Emily Dickinson and the “Predation Risk” of the Literate Imagination


Biologist Victoria Braithwaite’s obituary in a press release from her home institution, Penn State University, noted that she “found that populations of the same species (of fish) differed in how they solved spatial problems, and that these differences were related to predation risk. In environments with more predators, fish exhibited higher-level cognitive mapping abilities than those that were not exposed to predators.”

Perhaps this correlation could also be applied to creative writers, in that literary communities are all too aware of how their feeding grounds are in danger.

On the other hand, the recent commentary by Brooks Roddan on MFA programs would also be pertinent. MFA programs all too often risk generating a complacent familiarity with the most feasible literary successes, and encourage students to stay within the bounds of fashionable versification. If the avant-garde is always already predatory in the service of an art form’s evolution, Roddan suggests that the game preserve of MFA programs tends to inculcate a complacent cartography that legitimates the spawning grounds of incest-laden literary DNA. (See “ifsfpublishing.com”; Tuesday, October 22, 2019; “October: Something I Woke Up Thinking About.”)

On further consideration, however, what if one were to consider the literary arena of publication a form of predation? In that case, if there is anyone who serves as a model for “predation aversion,” it might be Emily Dickinson; yet who can doubt that Emily Dickinson’s imagination displays cognitive mapping abilities of imagery and thematic complexity that make her best poems the equal of the most memorable passages by Shakespeare?

Unfortunately, the predators of critics have long found ways to demean her accomplishment.

In an article on this latest pop-culture mutation of Dickinson, Jennifer Schuessler note that “There was a warmer response among some scholars to “Wild Nights With Emily,” Madeleine Olnek’s irreverent, romantic comedy take, starring Molly Shannon. Based on the scholarship of Professor Smith, it features a committed, lifelong, lesbian relationship between Emily and Susan (as well as a rendition of the poem “Because I could not stop for Death” sung to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas”).”

The missing context to the parenthetical information in that paragraph is how the choice of the tune actually reflects a sexist, patriarchal dismissal of Dickinson’s poetry. At the present moment, typing away, I cannot recall the specific name of the critic, but I recall the snide remark like the pinch of an unbandaged wound. “The problem with Emily Dickinson’s poems is that they can all be sung to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”

Critics with low levels of imaginative cognition cannot resist cheap shots meant to give their male colleagues a chance to smirk. It’s so much easier to make a joke, isn’t it, than to do the hard work of notating how in poem after poem, Dickinson’s capacity to wield the caesura is first-rate.

While those of us who appreciate Dickinson’s ear hope that all of the recent cinematic and theatrical attention leads to an increase in close readings of her work, the omission of the definitive general reading version of her poems from any of reviews of the popular culture productions is dismaying. Cristanne Miller’s work in foregrounding Dickinson’s fascicles is the single most important piece of scholarship in poetry done in my lifetime. Finally, with Miller’s assistance, the conversation about Dickinson’s poetry can begin to share the same point of view about the poems as their author possessed, at least in regards to their particular ensembles. Whereas the chronology of composition previously controlled in an overdetermined manner the intermingling of her themes, the precedence given to the fascicles in “HER POEMS AS SHE PRESERVED THEM” (Harvard University Press) now permits us to comprehend the lapidary vigor of this nation’s most relevant poet.