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Iron Pyrites in the Dickinson Mine

From: The Emily Dickinson Journal
Volume 4, Number 1, Spring 1995
pp. 108-117 | 10.1353/edj.0.0030

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

William H. Shurr of the University of Tennessee has been mining Dickinson's letters for nuggets overlooked by other Dickinson scholars, even Thomas H. Johnson whose The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson contains what the ordinary reader might have thought were all of Dickinson's poems, including those to be found originally in her letters. Evidently Shurr believes he hit paydirt in Dickinson's inexhaustible vein, for in September of 1993 he published his New Poems of Emily Dickinson, in which he claimed to have discovered "Nearly 500 short epigrams and longer lyrics excavated from Dickinson's correspondence but not previously presented in poetic form.—'Most of all, these poems continue Dickinson's remarkable experiments in extending the boundaries of poetry and human sensibility,'" as it was reported in the EDIS Bulletin (10).

Nearly simultaneously a review titled "Emily Warmed Over" by Gary Lee Stonum appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Professor Stonum wrote that these "New Poems [are] Anything but New." He continued,

"The 'New Poems of Emily Dickinson,' sad to say, are not new, not often poems, and not even quite Emily Dickinsons. To produce this volume William Shurr has mined Dickinsons published letters, sometimes finding gems and sometimes fool's gold, but only rarely extracting anything Dickinson herself would have owned as one of her poems."

The book had a casual inception, according to Anita Manning, who wrote, "On a whim, Shurr set out some passages" from Dickinson's letters "as poems. . ." (10). Evidently, according to information supplied on the title page of his book and elsewhere therein, Shurr's chief excavators were a graduate student, Anna Dunlap, and Shurr's daughter, Emily Grey Shurr, who did the exhumation under the editor's direction.

The discovery is "an exciting, innovative and important advance in Dickinson studies," wrote Dickinson scholar Emory Elliott of the University of California, Riverside, on the bookjacket. He called Shurr's work "a major advance in our knowledge of Dickinson as poet and person."

"These poems use her [Dickinson's] preferred hymn or ballad meters and unusual rhymes," Shurr averred not only in his book and in the Bulletin, but in many of the media, including newspapers, television and radio. However, what struck this reader most strongly was the fact that "these poems" did not use rhymes—unusual or not—at all. Perhaps graduate students may be excused for being unaware of the various definitions of prosodics and verse forms, but one expects editors and scholars to know them.

Pertinent standard definitions (from my The New Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics ) are as follows:

Ballad: Universal in the Western world. Folk ballads are written in podic prosody, literary ballads in accentual-syllabics. The ballad stanza is [rhymed] a4 b3 c4 b3. [The superscripts indicate Une lengths.] For related forms see common measure

(95-97).

Emily Dickinson did not write ballads, which are medium-length lyric narratives, nor did she write in the accentual folk ballad measure called "podic prosody"; thus, "ballad meters" is the wrong term—there is a clear difference between a "meter" and a "stanza." The correct term is common measure stanzas, which Dickinson found in the hymnals of Amherst and used as her models:

Common Measure: Accentual-syllabic Rhymed. A quatrain stanza written in iambics. . . . The rhyme scheme is abcb. The first and third lines consist of four iambic feet; the second and fourth lines, of three iambic feet (119). Hymnal stanza is the same, except that it rhymes abab [ibid.].

Common measure and hymnal stanza must rhyme. Since the "poems" under discussion here do not rhyme, and only the most optimistic scansion would show that they were purposely written in iambic meters, they are not cast in Emily Dickinson's standard common measure and hymnal stanza patterns. Here is an example, "One of Shurr's favorites among the new poems," according to Manning:

A Letter always seemed to me

like Immortality,

for is it not the Mind alone,

without corporeal friend?

If "lines" one and two seem to set up a couplet rhyme pattern, then the reader's expectation is that lines three and four will do the same. Their complete failure to do...