The Gorgeous Nothings — the first full-color facsimile edition of Emily Dickinson’s manuscripts ever to appear — is a deluxe edition of her late writings, presenting this crucially important, experimental late work exactly as she wrote it on scraps of envelopes. A never-before-possible glimpse into the process of one of our most important poets.The book presents all the envelope writings — 52 — reproduced life-size in full color both front and back, with an accompanying transcription to aid in the reading, allowing us to enjoy this little-known but important body of Dickinson’s writing. Envisioned by the artist Jen Bervin and made possible by the extensive research of the Dickinson scholar Marta L. Werner, this book offers a new understanding and appreciation of the genius of Emily Dickinson.
Emily Dickinson was an American poet who, despite the fact that less than a dozen of her nearly eighteen hundred poems were published during her lifetime, is widely considered one of the most original and influential poets of the 19th century.
Dickinson was born to a successful family with strong community ties, she lived a mostly introverted and reclusive life. After she studied at the Amherst Academy for seven years in her youth, she spent a short time at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary before returning to her family's house in Amherst. Thought of as an eccentric by the locals, she became known for her penchant for white clothing and her reluctance to greet guests or, later in life, even leave her room. Most of her friendships were therefore carried out by correspondence.
Although Dickinson was a prolific private poet, fewer than a dozen of her nearly eighteen hundred poems were published during her lifetime.The work that was published during her lifetime was usually altered significantly by the publishers to fit the conventional poetic rules of the time. Dickinson's poems are unique for the era in which she wrote; they contain short lines, typically lack titles, and often use slant rhyme as well as unconventional capitalization and punctuation.Many of her poems deal with themes of death and immortality, two recurring topics in letters to her friends.
Although most of her acquaintances were probably aware of Dickinson's writing, it was not until after her death in 1886—when Lavinia, Emily's younger sister, discovered her cache of poems—that the breadth of Dickinson's work became apparent. Her first collection of poetry was published in 1890 by personal acquaintances Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, both of whom heavily edited the content.
A complete and mostly unaltered collection of her poetry became available for the first time in 1955 when The Poems of Emily Dickinson was published by scholar Thomas H. Johnson. Despite unfavorable reviews and skepticism of her literary prowess during the late 19th and early 20th century, critics now consider Dickinson to be a major American poet.
Any admirer of Emily Dickinson, or any fan of otherworldly great poetry, is missing out on an exquisite experience if avoiding, or failing, to study this collection of fragments alongside her collected poems. What we can witness of her process here firsthand is nothing short of amazing. To see what actual version of each poem she finally settled on to include in her final handmade fascicles is priceless. Emily never ceases to delight and mesmerize me, even to the extent of enacting severe head explosions as desired. The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson's Envelope Poems is a book to be treasured.
In my New York Journal of Books review I describe The Gorgeous Nothings as “. . . one gorgeous book . . . like attending a museum exhibition in the comfort of one’s own home.” For a comparison between Ms. Dickinson's draft of a poem and the posthumously published version see an article that appeared in a different and now defunct publication, which begins with the next paragraph.
Books: The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems
In The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems, published today by New Directions, we learn that the poem her posthumous editor published as
“I have no Life but this — To lead it here — Nor any Death — but lest Dispelled from there —
“Nor tie to Earths to come — Nor Action new — Except through this extent — The Realm of you —“
is based on the following first draft Ms. Dickinson wrote in pencil on the back of an envelope:
“I have no
life [to] [but] [live] [this]
[But] [To] lead
for World s
+ Nor tie to
The original had wider spaces between the words than examiner's publishing tool allows. The plus signs (+) indicate alternate words and phrases Ms. Dickinson considered as she revised her poems.
From the published versions of her poems readers would hardly guess how open her original drafts were. The published versions seem formal and of their time, while the drafts seem experimental and ahead of her time. Ms. Dickinson did not want her work published during her lifetime for fear of just such editing by other hands.
