Our Emily Dickinsons: American Women Poets and the Intimacies of Difference

Our Emily Dickinsons: American Women Poets and the Intimacies of Difference

Our Emily Dickinsons: American Women Poets and the Intimacies of Difference

Our Emily Dickinsons: American Women Poets and the Intimacies of Difference

Synopsis

For Vivian R. Pollak, Emily Dickinson's work is an extended meditation on the risks of social, psychological, and aesthetic difference that would be taken up by the generations of women poets who followed her. She situates Dickinson's originality in relation to her nineteenth-century audiences, including poet, novelist, and Indian rights activist Helen Hunt Jackson and her controversial first editor, Mabel Loomis Todd, and traces the emergence of competing versions of a brilliant but troubled Dickinson in the twentieth century, especially in the writings of Marianne Moore, Sylvia Plath, and Elizabeth Bishop.

Pollak reveals the wide range of emotions exhibited by women poets toward Dickinson's achievement and chronicles how their attitudes toward her changed over time. She contends, however, that they consistently use Dickinson to clarify personal and professional battles of their own. Reading poems, letters, diaries, journals, interviews, drafts of published and unpublished work, and other historically specific primary sources, Pollak tracks nineteenth- and twentieth-century women poets' ambivalence toward a literary tradition that overvalued lyric's inwardness and undervalued the power of social connection.

Our Emily Dickinsons places Dickinson's life and work within the context of larger debates about gender, sexuality, and literary authority in America and complicates the connections between creative expression, authorial biography, audience reception, and literary genealogy.

Excerpt

In an emotionally tense poem written when she was still in her early thirties, Emily Dickinson expresses this haunting thought about her role during the Civil War: “It feels a shame to be Alive – / When Men so brave – are dead.” Speaking as “one,” “We,” and “I” and as the possessor of a powerful conscience, she faults herself for escaping military martyrdom in “Battle’s – horrid Bowl.” Expanding the trope, she claims to envy the modern heroes who died for liberty, the ground that holds their bodies, and the stones by which they are memorialized. This remarkable confession prepares for an even more disturbing conclusion. Although any kind of living is an achievement, a sort of fame, it is not “Divinity.” “Divinity,” Dickinson suggests, is what the Union dead achieve by dying. Because the poem is not well known, I will quote it in full:

It feels a shame to be Alive –
When Men so brave – are dead –
One envies the Distinguished Dust –
Permitted – such a Head –

The Stone – that tells defending Whom
This Spartan put away
What little of Him we – possessed
In Pawn for Liberty –

The price is great – Sublimely paid –
Do we deserve – a Thing –

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.