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Dickinson Variations

Erica Fretwell, Emily Ogden, and Johanna Winant have spent Season 2 of Apple TV’s Dickinson thinking about how Dickinson imagines Dickinson, a poet they all love. For the season’s finale tonight, Johanna Winant and Erica Fretwell have written this season’s final “Dickinson Variations.”

What Poetry is Like

Dear Emily and Erica,

Dickinson’s poetry is like cake, Erica wrote a few weeks ago; it shapes our tastes but doesn’t exactly cater to them. Dickinson’s poetry is like opera, Emily O. wrote a few weeks after that; it’s as easy for it to fall flat as to be transcendent.

The last few episodes of this season of Dickinson continues proliferating comparisons of what Dickinson’s poetry, or maybe poetry in general, is like.

Poetry is like the news, as, in episode 8, Emily Dickinson’s poem “I taste a liquor never brewed” appears on the front page of the Springfield Republican. Does writing in the newspaper count as an intervention in the world? Even if it’s literature? The show tiptoes towards saying yes: poetry lives in public; poetry records and spreads the news. Hattie’s gothic stories in The Constellation help fund John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, and poetry is the subject of a salon at Sue and Austin’s.

Poetry might be like the news of a secret grief disclosed to an uncertain friend on an awkward and overdue visit. Poetry might even be the visionary news from the future, as the ghostly Nobody haunting Emily turns out to be the still-living Frazar (Frazar Stearns, Austin’s close friend from Amherst College, died in March 1862 in the Battle of New Bern. There’s an early clue: he whistles “The Battle Hymn of The Republic” in episode 8, which wasn’t published until February 1862). Frazar is not Nobody yet, but he will be. Sue might already be having an affair with Sam Bowles. Poetry is, according to episode 9, full of spoilers.

But Dickinson wants to have its black cake and eat it too; it wants both to split the lark open and have its song ring through the morning.

And so the show also says that poetry is not like the news, not at all! Poetry has no purpose, or if it has one, that purpose is only beauty or pleasure. In Dickinson’s “I taste a liquor never brewed” the speaker stands outside of time, “Reeling — thro’ endless summer days:” as Ship says, the poem is “about getting wasted.” This poem has no information to share, not even about exactly what it is that she’s gotten drunk on.

This is the more familiar version of Dickinson’s poetry, the quality that scholars call her “scenelessness,” and the way she seeks to stand outside of time and place. Her voice comes through with urgency, with those first lines like headlines, but not from any familiar location. “I taste a liquor never brewed” —this miraculous first line is authoritative, but we don’t know what it’s telling us.

Lyric poetry excels at imagery, at comparisons; this show compares poetry again and again.And if poetry is operatic aria, then surely also poetry is dance, because some of my favorite sequences of this show are its dance scenes. The first season’s dancing at the Dickinsons’ house party was fun, and Lavinia’s Spider Dance is strange and silly, but the voguing by the staff writers of The Constellation in Austin’s barn this season is rapturous and thrilling, it sent me reeling and leaning against the sun. These scenes are in excess of character or plot or information; they aren’t for anything except joy.

And of course, of course, my question—is poetry public, “like a frog,” or private, “like the breeze”?—is an old problem for poetry, probably the oldest, with takes of various temperatures from Plato onwards. Poetry is “news that stays news,” according to Ezra Pound, and “it is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there,” says his bud William Carlos Williams. (Stanley Tucci could have played him traveling back in time to meet Dickinson in episode 8 when her poem’s published on the front page of the newspaper. Emily O., though, points out that Poe’s a nice choice, in that he did write for newspapers.)

For its part, Dickinson’s stance on whether poetry is public or private, if it’s “a way of happening” or if “poetry makes nothing happen,” is ambivalent.

And, actually, I think that’s okay. I could be convinced Dickinson’s poetry is also split, ambivalent about what its art may do or not do, that it has a cleaving, that it cannot make two halves fit. Plato’s ambivalent too. So is Williams, and Auden, and just about everyone who wants to recognize poetry as a phenomenon in history and one that exceeds history.

