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Dickinson Variations

When Emily Dickinson died, nearly two thousand poems were found sewn in booklets called fascicles, written out as fair copies. These manuscripts were done; there were no mistakes or corrections. But also, many poems included a little plus-sign at the end of a word, or line, or whole stanza, and at the bottom of the page, she offered another word, or line, or stanza to read in its place.

Similarly, many of us have our own variations on Emily Dickinson. Just over one year ago (“Since then — ‘tis Centuries —and yet/Feels shorter than the Day”), the first season of Dickinson dropped. Dickinson’s creator and showrunner, Alena Smith, offered us her Emily Dickinson—funny, sexy, angry, desperate, secure, beloved, loving—and while it joined other recent adaptations of Dickinson on film, this variant also felt new.

The second season starts today. We—Erica Fretwell, Emily Ogden, and Johanna Winant—wanted to write some words for each other, as friends, offering our own variations on the poems, the show, and each other’s readings. We are grateful to Alena Smith for sharing this season’s poems with ahead of time. We hope you’ll join us in watching the second season and read along with us here. The show runs on Apple+, and we’re willfully reading that plus-sign as welcoming our variants.


Dear Erica and Emily,

I told myself, looking at Dickinson Season 2’s ten poems: don’t over-interpret. Don’t read them as if they’re a map. Don’t think you’ll know anything based on this. Because I know that as much as I may think I’ve found a route connecting through a series of poems, or even into one poem, by Emily Dickinson, she’s always there ahead of me. She’s digging a trapping pit, covering over it with branches and leaves. There’s always the plunge; there’s no anticipating her; and these two statements do not contradict each other.

I love Emily Dickinson’s poems intensely and even obsessively — precisely for the exact sensation of being expected and out-maneuvered —  but I always claimed to not like her very much. Then I watched the first season of Dickinson a year ago. Another plunge: I learned I did. Maybe it was my own unlikeability that I hadn’t liked, and then at some point (my late thirties) that changed. I’m still not sure how much of a coincidence it was that over the same few months three things happened to me: I wrote a book chapter on Dickinson’s poems, saw Dickinson, and stopped making small talk with people I did not respect.

Anyway, interpretive abstinence isn’t any fun. And pleasure is appropriate for this list of poems, because in them images of hiding, discovering, revealing, and the prices and difficulties and delights of each appear repeatedly. Or as one of the poems from our list, “Forbidden fruit a flavor has,” says: “How luscious lies the pea within/ The pod that Duty locks!” (This poem, incidentally, isn’t included in Thomas H. Johnson’s The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, so it’s a deliciously semi-licit morsel itself.)

And here are the two lines of “You cannot put a Fire out —,” Johnson’s poem 530: “You cannot fold a Flood—/And put it in a Drawer—.” Dickinson, of course, did fold up her poems into fascicles and put them in a drawer in her desk. And they were a flood; some years, we think, she wrote more than a poem a day. Are they sweeter because we know that they were locked away? Virginia Jackson starts Dickinson’s Misery with an incredible rendering of an imagined scene: “Suppose you are sorting through the effects of a woman who has just died and you find in her bedroom a locked wooden box. You open the box and discover hundreds of folded sheets of stationery stitched together with string.” Her argument is to resist the temptation of making the poems into lyrics. (I tend to yield to it, the way I do to most temptations.)

And also on second season’s list, there’s Johnson’s poem 288, “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” a poem that, trying to imagine what it’s like to read for the first time, I’m struck by its cuteness and strangeness. I reread a bit of Sianne Ngai on the cuteness of the avant-garde and realized I was maybe thinking of Ngai’s description of the frog-shaped sponge and its “formless face.” But I’m also thinking of the riddles that my young daughter has been making up recently, such as: “I’m square and rectangular and hard and soft” (a pillow, given away only by a glance towards the couch).

It’s easy to read some of these poems as autobiographical, as I did a bit above already. But not all of them work with Dickinson’s life. And some work with, or work over, mine. The poem on this list that reliably fucks me up is Johnson’s poem 861, a mirror of a poem, utterance that’s overheard that you then realize is someone talking about you behind your back:

Split the Lark — and you’ll find the Music —

Bulb after Bulb, in Silver rolled —

Scantily dealt to the Summer Morning

Saved for your Ear when Lutes be old.


Loose the Flood — you shall find it patent —

Gush after Gush, reserved for you —

Scarlet Experiment! Sceptic Thomas!

