Review of Alexandra Socarides Dickinson Unbound: Paper, Process, Poetics

Socarides – Dickinson UnboundIn Dickinson Unbound: Paper, Process, Poetics, Alexandra Socarides reads Emily Dickinson’s poems to understand how the materiality on which Dickinson wrote her poems affected her poetics. Socarides examination is divided in to five loosely linked chapters, plus an “Afterword,” and each chapter examines a material aspect of Dickinson’s writing practice.

The first chapter examines how the folded sheets of paper that Dickinson wrote on and that would later be bound with pinholes and red thread (the fascicles) not only affected the composition of individual poems but the manner in which they were arranged. As for the composition, for instance, larger pieces of paper allowed Dickinson to expand poems, while smaller pieces forced her to condense. Socarides also contends that the poems were not ordered thematically, chronologically, to be printed, or ordered in any other method that is often attributed to Dickinson’s organizational method. They were ordered, Socarides suggests, not only so the poems could be rearranged, but so Dickinson could examine the limitations and possibilities present in written texts (private) and printed texts (public dissemination). This side of the argument is proven well by comparison with other writers of the time who had similar practices and by the process of how she made her fascicles, despite the easy options that were available to her in a 19th century industrial culture with ready-made notebooks. However, as for an individual poem, Socarides tries to read the poems as an experiment in lineation based on the width of the page. Here the argument is less convincing as Dickinson clearly had a line in mind, most likely informed by ear and rhythm, and the edge of the page did not affect the length she heard. Even if the page was too narrow to contain the whole length of the line before extending onto a second line in the written drafts, Dickinson was clearly hearing beyond the edge of the page. In the end, Socarides does show that fascicles should not be read as books, but they should be read as something that is made and that does work.

The second chapter looks at poems that were part of an epistolary practice and a copying practice – poems first written in a fascicle and copied into a letter or first written in a letter and then copied into a fascicle or letters written as poems – and how there was no distinction between the epistolary and poetry genres for Dickinson, despite what critics have claimed. Dickinson, like others in 19th century America, was not concerned with the differences of genre but was concerned with the act of composition and the tension that exists between private and public communication. Socarides convincingly shows how the letter and poem are often indistinguishable by closely examining the context and the spacing and indentation of “As if I asked a common alms –” and how it is laid out in the letter in which it first appeared. As a result, critics relying on the demarcation between modes of writing to inform their criticism now have to reassess how they approach Dickinson’s compositions. More important, perhaps, is how the concern of printing or laying out Dickinson’s poems and letters has overshadowed how Dickinson was challenging the media of private and public acts of composition and her use “I.”

The third section examines another genre – the elegy, which Socarides defines as a poem shaped by the conflict of individual bereavement and the traditions of memorialization. In this way, Socarides shows how Dickinson challenges the assumptions of a particular genre by realizing poetry’s inability to represent loss and provide consolation. Socarides contends that the use of “or” – either as indicator to variations of revision or how it is used in a poem – interrupts time and causes a looping effect, which is in contrast to the temporal flow of an elegiac poem. The argument extends further into the fascicles themselves, which consist of multiple folded pieces of paper each one with a beginning and ending and often containing variations on portraying or interacting with death. In other words, the “or,” the folded sheet, the whole fascicle, and the numerous poems centered on death highlight the interruption of life’s journey by death, which is a creative reading of the materiality of the fascicles.

The fourth chapter opens brilliantly but confusingly. Socarides reads “I felt a Cleaving in my Mind” in relation to Dickinson abandoning her fascicle writing practice and turning to loose-leaf-paper-poem writing and to show how “the poems are the paper” (106). The premise lies on the idea that the fascicles have a sequence, which earlier Socarides claims did not. If the reader can navigate around that, then the argument that the loose-leaf-paper-poem writing confounds sequence (both spatial and temporal) and enacts the limits of sequence as an ordering device becomes a fascinating argument, not to mention the comparisons between the fascicles and the metaphors and images in “I felt a Cleaving in my Mind.”

