This article proposes that a defining feature of Dickinson's poetics is its non-teleological use of language. The primary semantic unit of her writing is the word or phrase rather than the sentence or stanza. Dickinson foregrounds the building blocks of her poems rather than any larger overarching structure they might be thought to be in the service of. She favors a hands-off, non-teleological presentation of language, because to impose a telos on the words of a poem would interfere with the hoped-for emergence of a mysterious, innate meaningfulness in the words. The "circumference" or curvature of Dickinson's language, its refusal to travel in a straight line from subject to statement, gives it a body and presence of its own; a quality at once of perpetual "Motion" and of irreducible "Distance" or strangeness. Dickinson did not invent this non-teleological dimension of literature, but she explored it with unprecedented consistency and self-awareness. The first half of the article finds in the poem beginning "A narrow Fellow in the Grass" (Fr1096) a prime example of Dickinson's non-teleological poetics. It is a poem in which study of the word seems to be an end in itself, whereas discoveries about the poem's meaning that such research yields are apparently a means to that end. In the article's second half I offer readings of three Dickinson lyrics—"Conscious am I in my Chamber" (Fr773), "Bloom opon the Mountain-stated-" (Fr787), and "At Half past Three, a single Bird" (Fr1099)—that locate meaning in meaning's distance, and make of meaning's withdrawal an event. Through these last three readings in particular I try to show that the term "non-teleological" is as applicable to Dickinson's thinking about nature as it is to her language use.


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pp. 133-156
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