Now, do you doubt that your Bird was true?

Helen Vendler, who usually convinces me of anything, describes this poem as about a lover suspecting the speaker of infidelity; she compares his suspicion of her to violence. I mean…maybe? I don’t love this reading though; it feels like a detour. Why invent such an elaborate scene when there’s one here already that makes its sharp point felt?

What’s that point? That asking for knowledge can be a particular kind of mistake. Here I’m under the influence of Stanley Cavell, who ends his magnum opus, The Claim of Reason, with a similar scene, an account of Othello’s killing of Desdemona, and writes about “tragedy as a kind of epistemological problem.” Othello can’t believe that Desdemona has been faithful because he can’t know it, but he can know what Cavell calls “the truth of skepticism.” Both Desdemona’s blood and the absence of it — both on her wedding night and two days later when she’s murdered — are proof and so ways of knowing.

Similarly, this poem describes someone who wants to find the music in the lark, the tunes cherished in the mornings, “Bulb after Bulb, in Silver rolled—.” He cuts the bird open, and the blood echoes its music: it is just for him and comes “Gush after Gush.” He’s killed the bird with his desire for knowledge of it, and the blood’s the proof. This tragedy is epistemological.

But that second person throughout the poem: I’ve always read it as me. And I haven’t been an unfaithful lover but an overly ardent one. I want to know poems. I want to open them up. I want to see their connection and I want to feel their pulses. You — I — only know that exegesis is being mocked and condemned here, though also sympathetically understood if I — you? — have been exegetical all along. Do we have blood on our hands?

What would it be like to be known without being dead? Would it be like being a riddle, or like not being a riddle? Is it all right if I quote a minor Dickinson poem that I love that’s not on our list? It’s Johnson’s poem 213.

Did the Harebell loose her girdle

To the lover Bee

Would the Bee the Harebell hallow

Much as formerly?


Did the “Paradise” — persuaded —

Yield her moat of pearl —

Would the Eden be an Eden,

Or the Earl — an Earl?

Bees and flowers, paradise, and pearls; there’s a lot of familiar Dickinson imagery. And also the same questions: does knowing something mean opening it up? And does opening it up change it?

I’ve started rewatching season 1 tonight, and this will be my question: has Smith and company changed Dickinson’s poetry for me? There are, of course, many Dickinsons and each of us has one. How do I know mine? Sometimes, I think, in how she already knows me.

Let a thousand Dickinsons bloom,



Dear Johanna and Emily,

Johanna’s concluding remark that there are “many Dickinsons and each of us has one” got me thinking that Whitman contains multitudes, but Dickinson variants. It’s not many contained in one, but a series of different ones. What or who is my Dickinson? I always feel that I am not a very good reader of Dickinson, and yet the irresistible magnetism of her writing works on me too.  So I continually return to her, circling around, always getting knocked off my feet. This happens to me like it does to my students, every nineteenth-century poetry class: we read Lydia Sigourney, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and then BAM! a Dickinson poem that simply gobsmacks. Each time, every student, and me too becomes a Higginson, going “What the fuck is this? What am I even reading? Who DID this to words???”)

Anyway, Johanna’s lovely thoughts on Dickinson conjured for me an old New Yorker cartoon in which one dude asks another, “If you could be any Bob Dylan you wanted to, which Bob Dylan would you be?” (Mine is “gone electric” Cate Blanchett.) We can each have one or many Dickinsons – which is definitely better than Dylans – largely thanks to feminist scholars like Martha Nell Smith and Susan Howe, who have offered accounts of Dickinson as a sexually and aesthetically “wayward” writer, far less rigid – far more pliable, playful, and process-oriented – than had been thought in the 1980s — as well as the historical poetics of Virginia Jackson and Meredith McGill. That influence spills over into, and really is the precondition of, today’s Dickinson revival in popular culture, from Rosanna Bruno’s speculative rendering of Dickinson’s social media presence in her book The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson to Madeline Olnek’s rom-com Wild Nights with Emily and Alena Smith’s exuberant tv show Dickinson. So many new Dickinsons have been born – or found! or invented! An embarrassment of riches, really.

Based on season one of Dickinson, I would hazard the hypothesis that the Dickinson Alena Smith offers us – for this “xennial” late-thirties reader and viewer at least – originates in the 1990s with My So-Called Life. I mean, how Gen X is this poem?!

I’m Nobody! Who are you?

Are you – Nobody – too?

Then there’s a pair of us!

Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!


How dreary – to be – Somebody!

How public – like a Frog –

To tell one’s name – the livelong June –

To an admiring Bog!

Our lyric speaker may as well be a suburban teenager clad in plaid, shoulders slouched. She is disaffected with consumerist norms, skeptical about the entrepreneurial self. Irony is her affective key, deflating pretension and authority and authority’s pretensions. She’s not into the sell-out culture of the public sphere or disdain for celebrity; she appears detached from social movements and politics. This last point tracks with Dickinson, whose politics was not nearly as radical as her poetics. (And if she was radical, well, hers was a radicalism so quiet I cannot hear it.)

Sure, nobodies identify themselves honestly, contra the self-promoting and pompous somebodies the poem lambastes. Yet even as the speaker conspiratorially seduces us into the folds of private, intimate conversation, what remains paramount is the importance of recognition. Do we see each other? Do you, like, really get me? Does anyone? Will I ever be understood? These are questions that are of paramount importance to any teenager (and, honestly, adults too). Our speaker – this Dickinson – wants to be seen not wanting to be seen. So very Angela Chase: that scene in My So-Called Life (an image or clip of which I cannot for the life of me find on the internet) when peak-crushable Jared Leto walks into the classroom and Claire Danes sinks her head into her sweater to hide from him – the camera memorably presents her fractalized vision of Jordan through the knit – but it is a move that, ostrich-like, draws attention through an act of self-effacement. (

This is why I love Dickinson: her introversion is extravagant. Her need for privacy and solitude is, as the kids have been saying for some time now, so very extra.

Forbidden fruit a flavor has

that lawful orchards mocks;

How luscious lies the pea within

the pod that Duty locks!

Who’s naughty now? This woman is all out of proportion – the smallest morsels pack the biggest punch. A little bread – A crust – a crumb – / A little trust – a demijohn – Can keep the soul alive. Desire turns the appetizer into an entrée. It’s not stealing the fruit that’s lawless; it’s the outsized pleasure in eating it. “We have all heard of the Boy whose Constitution required stolen fruit, though his Father’s Orchard was loaded – There was something in the unlawfulness that gave it a saving flavor,” she wrote to her nephew Ned in the 1870s. Aren’t her poems – many of which she sent to friends and family – notes furtively passed in class? If, as Helen Hunt Jackson had once written to her, Dickinson was “stingy” for not publishing her poems, for not sharing her art with the public, then my Emily Dickinson is one who shows us that stinginess can be a form of hospitality, a morsel that is, in fact, a feast. Croak all you want, partake of fickle food. But I’m going to share peas with my small circle of friends. And they’re delicious.

Maybe because I’m introverted, maybe because I’m short (5’1” on a good day), but to me, what beguiles is how Dickinson continually spins the diminutive, the self-effacing, the seemingly containable on its axis. My Emily Dickinson relishes in disproportionate living: in the surfeit of crumbs and morsels (like all thousands of poems in a locked wooden box), in the spectacle to be made of smallness, in the displays of detachment (“whatever, frogs”) that turn out to be rather emo. I guess my Dickinson is a fitful teenager! She’s an Angela Chase. I’m okay with that. She’s figuring herself out, she takes herself too seriously sometimes and can act like she’s the center of the world (which she kind of is?) but is also sassy and fun and knows how to throw a good party.

The raucous presentism of Dickinson nails this, I think, and I’m really excited to see how that approach develops in the second season – this kind of knitwork, suturing a young woman writer’s Gen X affective disposition (malaise born of nineteenth-century patriarchal circumscriptions) to a playful Gen Z vocabulary and aesthetic. Past and present are irreducible to each other, but in Dickinson the energy of “then” and “now” rather transduce the creative energy of the other. Dickinson is nothing if not so very twenty-first century: a spare economy of words; endlessly meme-able poems (is that an affordance of reading lyrically?) made to be detached into their fragments that can be circulated, played with, recontextualized; a kind of hipster who put a bird in it before millennials put a bird on it (though her poems are anything but twee). Except today the bog is the new aviary; tweets are the new croaks.

Tweet Tweet,



Dear Johanna and Erica,

Emily Dickinson is our great poet of not getting any. Her sore need comprehends a nectar. Her wildest nights may or may not have ever taken place. If occasionally the Remington over her mantle gets discharged—in “My life had stood a loaded gun,” for example, where she is a rifle that fires with pleasure when her hunter picks her up—it doesn’t change the news she brings. Desire may think it has something to gain by consummation. But it has just as much to lose.

