New Work Up

I’ve started a new set of pages for my craft essays and poetry reviews, accessed through a new tab at the top of this page. First up are two essays using Scott McCloud’s theory of transitions from Understanding Comics to consider how poems are sequenced in collections. If you like comics or syntax, you’ll probably be as geekily thrilled as I was when I wrote them. Heather McHugh and Ellen Bryant Voigt also make big appearances in these works. No surprise there, after this fall.

More coming to this area soon.

Genius on Genius—McHugh on Dickinson’s Dash

I’ve both understood and been completely mystified by Dickinson’s use of dashes since meeting her voice in high school. Finally, FINALLY, someone makes sense of it for me, in terms of how writers can manipulate syntax to create meanings, contradictory meanings, and multiple meanings all with the same few words.

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

Dickinson uses the dash to avoid semantic mono-determination: a dash occurs where the more exclusive choice (of period or comma or colon or semicolon) would direct the sentence to a single end. Because her semantics are multiplicative her syn-tactics need to be flexible, especially at the junctures. The same dash may operate in one reading as a period or semicolon, distinguishing what precedes from what follows it; and in another, only a blink of an eye away (and existing all the while in the text) as a sign of resemblance instead, a colon, for instance. Only by suspending the power of the period (definer and difference-maker in the prose sentence) can Dickinson interweave phrases the way she does, release meaning from the sentence’s exclusionary powers, and nudge the whole occasion toward that at-onceness which is her manifold temporality.

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.

article slapdown: “a” vs. “the”

…the noun articulated by a “the” has a history: it comes again, and was foreseen; it doesn’t just occur, but re- and precurs. When “the bear comes out of the woods,” he’d been known or mentioned before; when “a bear comes out of the woods,” it’s somewhat more alarming, less expected—he has not appeared before, and the hearer starts a little (or a lot, depending on whether she is learning this fact in a field or in a reading chair). Articles thus operate as time signs: they cast their light ahead, onto their subsequent nouns, but cast a different light upon appearance (“a bear”) than upon reappearance (“the bear”). The “the” presumes something already there; it reacknowledges it. But an “a” makes its noun crop up on the spot: with an “a,” the unforeseen (and, by extension, the disappearing) is articulated.


If the “the” tells something about the recursive past (in which its noun existed before), and the “a” tells something about the precursive future (an unforeseenness about to befall), then a poet can administer such articles for their cursive and discursive powers, savoring the time relations they incur.

Heather McHugh “A Genuine Article”

All poetry is fragment

All poetry is fragment: it is shaped by its breakages, at every turn. It is the very art of turnings, toward the white frame of the page, toward the unsung, toward the vacancy made visible, that wordlessness in which our words are couched. Its lines insistently defy their own medium by averting themselves from the space available, affording the absent its say, not only at the poem’s outset and end by at each line’s outset and end. Richard Howard’s deft maxim (“prose proceeds, verse reverses”) catches the shifts in directionality implicit in the advertencies of verse. It means to aim at (as its means are) the untoward.

A composed verse is a record of the meeting of the line and sentence, the advertent and the inadvertent: a succession of good turns done. The poem is not only a piece, like other pieces of art; it is a piece full of pieces.

Heather McHugh Broken English