- New Poems of Emily Dickinson
Behind the marquee title of my friend Bill Shurr's earlier book, The Marriage of Emily Dickinson (1983), with its supposed epistolary linkage of the poet to a lover and, by predisposed reading of selected fascicle poems, with a tale of passion, adultery, and pregnancy, there beams a rare, welcome light on Dickinson's impressive aggregation of love poems. Beneath the moon-landing headline of Shurr's present book, New Poems of Emily Dickinson, there also resides an admirable virtue: his highlighting not only Dickinson's habitual syllabic-metric rhythms in her prose but also a sampling of her aphoristic brilliance, this latter skill most fully documented in 1979 by Karl Keller.
Aside from incidental virtues, however, it must be added that Shurr's huge present claim of 498 "new poems" occurs in a tiny study that teeters on contradictory methods, arbitrary genre liberties, and silent editorial alterations that, for example, throw up as a "poem" the line "We go by detachments to the strange Home," eight words taken from an incomplete pencil draft of an 1885 letter in which Dickinson's actual line is three words longer and does not make a sentence. The claim, the methods, and the results, lacking intellectual rigor or persuasion in a kind of po-mo textual free-for-all, thus bear on the integrity of literary study generally and Dickinson studies in particular.
Detaching so-called poems from the prose of the letters is justified, says Shurr, by following the "more liberating or even transgressive lines" promoted in the textual criticism of Jerome McGann, whose cosmogonic [End Page 126] notions of editing a Dickinson manuscript have prompted him to throw up five of the poet's variant words at the bottom of a holograph poem text to be read, if not as apparatus, as the poem's "concluding line" (Black Riders , 1993). Here is the unrhyming, syllabically alien, artlessly stressed string of words beginning with Dickinson's substitution marker: "+ just myself —Only me—I—". McGann asserts that editors should "treat all her scriptural forms as potentially significant at the aesthetic or expressive lever (EDJ, vol. II, no. 2, 1993: 51). In the aesthetics of her scriptural forms, then, what is the function of Dickinson's disabling eye trouble and the probability that, as she wrote in pen then pencil, her impaired peripheral vision could not measure out spaces or reliably ascertain a sheet's edges where her handwritten lines began or finished or were interrupted?
Relying on blurry textual theory, Shurr's methods contradict one another and raise fundamental questions. What are the criteria that determine which lines in a letter are a poem or, as he says, "rise to the level of poetry"? By his abstract phrase "formal poetic characteristics" he evidently means language that is "figurative and metrical as well as memorable." In fact, the metrical schemes he extracts are almost always scanned extremely loosely. "Wit" and "compactness" are mentioned as criteria, but in the end his constructions seem repeatedly based on the "profound insight" he finds in the prose—e.g., "new poem" #361 reads: "However you stem Nature, / she at last succeeds."
A distinction between poetry and prose? Shurr finds the borders "quite moveable." Into this chartless territory he sweeps multiple "genres" including epigrams, "riddles," "workshop materials," "poetic armatures," "skeletons," "rough plans," "latent poems," and something called "and such." To the array he adds an even wilder liberation by way of the "outrides" of Gerard Manley Hopkins that allows dozens of rubbery "fourteeners" into the Dickinson poetry canon. The crucial matter of context for "prose-formatted poems" embedded in letters is also contradictory. Shurr says of the "new poems" that "they easily exist apart from their context in the letters." Yet, in direct negation of such clean extractions, for "poem" after "poem" he summons what he calls [End Page 127] "hints" from the context of the letters—the recipient, the occasion, Dickinson's purpose—"for full comprehension."
Literary study must indeed recognize how print alters manuscript form even as print...