Dickinson: rebel hero of punctuation

I think I see why Emily Dickinson uses all those dashes instead of commas and periods. (Someone else has probably said this before, but I’m too lazy to do a responsible literature review and find out, so I’ll pretend this is original with me, as if I’ve dozed off in the conversation, awakened with a start, and parroted the last speaker’s comment to a puzzlingly bland reaction.)

Shakespeare and other earlier writers used punctuation for pacing and pauses, not to distinguish between restrictive and nonrestrictive phrases or to point modifiers at their targets and so on. (See “Shedding Punctuation.”) Modern writers (those in the centuries since soon after Shakespeare) have been constrained by grammatical rules in their use of punctuation and must find ways to break free of those restrictions. Some modern poets just dump punctuation altogether:

Women and men(both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain
     —e. e. cummings

Plenty of freedom for the reader to piece the syntax together there. The parentheses are syntactically gratuitous, clarifying nothing, but suggesting a shift in voice, exactly the kind of effect that was lost when the rules came in.

Dickinson seems to have used the dash, a unit of punctuation that even to this day hasn’t accumulated much syntactical significance, in the same way cummings later used parentheses. The example below won’t duplicate Dickinson’s line breaks, which are a different matter:

I heard a Fly buzz — when
I died —

That break may have been more about where the edge of the paper was than any intended pause. She had a pretty big scrawl:

sample of Emily Dickinson's handwriting

But regardless of line breaks you can’t miss how she wanted her poem read because of her dashes:

I heard a Fly buzz — when I died —
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air —
Between the Heaves of Storm —

The Eyes around — had wrung them dry —
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset — when the King
Be witnessed — in the Room —

I willed my Keepsakes — Signed away
What portions of me be
Assignable — and then it was
There interposed a Fly —

With Blue — uncertain stumbling Buzz —
Between the light — and me —
And then the Windows failed — and then
I could not see to see —

     —Emily Dickinson (poets.org)

What a manifesto of independence from rules! And yet her editor, knowing best what was good for her, corrected her punctuation as below, at the same time making several happy changes in her actual wording (additions in boldface, deletions in red strikethrough):

I heard a fly buzz when I died;
The stillness in the Room round my form
Was like the stillness in the air
Between the heaves of storm.

The eyes around beside had wrung them dry,
And breaths were gathering firm sure
For that last onset, when the king
Be witnessed in the Room his power.

I willed my keepsakes, signed away
What portions of me be I
Could make
assignable,–and then it was
There interposed a fly,

With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz,
Between the light and me;
And then the windows failed, and then
I could not see to see.

     —Women’s Studies reading room, U. of Maryland (umd.edu)

If you buy an edition of Dickinson be sure you don’t get that one. When I see an Emily collection on a bookshelf, I just look up “There’s a certain slant of light” in the first-lines index, and if it says “Heft” (capitalized!) at the end of line 3, it’s probably okay. If it says “weight,” it’s not Emily, it’s some tone-deaf editor. If you examine those versions you’ll also find two other boneheaded alterations, not even counting punctuation and capitalization, by someone who was not what Dickinson was: a poet.

Of course, “I heard a Fly buzz” (compare right, wrong) is a good test poem too. Both are probably in every collection you’ll see.

Final Harvest is the best short selection I know of. The poems seem like a representative group and were chosen from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, who returned the poems to their “original form, uncorrupted by editorial revision” (Amazon.com review).

© 2011 Greg Bryant under the Creative Commons

About Greg Bryant

I teach writing and literature at Highland Community College in northeast Kansas.
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4 Responses to Dickinson: rebel hero of punctuation

  1. JoAnn Grasso says:

    Thank you for this post. The links to the right and wrong versions of “I heard a Fly buzz” were helpful. I believe that poems should be printed exactly the way poets compose them. Altering the punctuation, capitalization, or word usage is corruption of the poet’s expression and art. .

    • Greg Bryant says:

      I agree. Dickinson had a better ear than her contemporary editors. But I read something recently that made me wonder if I should recommend the Johnson edition. Helen Vendler (poetry critic and Harvard professor) in her recent book Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2010) writes,

      Quotations of Emily Dickinson’s poems are drawn from The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition, ed. Ralph W. Franklin (1998)… In 1955, Thomas H. Johnson published the first scholarly edition of Dickinson: The Poems of Emily Dickinson… Johnson took as his copy-text the earliest fair copy of a poem; Franklin, in contast, takes as his copy-text the last fair copy. Either decision can be defended. The debates about the best editorial presentation of Dickinson’s handwritten poems are acute and still in flux (Vendler xiii).

      In reading Vendler’s commentaries, which I strongly recommend if you like Dickinson, I noticed differences with the versions I was familiar with. Some of them I like better in the Franklin. In this case, the changes would be Dickinson’s.

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