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Prose Sitting Prettily on a Line


"Shortly after Emily's death, her sister Lavinia came to me actually trembling with excitement. She had discovered a veritable treasure -- a box full of Emily's poems."

So Mabel Loomis Todd describes the initial stages of Emily Dickinson's literary debut. Mrs. Todd's role in that debut raised some serious questions about the authorship of Emily Dickinson's poems. These questions are made more serious by the recent publication of "New Poems of Emily Dickinson," edited by William H. Shurr. Mr. Shurr's book consists of 500 "new" poems "reformated" from prose. By reformating, Mr. Shurr means changing sentences into metric lines.

Called the mother of American poetry, Emily Dickinson, born December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts, is considered the first great American woman poet. Although the details of her life are vague, scholars believe that she began writing poetry in the early 1850s, inspired by disappointment in love.

This disappointment generated an intense outpouring of poetry and letters. "A letter," Dickinson explained, "always seemed to me/like Immortality,/for is it not the Mind alone,/without corporeal friend?" In this spirit, Dickinson wrote prolifically, sending poems with her letters, often changing the poems into prose and the prose into poems.

Nearly 1,800 of her poems are known to exist; her letters have been collected into three thick volumes. Living her last 25 years as a recluse, Dickinson died in 1886. Ironically, during her lifetime she published only a few poems, having been advised against publication by her mentor, T.W. Higginson.

She made her literary debut posthumously. How that debut occurred, however, raised many questions: Just how faithful to Dickinson's intent were her editors? Should poems be edited by someone other than the poet? How extensively? How many of these poems are actually poems? Are they merely lines taken out context from her letters? Can prose that has been reformated into poetry -- by anyone other than the poet -- be poetry?

Dickinson described poetry this way: "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." It seems fair to ask whether she would have known her own poems. Would she have even recognized them?

The person chiefly responsible for Emily Dickinson's fame was Mabel Todd. Wife of an Amherst College professor, close friend to some members of the Dickinson family, Mrs. Todd was an educated woman with discerning taste, not a poet. She would become Dickinson's first editor. What she edited was an overwhelming mishmash of 800 or 900 poems.

"All of them [were] hopeless from a printer's point of view," according to Mrs. Todd. She goes on to explain that the poems (some of them found in letters, some of them finished and sewn into little books) were written in a style that was exceedingly difficult to read:

"The poems were written on both sides of the paper, altered, interlined, and the number of suggested changes was baffling. Almost every page had a number of crosses before many of the words. Each cross referred to several words at the bottom of the page which the author had thought equally good. . . . There was nothing to indicate which word was supposed to fit into which place."

Many poems presented a thesaurus of word choices for a single word: "Had but the tale a (thrilling, typic, hearty, bonnie, breathless, spacious, tropic, warbling, ardent, friendly, magic, pungent, winning, mellow) teller . . . ," Dickinson writes in one poem. Mrs. Todd chose "warbling." What would have happened to the poem's meaning had she chosen "breathless" or "spacious"?

Mrs. Todd corrected Dickinson's punctuation, replacing her many --es with periods and commas. She also corrected spelling and syntax and tried to make the poems rhyme; she, like many 19th-century readers, preferred exact rhyme, although Dickinson herself didn't always prefer that. She gave titles to poems, when Dickinson didn't provide titles. Ultimately, Mrs. Todd says she tried to remain faithful Emily Dickinson's intentions.

It was very difficult to know, however, exactly what those intentions were. Her handwriting -- three different styles running through her poems -- was hard to read, with words like "sail" and "soul" almost indistinguishable. Her many changes were made around the margins of her papers. She also had several versions of the poems that she sent out. She changed words here and there as the occasion warranted.

Thomas Johnson, who edited Dickinson's "Collected Poems" in 1955, also tried to remain faithful to her intentions. He, therefore, revised Mrs. Todd's version of the Dickinson poems to one he thought more closely resembled the original version. He also reformated prose passages from Dickinson's letters into poems.

Mr. Shurr takes the same liberty in his book, which purports to be the latest addition to the Dickinson canon. One wonders, though, how there could be 500 new (not newly found) poems by Emily Dickinson so many years after she died. One wonders about the integrity of such poems. Can you call these prose passages, poems?

Poetry is more than prose arranged to sit prettily on the line. As Emily Dickinson expressed it: "To tell the Beauty would decrease/To state the Spell demean -- /there is a syllable-less Sea/Of which it is a sign -- "

Diane Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University. She is the author of "The Laughing Ladies," a collection of poetry.

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