Saturday, February 21, 2015



According to the article by Marjorie Perloff "Emily Dickinson and the Theory Canon" - located at Buffalo University's Electronic Poetry Center and available at [<wbr />authors/perloff/articles/<wbr />dickinson.html ] - Emily Dickinson remains problematic to contemporary post-structuralist and Derridean Deconstruction theorists.
The EPC was founed in 1995 and serves as a central gateway to resources in electronic poetry and poetics at the University at Buffalo, the University of Pennsylvania's PennSound PennSound, UBU web, and on the Web at large. Their aim is simple: to make available a wide range of resources centered on digital and contemporary formally innovative poetries, new media writing, and literary programming.  It is a fantastic resource for students and poetry lovers!
In the article Marjorie states: "you will not find Dickinson’s name anywhere in the studies of Paul de Man or Jacques Derrida, in Julia Kristeva or Luce Iragaray, in Roland Barthes or Gilles Deleuze, in Michel Serres or Slavoj Zizek. Helène Cixous, whose strong feminist / deconstructionist writings have addressed highly diverse writers–Clarice Lispector as well as Joyce, Lewis Carroll and Iris Murdoch as well as Kafka and Beckett–has had nothing whatever to say about Dickinson. Again, I have found no references to Dickinson in the writings of the Frankfurt School, or, more surprisingly, since these are Anglophone theorists, in the work of Raymond Williams or Terry Eagleton, Frank Kermode or Fredric Jameson."
And further, that, " explain the neglect of Dickinson on the part of post-structuralist theory... My own hunch is that it has to do with certain assumptions about poetic language and poetic process–assumptions that differentiate Dickinson from the Modernists and their Romantic precursors whose work remains exemplary for theorists from Adorno and Jameson to Cixous and Kristeva."
As Perloff compares Emily to the Romantic poet Wordsworth in her essay, so too may Dickinson's prosody, syntax and reference-obscurity be compared to the poet Paul Celan's, whose work is cited so frequently by the Post-structuralists as to render him and his writing an admirable and precise foil to compare to Dickinson's.  I would like to situate Emily Dickinson, her life and her work briefly in relation to Paul Celan, but also in context and rapport to antiquity's great, female poet, Sappho of Lesbos.  I wish to demonstrate that it is a uniquely American sensibility in her life and writing's inflection, intention and rendering which make it more challenging for post structuralists such as Roland Barthes or Derridean Deconstructionists such as Helene Cixous to treat upon her ouvre.  The contemporary, French postmodern philosopher and critic Jean Baudrillard, author of the prescient and analytical, celebratory tome, "America" will be a go-to touchstone.  I will also gloss possible reasons why the USA based, Austrian born critic Perloff may find Dickinson's work more accessible, than the post-structuralists she mentioned.  American poet and critic Adrienne Rich may, too.  What does this point to for the future of Emily Dickinson studies in the context of a Post-Derrida critical and philosophical environment?  His ideas are currently exploding into areas of thought, analysis, protocol and policy which may have been unthought of a few decades ago: areas such as Law Studies & Criminology, Medicine and Bio-Ethics, Futurism and Computer Studies are turning to his massive body of work with greater frequency as Deconstruction's near liquid adaptibility of technique and freedom of form as a vehicle for thought undo its previous bad reputation for obscurantism and near-absurdity.
In the article, Perloff contends that The New Critics, who generated much Emily Dickinson literary criticism and were chronologically holding sway in the 1950's (just before Deconstruction's thought-upheaval of the late 60's), "were less committed to Romanticism than to Renaissance poetry, especially the Metaphysicals, and to such Victorians as Browning, Arnold, and Hopkins (with whom Dickinson has some real affinities). But for post-structuralist theory, the Romantic tradition is the central one." (Perloff, "Emily Dickinson and the Theory Canon" -henceforth abbreviated: Perloff, "EDTC")  The romantic tradition is crystallized in the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge, but Celan's Eurocentrism and cultural / textual innovation provides a corollary.
