Editor's Note: The following essay was written in fulfillment of the open response exercise for week 1 of Harvard University's month-long Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) Poetry in America: Dickinson currently being offered by edX.
The Dickinson Dialectic
Steven Wittenberg Gordon
Emily Dickinson’s choice not to choose a “final” version of some of her poems both empowered and disempowered her as poet when her works were brought to print. This dialectic has become more apparent over time as more editions of her work and the manuscripts themselves have become available to readers. The different versions of Dickinson’s poems disempower her as a poet when editors choose one version over another at the risk of choosing the “wrong” version. However, the fact that a choice of versions must be contemplated by editors forces the editors, at least the conscientious ones, to examine Dickinson’s handwritten manuscripts carefully--the definition of empowerment as a poet.
Likewise, the more “cryptic” elements of Dickinson’s works both enhance and detract from Dickinson’s poetic autonomy. On the one hand, Dickinson took to her grave the reasons for and intended meanings of her dashes, capitals, and punctuation choices. On its face, this impossibility of being understood for certain by anyone but Dickinson herself enhances Dickinson’s poetic autonomy. However, by the same token, the mystery stimulates her readers and editors to dig deeply into what the possible reasons for and meanings of her “cryptic” elements might be to a degree that would likely not be undertaken otherwise. This increased scrutiny can only detract from Dickinson’s poetic autonomy.