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Update: great piece here on ‘what is a constellation’

(Thanks to Shane Anderson for the pictures of Dickinson’s poems, below. He also reported on Susan Howe’s talk).

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Last Tuesday Susan Howe (1937) gave a fascinating lecture at the American Academy (which overlooks Wannsee lake, where the famous conference took place). Her topic was Emily Dickinson. Howe talked about the tremendous difference between the fragments of Dickinson’s original writing – on pieces of paper and envelope – and the way they have since been presented in print as neat, tidy, safe poems.

Howe showed that the original poems have been radically changed, ‘manhandled into print’ as she said (with a pun on the fact that two white men were responsible for Dickinson’s legacy). 1. extreme editing choices have been made (in the publishing of Dickinson’s poetry) that leave out many of the words in the original, for a long time without any mention of these deletions even in the form of notes; 2. the form of the poems was radically altered, sometimes even changing line-breaks, but more importantly, giving the poems a tidy look and according to Howe perpetuating the myth of Dickinson as an ‘afraid-of-the-forest spinster’. (Although near the end of her talk Howe said half jokingly that she did not consider Dickinson’s books violations of the original, since she (Howe) is a writer herself).

I and clearly many others in the audience, were indeed very taken aback at the difference between the two versions of the poems that were shown. I had not even the beginning of an idea that Dickinson had written in such experimental, playful form. Although some present did not see the significance of the difference, for me, seeing examples of original fragments completely changed how I will think about these poems.

In some pictures the text is clearly written according to patterns; writing runs both horizontally and vertically along a paper, the well-known dashes are seen, but in one case there are also crosses, like plus signs (unfortunately no pictures of that one). In yet another example the small piece of paper has a triangular shape which seems to have influenced the poem’s language, or perhaps the other way around), and there are also pictures (of which one is a stamp, but one is a (Dickinson’s?) drawing of a gravestone).

Of course we simply cannot say anything, or at least not much about Dickinson’s intention with the forms of these fragments, since hardly any (was it six poems?) of her work was published during her lifetime. But regardless of the poet’s own intention these fragments nevertheless present poems of which many more elements are in mutual interaction than the printed versions of those same poems. A poem can always be seen as a constellation (assemblage, collection) of various elements – language, the qualities of language, the way it is laid out on the page,  the page itself, etc. However, in the original fragments, more elements are brought into open connection with one another – the poem becomes more ‘holographic’.

The poems, as Howe points out, become characterized by a hybridity of disparate elements, blurring for example the boundaries between visual and verbal art. They inhabit what Howe calls a space of inbetweenness, and what could also be called transversality, a network of disparate elements. Transversality thus allows for a much more inclusive consideration of a poem (or any other object of analysis) than a reading that only looks at the language on the page. Simply anything can be included and the photos of Dickinson’s original fragments make clear that they indeed merit such a transversal approach. Not only language, but the spatial organization of the text and the paper, the plusses and dashes, other visual elements, Dickinson’s handwriting.

The pictures and description in themselves are not so spectacular of course, what is amazing is that they are so very different from the printed poems and that they do not at all fit the image that has been constructed of Dickinson. However, the distributive style of writing immediately point forward to Olson’s page-as-field, which is a term Susan Howe also used in her talk (as Howe also remarks, quoting someone (I don’t recall who): she was ‘out of her time, in her time’). It is also similar to some of Susan Howe’s own poetry, like this section from ‘Thorow’ (in Singularities, 1990):

Other examples abound: there is Ezra Pound, the endless experiments of the Language poets, Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Drafts, and going back, Apollinaire’s concrete poetry, Mallarmé’s ‘Un coup de dés’. It is this last example that Louis Armand evokes in his essay ‘Towards a Techno-Poetic Method’ (Solicitations, 331), in which he describes a method of transversality, whereby the poem is read as a constellation-event, rather than a linear sequence of words:

a flattening out of depth-of-field in the simultaneous vision of the page and the typographics of visual intensity, such that the mimesis of linear evolution of a meaning is broken apart, replaced by a generalised transversality, wherein, as Mallarmé writes, ‘NOTHING WILL HAVE TAKEN PLACE BUT THE PLACE EXCEPT PERHAPS A CONSTELLATION’.

So the poem is no longer merely referring to a supposed external reality, but becomes an event in itself, an occasion of experience, a block of intensity. Armand thus reads Mallarmé’s poem not only as a description of contingency, but as performative of contingency in its appearing. In other words, as the famous throw of the dice that is mentioned in the poem: ‘A THROW OF THE DICE WILL NEVER ABOLISH CHANCE…NOT EVEN WHEN CAST IN ETERNAL CIRCUMSTANCES’ (Solicitations, 334).

And Quentin Meillassoux, who argues that the only constant is contingency:

…the term contingency refers back to the Latin contingere, meaning ‘to touch, to befall’, which is to say, that which ahppens, but which happens enough to happen to us. The contingent, in a word, is something that finally happens – something other, something which, in its irreducibility to all pre-registered possibilities, puts an end to the vanity of a game wherein everything , even the improbable, is predictable. (After Finitude, 108)

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I believe this poem was on the triangle:

One note from one Bird
Is better than a Million Word–
A scabbard has – but one sword

3 thoughts on “‘Afraid of the forest’ no more, or Susan Howe on Emily Dickinson, and the poem as constellation

  1. Pingback: Similarities between innovations of chaos theory & the poetries of innovation « transversalinflections

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