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Emily Dickinson at the Computer

In class last week, my students and I discussed Emily Dickinson’s poem #449, better known as “I died for beauty – but was scarce“. We were all mesmerized by the dashes, a punctuation mark sprinkled throughout Dickinson’s work.

I’m no Dickinson scholar, but I do know that she wrote her poems by hand. The dashes were a mark of great energy, some violence, and definitely passion. They break up sentences and phrases in a way that commas and semicolons can’t. They demonstrate a fierce continuation of thought, a determination to reach the end of the idea. The dashes also complete full thoughts but act as bridges to the next sentence.

Grab a pen and a piece of paper. Start writing and insert dashes whenever your emotions are stirred. Drawing a dash requires the horizontal movement of your hand, throwing some of your weight onto the paper, and the ability to stop at the end of the mark and transition back to the first letter of the next word.

How much of the energy that you invest in writing is obvious on the page? If you make a dash with force, the ink with be dark, and the line will be heavy. If you make a dash in passing, the mark will be light.

The act of writing with pen and paper is physical in a way that most of us don’t realize. The whole body is involved in the process. And, because writing with pen is more permanent than other methods of writing, it requires a certain concentration too.

Sometimes, I try to imagine what I would do if I lost my ability to write, in the physical sense. What if I lost function of my hands? Or could no longer see the page in front of me? If I had to dictate my thoughts to someone else, I would probably need to close my eyes and imagine my hand writing those thoughts in order to make sense of them.

But we’re all disabled now, aren’t we? Look at a keyboard. See the dash at the end of the number row? Press it. A dash will appear on the screen. Press it harder, with more force. A dash will appear on the screen. Start hammering away at the dash key. A dash will appear on the screen. No matter how hard you press that key, the dash will look the same.

Would Dickinson have been able to draft poems on her MacBook? Has part of me been lost in translation?

(Photo by mrbill)


  1. Poetry is best written by hand, and then transcribed. Not so sure about prose.

  2. Good point. I myself can barely write freehand, though. My entire life I have “suffered” from an as yet unknown condition (bad word, but I lack a better one) which makes extended periods of writing with my hand actually painful. A page, page and a half at most of physically writing is about as far as I can go in one session.

    And the result isn’t pretty when I do. The only thing I even write in cursive in my signature.

    So I type all the time, basically.

    Yet I see your point. There is a degree to which actually putting something on paper can be expressed as a physical act. But I try to make up for it by world selection, diction of the sentence, and all of those other things. And, at least on my blog, I am not afraid to to use italics or bod, or underlining, and the occasional caps to reach that goal. Not the same, I know, but not neuter either.

  3. And I meant to say that in the rare times I write poetry, that is in fact, freehand.

  4. Interesting question. What with my reading lately of Jed Deppman’s “proofs” that Dickinson was at least postmodern in philosophy and technique, your post makes me aware I’ve already begun thinking of the poet as ahead of us all in ways I hadn’t considered before. Whether this would have also been true of her use of t-conveniences poses a delightful query. I find that I think she would have used her Macbook. Then, the question is how would the poems have been different from what we have?

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