Chapter five picks up on a mostly neglected area of study – Dickinson’s later writings on scraps of different types of paper. Here, Socarides trains us how to read these fragmented and less formal writings. Again, Socarides sees it as Dickinson confronting the issues of sequence and relationships, as well as closure, which arises with her many variant endings for poems. During these later years of writing, Dickinson had many unfinished poems, but, nonetheless, she saved these unfinished poems to preserve “the material site of this [writing] process” (132).

The “Afterword” teaches us how we can apply Socarides’ materials readings to other poets, such as William Carlos Williams and Robert Creeley, and she highlights the significance material culture had on writing for 19th century American women poets.

While each chapter and “Afterword” focus on a specific aspect of materiality and each could be a stand-alone essay, Socarides, in the end, successfully shows a relationship between the material being written on and Dickinson’s poetics, which is Dickinson exploring the public and private media of communication and confounding various genres of poetry. This book is not just for Dickinson scholars but is also for those interested in materiality or the revision and writing process. It’s a book that will change how you read and approach literature, and, as a result, is highly recommended.




Socarides, Alexandra. Dickinson Unbound: Paper, Process, Poetics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.



Walt Whitman’s Em Dashes in the Talbot Wilson Notebook – Early Notation for the Long Line

I was going through Walt Whitman’s Notebook LC #80 at the online Library of Congress (also known as the Talbot Wilson notebook, which is from somewhere between 1847 to 1853 or 1854 (and probably closer to the latter dates (the first version of Leaves of Grass appears in 1855)), and I noticed somethings in two note pages. Below are the pages, transcription, and the poem I think they turned into. Below that are some early thoughts on what I noticed.

The soul or spirit

Image 28. The soul or spirit.

     The soul or spirit
     transmutes itself into all
     matter – into rocks, and
     can [illegible] live the life of a
     rock – into the sea,
     and can feel itself the sea –
     into the oak, or other
     tree – into an animal,
     and feel itself a horse,
     a fish, or a bird –
     into the earth – into the
     motions of the suns and
     stars –
          A man only is interested
     in any thing when he identifies
     himself with it – he must
     himself be whirling and speeding
     through space like the planet
Mercury he must be driven like a cloud

Image 29. Mercury – he must be.

     Mercury – he must be
     driving like a cloud –
     he must shine like
     the sun – he must
     be orbic and balanced
     in the air like this
     earth – he must crawl
     like the pismire – he
      – he would be growing
     fragrantly in the air, like
     a the locust blossoms –
     he would rumble and
     crash like the thunder
     in the sky – he would
     spring like a cat on his
     prey – he would splash
     like a whale in the


We Two, How Long We Were Fool’d (in “Children of Adam” section, poem 9. 1892 edition.)

We two, how long we were fool’d,
Now transmuted, we swiftly escape as Nature escapes,
We are Nature, long have we been absent, but now we return,
We become plants, trunks, foliage, roots, bark,
We are bedded in the ground, we are rocks,
We are oaks, we grow in the openings side by side,
We browse, we are two among the wild herds spontaneous as any,
We are two fishes swimming in the sea together,
We are what locust blossoms are, we drop scent around lanes mornings and evenings,
We are also the coarse smut of beasts, vegetables, minerals,
We are two predatory hawks, we soar above and look down,
We are two resplendent suns, we it is who balance ourselves orbic and stellar, we are as two comets,
We prowl fang’d and four-footed in the woods, we spring on prey,
We are two clouds forenoons and afternoons driving overhead,
We are seas mingling, we are two of those cheerful waves rolling over each other and interwetting each other,
We are what the atmosphere is, transparent, receptive, pervious, impervious,
We are snow, rain, cold, darkness, we are each product and influence of the globe,
We have circled and circled till we have arrived home again, we two,
We have voided all but freedom and all but our own joy.

