Dickinson's dash

Tell him – it wasn’t a Practiced Writer –

You guessed it – from the way the sentence toiled –

You could hear the Bodice tug, behind you –

As if it held but the might of a child –

You almost pitied it – you – it worked so –

Tell him – no – you may quibble there –

For it would split His Heart, to know it –

And then you and I, were silenter.

Poem no. 494, Version I, 1862

Emily Dickinson

We tend to dash off, away, with no particular direction but a general queasiness of urgency – a general uneasiness that eats quietly and quickly away at the lining of our stomachs. To dash is to hurry, but also to be panicked, probably unreasonably, at the smallest thing – at any and all inconveniences. One excuses oneself for “having to dash” after an appointment runs over by two or three minutes, after one realises they left their child in the bath too long while chatting to you on the phone.

The other dash which we type, write, think, speak, ironically precedes this exact moment of urgency. A dash, be it acted in silence or written on a page, is the embodiment of a certain kind of pause which anticipates a frenzy. Unlike the semicolon, the dash is not a restorative breath, but the excited and dangerous halting on the edge of a cliff before the descent.

Descending into thought is not a poor description of writing a poem – above all, perhaps, a lyric poem. What distinguishes Emily Dickinson from other lyric poets is the dynamism of her descent. Dickinson is a poet whose dash represents at once a poetic and typographical leap of faith – less a descent into thought than a plummeting into the unknown, a journey into virgin land.

In her 2018 Clark Lecture on Stillness, Anne Carson artfully drew the border between the respective countries of Woolf and Dickinson with the line of punctuation. She spoke of Woolf’s semicolon and its opposition to Dickinson’s dash. Woolf’s country, her time-zone, is defined, says Carson, by the semicolon and its duration – a signifier of both a sense of apprehension as well as of a sumptuous repose. Carson observed that, “Woolf is like a swimmer in a strong current, swimming backward, trying to find a place before her own personality.” If Woolf is swimming against the current, Dickinson is rowing against it – each oar-stroke a blow to the status quo.

Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1830, where she lived as an eccentric semi-recluse until her death in 1886. She published fewer than twelve poems in her lifetime and, though she collected and bound them in individual single-copy collections throughout her adult life, there is reason to believe her collective poetic output of nearly two-thousand works was meant for few, if any, eyes but her own. Thus, Dickinson’s dash might be no more than an absent-minded transcription of thought, a working pause during composition, a moment’s stillness amid the rush of words. One imagines Dickinson sitting at her desk and writing hurriedly in the ever-dwindling minutes before dinner-time, in a dash to compose just one more poem. Or, more deliciously, one imagines Dickinson, surgeon-like in her precision, dividing her words with a clear swoop of the pen.  What if Dickinson was not a poet in a dash, but rather of the dash.

In a poem from 1860 Dickinson writes:

Morning – is the place for Dew –

Corn – is made at Noon –

After dinner light – for flowers –

Dukes – for Setting Sun!

Poem no. 197

Here Dickinson’s dash is the textual substitute for the hand of the clock, marking the chapters of the day. Such concision is typical of Dickinson’s time-frame, but her rhythmic application of the dash is not limited to the expression of time. In her 497th poem, written in 1862, the dash becomes the baton conducting the orchestration of a conversation with the reader,

He strained my faith –

Did he find it supple?

Shook my strong trust –

Did it then – yield?

The unusual dash before “yield?” is particularly bold, aurally demarcating with the aid of the question mark the boundaries of intimate thought. Though not a traditionally conversational poem, the emergence of a lyrical voice is so cogently and tangibly aural that it invites reply, nearing the point of conversation; the dash is in a sense the armour of the word, shielding Dickinson’s fragile interiority.

One could speculate endlessly, as many have and will continue to do, about the mysterious phenomena of Dickinson’s poetics, but surely it is more truly Dickinson-ian to end with the final lines of her 501st poem – that is to say, without an ending –

Narcotics cannot still the Tooth

That nibbles the soul –

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