In my New York Journal of Books review I describe The Gorgeous Nothings as “. . . one gorgeous book . . . like attending a museum exhibition in the comfort of one’s own home.” It’s a book every Emily Dickinson fan and armchair literary sleuth will want to own.
This is a beautiful large coffee table kinda book with actual copies of envelopes Dickinson wrote on so you feel you are looking in on her process, which makes them very intimate and sort of not Great Solo Authorish, she's just a person writing on a daily basis on whatever she has at hand…. and some of it is not as polished of course as what we get in The Collected Poems, but the stuff is here, the voice, and it is great to read her in this way. Useful for poetry classes, reading and writing, and teaching of writing classes, generally, to get at one writer's process...
Reading The Gorgeous Nothings gave me the experience of handling manuscripts in the archives. Since I doubt I'll ever hold a Dickinson manuscript in my own hands, it was lovely to glimpse her more whimsical moments in this collection of her envelope poems. Detailed reproductions of the envelopes are accompanied by a line drawing and sans serif version of the words.
"Not to send errands by John Alden is one of the instructions of History--"
"One note from One Bird Is better than a million words..."
Emily Dickinson wrote her poems on various types of paper including the backs of used opened-out envelopes. This book collects all of her works composed on envelopes or postal wrappers—over fifty in all. They are presented in actual size, front and back and the facing page of each envelope provides a transcription.
The book has a foreword by Susan Howe, an Introduction: ‘Studies in Scale” by Jen Bervin and a concluding essay: “Itineraries of Escape: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope-Poems” by Marta Werner. Both are excellent.
One of the many interesting points made in the introductory material is that Emily played with the actual shape of the envelope as she developed her thoughts. Susan Howe says that the poems should be viewed as “visual productions”.
Thus, the volume has a unique visual index; the poems are arranged by address, columns, parallel divisions, multi-directional text, diagonally written text, cancelled/erased text and envelopes with variant readings.
When I first read Dickinson’s poems, I used the complete edition by Johnson. I had no idea that in a great many cases I was reading a poem that had been edited by Johnson who arbitrarily made his own choices of variant readings presented by the poet. When you read the poems in this book you will see how often Dickinson presents a very complex emotional poetic landscape. I will illustrate this with the first envelope poem in the book.
Here is the reading from Johnson of poem 1123
A great Hope fell You heard no noise The Ruin was within Oh cunning wreck that told no tale And let no Witness in
The mind was built for mighty Freight For dread occasion planned How often foundering at Sea Ostensibly, on Land
A not admitting of the wound Until it grew so wide That all my Life had entered it And there were troughs beside
A closing of the simple lid That opened to the sun Until the tender Carpenter Perpetual nail it down –
This is beautiful and it certainly encapsulates something of the experience undergone by the poet. But the envelope MS has the following significant variants—none of which are crossed out:
But the most significant of all occurs in the penultimate line: “tender’ is given with the variant “sovereign” but written in the margin up the side of the paper is “unsuspecting carpenters”.
“Carpenter” clearly refers to Christ and “sovereign” certainly has a different connotation than “tender”. But why did she use “unsuspecting” in the margin? Is the implication that Jesus doesn’t actually know what is happening? Why the plural? Is it a slip or are there many “Carpenters” depending on the person and the suffering.
It would seem that Johnson chose the version that had more comfort. The MS, I think, more powerfully conveys anguish--the thin ice of faith over despair.
It is worth mentioning that if one wishes to read more of the original handwritten poems they are available as free downloads in digital format from Amherst College (without transcriptions). This book, however, is worth its relatively low cost and as Susan Howe remarks:
Gorgeous it was! A visual masterpiece, collected and displayed with great care. I have been a huge fan of Emily Dickinson's work for as long as I can remember, but this gave an even more intimate glimpse. Fragments, drafts, corrections, liberated thoughts, in her own handwriting, this collection was remarkable and beautiful to look at. I feel like I have seen inside her secret life, and consider it a joy and a privilege. I'm warm all over, and I plan to revisit that feeling every time I reopen the book, which I now consider one of my most prized possessions.
