Heather McHugh on Emily Dickinson’s inexhaustibility

from “What Dickinson Makes a Dash For” in Broken English:

It is not the definable (delimitable), finally, that interests Dickinson; she is drawn precisely to that uneasier thing, what can’t be said. The relative exhaustibility of a literary construction is one measure of its inadequacy to this truth; and Dickinson’s sentences and lines often seem designed (in judicious ellipses, elisions, contractions, puns, and dashes) to afford the greatest possible number of simultaneous and yet mutually resistant readings. Where a lesser writer might try to comprehend the world by adding more and more words to his [sic] portrait of it, Dickinson allows for it, by framing in opposites or absents, directing us to what is irresoluble, or unsaid. Where the addition of a word would subtract even one of the cohabitant readings in a text, she leaves the sense unsteady and the word unadded. What critics sometimes lament as cryptic or obscure in her work proceeds, I think, from this characteristic reticence—a luxurious reticence, a reticence which sprouts and branches meaning in many directions, the way more exhaustive (less ambiguous) texts cannot.

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One thought on “Heather McHugh on Emily Dickinson’s inexhaustibility

  1. Well, Dear Heather McHugh, four years after your post I am delighted to like it for you. It is just exactly what I need to justify what I’ve said in a research paper about “After great pain, a formal feeling comes -“. Thank you, thank you! I can’t find any “authority” who derives any hope or comfort from the poem as I do. I can understand other critics reading of the poem, but I love that you see how so often Dickinson’s words can be spun to mean any number of things. Perfectly perfect.

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