Dickinson interprets this question through Dickinson’s term, “fame,” which muddles it more, because, as Emily O. writes, Dickinson “obviously did not seek fame in her lifetime, and obviously got it afterwards. The fame plot is hampered by the first fact and loses much of its drama to the second.” (Also, Sam Bowles is gross and I can’t see the appeal or even tell if we’re supposed to find him appealing. A brief survey of Erica and Emily on this subject finds no consensus.)

Sam Bowles: No Consensus

But thinking of this season’s keyword fame as expressing ambivalence about whether poetry is private or public helped me see the scenes that are missing from this show. (Dickinson’s newfoundland dog, Carlo, would have been alive during these years and has not been included, and while I personally disagree with that decision, I admit that it’s not a major issue except maybe for the three of us contributing these essays.) I’m more hung up on the paucity of scenes that show Dickinson in the process of writing, thinking, revising, deliberating. The show’s Emily Dickinson deliberates about the word fame. My Emily Dickinson deliberates about words, lots of words, all the words in all of her poems.

In a conversation with Emily O. a month or so ago, I mentioned that this omission or elision, that the show doesn’t have many scenes of Emily revising or even thinking. Lines of poems come to her—and to us the viewer in her handwriting on the screen—and once in a while we see her at her desk. But more often, we see her walking or lying on her bed or lying on the floor. (My own writing practice involves all of these, so I’m not unsympathetic.) “What,” Emily O. asked me, “would it look like to film thinking?” I responded, trying to sound witty but also get at something true: “It would look like a Busby Berkeley dance scene.” When I watched the staff of The Constellation dancing together, I remembered this, and again I wanted Dickinson’s dancing to fill this gap: to show the invisible action of thought, the leaps and freezes and swings and poses. For me, it doesn’t.

Dickinson cares about the inspiration and occasion of poems, how they emerge from a person living in the world. The show’s very existence makes claim about the relationships between people mattering, the clothes mattering, the politics of that moment mattering. The shared public world influences the poems. It provokes them into existence.

But the poems themselves still emerge all at once in final form and they are far more than the sum of their surrounding scenes. We see no variant words, no different versions of poems; poetry here is all vision and not revision.

The show also cares about the reception of poems, the gift or burden of them sent back to the world. We see Dickinson’s poems read and analyzed and condemned and celebrated. The poems are sparked by public, shared circumstance and they are received and shared publicly by viewers and readers—including us, watching at home on our laptops in bed.

But what happens between these two public moments, what happens inside of Dickinson’s mind while she writes, remains private. The exceptions to this might be surreal scenes, especially with the ultra-cool Death, and maybe also the walk with Nobody when they list things that are, like Emily, invisible: “a beautiful perfume,” “the notes of a song,” “the feeling you get at the end of summer.” But even there, I still believe that I’m seeing her muse and not her craft.

In episode 8, Emily says, “I’m happy to speak about my themes, my meter, give you a little window into my process,” but we never get it. “I taste a liquor never brewed” exists in multiple versions, but we only see this first published one, not the one sent in a private letter to Sue or any other variants.

Am I asking for the impossible from a television show when I ask for the composition of poems rather than the composition of scenes? When I understand these public and private moments as lying alongside each other, even comparable, but incommensurate? Saying what poetry’s like may not tell us that much about what poetry is.

John Stuart Mill famously said that a poem is an utterance overheard. Roughly, it’s a private moment that doesn’t know its own publicness. I thought of Mill’s often-repeated description of lyric poetry during episode 8, as Emily, newly published, is turned invisible and invades the privacy of other people: Ship practicing breaking up with Vinnie, townspeople talking about her poem, The Constellation staff dancing in Austin’s barn, Sue and Sam together on the couch on the library. Is poetry, I wondered, in this show, not a private activity at all, but just a public one? Everyone can overhear Ship, it turns out.

Maybe art’s something that’s made together, not as much for another person as with them. But Dickinson, dancing in the barn, is sharing in the celebration, but she has not shared in the work done by the writers of The Constellation, who have helped fund John Brown’s doomed raid. She has not shared in their danger. The writers of The Constellation believe “American reality itself will be transformed” due to their writing. Their words have “given [Brown] strength,” and “our newspaper is changing the world.” They are not right in the way they think they are.