Wikipedia ( provides a concise, working definition for New Criticism:  "New Criticism was a formalist movement in literary theory that dominated American literary criticism in the middle decades of the 20th century. It emphasized close reading, particularly of poetry, to discover how a work of literature functioned as a self-contained, self-referential aesthetic object. The movement derived its name from John Crowe Ransom's 1941 book The New Criticism. The work of English scholar I. A. Richards, especially his Practical Criticism and The Meaning of Meaning, which offered what was claimed to be an empirical scientific approach, were important to the development of New Critical methodology."
Some immediate and powerful contrasts between the basic working assumptions of the New Critical School and the post-structuralists include formalism, itself.  While Roland Barthes, for example, in his "semiological" book length study of Balzac's novel "Sarrasine", which is entitled "S/Z", made use of rigor and discipline in his methodical approach to explain Balzac's book word by word, sentence by sentence... a methodology as a whole was conspicuously absent.  Empiricism (the notion that knowledge comes from sense-forms and is therefor both qualifiable and quantifiable) is used as a provisional method by Barthes only in order to put its absolute veracity into question.  Logic and the traditional structures of Western culture, what may be dubbed "Phallogocentrism" (or the idea that the phallus: male, transcendental signifier standing for power; and 'logos': [Greek word for 'ground', or, 'reason'] made to stand for the West's reliance upon Logic), are put into question in post-structuralist texts.  Every theorist mentioned in Perloff's above quoted catalog, and related thinkers such as Jean-Luc Nancy and Avital Ronell, proceeds from a hard won critical, philosophical and literary theoretic freedom.  This freedom in thinking insists that while, yes, the formalist assumptions which sponsor Twentieth Century's sweeping advances in technology and philosophy are important (that is, the notions of male centered power and logic-based reasoning, which is our cultural inheritance and which were fully operable in Emly Dickinson's milieu are important)... what is more important is our ability to question and radically transcend or even transgress upon those very same assumptions.
An example of this could consist in Barthe's study "S/Z"'s being shaped as a music score, a great example of Western Formalist rigor and tradition, yet it being used to propagate post-Freudian literary analysis (among other things) which closely examined the erotic structures of man to man interaction in light of possible Father-Issues.  We have here a situation in which the best of the toolkit bequeathed to us by our global history's European domination is not divorced from our freedom to build upon, adapt from, appropriate or disinherit important aspects of it.  Cixous' 60's famous feminist essay, "The Laugh of the Medusa" calls this 'bricolage' (French for 'Do-It-Yourself') and insists that this is the only way to survive the 20th Century's trauma while still being able to thrive in using its tainted tools.  Tainted because the century began with the oppression of women and ethnic minorities on a global scale, yet ended with liberatory and all-encompassing trends toward further freedom.  Not merely political freedom, but also freedom of conscience, as post-structuralism's influence is felt even in Catholic Studies (for example, John Millbank's appropriation of Jacques Derrida's thought in his New Orthodoxy - theosophical / theological work).  If the New Critics relied upon tradition and the idea of one to one correspondence between word and meaning, their neat view of signification would see Dickinson as a riddle to solve.  Perhaps an intentional riddle put forth by the author, who 'encoded' her works with a successful 'solution' in mind.  This would create a reliance upon Authorial Intent, another cherished tradition that the Deconstructionists challenged.  In their view, what the author intended might very well be important, but only provisionally so, as what meaning any reader found to be available in the text was of potentially equal or greater value (than what the author might have wanted), at any and all times.
