[back to main page] [Fascicle 16 Index]

Translating Emily: Digitally Representing Dickinson's Poetic Production
Using Fascicle 16 as a Case Study

Michele Ierardi

In the 500 pages of Henri-Jean Martin's book The History and Power of Writing, Martin gives his reader a fairly exhaustive look at writing throughout human history and at writing as human history, but he never even mentions hypertext. In a struggle to justify my own little piece of the academic textual world, "Well," I tell myself, "It was published originally in 1988, no wonder. Besides that, he's French. Europe is always behind us in terms of innovations." (Professional self-validation can always invoke a good vast generalization and even some American chauvinism when it works to get the job done). But the truth of the matter is that the absence of hypertext-in the computer assisted definition of the form-from this hefty tome on the history and power of writing vividly displays just how huge the weight of history is upon this emergent tool for textual expression. The book haunts hypertext. The book is the ghost in our machine, and this is especially true for the mass media form of hypertext found on the World Wide Web.

The apparent naturalness of the paradigms and practices of the bound book form creates a tremendous barrier to breaking out of the limitations imposed by that form, to thinking outside of the book. The first time you encountered the idea or the incarnation of hypertext, you probably thought or actually said, "Wow, imagine the possibilities," but actually doing just that-imagining how you can use this form in ways that are both distinctly different from the book and create value out of that difference is the most pressing challenge that faces hypertext authors. And then, on top of it all, there are the multiple questions of audience. The most basic being, Are you going to construct a beautiful hypertextual fantasy world somewhere that no one can actually (or easily) get to it because of the expanded possibilities afforded by a particular, non-networked hypertext tool (something akin to putting a huge theme park in the middle of Alaska simply because there are no zoning issues) or are you going to relinquish a wide range of possibilities by building on the hypertextual equivalent of I 95, the World Wide Web? One way to think about this question is to ask: if a link is constructed in the forest, but no one is there to follow it, does it still connect?

The jump from that question to a discussion of Emily Dickinson's poetic production might seem a bit forced, but the questions of form, the limits of representation and audience that hypertext authors face were central to Dickinson's poet work. In 1981, when R. W. Franklin published The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, he introduced a wide audience to the materiality of Dickinson's poetic production. The quirks of printing and publication of which readers had long been aware-dashes, capitalizations, even variations in text, etc.-were finally available to readers in their original forms in the order in which they were grouped by Dickinson. These revelations not only allowed readers to make more informed judgments about the typographical aspects of the poems, but also of the poems' relations to one another.

One of the most important revelations of the Manuscript Books was the hyper nature of the manuscripts. By this, I mean that in Dickinson's self-publication, she pushed out of the confines of the print medium. She created her own language of punctuation which we will never be able to fully understand. She offered variants which pitch a reader onto a fulcrum, teetering between two or more choices for meaning, the very idea of choices creating webs of meaning. As Marta Werner puts it, "Writing at the far end of the nineteenth century, Emily Dickinson refused the limitations of a print existence and, in doing so, effectively altered the ways in which we read (receive) her encodings"[1]. Dickinson worked to think outside of the book, to break with the paradigms of print and by doing so, created texts that de-naturalize the book and help re-present it as technology. On a certain level isn't that what hyper-text is all about--text that is hyper, that won't stay within the neat confines of the pre-existing technology?

With Emily Dickinson, we have an artist whose work was self-published in a non-traditional form that worked to challenge the limitations of print. This alone would seem to make her work particularly well-suited to translation into the medium of electronic text, where her manuscript choices can be elaborated in expanded ways. Dickinson's use of variants within the "final" text of her poems is a particularly fruitful place to explore the possibilities for translation into electronic form. In the final copies of many of her poems, Dickinson would mark a words or phrase with an "X" and offer an alternative choice to the reader in some other space of the text. By doing this, she opened up the possibilities of meaning and challenged the notion of closure. It was not that Dickinson had simply written one word and then later changed her mind. The sheer amount of variants that exist in her poems, particularly those that have been dated to the 1860's, rules out that explanation. Rather, Dickinson, I would argue, wanted both, as Sharon Cameron puts it, "variants indicate the desire for limit and the difficulty of enforcing it...it is impossible to say where the text ends because variants extend the text's identity in ways that make it seem potentially limitless".[2] In my hypertext version of the Fascicle 16 poems, I have implemented a Java applet that alternates the variant lines of the text as one reads the poem. This alternation makes the poem appear to move, enacting the textual instability and the refusal of book-like closure. The words just won't stay still. The effects which Dickinson's self-publication produced are particularly suited to the computer-assisted medium of hypertext where we can explore the ways in which meaning is produced through Dickinson's rejection of the limitations created by the paradigms of print.

But Dickinson's work is also particularly well-suited to hypertext translation in terms of its publication history. While the manuscript pages break the bounds of the book, the poems as texts have had a cultural life distinct from those boundary breaking artifacts. The published forms of Dickinson's poetry have had a public existence in the way that her self-published fascicles never had before 1981. Even in 1981, when the manuscripts were published, they were translated into the standard, printed book form as bound facsimiles, becoming yet another iteration of the texts that began their public existence with the publication of the first collection in 1890. A key component of that public existence is the way that the poems have been used by a long line of editors to construct the literary persona of Dickinson.