And Dickinson turns out to be wrong in her ethics, or at least dubious, as she joins in the joy without having done the work or risked actually risked anything. Dickinson’s writing is not commensurate to Hattie’s and Henry’s or even to Henry Box Brown’s too-often repeated story. And though the two newspapers might seem to resemble each other, might even lie alongside each other, they are not exchangeable for each other. Hattie is clear on that at the beginning of the episode when she critiques Dickinson’s poem for its lack of politics, and she is right.

But that still doesn’t answer the question of what Dickinson’s poems do, or even what they are like. The nearest comparison that one can make to Dickinson’s poems is another variation of the same poem. The two lie alongside each other, resembling each other except for differences in lines or words. But they’re not interchangeable; one can’t stand in for the other. And seeing multiple variants together is the closest view we’ve ever come to seeing this poet’s mind at work on her craft.

Is a poem like a 30-minute episode of a beautifully designed, written, acted, and shot prestige show that draws on a large team’s tremendous talents as they make art together? Does the show offer us a way to join in celebrating Emily Dickinson’s poetry as an invisible eavesdropper in its joyous party? Yes. But also, any two things are alike in some ways. That’s the news Dickinson’s poems share.




Broken Glass

Dear Emily and Johanna,

I have been thinking about how Dickinson’s style reckons with Dickinson’s style.

One of the poet’s signatures is juxtaposition – her penchant for setting the concrete and the abstract on a collision course that breaks apart worlds. In her poems, every dash is a slight breath and a Big Bang too.

Dickinson’s poems make me think of the Jewish bride and groom smashing a glass under foot at the end of the wedding ceremony. There are varying interpretations of this custom, but its meaning for me lies in the recognition that what makes the marriage commitment sacred is how it’s forged in a fractured world. Love for each other is not inward- but outward-facing: a dedication to picking up the pieces with someone else, precisely because life is so fragile, precious, and frail.

My analogy may seem unlikely, given that Dickinson’s verse is robustly Protestant. But aren’t her poems also shattered glass, a kaleidoscopic arrangement of the sharp-edged pieces of an already broken world? Dickinson crafts a Dickinson who can shatter glass: our songbird is a virtuosic soprano. But the show, as Emily O. points out, wants Dickinson to shatter the glass ceiling too.

This is a problem that revolves around aesthetics as style and as politics. At what point does juxtaposition become all out of proportion, tipping the balance and breaking things we’d rather keep whole? As its resplendent dance scenes bear out, Dickinson is a show that knows how to cut loose. Juxtaposition becomes the primary vehicle of that looseness: specifically, juxtaposition as anachronism, a chronologically inconsistent arrangement of things. So, for instance, George’s description of his settler colonial adventures on the Oregon Trail doubles as a description of the “Oregon Trail” videogame that many in my (and Alena Smith’s) micro-generation fondly remember playing on school or library computers. At other times anachronism allows us to track historical continuity: although Aunt Lavinia’s spa day is both very “goop wellness culture” and very nineteenth century (even if the New England historical record discloses no vaginal steaming or jade egg artifacts).

But when it comes to the juxtaposition of nineteenth- and twenty-first century politics, there is something of a pink elephant (or a drunken bee) in the room. The show’s presentism wouldn’t seem to be a problem, given its open embrace of anachronism. But can a show that so exuberantly plays with anachronism (“that slaps!” Ship declares) avoid the pitfalls of presentism? What is the risk of broken glass underfoot here?

When I say that there are some things that should be kept whole, what I mean is an awareness of real historical, political struggle. When juxtaposition helps show the complexities of the past that a “straighter” version ignores, it’s great; when it works to absolve Emily Dickinson of her imperfections, not so much.

So, for instance, the feminist/queer Dickinson we get in Dickinson has desires and wants beyond the life of the mind. Huzzah! But the celebration of Emily and Sue’s relationship evades a clear-headed reckoning with the class and racial privileges that float their passions.

