Emily Dickinson in Sophie 08.06.2008, 6:23 PM
posted by kross
Emily Dickinson's poems weren't published during her lifetime- it was only after her death that her sister found Emily's manuscripts, tucked at the bottom of a trunk, and decided to publish them. In the translation from manuscript to printed page, many aspects of her poems were lost. In editor's notes, scholars admit to getting snagged on her unusual punctuation, capitalization, and line breaks. The biggest stumbling block comes with Dickinson's endnotes. For many poems in her manuscripts, Dickinson provided alternate lines. Sometimes only an adjective changed but at other times entire stanzas morphed. In "How the Old Mountains drip with Sunset" (291), Dickinson couldn't decide upon a single preposition, so there became six ways that one could be in relation to Solitude.
I've been building a Sophie book, which pulls Dickinson's alternate lines into the body of the poem. I've been trying to make the lines no longer seem like potential-yet-never-permanent afterthoughts. When the line is presented within the text of the poem, I find it receives more consideration (if not equal weight, at least more screen time). Plus, in most publications, editors make the decision which lines to incorporate and which ones to discard. With this version, the reader gets pulled into that discussion, closer to Dickinson's original work. When there is an alternate line, the reader can press on a black button and scroll through Dickinson's suggested changes:
Now, when reading "When we stand on the tops of Things" (242), the reader can see what effect it has when "they bear their dauntless/fearful/tranquil heads." In the book, the reader begins to encounter questions that surface frequently in literary translation, the question of "what is best in context of the poem." However, I think that another type of issue is happening here with Dickinson's work. In "Many a phrase has the English Language" (276), Dickinson waits, tucked in her bedroom in Amherst, for a phrase to arrive with its thundering prospective. The line can read: a) till I grope, and weep; b) till I stir, and weep; or c) till I start, and weep. Each single phrase is fine. But I prefer to think of Emily Dickinson thrashing in her sleigh bed, groping, stirring, and starting all at once. A certain open playfulness becomes built into the framework of the poem once you can let all the possibilities toggle by in one reading experience.
In terms of timing, it pleased me to see Judith Thurman's recent New Yorker article "Her Own Society." Thurman describes Dickinson's dashes as moments in which she "evaded the necessity of putting a period to their mystery—or to her own." And, earlier this summer, Dan gave me Susan Howe's "My Emily Dickinson" to read. At one point, Howe argues that Dickinson built a new poetic form grounded in hesitation. I liked that idea of hesitation, circling back and reconsidering what you might say, what you could possibly. For "I prayed at first, a little Girl" (576), Dickinson gives two final stanzas. The two aren't that unlike. However, looping back, you notice that they accomplish markedly unique things.
Till I could take the Balance
That tips so frequent now,
It takes me all the while to poise —
And then — it does'nt stay —
Till I could catch my Balance
That slips so easy, now,
It takes me all the while to poise —
It isn't steady tho'.
At this point in the project, I'm afraid I've sunken too deep into semi-obsessive adoration to begin to see how this Sophie book could be useful. With this blog post, I'd like to open up the concept for discussion. How do you think a collection like this could be used? Is it ultimately helpful?
Download it here
Right click to download the file. Unzip the file to open the folder. Open "ED Ten" in Sophie Reader.
Posted by kross on August 6, 2008 6:23 PM
Tim on August 6, 2008 9:30 PM:
This is astonishing. I'm surprised that you are uncertain about how it could be useful; it seems to me that its potential, especially for teaching, conferences, anywhere where you need to make a presentation of this material, is tremendous.
I think the next step (and what might break you out of your adoring trance) could be to think outside of Emily Dickinson and towards other authors or collections. It's clear to me that being able to quickly oscillate between manuscripts, digital typescripts, and images of printed versions would be valuable for any kind of text, but perhaps especially so for a variorum edition like this one. I'd drool over a similar book for Pound's Cantos!
Another question is whether this could serve as the beginning of a common format for this kind of presentation, in particular to capitalize on the architecture that you've built here. I think the more that scholars can rely on standard formats and common expectations, the wider the adoption of such hybrid texts will be. Then the reverse question would be how flexible such a format would need to be to still serve the particular needs of an individual collection.
But this is a great, exciting realization of what many people have talked about for a long time.
Sonja on August 7, 2008 3:13 AM:
What an excellent project. This is an issue with which medieval manuscript editors deal all the time. And a whole factory's worth of theory's emerged to cope with the editorial issues that emerge when handling works that are all variants (see Zumthor's stuff on 'mouvance' for an early stab at it).
It's a rare thing to have an 'authoritative,' autograph manuscript by the author, so nearly all versions of medieval works are, in a sense, performances of some orignary text. When trying to produce a critical edition, what's an editor to do? Reproduce parallel texts from different manuscripts? Print only a version from the 'best' manuscript? Collate different manuscript versions? Preface the edition with a prolix essay on the perils of attempts at editorial transparency? All possibilities...
Unfortunately, I was unable to unzip the version posted here, but your description of the project sounds enticing. If it allows for the reader to see as many permutations of the alternate poems as possible, that would be excellent (rather than just being able to see the array of options for each mutable word and then having to leave the options aside and view only the editor's choice as the reader moves on to read the rest of the poem). I think a really productive form of display (again, apologies for making blind suggestions) would be to leave blank, hyperlinked spaces in all the spots that have been debated over by Dickinson. This would make the poetics of hesitation much more visceral to the reader.
Patrick on August 7, 2008 4:35 AM:
Wonderful! "The profusion of metaphor has been increased."
Michael on August 12, 2008 2:06 PM:
This is true to the spirit of Dickinson's poetry, a reader's realization of her whole conception of the poetic mode - as in the famous lines:
I dwell in Possibility--
A fairer House than Prose--
More numerous of Windows--
Of Chambers as the Cedars--
Impregnable of Eye--
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky--
Of Visitors--the fairest--
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise--