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YJ's picture

In Dialgue with Rich, Cisneros, and Dickinson.

While I enjoyed Rich's piece on Emily Dickinson, I enjoyed even more Cisneros' response that perhaps Dickinson, though considered by many feminists as a shining example of a feminist poet, could only accomplish writing thousands of poems because she was supported by an "Irish maid." And perhaps this maid was a poet herself. For me, it was the missing piece from Rich's essay. While Dickinson was undoubtedly subversive, strange, and nonconformist (to the utmost degree-even today she eludes any attempt to "explain" her), she was still privileged. She was white. She had money. She could afford to write for a living, to be reclusive, to choose to live on the margins of society.

Cisneros' account of her own life, is a stark contrast to this-she was forced into lonliness by her circumstances. She didn't choose to become an outsider, she already was one by virtue of her socioeconomic status and her status as the only girl in a large male-dominated family. I think in that way then, Cisneros really complicates (at least for me) how I now understand and "read" Dickinson's work. I do think there's a difference (though I couldn't say to what degree) between appropriating a marginialized status and being born into one.

However, Rich's criticism of the scholars and biographers who have attempted to "explain" Dickinson, especially in thier quest to find the (male) lover who apparently broke her heart, reminds me of the historical treatment of Queen Elizabeth I. Historians have speculated widely as to who her (male) lovers were. In both cases, it seems like the historians and scholars are attempting to explain the "strageness" of both women by looking to the role men played in their lives. It is quite annoying because 1) it seems this is not the case with men, and 2) why make the assumption that men had anything to do with it? Maybe these women were simply who they were-intelligent, powerful and nonconformist-because this is who they were. In other words, it almost seems like these scholars want to credit men for the genius of these women. As for the first point, I actually can't think of a really great example of this at the moment. Maybe someone else can?

Anyway, my point is simply this-Dickinson and Queen Elizabeth I have been the subjects of intense subject precisely because they refuse the male/female dichotomy. Of course, the Queen had to in order to retain her power, but in a way Dickinson too was constrained. If she had chosen to marry, she would have been bound to wifely duties that would probably have left little time to write (and here I'm assuming she was straight b/c if she wasn't then she wouldn't have been able to marry anyway and that might also explain her aloofness). In the end, it seems both women deserve much better historical and analytical treatment than this.


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