More generally, Dickinson manages the twenty-first century-ness of its nineteenth-century melodrama by juxtaposing gravity and irreverence. Gravity is the domain of the show’s abolitionist B-plot. Dickinson wisely moves the poet beyond her cloistered domain by bringing national politics to the Homestead: the African American activists Henry and Hattie, who work as servants in the Dickinson household, hold secret abolitionist meetings and publish an abolitionist newspaper, the Constellation (a nod to Frederick Douglass’s The North Star).

The split in tone gives the show space to grant the Dickinson household’s underground antislavery activism the seriousness the subject matter deserves, without dilating the seriousness of the A-plot—Emily’s concerns about publication and fame. This means that comic relief and cheekiness are almost entirely contained within the A-plot of Emily’s poetic dilemma.

Kept separate for much of the season, the poetic and abolitionist plots intersect in the eighth episode, “I’m Nobody! Who Are You?” Sam Bowles – an object of desire who triangulates Sue and Emily’s passions – has finally published “I taste a liquor never brewed” in the Springfield Republican, and Emily spends the day … invisible.

The show takes a page from Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, as the apparently invisible Emily, guided by the specular Nobody (Frazar Stearns’s Ghost of Civil War future), moves around town, able to overhear what the public really has to say about her poem. In a general store, the free Black people of Amherst discuss it. One man finds it silly – rhyme is so passé, free verse is where it’s at, haven’t you read Whitman? Hattie initially likes the poem, but then decides it is offensive because anodyne: “Have an edge! Be political! Or else you’re just wasting our time!”

Hattie’s exhortation breaks the proverbial fourth wall. The abolitionist plot punctures the myth of a “timeless” Dickinson. Season 2 makes it utterly clear that while Dickinson’s politics are inscrutable, her political milieu – the world historical events shaping her life and her verse – absolutely was not. But then what do we make of this? Can or should Dickinson’s political silence factor into our aesthetic evaluations of her poems? Dickinson wrestles with this question.

The show punctures the Dickinson myth but slightly recoils from puncturing Dickinson herself – at least partly because, as Johanna said in one of our chats, Dickinson is preoccupied with representing Dickinson’s poetic genius as preordained rather than in process (hence Sue’s repeated “Emily, you’re a genius!”). The show acknowledges the limits of the poet’s politics obliquely – Hattie’s “Be political!” – but often adopts its subject’s myopia.

Because in the eighth episode Emily is invisible, she can visit Henry’s secret abolitionist meeting in the Dickinson’s barn, where he announces that enough sales of the Constellation have been made to send money to John Brown. For a poet who wrote that Publication – is the Auction (perhaps a slave auction), Dickinson’s Dickinson seems unaware that publication is a matter of survival. As Henry tells his fellow activists, what’s most important is not “fighting to be on the front page” but “claiming our right to exist.” In a not especially subtle moment, he concludes, “Although we may be anonymous today, tomorrow we will not be invisible!”

Emily, dear, you may not be as visible as your father or brother, but you are not invisible.

Juxtaposing Emily’s publication troubles with Henry’s lets the show put the poet’s existential dilemma into perspective. But I worry that Dickinson risks using abolitionism to wokewash the Dickinsons. The abolitionist plot does a lot of heavy lifting to contextualize the show’s heroine and even cut her down to size a little, but it’s still the B-plot. In real life, the closest acquaintance that Dickinson had to anyone like John Brown was Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who became her “preceptor” in 1862 and who I cannot wait to meet in season 3.

Higginson made a name for himself in 1854 when he attempted to free Anthony Burns, a fugitive from slavery, from a Boston jail, and five years later he tried to organize a similar rescue for John Brown. It seems to me that Dickinson tries to peremptorily sneak Higginson into the show through Austin, presented as a strong proponent of abolitionism and the only white person to know about the meetings. Here it’s worth noting that the Dickinsons paid an Irish immigrant $500 to take Austin’s place in the Union army.

Part of what makes Dickinson feel so fresh is that it’s playful – a term most people do not associate with Dickinson herself! And equally, what makes Dickinson feels so fresh is the premium it places on contextualizing Dickinson’s poetics: history matters here, from spiritualist séances to the Hudson River School. But while séances and artistic trends help to fill out the poet’s cultural milieu, the abolitionist plot has far higher stakes. I’m putting neither the poet nor Dickinson on trial, but rather drawing out the difficulty of threading this needle: of bringing historical events to bear on its resplendent subject without ascribing to Dickinson the politics that please us today.