This shift in theory and thought from New Criticism to post-structuralism put Emily Dickinson's canonical importance into jeopardy.  Her work had already been heavily appropriated by a school of thinking which purported to speak for American "sense and sensibility", while never having its underbelly shadow-side explored.  For while Dickinson spoke the same language as the Romantics (incorporating ideas of romance, sentiment, tradition and propriety into her letters and poems) she frequently challenged and problematized them.  A great example of this is:
(The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Ed. Johnson: #1694, stanza one)
Speech is one symptom of affection
And Silence one -
The perfectest communication
Is heard of none
This is a clear statement by the poet and correspondent Emily Dickinson that both speech and silence remain problematic.  That there is room enough for further thought in seemingly simple expression(s).  Her writing is considered 'gnomic' which means that it contains, or may contain, hidden or not very apparent messages and unexpected available meanings.  The one thing most can agree upon regarding her work is its near inexhaustibility of relevance in areas as diverse as esthetics, politics, equality, philosophy of ethics and ideas of spirituality and religion.  Her words are never limited to what understandeing you may gain from them, they always reward further inquiry.  While the New Critics may have canonized her for her gorgeous renditions of stirring wit and illumination, Perloff and others wonder why the post structuralists did not canonize her for her depth and wide language-reference base.  Deconstructionists can find infinite connections between ideas in her elegant associative links, whose sparing use of narrow-definition allows for great free play in understanding for individual readers.
A major point of distinction between New Critics and post-structuralists and postmoderns is the shift in thinking from seeing a literary work as a "self contained, self-referential aesthetic object" (Wikipedia).  Deconstructionists and their kind made heavy use of "infinite semiosis" the idea introduced by the American Charles Sanders Peirce in the late 1800's and very early 1900's which states that meaning consists of endless further reference and which was appropriated by Derrida, forming a cornerstone of Deconstructionist thought.  New Critics saw a poem, for example, as a self sustaining thing, while post-structuralists viewed it as an opening onto further connections and meanings.  This is a salient difference which organizes much more than technical approach, it is a shift in spirit; postmodernism could never have evolved without the ability to make seemingly out-of-the-blue connections between seemingly very disparate things.
In "Letters of Emily Dickinson" edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, Dover Publications 2003 (first published in 1894 by Roberts Brothers, Boston), page 133:
Late Autumn, 1853
Sabbath Afternoon
     DEAR FRIENDS, -- I thought I would write again.  I write you many letters with pens which are not seen.  Do you receive them?
       I think of you all to-day, and dreamed of you last night.
     When father rapped on my door to wake me this morning, I was walking with you in the most wonderful garden, and helping you pick--roses, and though we gathered with all our might, the basket was never full.
Again, in Emily Dickinson's letters we find an allegory of plentiude and generosity in service of friendship which suggests that her intellectual sensibility was one of search and reward, without scarcity.  I believe this passage points to a mentality which announces further opportunity in meaning for every successful meaning achieved.  Signification can be seen as the "roses" gathered and the framework for their use, the mind, as the "basket" which is never (over) filled.
While poet Paul Celan's agony was easily understood and identifiable with by post WW2 Europe: his family was murdered by Nazis, he inherited his oppressor's language, his creative dignity was attacked later in France by the accusation of Plagiarism (which led to his suicide by drowning in the river Seine), Emily Dickinson's agony was less easily understood or appropriable.  How could she claim to suffer the ravages of war (in her case the American Civil War) while leading a posh, aristocratic, upper class existence esconced in her family's well-to-do Amherst stronghold?  How could she know the interior terror of language appropriation available to Holocaust survivors working in German when she spoke English, whose cultural markers and differentiations between Britain and America were not so clearly problematic as that of Nazi Death-Camp survivors?  And how could one compare suicide (Celan's) to disappointment (Dickinson's) following so-called artistic failure?
My contention is that Dickinson's great sensitivity allows for a contemporary and empathic understanding of the possible depths of her suffering.  Many psychologists have argued upon the ravages of Survival.  Perhaps her hurt was all the more for being the witness to the disenfranchisement, dehumanization and cultural and physical decimation of women and blacks in her society, and not being able to directly change the situation outside of writings which would wait generations to see the light of day and whose importance was not at all perceived at the time of their composition.  Celan's suffering was direct and obvious as was the trauma any mimetic presentations or understandings of it, possibly, as well.  The dissociative pain of the holocaust survivor entailed the loss of subjectivity and identity, the victims no longer remained themselves.  But what of those who hurt but did not have sufficient recourse to lose themselves?  Dickinson's pain renewed itself, daily, and found no end in an early, self inflicted death.  I do not by any means wish to compare these different life stories in terms of value, however that is what some may think the Deconstructionists may be doing.  The idea that Celan's suffering was more authentic or powerful than Dickinson's must be challenged, since both authors' suffering inflected the beauty of their work, profoundly; and both authors affected posterity in inspiring greater thought and care regarding fundamental, human issues.  Instead, I believe that Dickinson presented a challenging ouvre for post-structuralists due to her American Sensibility, and not because she was seen to be of little consequence.