If a person declared, “To comprehend a nectar/ requires sorest need,” what might that person mean? They could mean that desire knows things, understands things, that satisfaction forgets. “Against the common wisdom,” says the psychoanalyst Anne Dufourmantelle, “there is a terrible truth in passion. A sharp edge.” Desire brings with it a keen conceptual activity. We see bright outlines. One person shines in the world more than all the others. We want, therefore we conceive: that is, we form concepts. If we get, we might beget—but that kind of conception is murkier, bloodier, and far more laborious. The brightness of our first concept fades with the habit of possession. Oh, you can get what you want all right. But habituation to another person’s physical body, however heavenly the body might be, will eclipse your prior image, like the moon passing between you and the sun. The brain, Dickinson knew, is wider than the sky. Prizing conception over possession, she turned the common idea that desire prompts fantasy on its head. Desire in Dickinson prompts thought. Consummation quiets it. And that’s a loss.

 You can blunt the impact of this news, if you want, by disqualifying the poet as a virgin who didn’t know anything about satisfaction anyway. You can snort to yourself, of course, she had sore need. But with its ardent, red-lipsticked Emily, Dickinson, now entering its second season, preempts this defense. Dickinson gives us the poet in the flesh. It deprives us of flattering ideas about our superior carnal knowledge and Emily’s virginal innocence, prompting the reckoning with desire that Dickinson’s poems ask of us.

 Imagine a person who was less taken with her lovers than with the pellucid thought her desire for them inspired. Someone whose brain was, let’s say, wider than the sky. Such a person could with perfect consistency tell the beloved to come to her and, in the same breath, tell them to go away. Among the poems featured in the new season of Dickinson is “The Daisy follows soft the Sun.” A daisy turns her face to the sun all day, then waits for him to rise again. But his absence is not deprivation. On the contrary, her pleasure in him is most intense at night, when he’s gone:

The Daisy follows soft the Sun—

And when his golden walk is done—

Sits shily at his feet—

He—waking—finds the flower there—

Wherefore—Marauder—art thou here?

Because, Sir, love is sweet!


We are the Flower— Thou the Sun!

Forgive us, if as days decline—

We nearer steal to Thee!

Enamored of the parting West—

The peace—the flight—the amethyst—

Night’s possibility!

The height of the speaker’s enjoyment comes in the dark, when the lover, the sun, is invisible. Not until the lush amethyst of twilight does the poem reaches the breathless climax of its last two lines. Night’s possibility is the space absence leaves for conception, whether we are fantasizing about an absent lover, or thinking of God as death draws near (the reading suggested when “we” steal nearer to “thee” in declining days). She can best enjoy what she wants when she doesn’t have it.

“You can’t always get what you want,” Mick Jagger preaches—sexily; nonetheless, he’s preaching. “But if you try sometimes— you just might find— you get what you need!” Yes, but: who wants that? “Passion is not advisable,” Dufourmantelle writes. “And yet, everyone keeps watch for it; everyone wants to catch this mortal illness…passion has been accused of every ill and awaited in secret by all.”

What do we want from wanting? We want unity of purpose, a capacity for decision, crystalline vision: peace, flight, amethyst. Dickinson does justice not only to desire but to what we desire of it. She gives the lie to the familiar, and somehow comforting, idea that our clairvision when we lust after someone is only a fantasy. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 is a good statement of the better-known thesis. Sex, the sonnet says, is “past reason hunted, and no sooner had/ Past reason hated, as a swallow’d bait.”

Shakespeare’s argument is that we will, perhaps ought to, wake bitterly from desire into reality. It would be nice to know that he was right, and Dickinson was wrong. Then we wouldn’t have to wait, fearful of the arrival of a passion that would draw our whole being into sharp focus, and more fearful still that such a passion might never come, or might never come again.


Johanna Winant (@johannawinant) is assistant professor of English at West Virginia University, and finishing a book about poetry and logic.
Erica Fretwell is associate professor of English at the University at Albany, SUNY.
She has more to say about Emily Dickinson and other nineteenth-century writers in her book Sensory Experiments: Psychophysics, Race, and the Aesthetics of Feeling (Duke University Press, 2020).

Emily Ogden (@ENOgden) is an English professor and the author of Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism.

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