31 January 2005

self-expression vs cultural commentary

Excerpted from Callaloo Volume 27, Number 2, a book review written by Ajuan Mance of Mills College of Zofia Burr’s Of Women, Poetry, and Power: Strategies of Address in Dickinson, Miles, Brooks, Lorede, and Angelou:

[begin quote]

For Burr . . . this race to reveal the real, true Emily [Dickinson] is flawed . . . primarily because it relies on a sloppy equation of her limited publishing record and relative isolation with romanticized notions of the "true poet," unconcerned with the accolades and aesthetics of her cultural moment, and free "to produce a distinct or singular voice that is private, truth-telling, and autobiographical."

. . . the increasing tendency on the part of critics and other readers of women’s poetry “toward a conflation of the genres of poetry and spiritual diary.” This perception, [Burr] contends, has resulted in several decades of scholarly and critical analyses which “privilege those aspects of [women’s] work that can be read as self-expression and . . . devalue those qualities most fundamental to the cultural work these poetries engage in.” . . .

Burr’s line-by-line analysis of the piece that appears in Thomas H. Johnson’s Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson as “Expanse cannot be lost—” reveals the ways that his and other editors’ seemingly arbitrary methods for extricating the “real poems” in Dickinson’s letters from the remainder of the text have served to reinforce the image of Dickinson’s work as enigmatic and unfathomable, an interpretation that conveniently supported the popular notion that hers was pure and uninfluenced self-expression. Burr’s close reading, itself an exploration of the social construction not only of the myth of the poet, but of the poems themselves . . . becomes a way to question those modes of reading that privilege self-expression—often to the exclusion of even the most conspicuous socio-political comment—as the primary goal of U.S. women’s poetry.

[end quote]

I am on a severe Emily Dickinson binge.


  1. Greetings. I was pleasantly surprised to see that you had quoted my Burr review. I'm glad you found it compelling.

    I am a big fan of Dickinson, and I enjoy every opportunity to read about her work. Have you read Betsy Erkkila's _The Wicked Sisters_? Erkkila does some fun and interesting close readings of Dickinson's poetry and letters.

  2. Thank you, Ajuan, for the pointer to Erkkila's work. I will check out out.