In "America", published in 1986, French postmodern thinker Jean Baudrillard states, “Snapshots aren’t enough.  We’d need the whole film of the trip in real-time…”  The implication being that to understand America one must first understand scale.  The book is peppered with fecund references to American Largesse, from big skies, to endless interstate highways, to cultural sensibilities appropriated by minorities from their historical masters and subverted and made to stand upon their ends, to conceptualization of the famous state-of-the-art.  If America represents the state-of-the-art for Globalisation, Americans resist the very globalisation they enact and are forced to embody, clinging to the peculiarities and colloquialisms that Dickinson herself is still famous for.  This is a feature of difference between hers and Celan's corpus.  Celan introduces a terrifying and blank genericism which reminds the world that modern atrocities are things capable of replication, while Dickinson's approach to the unthinkable, while still abstract and universal, makes use of specificity amidst the generalities.
Dickinson writes:
I am alive - because
I do not own a House -
(Dickinson Poems, Johnson, #605)
making use of very universal language and conceptuality in service of a particularization and specificity.  It is only she who is alive, the reason being her ownership of a house.
Celan by contrast:

Fugue of Death

Paul Celan, 1930 - 1970
Black milk of daybreak we drink it at nightfall
we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night
we drink it and drink it
we are digging a grave in the sky it is ample to lie there
A man in the house he plays with the serpents he writes
he writes when the night falls to Germany your golden
 hair Margarete
he writes it and walks from the house the stars glitter he 
 whistles his dogs up
he whistles his Jews out and orders a grave to be dug in
 the earth
he commands us strike up for the dance
making use of very specific circumstance and detail in order to offer up a poignant vision of destruction caused via nihilism.  Men, dogs, dance and stars are all helpless to conjure the particularity of presence Dickinson evokes, despite his uniqueness of reference and its precision.  Dickinson seems to say, no matter what anyone does, it is written in the record of life, Celan seems to say no matter what is written in the record of life, it could be anyone who has written it.  They are both much needed perspectives, but perhaps, since the project of post-structuralism was to loosen the world's overt-tight reins upon meaning, it is understandably easier for them to adopt directness of approach upon Celan's existential statement, while their very silence regarding Dickinson's bouyant optimism amounts to a great show of respect.  Deconstruction theory came specifically of age during great social upheaval in the 1960's and it has never been very divorced from its revolutionary sensibility.  Poets of overt resistance seem to suit its needs best (such as Coleridge).  However Dickinson's coy, contradictory and often playful approach, while embodying post-structuralist style and technique, are not as easily appropriable to its specific end or project, perhaps, currently and regarding the very recent past.

Adrienne Rich in "Vesuvius At Home" (Adrienne Rich's Poetry And Prose, Norton, 1975) page 191 states of Dickinson, "[t]he poet experiences herself as loaded gun, imperious energy", perhaps meaning that Emily's dynamism is the new Empire of The Good ready to challenge the Evil Empire.  Indeed, Emily's reclusiveness was a smoke-screen, she was one of the friendliest and most polite souls, generating an amazing corpus of letters which amply demonstrate intense goodwill fostering connection and evolution in an intensely changing and growing socius.  Celan only knew the Evil Empire, and European sensibility was years away from the current political formation of The European Union which expressly stands against the possibility of a Western (and Eastern) Europe united in the hatred of the Axis, World War II powers.  This Empire of The Good is armed, however, and ready to use force against villainy, and a sense of chivalry, and a cooperative nature infuse the writings of Emily Dickinson.  Even at her most brutal and problematic,
(Dickinson Poems, Johnson #905) 
Split the Lark - and you'll find the Music -
Loose the Flood - you shall find it patent -
Gush after Gush, reserved for you -
...points to a framework of hospitality behind such seemingly cruel references as dissection or vivisection.  A twisted silver lining upon a grey cloud.  This is reminiscent of a central thesis found in Jacques Derrida's work, "The Politics of Friendship" where he elucidates the idea that even the insult, designed specifically to be hurtful, incorporates the foundations for hospitality because it exists only by way of commonality of language.  It is Dickinsonian largesse which may refute her "Elitism" as it seems she provides an aristocratic sensibility only in order to share and confer it, instead of hoarding.
