Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Dickinson’s dispatches

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Emily Dickinson's envelope poems

Last week, the poet Dan Chiasson published an article on Emily Dickinson in The New Yorker that moved me for reasons that I had trouble explaining. It buzzes with the intensity of one probing critical mind confronting an even vaster intelligence, and it’s loaded with striking insights. On Dickinson’s use of dashes and plus signs, which she used while jotting down her poems on whatever pieces of paper were available, Chiasson says:

Her idiosyncratic punctuation sometimes feels like triage for the emergency conditions of her muse…Time, on these little scraps, is a function of space: both run out at the same instant.

And here he is on the enormous fact of her long, uneventful residence in the same house in Amherst, Massachusetts:

But Dickinson’s genius always kept a fixed address. She was a scholar of passing time, and the big house on Main Street was the best place to study it. Because her subject was longitudinal change across the span of hours, days, and years, she needed to set her spatial position in order to see time move across the proscenium of her subjective imagination.

After reading these lines again, however, I’ve realized that I really like them for two reasons. One is the picture that they present of Dickinson as basically a scientist, which is how I’ve always liked to imagine her. The other is the contrasting models of poetic time that they present. On the one hand, Dickinson is always on the alert, ready to record impressions as they arrive, and fully aware that a lost idea may never return. (Chiasson writes: “The makeshift nature of the scraps gives us a vivid idea of what composition must have felt like for a woman whose thoughts raced far ahead of her ability to capture them. Who knows how many of Dickinson’s lines were forgotten before the poet had a chance to write them down?”) On the other, you’ve got a woman who was willing to sit still for years, even decades, to absorb the raw data that she needed. But both pictures ring true. War has been described as consisting of stretches of utter boredom alternating with instants of sheer terror, and you could say much the same of the creative process: nothing happens for a long time, and then everything explodes into action so suddenly that you’ve got to scramble to keep up. It’s a little like nature photography. Watching the footage from the new season of Planet Earth, you ask how they ever could have captured these moments, and the simple answer is that they set up the camera and filmed for months to get a few unforgettable seconds. And it helps to have a clever editor.

Envelope poem by Emily Dickinson

That’s how Dickinson worked, too. Much of Chiasson’s essay is devoted to her envelope poems, which are now widely available to be viewed online. As Chiasson describes them:

It sometimes feels as though Dickinson’s sojourn in print, so fraught from its inception, was a temporary measure, now nearing its end as it’s replaced by a better technology. To write this paragraph, I looked hard at an envelope: what a mercurial object it is, more like origami than like a sheet of paper. If you use the back of a closed envelope…you get three squat triangles, like faces of a flattened jewel. She wrote within, and occasionally across, the folds and creases of this complex surface. To read the lines, you have to turn the image counterclockwise. The vertical column of the first panel then becomes a broad horizon, which, when the poet runs out of space, picks up on the third blank panel.

In other words, Dickinson engaged with the physical qualities of the pieces of paper—“the flap of a manila envelope, the backs of letters, chocolate wrappers, bits of newspaper”—that she kept in her pockets with a pencil stub. And at first, this might seem to conflict with the idea of these notes as makeshift dispatches that she wrote down before they could be forgotten.

But I think that it hints at something important about why such scraps have always played such an important role in creative thinking. I’ve written elsewhere about the appeal of napkins and tablecloths as a surface for thought, and they seem particularly attractive to workers in science and mathematics. (One of my friends, a math professor at Indiana University, recently told me how much he likes writing on paper tablecloths.) In my post on the subject, I guessed that it had something to do with the disposability of the medium and its tactile pleasures: “[A napkin’s] folds, like those of an envelope, add an appealing sense of three-dimensionality: I’ve found that a blank piece of paper immediately becomes a more attractive medium for notes when it’s simply folded in half.” Yet I suspect that the real reason, which we glimpse in Dickinson’s envelopes, has something to do with the role of a scrap of paper as a conduit between the fleeting and the eternal. A thought flashes forth, and we scribble it down on whatever is closest at hand. Once we’ve caught it like a butterfly in a killing jar, we can scrutinize it, look at it from different angles, and even take cues from the properties of the surface on which it happens to have been captured. We’ve safely gotten hold of the essential, which frees us to play with it, following the folds of the envelope or the seemingly endless plane of the tablecloth. The envelope poems are Dickinson’s field notes, and in them, we see the instantaneous meeting the infinite, as we follow her handwriting, like “fossil bird-tracks,” racing across the page.

Written by nevalalee

December 9, 2016 at 9:39 am

2 Responses

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  1. she saw so much and saw how women were held back,she saw a certain blindness and she wanted to remind herself, and perhaps writing on an envelope gave wings to her thoughts, and possibly she knew, how thoughts were the first step to getting something done, your post is very interesting, it opens minds, thanks


    December 9, 2016 at 9:50 am

  2. @bwcary: Glad you liked it! I don’t think I’ll ever get to the bottom of Dickinson, no matter how much I try.


    December 22, 2016 at 9:10 pm

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