[My bold]


On Early Versions of “We Two, How Long We Were Fool’d”

One of the first two things I notice in images 28 and 29 occur simultaneously. I notice the em dashes and I notice the anaphora of “he must” and then “he would.” I was wondering how Whitman would score his long lines in these small notebooks. Looking at image 29 from Notebook LC #80, the em dash appears to indicate the end of the line. Perhaps the title was originally “Mercury.” When I look at image 28, I see em dashes again, and again more anaphora, and this time with “into.” I scan through more of these images in Notebook LC #80, but the frequency of em dashes is less (see below for more detail). Sometimes they appear at the end and sometimes in the middle of the poem, as if to mark the end of the line, or the end of something. In “We Two, How Long We Were Fool’d” (the ninth poem in the “Children of Adam” section from the 1892 edition of Leaves of Grass) the anaphora continues but with “We” and usually with “We are.” The one interruption occurs in line two, where the transmutation from fools to people absorbed in nature begins.

In “The soul or spirit” (image 28) there are some links to the poem “We Two, How Long We Were Fool’d.” There are some word choices like “transmutes” / “transmuted” / “We become” and “rocks” / “rocks” and “oak” / “oaks” and “fish” / “fishes,” etc. More important is the idea between these two poems. “The soul or spirit” section is like notes to a larger poem. In the longer poem, “We Two, How Long We Were Fool’d,” Whitman extends this idea of transformation into more living items. He adds more animals and “other tree” becomes, perhaps, “locust blossoms,” which also occurs in the “Mercury” poem (image 29). Or maybe “other tree” becomes “plants, trunks, foliage, roots, bark.” There are also “beasts, vegetable, minerals” and “hawks,” and there’s even an ant – “pismire.” Nonetheless, more and more. Expansion!

And instead of “into the earth” (line 11 in “The soul or spirit”), it becomes “We are bedded to the ground” in the poem “We Two, How Long We Were Fool’d.” And now these em dashes seem to be indicating more than a line break. They seem to be place holders or fill-in-the-blanks-later notations. These are expansion marks. They expand out. He is expansive.

More of this occurs at the end of “The soul or spirit” and the “Mercury” poems. Instead of “he must himself be whirling and speeding / through space like a planet,” it transforms into “we are two comets.” In chapter one of Collage of Myself, Matt Miller notes how Whitman often changes “he” in the note books to “I” in the poems. The “I,” of course, is the all-inclusive and universal “I.” But here the “he” becomes “we,” which is also inclusive, but more intimate. Walt and I are flying through space on a comet.

In the “Mercury” poem

     he must be
     driving like a cloud –
     he must shine like
     the sun – he must
     be orbic and balanced
     in the air like this

becomes “We are two resplendent suns, we it is who balance ourselves orbic and stellar.” Here, Whitman condenses 25 words and 28 syllables into 14 words and 25 syllables, while keeping the essence of the original, but while being more inclusive with the “we” instead of the “he.” Contract and expand.

The sentiment of “A man only is interested / in any thing when he identifies / himself with it – he must himself be whirling . . .” at the end of “The soul or spirit” becomes “we swiftly escape as Nature escapes” in “We Two, How Long We Were Fool’d.” The idea that seemingly wanted to come out in the notebooks is made more clear here. The he must not identify with things (as in the “The soul or spirit”), but instead he must be or “become” (as in “We Two, How Long We Were Fool’d”). He must become a “we” and “nature.” This is how to void everything but “freedom” and “joy.”

What I see then is how Whitman expands and contracts, moves from third person “he” to an inclusive “we” (which parallels the all-inclusive “I”), the continued use of anaphora, and the notation of em dash as line break marker and as placeholder for lists to be inserted. Maybe this is where Whitman first starts thinking about the expansive long line, especially when considering the brief cluster of pages 19-21 and 28-33 that implement the em dash as line break/expansion notation. Also, see below for more places where the em dash is used, especially with the use of four-dot ellipses acting in a similar manner as the em dash.

Of course, more exploration should certainly be made into this em dash issue, but here it is begun.


Pages/images with em dashes that may be acting as line break and/or expansion notation include 19 (has anaphoric lines with “It is”), 20, 21, 26, 28 (see above), 29 (see above), 30, 31, 32, 33, 35, 37, 54 (em dashes and four-dot ellipsis), 108, 111 (anaphoric lines with “they are” but these lines also have hanging indents with more anaphora but with “If”), 67, 112, 113 (has one em dash and two four-dot ellipses and anaphoric lines with “it”), 114 (uses one four-dot ellipsis and two em dashes but no anaphoric lines),  115 (have five four-dot ellipses and anaphoric lines with “it is” and “I”  and there are three em dashes with anaphoric lines with “There”), 116 (anaphoric lines with “if”), 117, 118 (anaphora with “a” and struck through “a state), and 119 (anaphora with “can”). Images with an em dash at the end of the page are 42, 46, and 65.    //


Jack Myers’ “What Comes Naturally?”

