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  • Editorial Note
  • Jed Deppman and Joy Ladin

Emily Dickinson's presence in American poetry is elusive, complex, contradictory. Few American poets learn their craft from Dickinson. No one seems to have inherited her subject matter, diction, or approach to language or composition. But as the Journal's recent special issue of poets discussing Dickinson showed, American poets continue to find themselves in and through Dickinson. Dickinson is a kind of Rorschach test, an inkblot in which poets discover their own identities through angry or affectionate projection, alternately—and sometimes simultaneously—hailed as the greatest nineteenth-century American poet; the first twentieth-century American poet; and a poet still decades beyond us, waiting for us to assimilate her experiments in form, diction, semantics, and prosody.

In the half-century plus since Thomas Johnson published his variorum edition, it has become generally agreed that Emily Dickinson, along with her contemporary Walt Whitman, is the greatest American poet. Dickinson is a staple of anthologies and syllabi; even school children learn a smattering of Dickinson's verse, and her name and image enjoy a lively pop cultural afterlife. Dickinson studies continues to grow in breadth and depth, examining Dickinson's relation to everything from domesticity to deconstruction. American poets speak of Dickinson with the respect accorded to what Auden called “so great, so dead” authors, but few have publicly reflected in depth on their relationships with Dickinson. As a result, it is hard to tell how much Dickinson actually matters in contemporary American poetry.

To examine Dickinson as a living presence in American poetry, we knew we needed more than brief encomia and abstract generalities, and so we invited poets to take long, risky looks at how reading Dickinson shapes, or fails to shape, the choices of symbol, syllable, and sound they make as they work. The responses we received were revealing, illuminating aspects of Dickinson that are generally beyond the reach of conventional scholarship, such as Annie Finch's meditation on the complexity of Dickinson as a “father figure,” and Jay Rogoff's painstaking reflection on how his poems stack up next to Dickinson's treatment of similar forms and themes.

But the intimacy that makes poets' reflections on their relationships to Dickinson so illuminating also makes them difficult to generalize. To remedy this difficulty, we have juxtaposed such non-scholarly reflections with scholarly examinations of Dickinson's place in American poetry. If the poets' essays offer a glimpse of how Dickinson affects American poets' sense of themselves, the [End Page vii] scholarly essays suggest how contemporary American poetry affects our sense of Dickinson. Nancy Mayer, for example, finds in Charles Wright's treatment of religious themes a new perspective on the long-vexed question of Dickinson's deployment of Christian ideas in her poems, while Lori Emerson considers how the growth of “digital poetics” can—and already is—changing the way we read Dickinson's poems.

Taken together, these essays show that Emily Dickinson is alive and well in twenty-first-century American poetry: a parent who continues to peer over her children's shoulders as they write; a very visible ghost in the complementary machines of post-modernist experimentation and neo-Formalist architecture; a work-in-progress that keeps on growing as we, her readers and writers, continue to grow with her. [End Page viii]

Jed Deppman and Joy Ladin
October 2008


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