Translator and scholar Willis Barnstone, in "Sappho and the Greek Lyric Poets", Schocken Books, New York, 1988, states, "In Sappho we hear for the first time in the Western world the direct words of an individual woman.  While Harold Bloom and David Rosenberg in "The Book of J" posit that the core text of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, were written by a female of the Semitic Aristocracy, this cannot be proven.  Sappho stands as the first, feminine voice.  Psappho, as she referred to herself in her native Aiolic Greek dialect, was a famous woman who taught poetry and performed to great acclaim.  However, she was demonized by society and the early Christian church, who found her sensual words and life story offensive.  Like Emily Dickinson Sappho relied upon short, enigmatic poems, whose lyricism was infused with expert prosody and whose meanings challenged assumptions too-easily held regarding gender roles.  Her contemporary, male poet, Pindar, whose fame matched hers in life, is not nearly as much of a household name as hers.  In fact, we derive the word "lesbian" from her girls' school located on her beautiful, native island of Lesbos, and the term sapphic means woman to woman erotic activity.  Like Dickinson, Sappho's life intrigued male, hegemonic, phallogocentric interest, and like Dickinson, the readership at large always wondered about her mysterious love life.  Like Dickinson, Sappho created poetic utterance rife with sensuous imagery and romantic ideals.  Sappho has a rhyme scheme named after her, the Sapphic Stanza and her name has come to dominate our understanding of ancient Greek lyricism.
In close reading both poets one may find deep yearning and an uncharacteristic mixture of strength and vulnerability.  What separated these two women from other writers was the fact that they could psychologically denude themselves, and yet carry on in the face of their own fragile humanity.
Sappho writes:
I barely heard you,
my darling;
You came in your
trim garments,
and suddenly: beauty
of your garments.
(Sappho #238, Barnstone)
Such subtle evocation of the terrible majesty of love, this lyric makes use of a shift in shades of meaning, "your trim garments" becomes "beauty / of your garments".  By forcing the reader into a more conscious awareness of the image for the clothing, the poet reinforces the beauty of the woman the clothing adorns.  Sappho's economic and powerful lyrics rivalled ancient Chinese poems in their concision and yet she remained the free Greek woman capable of terrifying the Church into book banning and poem destroying policy.
Dickinson writes:
Love's stricken "why"
Is all that love can speak -
Built of but just a syllable,
The hugest hearts that break.
Forcing language itself to embody the reality of love, the reader's consciousness experiences the epiphanic truth that Dickinson's love is manifested in the poem itself directly.  That instead of the writing signifying love, the portentious syllable which makes up that word functions as the performance of its action.
Both women use the beauty of language to compell their readership into a finer understanding of the subtle mechanics which underlie human emotion and reason.  Both women generously offer of their own hard-won wisdom to any audience willing to struggle with the finery of their conceptual mechanics.  Both women created poems-as-technology which propelled consciousness past its status quo.
Marjorie Perloff writes of a careful audienceship being able to read Dickinson's work from fascicle to fascicle.  Meaning that since Emily Dickinson bundled her poems into individual, hand sewn books (or fascicles) one could compartmentalize the works contained into various textual fields (Perloff, EDTC).  This is an astute understanding of Dickinson's subtle process.  Emily makes textual fields available beyond the scope of a given poem's words.  Dickinson poems echo across each other with the same consonance as many of the words that they contain.  Emily's work creates internal resonances amongst her various creations.  In fact, Perloff aludes to this effect being very much available in Dickinson's letters, as well.  Additionally, Perloff states,
if Dickinson is not a Modernist, she is, ironically, very much a precursor of what we might call the "differential" poetics of our own time–"differential" in that there is not one "correct" or even preferred text–but a variorum set that allows the reader to consider alternatives. As such, Dickinson’s is a poetics of process that allows for much more reader involvement than does the Modernist aesthetic of the mot juste. 