No doubt that this a gorgeous book that certainly document not only an essential aspect of EDs work, but the detrimental power of those publishers and editors who altered her intentions. Alas, I do not love her poetry, but I do admire this wonderful woman and wonder what she would have made of this lavish extravaganza consisting of photocopies of the 52 poems found written on the backs of envelopes, with facsimiles of the addresses and postage cancellation dates. Her " manipulation of textual space is elastic" p11
What amazed me the most are the several Appendices grouping the envelopes by a variety of criteria including shape, angle, and style.
from the preface by Susan Howe Is there an unwritable poem that exceeds anything the technique of writing can do? p7
A very handsome book that is richly illustrated and gives a fascinating glimpse into how Dickinson composed poetry using everything that was at hand. Some of the work is obviously not her best and reads more like ephemeral jottings on the path to something more concrete, but still it is exhilarating to see Dickinson's unique scrawl on the backs of envelopes and other scraps of paper and make some sense of these little missives to the world. The editors obviously have a very keen appreciation of Dickinson's genius and their essays that bookend the poems offer insightful observations. I must admit that I didn't frequently "feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off," but the book emits enough of a chill that no fire can warm that any Dickinson admirer looks for from her.
Apparently Dickens always carried little scraps of paper and a pencil in a pocket of her dress (one dress like this survived - how I would love to see that, too)! These little notes for poems are wonderful, gave me a feeling of immediacy and closeness to Emily. I can just imagine her, walking from one room to another, stopping as a thought hits, pulling out a scrap of old envelope and scribbling a few lines - wonderful! I still cannot get over the fact that she never wanted to be published. Such an interesting person. Would she have been angry to see her private jots displayed as they are here? Oh I think so.
How can three lines scrawled on a random scrap of paper hold so much meaning and emotion. And she’s not even TRYING. The awe I have for Emily Dickinson’s talent is unreal. This collection is one of my favourite birthday gift this year for sure. I’ve always loved Emily and getting to read these little snipets and see the messy handwriting across random bits of pocket litter she had on hand was fascinating. This isn’t her clean work this is stream of consciousness, bolt of inspiration type work and it’s SO GOOD. It’s not an approachable beginner Emily collection, but a great one for Emily fans, and one I will cherish and reread for sure. Also bonus: it’s super pretty and a great add to the I want to make people think I’m cool and smart coffee table stack.
I'm not big into poetry, though I keep trying. I like Dickinson's style for the most part--I'm just not that drawn into poetry, so it makes it hard to rate this. The book itself if beautiful, and physically huge. The facsimiles of the envelopes are nice and at this size you can read them (if you can read Dickinson's handwriting, which I could do maybe half the time). I appreciated the transcriptions on the side. It's interesting to see her edits directly on the poems--trying out different words to see which fit the best.
Oh, what a beauty of a book. Imagine having an Emily Dickinson expert take you by the hand and guide you through all the poems she wrote on scraps of paper, showing each, front and back. A Grand Tour, that's what this book is.
I love this book and I wish I would get to see it again. However, we now live in COVID-19 times and the book resided at the local college. I have no idea when I will be allowed in the library. I will hope that it will end up in my hands sometime soon.
This book was a mixed bag. The design was excellent, presenting Dickinson's envelope poems in true scale alongside transcripts that retain the same shape as the original letter. This allows the crooked and cramped presentation of words on the page to be conveyed, a step in the right direction for transcribing poems so intimately linked with their medium.
The poems are all pretty good. Some are, of course, better than others, with my particular favourites being those written on envelope 'seals' or 'flaps'. I don't think these are Dickinson's best work by far, if they weren't written on envelopes I don't know how much discussion they'd get. But their written medium gives one so much to talk about.
