical Bookkeeping by Francis Nenik, translated by Katy Derbyshire
    Readux, 64 pp, £3.00, October 2013, ISBN 978 3 944801 00 1

Until quite recently, paper played a crucial role in the composition, and transmission to posterity, of most poems in English: they were written down on paper, or antecedents such as parchment or vellum, or typed on it, and then printed in pamphlets, newspapers, magazines or books. Computers and digitisation have changed all that: the poemhunter.com version of ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ that floats on our screens may reproduce exactly the same words as printed editions of Keats, but while reading it we are no longer engaging with a material object that is linked to a series of earlier material versions of the poem, all deriving from the impress of pencil, pen or type on paper.

Digitisation has, however, inspired all manner of new approaches to materiality, which over the last two decades has developed into a boom subject in academic criticism; at the click of a mouse one can access the various different holograph versions of, say, Emily Dickinson’s ‘Safe in their alabaster chambers’, one of the ten poems – she wrote nearly 1800 – which found its way into print in her lifetime. Dickinson’s fragile manuscripts, which are divided between the Houghton Library at Harvard and the Archives and Special Collections of Amherst College, can be consulted and handled only by a select band of Dickinson editors and scholars. The Dickinson Electronic Archives website allows a simulation of these elect scholars’ and editors’ experience, and encourages us to think of print editions of Dickinson’s work – like Thomas H. Johnson’s 1955 edition or R.W. Franklin’s 1998 one – as fundamentally flawed. In the early 1990s Jerome McGann argued that any print version of a Dickinson poem, however copious its list of variants, ‘alters the original scriptural version in drastic ways’. McGann insisted that we ought to treat all Dickinson’s ‘scriptural forms as potentially significant’:

Some of her scripts are highly ornamental, some are not, and we must attend to these variant features of the texts. In the same way we have to read closely the lineation patterns, and the spacing of the scripts at every level, as well as the choice of papers and other writing materials. In a poetry that has imagined and executed itself as a scriptural rather than a typographical event, all these matters fall under the work’s initial horizon of finality.

‘Finality’, of course, is just what a scrupulous and attentive reader of Dickinson must at all costs avoid: it is only through the provisionality of all the manuscript variants and ‘scriptural forms’ that justice can be done to Dickinson’s concept of poetry as ‘possibility’, which, as all her readers know, is ‘A fairer House than Prose –/More numerous of Windows –/Superior – for Doors –’

The insistence that the only valid insights into the authentically Dickinsonian are available from the manuscripts has been made possible by state of the art technology, but it has deeply atavistic motivations. Consider the way Marta Werner, a pioneer of the pro-manuscript movement and one of the editors of this sumptuous volume of Dickinson’s ‘envelope-writings’, describes her handling of A 821, a 25-word fragment (if one excludes a stray ‘of’ and a stray ‘I’) pencilled on the inside of a cast-off envelope, with a separate piece of envelope flap pinned to it. It was first published in Johnson’s edition of the letters in 1958, and runs: ‘Clogged | only with | Music, like | the Wheels of | Birds [on left-hand flap] Afternoon and | the West and | the gorgeous | nothings | which | compose | the | sunset | keep [on right-hand flap] their high | Appoint | ment [on added triangle of envelope – with ‘of’ and ‘I’ in margin].’ ‘I found it by accident,’ Werner writes, ‘in the Amherst College Library, when it fell (rose?) out of an acid-free envelope. If I had not held it lightly in my hands, I would never have suspected the manner in which it was assembled … Look at it here, flying on the page, vying with light.’ Behold, Werner’s sacramental tone urges, a saint’s relic, a fragment blessed with mystic powers, miraculously rising from the sacred site of the archive.

The complex nature of this archive was well captured in 1945 by Millicent Todd Bingham in her introduction to Bolts of Melody, a selection of more than six hundred poems culled from the vast trove of papers then in her possession. The papers were given to Bingham’s mother, Mabel Loomis Todd, by Dickinson’s sister Lavinia. (This is the collection now housed in Amherst.) Dickinson, Bingham explains, wrote on

backs of brown-paper bags or of discarded bills, programmes, and invitations; on tiny scraps of stationery pinned together; on leaves torn from old notebooks (one such sheet dated ‘1824’); on soiled and mildewed subscription blanks, or on department or drug-store bargain flyers from Amherst and surrounding towns. There are pink scraps, blue and yellow scraps, one of them a wrapper of Chocolat Meunier; poems on the reverse of recipes in her own writing, on household shopping lists, on the cut-off margins of newspapers, and on the inside of their brown-paper wrapping.

What’s more, most of the poems on these ‘scraps’, as they became known for a while in Dickinson studies, ‘were smothered with alternative words and phrases crowded into every available space – around the edges, upside down, wedged between the lines’. In editing Dickinson, Bingham chose, as her mother had, to ignore all variants, to regularise spellings and punctuation, and to impose titles.

Because Dickinson never prepared her own work for publication, it has been uniquely vulnerable to intervention, and issued in forms determined by the publishing, cultural and academic orthodoxies of the day. Johnson’s 1955 edition is now routinely taken to embody the ideals and blindnesses of the New Criticism, while an editorial commitment to the variant-strewn manuscripts – a kind of ‘choosing not choosing’ (to borrow the title of an influential book on Dickinson’s manuscripts by Sharon Cameron) – brings Dickinson’s work into line with the currently preferred postmodernist template of provisionality and deferred meaning. As Lena Christensen points out in her excellent Editing Emily Dickinson (2008), to edit Dickinson is to offer a critical reading that is inevitably shaped by the preoccupations of the time; no doubt Susan Howe’s declaration in The Birth-mark (1993) that Dickinson’s ‘manuscripts should be understood as visual productions’ will at some point in the future seem as wholly of its time as Todd and Bingham’s blithe imposition of titles and removal of dashes.

The Gorgeous Nothings is evidence of the wind still bellying the sails of the manuscript movement. It presents photographic reproductions, both front and back, of 52 (one for each week of the year?) of Dickinson’s ‘envelope-writings’, a term somewhat more dignified and purposeful than Bingham’s ‘scraps’. This focus on poems, or drafts of poems, composed on envelopes fulfils McGann’s injunction to pay attention to Dickinson’s choice of paper; all these writings are in pencil, a pencil, Jen Bervin surmises in her introduction, that Dickinson may well have kept in the pocket of her famous white dress. Dickinson’s ‘one surviving dress has a large external pocket on the right side, where her hand would fall easily at rest’. The ‘economy’, Bervin continues, ‘of the pocket is worth considering. An envelope is a pocket. An envelope refolds discreetly, privately, even after it has been sliced completely open.’ Below her introduction there is a life-size image of the two-inch stub of pencil that Dickinson sent to Samuel Bowles, the editor of the Springfield Republican (in which ‘Safe in their alabaster chambers’ was published anonymously under the title ‘The Sleeping’). Behold again the trinity of relics being staged for our contemplation: the pocket-envelope of Dickinson’s dress, in which her hand would rest; the discarded envelope, prepared carefully for the moment of inscription, or indeed transfiguration, now archived and haloed in glory; and the sacred stub of pencil, kept in the fabric pocket-envelope, ready for the moment when inspiration strikes and the no longer resting hand makes its all-transforming marks on the paper pocket-envelope that the poet is thriftily recycling.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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[*] Susan Eilenberg reviewed Lyndall Gordon’s book in the LRB of 30 June 2011.