This poems just my mind spinning. When I read it for this first about eleven years ago, it did the same thing. This poem feels universal to me, if that’s possible.

   What Comes Naturally?

   I’ve never found anything easy.
   Even doing nothing tears me up.
   And just getting drunk disgusts me,
   so I drink again to forget.
   But I love the way the cool moon twirls
   in the exotic blackness of space –
   O tiny happiness of stars, I want a woman
   to make love to, even an imaginary woman,
   from whom my mind doesn’t veer away.

   I feel like a vestigial piece of heart
   that’s broken off and goes wandering the streets
   without pleasure. In this town the women and cops
   all laugh, which is why I don’t breathe when I’m near them.
   That’s another way I’ve discovered to stop thought.
   I don’t know what’s wrong with me,
   why things aren’t easy. I wake up thinking
   this could be a great day and the other half
   of me thinks No, this is a great day.
   But the rest of me knows it won’t be easy.

Myers, Jack. “What Comes Naturally?” I’m Amazed that You’re Still Singing. Berkeley: L’Epervier Press, 1981. Print.

This poem comes from a terrific collection of poem, which I think you can order here: http://sagehillpoetry.com/lepervier-press/.



Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose 2014 Pushcart Nominations

Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose has made its nominations for the 2014 Pushcart Prize. The nominees this year are all poems. In the order of appearance in issue 18 are:

  1. Andrea Spofford’s “Tundra.” Page 8.
  2. Mary Stone Dockery’s “The Idea of Brad.” Page 23.
  3. Paul Allen’s “For the Spoken-Word Poet-Friend Who Drove up to Baton Rouge to Tell His Girlfriend to Get Lost and After 36 Hours of Both Crying, She Didn’t Get Lost, and He Was Glad.” Page 29.
  4. Robert Gibbons’s “Experience & Art.” Page 54.
  5. Ed Schelb’s “Portrait of Five Composers.” Pages 56-59.
  6. David Lloyd’s “What Remains.” Pages 70-71.

To read these poems, stories, and more, order a copy of issue 17 from here: http://www.etsy.com/shop/redactionspoetry.

You can also read the Pushcart Prize nominated poems here: http://www.redactions.com/pushcart-poems.asp.



F*ck This! I Quit…Kind Of: On Poetry, Contests, and Opportunity Cost by Les Kay


Concerned about poetry contests and their costs and other things, then read this article by Les Kay.

Then go here to find presses with open readings for full-length poetry manuscripts: http://bit.ly/OpenReadings

Originally posted on The Sundress Blog:

Last December, I received an urgent text from my father: CALL ME. My father, like most fathers, normally reserves the use of brief text messages in ALL CAPS for important news or emergencies. Since he’s retired now, well into his 70s, and his wife has been diagnosed with terminal bladder cancer—a cancer that should have been caught much earlier and should have been curable with simple resection—I assumed the worse, something health-related and horrific.

When I phoned, my father told me about an advertisement he’d seen for a poetry contest, a Christian poetry contest with a small fee and cash prizes. Instead of counting my inevitable winnings, I imagine my brow furrowed as if I’d just heard the compensation package for an adjunct teaching position. I thought immediately of Poetry.com and similar scams, suspecting that if I were to enter such a contest, the only plausible response would be solicitation…

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Re-Visioning History: Lesson Plans for Incorporating The Cave into a Poetry Writing Workshop Course

The Cave is a long series of poems that examines not only the art of the Paleolithic era, but, more closely, it also focuses on the artists and the community of people from the Paleolithic era. It aims to understand how they thought and interacted with each other and the relationships they had with art, living, and death. It also explores origins, such as the origin of music, painting, sewing, burials, etc.

