Friday, March 17, 2006
Emily Dickinson : The Poet as Selflorist
Rhyme's easily defined so long as we ignore the evidence. As actually deployed, the device is slippery.
For example, people who read silently become confused about what's supposed to repeat: the terminal phonemes or the terminal graphemes? The latter is called "eye rhyme"; when it conflicts with "ear rhyme", it's a mistake. But because English spelling began to standardize before English pronunciation, many apparent blunders were perfectly fine ear-rhymes to their original writers.
Regional and class differences continue to play merry hell with terminal vowels and consonants, as in Bunker Hill's glorious coupling of "The road was muddy" with "My toe was hurting". And so, when poems are transmitted orally (or to a particularly meddlesome editor), adjustments get made. Generally, sound wins over sense, with some startling exceptions, such as the version of "Tam Lin" which rhymed "a snake" with "your baby's father." (The reptile started as "an adder," and that rhyme could have persisted if it had been passed to Allan Sherman.)
At any rate, given free rein, English prosody seems as contented by terminal assonance or slant-rhyme as by perfect dictionary rhyme.
Certainly, I am; and I'm also particularly attracted to ear-not-eye rhymes. Which brings me to an endnote of David C. Rubin's Memory in Oral Traditions.
Rubin and Michael H. Kelly wanted to check their hunch that literate poets would tend (consciously or unconsciously) to prefer eye-rhymes, whereas traditional ballad singers would use rhymes without regard to spelling. They sampled from ballads, and from three poets who used similar rhyme sounds: Robert Burns, Emily Dickinson, and James Whitcomb Riley. The ballads contained the proportion of eye rhymes expected by chance: around a third. Burns used significantly more eye-rhymes than would be expected for the number of ear-only rhymes available to him. Riley didn't; on the other hand, Riley's pool of candidates were more eye-oriented: Burns ended up with 40% eye-rhymes and Riley with 46%.
But in Dickinson's sample, only 17% were eye-rhymes. "This is the largest difference observed, and it is in the direction opposite to that expected. That is, Dickinson matches the spelling of her rhymes much less than would be expected by chance."
I would have no newes printed; for when they are printed they leave to bee newes; while they are written, though they be false, they remaine newes still.- Ben Jonson, Newes from the New World Discover'd in the Moone
Literature is news that STAYS news.- Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading
It's traumatic when performed art becomes recorded art. (Gawd, do I really sound that whiney?) And poetry's been traumatized longest. Sure, we have all that noise; sure, we can pattern it. But what's the point post-literacy?
So, there's been the pleasure of showing off, when someone's willing to be impressed, or when we can pretend that someone is. There's been seduction and devotion and advertising, when we want our words to stick and intrude far from support of paper. There've been brief re-marriages of written word with notated music before career ambitions drove them apart again. Pound and Zukofsky sincerely believed that poetry became corrupted as it drifted from song, but that didn't make them want to become Sappho or Thomas Campion or Smokey Robinson: it made them want to become a textual version of Brahms or Bach or Webern.
And then there's nostalgia for the days when sound made sense, because it was all the sense we had, even if we usually couldn't say what it actually meant, Remember the good times? Couldn't we bring them back before they're completely lost? The familiar problem of Ossian and Wordsworth, Olson and Rothenberg....
Traditional ballads and heroic epic didn't play much part in the social life of mid-nineteenth century Amherst, Massachusetts. To take them as role models would have been a purely literary affectation rather than a return to orality.
Dickinson's community did, however, include a lyric form comparable in centrality to (say) folk songs for Robert Burns: the hymn.
Of course the Protestant hymn was a written and notated form, but it was expressed in oral performance in public, in the family circle, and presumably within the concert hall of one's skull. (Limited seating, but excellent accoustics.) Would it be possible for an atavistic poet in a literate society to take that written devotional lyric as an origin for oral composition? What might such a throwback look like?
Well, we might expect a reversal of the written lyrics' preference for eye-rhyme. We might expect a return to assonance and slant-rhyme. We might even expect hypercorrection.
We might expect the formal grammar of written sentences to be replaced by the looser, more dramatic and fragmented syntax of spoken English. Since formal syntactic punctuation then loses its function, we might expect a simpler notation of phrase breaks and emphasis — dashes, say, and an occasional exclamation mark.
We might expect the literary meter to revert to some features of traditional ballad metrics. That is, a simple regular form might serve as a reference point for ear-and-mouth, perceived as a default mode even if frequently varied in practice. Again positing hypercorrection, it might be deviated from so often that irregularity became the real but imperceptible rule. (And we might expect a great deal of posthumous meddling from editors who prefer the properly regular.)