The preface by Susan How and introduction by Jen Bervin are great, however Marta Werner's essay 'Itineraries of Escape' is unthinkably poor, badly structured and lacking in direction. I don't know what warranted it's inclusion, maybe they had a few pages going spare in the back of the book. I would recommend skipping this and instead checking out Alexandra Socarides's review of the book in The Emily Dickinson Journal (available here: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/560351/pdf). This is a far more fitting discussion of form and language and should be read in partnership with this well presented collection.
Gorgeous book. Color photos of the envelopes and scraps these poems are written on, many with variant words and phrases on them, as well as transcriptions of the texts so that those of us who struggle with Dickinson's handwriting can actually see what she was saying. Some of these apparently abandoned or unfinished pieces are some of my favorites of Dickinson's work. My vote for best book of 2013!
There's nothing like this in the world. Incredibly beautiful, if you want to live inside of Emily's mind, like I do. Not something read in one go, but pick it up for 15 minutes every morning with your coffee.
Emily Dickinson’s poems rely on her particular form, punctuation and spaces. This beautiful edition gives us the pleasure to read and see Dickinson’s word in space. The fact that this edition exists is a celebration for the arts.
It is an interesting look inside Emily Dickinson’s composition process, and the scans are lovely. Two things on format: the typed transcripts are very small and hard to read, compared to the largeness of this book, and would it not be better to print front and back images of these ephemera on clear pages so each is caught suspended and far more tangible? Either way, it is a nice-looking book.
Now the reason for docking two stars is the complete twaddle contained in the preface and the commentary at the end. So much is supposed, so much, far-reaching last even what authorial intent could imagine. Was Emily Dickson supposed to have put so much lofty thought into each of her actions creating these envelope poems? If so, her penmanship is atrocious for such a final creation. Perhaps she meant these as an art exhibit and forgot to organize it.
The authors do not understand how writers and poets function. If sudden inspiration rushes upon you, you snap out words in bits of paper. If Emily Dickinson was alive today, she would have a phone at her disposal to do as such, then they would have nothing to praise and worship. Have we really sunk so low in literary analysis that such a book is written? The authors include many references and quotes to support (how such they do so is beyond me however) her opinions, so much so that the whole thing reads like a college paper.
They can’t just say what they means to say; they must take words out of other peoples’s mouths to say it doubly. I felt pressed upon by a small gang to believe what she was spouting. Then when they had said something of their own accord, they read like someone making the attempt to play the poet while shaking a thesaurus over the mix, words falling out here and there without meaning or reason. The whole thing was just so—inaccessible. Emily Dickinson’s poetry is beautiful because it says what it so means. The authors really have nothing to say, and try to say it while pretending to be a poet.
Much better than nothings. This coffee table book reproduces the actual envelopes, full size photos, front and back. It feels as if you could almost lift the actual paper off the stark white background page. They look fragile, as if they might crumple with a breath of air. Some of the writing seemed almost polished poems. A few were meaningless fragments. Others showed experimentation with word choice and placement. It is fascinating to get such an intimate look into the mind of a genius.
Fascinating and frustrating. Much of the writing was done in soft pencil. The quality of the photography was very good, but I still found it almost impossible to read actual words. Fortunately, each bit of poetic writing is reproduced on the facing page in a lined graphic of the envelope fragment. This was very helpful. But, I don’t understand why, if the actual envelopes were reproduced full size, these transcriptions were so small. I was also disappointed in the academic essays that accompanied the book. They didn’t even begin to answer my questions. The essayist usually assumed readers would possess an academic’s knowledge of Dickinson’s personal history and efemera. I found the tone condescending when factual information was included. I need to find a good biography.
I don’t have an academic’s knowledge of Dickinson. I’ve read and reread her poetry and I’m familiar with the biographical information that is typically included in an anthology. These 52 scraps of reused paper are an amazing window into the obsessive process of a singular genius.(I thought of da Vinci’s notebooks and van Gogh’s frantic paintings.) She had to put words on paper. She must constantly play with their sounds, structure, and meaning. There’s playfulness in her use of the odd shapes of the paper. There’s persistence, and a search for perfection. I envy those well informed academics who get to study the real thing. I was sorry to return the book to the library.