- Dickinson’s Advertising Flyers: Theorizing Materiality and the Work of Reading
When Vinnie Dickinson discovered her sister’s poetry after her death, she reported astonishment. Not only were hundreds of poems sewn together in little bundles, but hundreds more lay scattered, and hundreds more still were mere scraps, pieces of paper scribbled on, pinned together in some instances — brown wrapping paper, pharmacy paper, snippets of stationery. 1 Ever since the discovery of her poems, Dickinson’s material practices, particularly the matter of her production and distribution of the poems, have struck commentators as in need of explanation. The fact that she didn’t seek to publish her poems, in fact found print anathema, 2 has puzzled generations of scholars, particularly since many of her dearest friends, editors of newspapers and magazines, writers of very popular essays and books, were directly involved in the publishing world. I propose that Dickinson’s practice, after abandoning the fascicles, was to make her compositions literally “of their milieu,” both by appropriating the print environment of her time and by theorizing thought’s specific and material appearing. Dickinson’s eschewal of print for her poems was both theoretical and practical: it was not a problem with print per se, but it came increasingly to be a problem with the resistance inherent in a project intent on investigating the materiality of representation.
Often misclassified in the Johnson editions of the poems and letters as “Prose Fragments” or drafts, many of the workshop scraps are in fact significant as compositional units. Dickinson’s fugitive productions in the scraps take the lyric’s logic, its refusal of totality and metaphysic, to its extreme by drawing attention to a thought’s materiality in time. This refusal of metaphysic does not result so much from the fact that the compositions are fragmentary, although they may be: rather, these pieces refuse metaphysic by foregrounding the experience of reading. In their peculiar situatedness they draw [End Page 27] attention to reading as a material encounter, a struggle with the potential obstacle to consciousness of the embodiedness of letters.
Dickinson’s representational practices concern themselves with the paradox of language’s material appearence, its need for the precisely immaterial imagination. Her practice of housing variants in the fascicle poems had already created a situation in which the poem cannot be settled as an object, and in which the reader must become conscious of language not as a system of equivalences, but as a system of relationships requiring mediation and construction by a reader. When her compositional practices move from the use of variants which produce the impossibility of objectifying the poem to the even more complex interactions with already textualized media such as newspaper clippings and advertisements, they produce a reading experience which dissolves altogether the notion of the poem as an object. Paradoxically, as Dickinson’s practices investigate thought’s inevitable materiality, what the reader derives is more and more relational and imaginary. The poem takes place as a set of relationships formed with and by the reader.
A special set of pieces do their own theoretical work: they thematize and compose relationships of their material predicaments in a commercial print environment in a way largely inaccessible to poems composed for the fascicle or book format. 3 In so doing, they constitute a sustained and inclusive commentary by Dickinson upon her own poetic project. 4 They are readily distinguishable from the humbler products of Dickinson’s workshop — fragments and drafts composed on pharmacy wrappers and bits of brown paper bags, for instance — but they are not, therefore, atypical. While the circumstances and motives responsible for the less theoretically active scraps are often recoverable at the thematic or material level, poems and prose meditations composed on advertising flyers, newspaper ads, guarantees, commercial stationery, bits of magazines, book and medicine show circulars, a flyleaf, envelope flaps, penmanship practice slips, and shopping lists both embed the motive circumstance for thought at the material level and think about the materiality of that circumstance. These compositions suggest that the medium of consciousness (language) is endangered by its potentially illegible materiality, and that the work of reading is therefore vital to the health of letters...