- American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms, and: Emily Dickinson's Readings of Men and Books: Sacred Sounding, and: Positive as Sound: Emily Dickinson's Rhyme
Unlike Austen, Hawthorne, or Baudelaire, Emily Dickinson usually appears awkward in the company of other writers. Of the three books under consideration here Mutlu Konuk Blasing's American Poetry might thus seem the least auspicious to Dickinsonians. Emily Dickinson is only one of the dozen poets examined, although with very few exceptions the most valuable work on her poetry has come from studies devoted more exclusively to her.
American Poetry offers a striking exception to this rule, however, and also to its more distressing corollary: comprehensive views of American poetry invariably stumble when they come to Dickinson. Blasing locates Dickinson within the panoply of canonical American poets more successfully than any other attempt I know. This achievement alone puts her a step ahead of such rival overviews as Roy Harvey Pearce's, Hyatt Waggoner's, or Harold Bloom's. In addition, Biasing offers a powerful alternative to her rivals' common theme, namely, that American poetry forms a single, continuous, and predominately Emersonian tradition.
Rather than prophesying all American literature, Blasing's Emerson fathers only one of the four distinct and discrete modes of American verse—Poe, Whitman, and Dickinson being the parents of the other three. Each [End Page 95] mode is characterized by semiotic and rhetorical commitments, which Blasing derives from and names for one of Kenneth Burke's four master tropes. This means that her terms belong to a universal and primarily formalist poetics, rather than something specific to American history and culture. Indeed, the poets Blasing links together are not necessarily said to have influenced one another or to be wittingly carrying forward any particular tradition.
What Blasing defines as metonymic and hence allegorical American verse begins with Poe and continues with, among others, T. S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath. Such poetry is haunted by the discontinuity of signifier and signified and thus also by the abyss between a fragmented, paltry literality and some lost symbolic plenitude. By contrast, metaphoric and hence analogical poets believe that the two sides can and do correspond. Emerson establishes such poetry in the United States, and it continues in the twentieth century with Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop.
The more provocative contrast in American Poetry is that between the metaphoric mode and a synecdochic, anagogic poetry beginning with Whitman and reappearing in Ezra Pound and Frank O'Hara. Emersonian correspondence, with its avowed respect for the specificity and autonomy of poetic form, is replaced by the fusion or the identification of literal and figural realms. Whereas orthodox views stress the continuity between Whitman and Emerson, in other words, Blasing insists upon the differences. Her case is impressive, but one cannot help noticing that it depends terminologically upon a notoriously elusive rhetorical distinction. Synecdoche and metaphor are by no means reliably and categorically distinct tropes.
By all accounts metonymy, metaphor, and synecdoche inhabit a different rhetorical space from irony, which Blasing identifies as Dickinson's poetic mode and which she also sees practiced by John Ashbery and (more surprisingly) Hart Crane. Whereas the first three tropes all stipulate a definite figural relation, irony juxtaposes various figures, tropes, and codes without endorsing any. It is accordingly a more insistently self-reflexive mode than the other two. Thus whatever its nominal topic, Dickinson's poetry always concerns nominality as such. "[Such] poetry does not signify a primal, primary, or even prior experience, perception, or conception; it refers to writing itself—to the structures of poetic form and rhetoric, the strategies [End Page 96] of articulation and representation, and the intensities and plateaus of poetic sensation" (194).
To emphasize the semiotic or rhetorical gaps in Dickinson's poetry is not...