Contemplating Emily Dickinson’s envelope poems I think about the radical ways a nineteenth century woman broke language to bits in a time when it was seen as so complete, so eternal and true. Though most recently I have become aware of the evidence that there were many other narratives about language going on in earlier centuries (always there were other thinkers) –many more, and these are new avenues for my own research about Style. In My Emily Dickinson, Susan Howe asks, “Is there an unwritable unknown poem that exceeds anything the technique of writing can do?” (7) Language is “contingent” Howe suggests. But do we think of this contingency only in tandem with the notion of a kind of metaphysical space outside writing? Or is it more productive to locate meaning in contingency itself, refusing to recognize it in relation to any sort of fixed knowledge? We can see how Dickinson explodes the delicate diminutive envelopes and scraps of paper that scattered the spaces of her home, repurposing them, rejecting their authorized social functions and the privacy they once upheld by undoing and splaying them as if they are frogs on a lab table:
“that one has
in the Face.” (60-1)
But this is how in the end decades of a scientistic century filled with specific rules for social relations– people in the order of classes and species– a woman poet could split open the proprietary skin of language with a pencil for a scalpel. And there she could see what must have been a lonesome place for herself behind the words–in the words– a death in a society that barely recognizes you. Or, maybe more accurately, a society that misrecognizes you as domestic woman in situ. Locate the empty space at the middle of this poem and you can see the refusal to manifest the social self, to pin it down or attach it to universals.
For Dickinson, it must have been her entanglement of agency with the stuff of language that made the appropriation of cast-off household paper so satisfying. In repurposing pieces of a small town circulation of words by writing on/with them, she disrupted that discourse of containment and turned attention to writing in a way that throws out the old representational paradigms of writing and subjectivity In these paradigms writing results from the intervening “symbol-using animal” (Burke qtd. in Sanchez 100) who locates writing in a discourse of hierarchies for knowledge and social identity. Dickinson tears open these social/material containers and makes their shapes bear news, and that news is that all pages are torn and repurposed so thoroughly and so often, that if there is a larger poem we have used it up. Repurposing is a way of making something out of a language that co-opts our legibility through its use. Writing is also a more agentive composing, and is a “contingent and impossible attempt to fix meaning” (Sanchez 9). In this later century we avail ourselves more easily of “pluriversal realities”, as Ellen Cushman describes in her recent (2016) approach to re-theorizing composition studies; writing reconfigures meaning in a flattening of “social, epistemic, semiotic, and linguistic hierarchies” (Cushman CE 2016 235). Realities that can be examined and manipulated as so many envelopes scattered across the kitchen table.
These experiments with textuality and circulation Dickinson models for us are “robust concepts of materiality and nonhuman involvement and agency” (Shipka CE 2016 254) that can constitute a new way of conceiving “style” in writing. A stylistics of “distributed communicative practices” (Cushman), a materialist style that pulls history, power and the social world into language. This is a big project. How can we imagine what style in a transmediated culture looks like? This way of thinking about style is in line with both Shipka’s and Cushman’s non-hierarchical frameworks for composition. In a non-hierarchical revision, style becomes styles that trace the big bang of the pluriverse. Language is not the foreground that speaks for the genteel and discreetly backgrounded author, as E.B. White prescribes in The Elements of Style. Everything is foreground. Everything.
Dickinson’s envelope poems arrest the “distributed communicative practices” of her social world as she interrupts and redefines those practices. It’s the non-human agency of that social world manifested in the circulation of words written on paper (with signs of ink spillage, pen nibs, coffee cup rings) and sealed in envelopes (rain-spotted, ember-smudged) that move through local spaces: hands, mailbags, mailboxes, pockets. How one woman engaged with that circulation tells us about where we might start imagining a new definition of style.