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For Emily Dickinson

rfindlay's picture
Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE MicrosoftInternetExplorer4 Critical Feminist Theory: Anne Dalke


Paper 3

For Emily Dickinson


            Is it feminist to steal another woman’s work?  Questioning the universal definition of woman, I attempted to use another woman’s words to write my own thoughts.  Whether I was successful or not depends on you, reader.  I offer a brief story of the poem, the poem, and that is all: I am too afraid of my own failing to analyze my own poem.  Initially I intended to write a poem about words that connote women, and never men.  I still intend to write that poem someday.  However, I was drawn to something else, which is more personal.   But what have we learned if not that the personal can be political, and that personal writing should not be dismissed as ‘feminine’ and ‘women’s writing.’  I also ruminate more on the gaze, a topic I touched on in my earlier essay “Under the Eye of the Pantocrator.”

            I conclude the argument for my work by unraveling the need for an argument.  I remind you all of what we discussed in class: Does it count?  Does it matter?  Who’s to say it counts?

            I say it doesn’t count, but matters. 

            My story began at dawn last Monday.  Waking up at six o'clock every day has one great merit:  I watch the dawn every morning through my east-facing, six foot wide span of windows.  That day it reminded me of Homer, with his rose fingered dawn, stretching out to clutch the clouds that seemed to fly by, but also painting them yellow and grey.  I had known that I wanted to write a poem, but was unsure if I would have the gumption and inspiration to do it.  I haven't written a poem since my freshman year of high school, not including artful translations.  But here was something; I would write about dawn. 

Later that night, I was reading large amounts of poetry for the class poetry project.  When I got to Emily Dickinson I read it even more closely, since I love her.  Suddenly there it was:



There's a certain Slant of light,

Winter Afternoons –

That oppresses, like the Heft

Of Cathedral Tunes –


Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –

We can find no scar,

But internal difference,

Where the Meanings, are –


None may teach it – Any –

'Tis the Seal Despair –

 An imperial affliction

Sent us of the air –


When it comes, the Landscape listens –

Shadows – hold their breath –

When it goes, 'tis like the Distance

On the look of Death –


            I immediately began writing a poem based on the first two lines, hoping to reclaim the deceptive and pale light in winter.  After a few efforts, however, I began to think about that first line.  There's a certain slant...of look, not light.  The way someone looks at you sidelong, unsettling you in the process, was much more interesting to me.

            Here will I end my running commentary and explain that ultimately, I began to read more of Emily, and wanted to incorporate more and more of her lines into the poem.  I decided to write a poem of epic proportions (compared to Dickinson's at least) which was a string of lines and half-stanzas if Dickinson's words.  I wanted to explore using another woman's words, and draping myself with them, seeing if they could fit my purposes as well.  So often I read poetry to find an expression for what I am feeling, grabbing at single words for comfort.  Dickinson asked Higginson whether her verses breathed; the new question is, could they breathe for me as well?  I gathered quite a few poems, and excised some lines and ideas, which promised a poem of about a hundred lines.  Of course, in writing it, I trimmed it down to forty.  I played with Dickinson's prolific use of birds in her poetry, the many poems about a mysterious girl (to me at least) and her poem 632 which proposes that the brain encompasses the sky (among other titanic things) and holds it within its bounds. 


The Brain—is wider than the Sky—

For—put them side by side—

The one the other will contain

With ease—and You—beside—


The Brain is deeper than the sea—

For—hold them—Blue to Blue—

The one the other will absorb—

As Sponges—Buckets—do—


The Brain is just the weight of God—

For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—

And they will differ—if they do—

As Syllable from Sound—




And now for my own:


For Emily, My fellow Recluse


There's a certain slant of look

Every afternoon –

That burns me cold and red

And nests - in the wider sky.


A sudden expectation –

I glanced with rapid eyes. 

Baffled for one hundred days –

Embarrassed and afraid.


So bashful when she spied me!

So pretty – So ashamed!

So I hid behind indifference

Lest anybody find.


Too happy in my sparrow chance

For ampler coveting. 

“They have not chosen me,” I said,

“But I have chosen them!”


And hope is a darting fear

I can’t clutch- its wings to clip

I had no crimson Robin.

It was not for me.


I want a look of Agony,

So that I know it’s true. 

An anguish at the mention -

You an I, heart - will forget him!


Renunciation is a merciful virtue

The Eyes glaze once—and that is Death—

Time’s sublimest target,

Is a soul “forgot!”


Except the Heaven seemed come so near –

So seemed to choose my Door -

But she is in the narrow sky -  

I pray you pass no more. 


Soul, wilt thou toss again?

There was no maLady –

But I, grown shrewder, scan the skies

With a suspicious air. 






























All poems were taken from:

The Complete Poems of EmilyDickinson. Ed. By Johnson, Thomas H.  Little, Brown and Company: USA, 1960.




Anne Dalke's picture

"a cloak made of patches"

Turns out that your experiment in "stealing another woman's work" has a long (masculine) history: I just discovered, in a creative gathering led tonight by J.C. Todd (of the Bryn Mawr Creative Writing staff) a poetic form called the "cento": a work wholly composed of verses or passages taken from other authors...disposed in a new form or order. The term comes from the Latin cento, a cloak made of patches....

Anne Dalke's picture

That sidelong look....

So many innovations this week, rfindlay!...

and what a treat it's been for me, to watch all of you working away @ various new forms of representation. I've just finished telling anorton that her work resembles Walt Whitman's (so list-like, refusing the false construction/sense-making that is conventional paragraphing) and then! here! is his compatriot, the other great American poet of the 19th century, ED, re-written as a contemporary love poem by you.

What strikes me first, and formost, is your "unraveling the need for an argument," your assertion that it "doesnt count, but matters."

What strikes me second is your counter-claim (I'll need to hear if you think this is contradictory): that the success of the project depends on "you, reader" (that is, on me). What happens to the mattering, if the judgment of what matters/what works depends on another?

What tickles me most, however, is the slide from the "certain slant of light" to that of "looking, sidelong"...lovely.

And then I'll want us to come back to the question with which you began: "is it feminist to steal another woman's work?" There are slant-like versions of that question (and your possible answers) that interest me more:

  • is it feminist to re-work the work of another woman, for your own purposes?
  • To cite and quote and re-order and re-contextualize?
  • Do you honor her, or reduce her, in the re-working?
  • And do you thereby excuse yourself from the harder task, of finding your own words?
  • Or--in acknowledging that we all re-cycle those same words, do you accomplish something less individual, more communal, more recognizant of our shared language?