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.


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