Wednesday, January 30, 2019

For Emily Dickinson, the Personal Wasn't All That Political

Emily Dickinson has become, with Walt Whitman, the founding poet of American poetry. She is beloved by both scholars and casual readers, the subject of endless volumes of literary criticism and the source of quotations for a plethora of Etsy products and Instagram images. It's common to lament that Dickinson didn't receive acclaim and was barely even published during her lifetime, never mind that she was ambivalent at best about presenting her work in print. It would be easy to assume that this lack of literary success while she was alive was the result of misogynistic publishing practice, but as Susan Howe has pointed out in an interview in The Birth-mark, "Emily Dickinson's inability to get her work published during her lifetime had almost nothing to do with the fact that she was a woman and everything to do with her originality." This is a more than fair point: American women writers can be counted among some of the most popular and critically successful during the nineteenth century, from Julia Ward Howe to Harriet Beecher Stowe, Margaret Fuller to Louisa May Alcott, and many others forgotten by all but specialist scholars today. Women poets, in particular, were treasured by American readers, precisely because it was believed that women could voice particular notions of beauty, simplicity, and truth from the domestic sphere that men could not. Thus, women's publishing success in the nineteenth century was not a feminist victory in the twenty-first century sense, since it was predicated on biologically essentialist assumptions about gender.

Howe further argues that, "I think she may have chosen to enter the space of silence, a space where power is no longer an issue, gender is no longer an issue, voice is no longer an issue, where the idea of a printed book appears as a trap." Howe's contention is fascinating and worth exploring further, not least of all because it challenges numerous received notions of contemporary feminism.

Today, it is taken for granted in feminist circles that women ought to be, and ought to want to be, empowered and that empowerment is attained through self-expression. To remain silent is to be oppressed, suppressed, repressed. Feminists are supposed to raise their voices and speak. However, speaking is not in and of itself empowering. If no one is listening to you, or no one who is listening understands you, it is speaking, and not silence, that becomes oppressive. One of the central problems of women's lives, in this very moment, is that a woman's 'no' is often heard as a 'yes' or a 'maybe' or 'whatever you say, mister.' Further, if we are all speaking, we create cacophony, rather than empowerment.

Choosing to remain silent is not a refusal of self-empowerment, but it is also not a means of self-empowerment. Instead, that choice elides the question of empowerment altogether. It is to assert, staunchly, with Bartleby, "I would prefer not to." In Dickinson's case, the silence of not publishing her poetry was also a means of creating a space in which her poetry could be unharnessed from the constraints of the cold realities of the public literary forum. She did not need to write apologia for her unusual syntax, her idiosyncratic punctuation, her elliptical references and ambiguous grammar. She did not need to neutralize the ironic observations, hitting her targets like Robin Hood's arrows, or the small blasphemies that seem quite modern to us and might have seemed unfeminine and indecent in her own day. She slips out from under the carapace of womanhood in a society that only valued angels in their homes and unlaces the corset of regular verse insisted upon by the arbiters of poetic culture.

From today's vantage point, it seems a shame that Dickinson became the darling of American poetry only after her death, that her work was only published after her death. She can't tell us how the poems ought to look on the page. She can't tell us which poems are finished and which are fragments, if she would even have seen a difference between the two. But it's questionable whether this circumstance is a tragedy or a felicity. There is a quality in Dickinson's work that can't be pinned down. She is a literary butterfly that escapes every net. "Split the lark," she wrote, "and you'll find the music." But Emily Dickinson is one lark that we can't split open, plainly and simply because she repaired into a poetic world of her own making, one without any publisher but her own hand. Does that make her 'empowered'? Perhaps not. Can we really, in all sincerity, imagine the white-clad, slant-rhyming woman receding into the distant past wanting to be empowered? At such an idea, I cannot help but see her with a bemused, Mona Lisa smile. Feminism demands empowerment because it demands that women be visibly, vocally participant in the socio-economic sphere, but Dickinson didn't need to be empowered because her poetry didn't depend on the faddish caprices of society or the hollow rewards of capitalist economy. 

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