Dickinson is mostly thought of as a poet of hymnodic quatrains, and there’s no doubting she was partial to hymn meters. A survey (see appendix) of the first quatrains of the 295 poems she wrote in 1863—her most productive year, in Franklin’s dating (which I follow here), and the year that saw the creation of most of her renowned poems—yields one hundred in common meter (8686). At a distant second, comprising about one eighth (37) of the total, come the short-metered poems (6686). Another familiar meter, long meter (8888), Dickinson used only six times, each time rhyming it as couplets. There are also three poems in the sestet variation of common meter known as common particular meter (886886). But the surprising and wholly unrecognized feature of these celebrated poems is that Dickinson worked most frequently in none of the above, often inventing a meter for a poem and using it just that once. The number of poems Dickinson composed in 1863 in patterns rare or unheard of in religious or secular lyric poetry, including her own, surpasses even those in common meter.- John Shoptaw, "Listening to Dickinson"
We might also expect a re-re-definition of "verbatim recall".
Wallace recorded the same four ballads about ship wrecks from a traditional ballad singer, Bobby McMillon, during two sessions held 5 months apart.... At the level of exact words recalled, there were 29 word substitutions preserving meaning; 4 changes in prepositions, pronouns, or articles that had only a slight effect on the meaning, and 2 changes in verb tense. There were 7 cases of words present in one version, but absent in the other. These cases, which had little effect on the meaning, were a, and, as she, just, only, said, and sweet. There were also four pairs of lines that differed in a way that changed the meaning. For these, the first session's alternatives are shown in brackets and the second session's alternatives are shown in parentheses.
There was another ship [and it sailed upon the sea] (in the North Amerikee)
And it went by the name of the Turkish Revelee
She had not sailed far over the [deep] (main)
[Till a large ship she chanced to meet] (She spied three ships a sailing from Spain)
Her boat [against the rock she run] (she run against the rock)
[Crying alas I am undone] (I thought my soul her heart is broke)
Go and dig my grave [don't cry don't weep] (both wide and deep)
Place [marble] (a stone) at my head and feet- David C. Rubin, Memory in Oral Traditions
To fill a Gap
Insert the Thing that Caused it —
Block it up
With Other — and 'twill yawn the more —
You cannot [Solder an Abyss] (Plug a Sepulchre)
With Air —
Emily Dickinson's fascicles make tidy manuscript pamphlets, ready to post to your local small press, save for one idiosyncrasy. (Not counting spelling — and dashes —) Small crosses are inserted in some lines. At the bottom of the page, matching crosses prefix variant words or phrases.
Early critical orthodoxy took them as eccentric attempts at revision. Even given, though, that Dickinson had no training as a proofreader, plus-signs and footnotes seem vague. Were the additions second-thoughts-best-thoughts? Or contemplated changes for a second edition, but still carrying less weight than the consummated originals? What about the doubled or tripled second thoughts? What's their weight class?
Over time and a lot of heat, more scholars have shifted to admitting that Dickinson's priorities are undecidable.
Scholarly explanations, however — and, my apologies, I realize this is a matter of taste — have tended to the vaporous:
As Marta Werner puts it, "Writing at the far end of the nineteenth century, Emily Dickinson refused the limitations of a print existence and, in doing so, effectively altered the ways in which we read (receive) her encodings". ... as Sharon Cameron puts it, "variants indicate the desire for limit and the difficulty of enforcing it...it is impossible to say where the text ends because variants extend the text's identity in ways that make it seem potentially limitless".- Michele Ierardi, "Translating Emily: Digitally Re-Presenting Fascicle 16"
Let's get real. When we have some tune rattling around in our head or in our mouths, it rattles in slightly different ways now and then and later. In oral transmission, the changes might not be noticed, or some might be remembered as potential improvements and latched onto, and no one knows the diff. In manuscript transmission among (for example) the aristocratic poets of Tudor or Stuart England, the "same" poem or joke or rumor might be scribbled out to different recipients in slightly different ways.
In print culture, there's more of a tendency to think in terms of revising towards a final unique artifact which says all worth saying. Variants become competitive decisions. Should I stick with the paisley tie, or does the dark blue deliver the right message? Even believers in some external voice, like Yeats or Spicer, in their different ways treated the Muse as a problem of tuning the dial just right, filtering the static, bleaching out the bones of that amplified signal, any signal — like other bards, trying to capture that perfect final take.
