Dickinson’s Dashes and the Free-Verse Line
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Dickinson’s Dashes and the Free-Verse Line Wayne Miller Whitman’s contribution to free verse is clear. His capacious, often Biblically cadenced lines suspend the poems in Leaves of Grass somewhere between the essay and the kind of regularly metered work a nineteenth-century reader might have more immediately identified as verse. (Notice that Emerson, in his famous letter, described the book as an “extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom,” not, specifically, as poetry.) Whitman’s lines foreground plain, common speech and replace, as a guiding principle, metrics with Whitman’s own intuitive sense of rhythm. Yet, despite free verse’s dominance in twentieth-century and contemporary American poetry, Whitman’s long, unwieldy lines have few direct descendants. Sure, there’s Ginsberg and Kenneth Fearing, there’s C. K. Williams and the occasional poem by Jorie Graham, and one could make a case for Richard Siken and D. A. Powell among others. But if I were to pick up five poetry journals at random from the shelf, I would be hard pressed to find all that many poems with lines that even begin to approach the right-hand margin, let alone wrap it. Whitman’s sense of the line as a thing that holds an extraordinary amount of information before it breaks—a thing that, by its very capaciousness, pulls lists of details and characters and places into the mesh of the poem—has had relatively few takers. What about Dickinson? The majority of her lines are built on the meters of ballads and hymns. There’s no question that Dickinson’s primary lineating principle is that of patterned metrics, not free verse. But, within those “traditional” lines, we encounter her dashes. It is my contention that Dickinson’s dashes often work like the line-breaks we frequently come across in contemporary free verse; that is, rather than building metrical patterns, as her actual lines do, her dashes serve to control the arrival of ideas within the unfolding of the poem. In Miller | 167 the process, they often disrupt and/or complicate the meanings of her sentences, constructing subordinate, fragmentary meanings within those sentences, and even building indeterminacies (or multiplicities) inside them. Take, for example, the last line of “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.” When we read the line, “And Finished knowing—then—“ (128), we have to decide if Dickinson means and finished knowing then, end stop, or if she means, and finished knowing, then, where we are left waiting after an elliptical conditional. In this first possibility, the speaker’s death becomes the definitive end to her knowing, and thus her living. In the second, after the end of her limited, earthly knowledge, the speaker encounters a kind of knowing that can’t be communicated, one that can be hinted at only by an open ending. In The Art of the Poetic Line, James Longenbach draws a distinction between what he calls “parsing” and “annotating ” lines—the first essentially used to clarify meaning, the second used to complicate meaning. Here, we find Dickinson’s dashes doing the work of the “annotating” line. Another example: in the first stanza of “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—” we encounter the famous opening lines: I heard a Fly buzz—when I died— The Stillness in the Room Was like the Stillness in the Air— Between the Heaves of Storm— (223) Here, the reader must decide with what piece of language “when I died” belongs. Do we read those lines as “I heard a fly buzz. When I died, the stillness in the room was like the stillness in the air”? Or do we read them, “I heard a fly buzz when I died. The stillness in the room was like the stillness in the air”? Again, the dashes are disruptively “annotating.” What happens if we lineate those opening stanzas according to their dashes, instead of their line-breaks? We get something like this: I heard a fly buzz When I died The stillness in the room was like the stillness in the air Between the heaves of storm The eyes around Had wrung them dry 168 | Miller And breaths were gathering firm for the last onset When the King be witnessed In the room I willed my keepsakes . . . Suddenly those lines look like W. S. Merwin’s; they have the same slipperiness of line created by his controlled lack of punctuation, where the line-breaks disruptively take the place of punctuation, requiring a repeated negotiation of multiple...