Monday, April 06, 2015

Make Your Own Emily Dickinson Poem

The vastest earthly Day
Is shrunken small
By one Defaulting Face
Behind a Pall —

… [Emily] Dickinson often offered several choices for certain words in her poems: the “vastest earthly Day” might be “shrunken” small, but it might also be “shriveled” or “dwindled.” More provocatively, it might be “chastened.” … Dickinson [also] wonder[s] if the face should not be “defaulting” but “heroic” …

The vastest earthly Day
Is chastened small
By one heroic Face
That owned it all —

In the quote above James Longenbach first presents an Emily Dickinson poem in, presumably, the default version. Then he does what Dickinson must have done many times, if only in her head; Longenbach gives us the same (?) Dickinson poem using alternate words Dickinson herself provided in manuscript. The two versions read as different poems to me.

When I decided to read her the version of Emily Dickinson I committed to was The Complete Poems edited by Thomas H. Johnson. I had heard that in manuscript Dickinson poems will sometimes include alternate words scrawled next to the ones supposedly preferred (actually it is not clear sometimes that one word is preferred). But I figured I had to read Dickinson in some version and the edition most readily available was the one Johnson created, deciding for us the definitive version of every Dickinson poem. I figured if I fell in love I could pursue every scrap of Dickinson, but if love didn’t strike right away, well, I’d at least have a Dickinson as good as any.

Which makes me think. Might there be an easier way to find the Dickinson that’s right for you? One could create a computer program in which different Dickinsons are available, every one authentic. Click on a word and see it switch to an alternate. Maybe the Emily Dickinson you yourself make out of true Dickinson ingredients is the Emily Dickinson that speaks to you.

source: The Virtues of Poetry by James Longenbach

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