Then there's the approach associated with folklorists, jazz fans, and Deadheads. Each take its own thing. Comfortable with a message carried across a range of frequencies.
The poet's job is to listen hard and write it down. But the editorial aspect of that job could just as easily involve collating equally viable variants as arranging a showdown to the death. Who knows, maybe even more easily. To meet the question of lyric method in literate culture, Dickinson may have become oral poet and transcribing collector in one: her letters performances; her fascicles a record of possible performances.
Which drops me square in the middle of the Dickinson editorial wars.
As much as I respect Susan Howe and Jerome McGann, my eyes and ears tell me that not all Dickinson's edge-of-the-page breaks need to be reproduced and that Dickinson's genius doesn't lie in calligraphy. On the other hand, publication of a singular reading edition seems impossible to justify. Even though we only ever read one version at any one time, what we read needs a chance to vary, either dynamically (as in Ierardi's digital edition) or through Dickinson's own end-note approach. We're talking about only an extra line or two for a subset of lyrics; it doesn't have to be a choice between Franklin's three volume hardback monster (including all posthumously imposed variants) or Franklin's one volume of guessed-at "final versions" in a guessed-at "chronological order". The editor's soul shares every soul's privilege to - from an ample nation - choose one, then close the Valves of her attention - like stone. But the editor's Emily Dickinson, and my Emily Dickinson? Hang it all, the Trustees of Amherst College, there can be but the many Emily Dickinsons.
So whether it be Rune —
Or whether it be [none] (din)
Is of within.
The "Tune is in the Tree —"
The Skeptic — showeth me —
"No Sir! In Thee!"
To fill a Gap
Insert the Thing that Caused it —
Block it up
With Other — and ‘twill yawn the more —
You cannot [Solder an Abyss] (Plug a Sepulchre)
With Air —
Oblique Strategies involuted?
I like to picture her reciting the other poem to Rilke. “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you; I have a tree in my ear.”
Hey, even those of you who can’t stand reading my stuff might want to check out the John Shoptaw essay I link to. It’s top-notch work.
Glad to see some sanity entering with Ray Davis on the sound of Dickinson’s poetry. Re variants: “In manuscript transmission among (for example) the aristocratic poets of Tudor or Stuart England, the “same” poem or joke or rumor might be scribbled out to different recipients in slightly different ways.” There is some evidence that Dickinson may have been recording in her fascicle fair copies the different forms of a poem she had sent to various correspondents. Re calligraphy: Some line breaks are deliberate; some are runovers. It becomes a question of reader interpretation and performance to decide which are which, which is why I prefer to see a Dickinson poem in its original form and not regularized by an editor. Then I can decide for myself.
I’m not at all knowledgeable about Dickinson, but I see no reason to be particularly puzzeled over that apparent fact that Dickinson herself was not able to make a choice among variants. Perhaps she didn’t particularly like the versions she’d thought of, but couldn’t find something better. Or perhaps she liked two variants equally well, but had no reason to prefer one over the other. It seems to me that the interesting critical problem is to examine the variants in context and arrive at some abstract characterization of what she was looking for to fill the gap. Note that I am not suggesting that the critic try to solve the problem Dickinson was unable to resolve, but only that the critic seek an abstract understanding of what the problem is.
Obviously this requires a rich and subtle account of language. It is by no means obvious to me that we have any such account suitable to the purpose.
Bill, I hope it’s clear I agree there’s no great puzzle about the variants once we drop some preconceptions which, as a performing musician, you’re less likely to hold in the first place. It’s a matter of record, though, that puzzlement has existed.
On the other hand, I don’t feel at a loss for “an abstract understanding of the problem”—if we even want to call it a problem. Language is a multi-dimensioned medium, and the structures we intuit within it don’t project unambiguously onto a plane. Sometimes they’re not even possible. That pretty much does the trick for me.
Although I’ll bet I’m not telling Margaret Freeman anything she doesn’t already know, the problem is defining what “its original form” might mean in this case. A printed transcript, no matter how carefully it attempts to mimic spacing, doesn’t tell us where the edge of the paper was or how big the handwriting was, which is important in deciding whether to read as one line or two. And photographic facsimiles of Dickinson’s manuscripts just aren’t what I usually want to read and cart around; they’re not what Dickinson sent in the post, either. But it’s true that, even if an editor chooses to follow Shoptaw’s reasonable suggestions (don’t start a line with a lower-case letter; follow your ear), different ears will often make different pronouncments.