(Perloff, EDTC)
The issue raised is why the post-structuralists would not champion such an open ended and generous poetics as Emily's.  For she has granted the readership authority in interpretation at a time when authorial intent was still considered sacred to many.  After Roland Barthe's seminal essay, "The Death of the Author", however, Deconstruction theorists and others rightly understood the textual space as a hotly contested zone where power should not be centered merely upon the writer.  Indeed, the format for power operative in a postmodern understanding of any given text was decentralized in the extreme.  Infinite semiosis and cultural polyvalence, alone, ensured that unfair hegemonies would not co-opt any given text's vitally important ability to inspire positive ideas outside of what the writer or creator of those texts may or may not have intended.  Yet, Perloff claims that:
When Bakhtin, Adorno, the French post-structuralist theorists, and even most Marxist and feminist theorists have talked about lyric, their point de repère has essentially been the Modernist lyric-- the autonomous, semantically dense, and indeterminate lyric of a Mallarmé, a Rilke, or a Stevens. Not surprisingly, then, they have underrated Emily Dickinson even as they have underrated Gerard Manley Hopkins, or, for that matter, Emerson. True, with respect to meaning-making, Dickinson is very much of her time: despite her complex and difficult metaphysic, she believes that poetry can articulate truths, even if those truths are to be told "slant."
(Perloff, EDTC)
However, it is not in the interest of post-structuralists to "rate" literature or the importance of given poems or poets.  That, in fact, is an old stand-by of the now discarded tradition which holds authors as central and authors to be placed in a hierarchy of importance wherein their "rating" is derived from a combination of technical skill and critical merit.  Contrastingly, the postmoderns, Deconstructionists, and post-structuralists often view language itself as the "author" in the sense that any and all meanings available in a work are recognized to never have been fully appreciable by the creator of those works.  Yet, since Emily Dickinson wrote generations before the popularization of this notion, I contend that she was not only in full awareness of the equivocation between her power as a writer and its importance or merit (in other words that she knew that her writings were experimental), but that she was also painfully aware that most critics of her time, or even the near future would not accept this.  The fact that she chose to tell her truths "slant" tips the critic off to her awareness that meaning in poetry would soon undergo a critical revolution.  I believe that Perloff is entirely correct regarding Dickinson's "differential" poetics, but I think she is amiss in assuming that the post-structuralists failed to treat her due to a perceived "low-rating" they may have given her.  Instead, I believe it is an issue pertaining to the differences between Americana and European cultures.
The idea that there is an onus of Perfection in USA yields a problematic sensibility.  A quest for the absolute which is a hyper realization of European earnestness.
The New World has always been hyper attuned to the sameness and differences it may manifest in relation to the Old.  The American experiment was begun in direct reaction to the most perfect manifestation of Empire that Europe could then produce.  Instead of remaining in Europe's shadow, however, an important part of the American sensibility (amply demonstrated in its exploratory nature and pioneering spirit) remains its perceived challenge to improve upon anything and everything that Europe has done.  This yields a somewhat obsessive American temperament and vertiginous freedom which I think the post-structuralists found a bit over the top and intimidating.  It's not that they thought her work unworthy of critical response, but in fact, that the work was too dense and too rife with available plenitude of referential meaning and cultural possibility to choose to handle.  Not to mention, the Civil War and the intellectual politics of 1800's USA was not the most pressing concern for post-WW2 Europe.  These European philosophers simply took Dickinson's genius for granted as part of the cultural, global inheritance setting the stage for their efforts.  They saw in Emily's "differential" poetics a kindred spirit and someone they could analyze and celebrate in the near future, they put her on the back-burner precisely because they were so much in sympathy with her thought, sensibility and years-ahead-of-its-time poetics.
- Stanley Gemmell - POSTED 2/22/2015
Thank you sincerely for your time.