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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Helen Vendler at 13: “I learned Dickinson’s poems in the bad old versions”

Jenny Attiyeh, whom New Yorkers might remember from her days as a reporter for cable news station NY1 and from her weekly programs on WNYC-TV, has launched a new series of online interviews focusing on “a specific piece of writing—be it a poem, play, novel, short story, work of non-fiction or scrap of papyrus—that’s had a significant influence on the interviewee, that’s shaped and moved them.” The series can be found at ThoughtCast, the Web site that hosts Attiyeh’s recent audio and video segments for various academic disciplines.

The first interview is with poetry critic and Harvard professor Helen Vendler, who discusses how she first became enthralled with the poetry of Emily Dickinson—and how the Dickinson that fascinated the young Vendler was a different poet than the one we know today.
Attiyeh:You discovered [Dickinson’s poems] when you were about thirteen and memorized some of the more famous poems, which, I believe, have lingered with you all these years.

Vendler: They have—but I learned them in the bad old versions. Her family censored her considerably, along with her editor. When they were putting out the poems for the first time in 1890, they didn’t want to scare people and so they emended them, rewrote them, regularized the rhythm, changed her dashes to conventional punctuation, and made her in every sense milder than she was.

Attiyeh: Nonetheless, thirteen is an interesting age to meet Dickinson, even if she was “controlled.”

Vendler: Well, yes—and I met her in anthologies, too, which left out the more macabre of her poems. She has a wonderful poem [“’Twas here my summer paused”], that I didn’t know at the time . . . where she talks about her life having in effect come to an end, when her summer goes away and she has to live as the bride of winter instead of as the bride of summer. And it ends up: “With winter to abide”—and she addresses winter directly—“Go manacle your icicle / Against your Tropic Bride.” Just rhyming manacle and icicle and imagining winter coming along and manacling his icicle to his Tropic Bride is a scary way to end a poem. . . . So it was certainly not the real Dickinson I came across, it was the denatured Dickinson. . . .
Vendler then reads and discusses a poem that is a particular favorite of hers, “I cannot live with You”; you can hear the full interview here. Attiyeh’s next interview will be with novelist and short story writer Tom Perrotta (Election, Little Children), who will discuss Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People.”

Previously on Reader’s Almanac
Related LOA works: American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, volume two: Melville to Stickney, American Indian Poetry, Folk Songs and Spirituals (includes 172 poems by Emily Dickinson)

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