Obviously, you could structure a class or a set of classes on ekphrastic poetry, but there are other uncommon alternatives that The Cave could help students with, and one of those might be re-visioning history. Below are some ideas to help your class examine how history can be an inspiration for poems and as a creative way to reexamine history.

THE CAVE - the whole cover

Reimagine History

One function of The Cave is its examination of a time period that has not been creatively examined in order to understand that time period and to help us understand our current place in time. For this assignment, the student could reflect on any time period of interest to them and write a series of poems about that time period. Here, a focus will be necessary, such using as an imagined character, a famous person, or a known person but not too famous (such as one of King Henry VIII’s wives), or through the lens of an object or device (such as viewing history through the car, baseball, electricity, an art movement, etc.) If using a character, then one could even try writing dramatic monologue. For examples, see the opening poem “Paleolithic Person Explains Why He Paints in the Cave,” or “The First Potter’s Advice,” or many of the poems from the opening section of The Cave.

Create a History or Write Invention Poems

For this, a student looks at a historical moment that has never been examined or that has been under examined. Or, with the same strategy in mind, the student can write a poem about how a taken-for-granted item was invented. Here, the student can reference “The Needle,” “The Invention of the Doll,” “The Invention of the Ellipsis,” or any of the many invention poems in The Cave. For this, the student can write an invention poem or create a history for an event that needs one.

Bone Needle

Rewrite History

Here, the student takes on a period in history and rewrites it with a twist, such as King Henry VIII finds a happy marriage in his seventh wife (a wife who never existed). This could also be a good exercise for the student who wants to write a long poem.

Challenge the History in the Textbook

Cover of textbook on Western SocietyMartín Espada – “One of a poet’s duties is to challenge the official history.”

Using this prompt, a person could write a political poem that challenges the status quo of history. It might investigate the omissions of history or it might take on a character from a moment in history to reevaluate a politically charged time period. Here you might think of African, Latino, Asian, Native American, and immigrant poets who have insisted on a more complex telling or examination of American history.

From The Cave, you can consider how Holmes avoids the clichés of interpreting the cave paintings as magico-religious animating powers to facilitate a successful hunt. Instead, he reimagines why the painters painted so Holmes could better understand those painters, and so he could help us better understand humanity today, especially when it comes to the creative processes. The challenge for the student is to write a poem that connects the past with today, especially if it is political.


Examining history through a different lens (such as examining the origin of a common item or using a marginalized or new point of view) creates defamiliarization, which, of course, is a goal of writing. This defamiliarization then helps us make history present to us by forcing us to make associations and connections that we don’t do with the characters and objects that are already familiar to us and that have become empty of meaning.


The Cave by Tom Holmes
80 pp. paper $12.00
ISBN # 978-0-9883525-6-8

Available from
The Bitter Oleander Press
4983 Tall Oaks Drive
Fayetteville, NY 13066-9776
Small Press Distribution and Amazon.com

For more ideas on how to incorporate this book into your writing poetry workshop,
please contact the author from the Contact tab.


To download a PDF version of these lesson plans, click Lesson Plans for The Cave.//


Goodreads Book Giveaway — The Bottom by Betsy Andrews


Not sure if you want to do the contest, read my review here: http://bit.ly/TheBottom. You’ll know what to do because it’s a terrific book :)

Originally posted on 42 Miles Press:


To celebrate the release of Betsy Andrews newest book, we will be giving away 5 copies of  her book length poem The Bottom during the month of August on our Goodreads page.

Please follow us there and keep an eye out for more 42 Miles giveaways!

42 Miles Press on Goodreads!

If you are anxious to own a copy now and don’t want the thrill of trying to win a one. The Bottom (and all of our other great 42 Miles Press titles) is  available at SPD.

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The Cave (Winner of The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013. Forthcoming in late Autumn of 2014.)

The Cave

Poems for an Empty Church

Poems for an Empty Church

The Oldest Stone in the World

The Oldest Stone in the Wolrd

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Pre-Dew Poems

Pre-Dew Poems

Negative Time

Negative Time

After Malagueña

After Malagueña

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