Yes, Ray, the problem persists. I’ve just taken a quick dip into textual criticism of Shakepeare, which is a real puzzle. The problem that interests me is that the act and scene divisions aren’t there in the oldest texts; they were added later. So I was looking for a quick take on what The Profession thinks about that. Well, The Profession doesn’t seem to think much about it at all anymore.
In the process I looked at some essays by Fredson Bowers, On Editing Shakespeare. He’s considering the question: how do we create an edition of Shakespeare’s texts? The problem is that we don’t have any autograph manuscripts nor do we have any editions printed in Shakespeare’s time. So we don’t have any texts with the direct connection to the authority of Shakespeare himself. In most cases, we have several versions of a play; most variations are minor, but not all. How do make sense of it?
It’s clear that, short of time-machine magic, all we have to go on is inference. We’re never going to be certain. In any event, just what would an original be in this case? Shakespeare wasn’t writing novels, he was writing scripts to be performed by his company. Those things change in the performance. For all we know the best Elizabethan performance of Hamlet included an inspired improvisation the happened when the Hamlet forgot the lines of one of the soliloquies and so invented his own, on the spot. And so on.
And yet, not a peep about those imposed divisions in acts and scenes.
* * * * *
The specific point you raise about Dickinson, eye and ear rhyme, is an interesting one. It’s been years since I looked at the psycholinguistics of reading, but I dimly recall evidence that the visual signifier piggy-backs on the auditory rather than having a direct connection to the signified. Which suggests that the problem is real, that a written poem can, in some sense, have a physical form that is both visual and auditory—something that interests me at the moment as I’m thinking about movies and how music accompanied movies before dialogue did.
* * * * *
And you’re right about the multi-dimensional thing. That’s the problem at its most abstract. But more concretely, what’s going on in the choice between “Solder an Abyss” and “Plug a Sepulchre”? The two gaps—sepulchre and abyss—are quite different. We know what properly “fills” a sepulchre, and that the filling of a sepulchre entails a gap in our life. What properly fills an “abyss”? One of the things Dickinson is certainly doing is playing with cognitive ontology, where “plug” implies some solid physical thing and so “air” cannot serve. We read “solder” before we get to the air line, so there’s this sense of a little dribble of molten solder flowing into a vast hole. And yadda yadda
Why is it that those two phrases are alternatives for the same slot? Metrical considerations aside, that slot seems to demand a certain kind of semantic yoking, which each phrase supplies, but in different ways. How do we characterize that yoking?
We seem to be in territory similar to Chomsky’s infamous “colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” Which John Hollander turned into Coiled Alizarin:
Curiously deep, the slumber of crimson thoughts:
White breathless, in stodgy viridian,
Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.
We know what properly “fills” a sepulchre
Ah’m a gonna plug ya full o’ lead....
Bill, drawing those lines of study together, one of the more interesting essays in Ma(r)king the Text was Ros King‘s “Seeing the rhythm”, which suggested that ambiguous lineation in early editions of Shakespeare has sometimes been erroneously regularized by editors who don’t allow proper breathing space for actorly business and reactions....
Ray—I’ve just been reading the MaryClare Coller piece and offer an oblique parallel to the problems of rendering her handcraft text into type: the letters of Louis Armstrong. Armstrong was a prolific letter writer, frequently having a typewriter with him on tour so that he could pound out letters whenever he so wished. A few years ago Oxford UP issues a small selection of his letters and the editor, Thomas Brothers, talked about the problems of dealing with Armstrong’s unorthodox texts.
Armstrong liked writing and wrote a fair amount of prose to feed the PR engine, including two autobiographies. That prose got cleaned up by editors. In publishing Armstrong’s letters Brothers opted for as little cleaning as possible. Thus Armstrong’s unorthodox use of punctuation marks—including plus signs—and capitalization is on display, not to mention shakey grammar. It reads like an attempt to present an essentially oral style within the conventions afforded by a typewriter.
What does the poem mean exactly?
I’m a little late responding to Ray Davis’s comment about “the original form” of a Dickinson poem. That was sloppy wording on my part; I should have said “original manuscript forms.” The Dickinson archivces at Amherst and Harvard do contain extant manuscript versions of poems that exist in various forms (inlcuding letters), but Ray’s right that that doesn’t help the reader who wants to experience Dickinson’s poetry, not conduct forensic research (even if they could get to New England).
Archibald MacLeish: “A poem does not mean but be.”