I offer not an answer, but another shard of glass. The abolitionist plot is conveyed with the gravitas it deserves. Meanwhile, Dickinson, for two seasons now, features a Japanese American supporting character, Toshiaki (played by Kevin Yee), who is part of Amherst’s “cool kids” clique. The inclusion of free Black people like Betty, Henry, and Hattie offers a more accurate depiction of Dickinson’s Amherst.

But what of Toshiaki? In the first season, his racial difference is barely mentioned, and I had thought this was a case of colorblind casting. Do the other characters know he is Asian, or just me? was a question I asked myself quite a bit. In the second season, the show addresses Toshiaki’s difference. When Emily wins for her Caribbean black cake, he yells “Amherst Baking Contest so white!” – a playful critique of white privilege (via #OscarsSoWhite) that draws attention to his non-whiteness. At season’s end, Mrs. Dickinson serves Toshiaki tea that reflects his Asia-specific tastes.

Toshiaki is not white, and the show treats his Asianness as an open secret. This might be because he is both a marginal and fabulated character. So far as I know, there were no Japanese immigrants in 1850s Amherst, and if there were, they probably were not bourgeois and would have been more working class. Unlike Henry and Hattie, this particular character of color serves no broader aim of historical accuracy, of depicting not only the people that Dickinson encountered in her daily life or fleshing out the tremendous political stakes of publication for some more than others. As such, Toshiaki’s presence registers as anachronistic, decidedly inhabiting the cheekier spectrum of Dickinson’s aesthetics.

What isn’t an open secret? Toshiaki’s queerness, which his mannerisms, dress, and so forth make abundantly clear. Queerness is elemental to Dickinson’s Dickinson: her sexuality is center stage, but her queerness, while fervent, is quieter – she is “queer” for not having married yet, but her sexual passions are more or less contained to Sue, and more obliquely Sam Bowles. In the person of Toshiaki, queerness becomes productively ornamental: lacking a back story, he is a static character, all surface – flamboyant, bitchy, and in contemporary terms “extra.” Toshiaki’s queerness deflects from if not obfuscates his racial otherness. He is non-white, but because of his aristocratic dandyism he is simultaneously not non-white: the trappings of queerness whiten Toshiaki, allowing him entrée into the Amherst in-crowd through proximity to today’s recognizable canon of nineteenth-century white queer men: Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman.

What do these characters of color serve? Dickinson takes pains to acknowledge Amherst’s multiracial and ethnic servant class – Irish maids (Margaret Maher); Native American groundskeepers (Henry Hawkins); African American seamstresses (Mary Thompson) – that not only made it possible for Dickinson to “have a room of one’s own” but whose words, rhythms, syntax, and cadence Dickinson incorporated into her verse, as critic Aife Murray has shown.

The racial juxtapositions at the core of the show – the gravitas and earnestness accorded to the Black characters who have historical referents, the campy playfulness of a queer Japanese character who appears completely imagined – jar. The show aggregates a wide-ranging cast of characters, both real and fabricated, earnest and campy. The degree of difficulty for this attempted dive to thread well-meaning historical accuracy through the anachronistic needle is, to put it mildly, quite high.

And that attempt speaks to a broader question: How do you decenter white womanhood when telling a white woman’s story? I’m not sure what getting it “right” would look like for a show that cannot not be about Dickinson. Can a show about the emotional drama of lyric writing itself practice the historical poetics advanced by Virginia Jackson – attentive to the fine-grained world, the material conditions of poetic composition – while playing with time itself? Dickinson, we might say, wants to have its Caribbean black cake and eat it too: always historicize! while anachronizing.

Maybe a better “right” would be acknowledging that, in Johanna’s words, broken glass harbors danger but still throws rainbows on the walls. We might still sing the poet’s praises to the heavens while recognizing that, underfoot, lay fragmentary clues of her limited political imagination.



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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