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In this wholly new approach to the poetry of Emily Dickinson, David Porter returns to Dickinson’s actual manuscripts and written words, finding there a poet less formal, more forthright, and more modern than most readers have recognized. Dickinson was always a figure who stood apart—apart from her community, her era, and the literary currents of her time. Her deliberate otherness still haunts us today. It is what makes her poetry so modern: her words are strangely chosen and strangely placed, and this accounts for the look and feel of her extraordinary manuscripts.
Porter constructs a primer for reading Dickinson’s more difficult poems. He discovers and details the hidden patterns of her composing methods—her grammatical “defects,” her lost referents and dropped inflections, her unique habits of revision. By concentrating on the manuscripts themselves, Porter helps us penetrate the print she did not authorize—“with its straight lines and capitals, its even margin and spacing, its stanzaic regularity, its visual definiteness.”
Coupled with his close and brilliant reading of the text, Porter’s conceptual originality and warm sympathy open up whole vistas in Dickinson’s poetry. He is keenly sensitive not only to what is present in her work but also to what is absent. Indeed, he argues, “absence and omissions constitute Dickinson’s deepest originality.” Her freedom and her attitudes reveal themselves in customary acts unperformed, conventions rejected, and discursive shapes unfulfilled. By concentrating on the absence that exists at every level of her life and work, as well as on the sharp physicality of her manuscripts, Porter is able to illuminate many mysteries of Dickinson’s career.