Emily Dickinson, the story goes, was the madwoman in the attic. Dressed in a spooky white nightgown, she hid herself away in her father's house, scribbling madly, "a Soul at the White Heat". Before she died she asked that her letters be burnt, but she never said anything about the wooden box under her bed in which she stored the hundreds and hundreds of poems which she spent her life revising, reworking and self-publishing in a variety of ways, including the homebound book form termed "fascicle." This vast body of work, in many ways, was a tree falling in the forest with hardly anyone there to hear it. A long series of editors cut and shaped and arranged and titled her poems, scrapping the arrangements and many of the stylistic choices indicated in the manuscripts and publishing them in a variety of ways and places. In 1955, Thomas Johnson produced a comprehensive compilation of all of her poems-The Poems of Emily Dickinson-for which he analyzed the manuscripts (handwriting, paper, references, etc.) in order to date and then number the poems according to his speculated chronology, ignoring the ordering schemes Dickinson chose in the fascicles and other groupings. The Johnson order became the standard for presenting the poems.

From that first moment of discovery, a process of construction of the poet-persona of Emily Dickinson has been underway. Alone, agoraphobic, anorexic, lesbian, crazy, angry: critics have predominantly defined Dickinson using terms of marginalization and the literary persona that most people know embodies that marginalized space. Because she did not publish more than a handful of poems during her lifetime, she is often seen as a voice that was unable to express itself. But, actually, I would like, along with several critics, to complicate that idea by offering a possibility that Dickinson refused to be limited by the print media. I would argue that she marginalized the medium, rather than was marginalized by it. This reversal seems problematic, though, to most readers because they do not think of the printed page of a poem as a technology to which, to Dickinson, there must have seemed no alternative other than her personal production over which she could assert complete control.. Instead, it seems more feasible that the world rejected Dickinson rather than she rejected the limitations of that technology. Overall, in this project, I am trying, as many critics have begun to do recently, to separate her production of poetry from her "legend".

Since Franklin's ground-breaking publication of the manuscript books, one of the way critics have done just that is to put the focus back onto those original artifacts of Dickinson's textual production, the fascicles, in order to revisit her concept of the poems and their groupings, in so far as that is possible, and to gain a better understanding of the meanings that arise from those original texts grouped in the way that Dickinson chose. Sharon Cameron, Dorothy Huff Oberhaus, and Marta Werner have all recently published books that return directly to the fascicles for their analysis of Dickinson's poetry. However, as critics return to the manuscripts the double-life of Dickinson's poetic production cannot be forgotten. The public and private lives of the Dickinson poems are in tension with one another. The choices Dickinson made and the meanings that result from those choices should not just be examined in a vacuum, but should also be put into conversation with the history of Dickinson editing. Such contextualization will gain for Dickinson scholars and readers an insight into the constructed nature of both the public and private poet and her texts.

The central challenge of this project is to translate into hypertext form Dickinson's attempts to break out of the boundaries of the printed book, but also to put her self-publication in tension and conversation with the mass published versions of her work. To do this, I began by first circumscribing the range of texts. I have chosen to narrow my focus to only one of the fascicles, Fascicle 16. There are eleven poems in this grouping, almost all include significant variants and I have used the Java Applet I described above to represent this textual innovation. In order to achieve the second goal, the recontexualization of the poems in their many forms, I began constructing a model of the different contexts for the poems. Obviously, the different experiences a reader has of a poem--in terms of context and form-does much to create the meaning of the poem for that reader. The publication history of Dickinson's work lends itself to a web-like conception of the textual identities of the poems. As Cameron points out, "the poems are at once isolated lyrics....[and they] have the appearance of a sequence".[3] The different moments of textual incarnation for each poem can be seen as a nodes in a web of links to other incarnations of that poem as well as to other poems that precede or follow the particular poem in the many different ordering schemes that have been used to organize Dickinson's work.

To realize this web of textual incarnations, the question of audience arises again. Did I want to use a non-networked and not very widely distributed hypertext system like StorySpace or Intermedia (a media which in some ways paralells Dickinson's self-published fascicle form) or did I want to have this project networked, to put this up on the Web and open up the limits of audience? In order to respresent this poetic web in a fluid, expandable and networked way, Adam Ferrari and I created the tool BrowseSpace. BrowseSpace is a tool for creating hypertext that takes as its premise the idea that hypertexts-complex structures of links and nodes-are naturally modeled and reasoned about as graphs. Once the concept of the graph is accepted, the logical next step is to make the graph-based nature of hypertexts first-class separate entity to be specified, examined and manipulated independent of the content of the hypertext. That is, that the relationship between the documents within the hypertext space are not "hard-coded" into each document, but exist instead in one or many separate documents. By separating the relationship out from the actual documents, the relationships between the HTML documents can be made multiple, can be reconfigured according to specific paths of interest. These orderings are called browse-spaces and are essentially ordered graphs whose nodes are HTML documents and whose edges are hyper-links. Browse-spaces allow a set of documents to be presented in multiple overlapping dynamically configurable orderings. For example, in this project, each page of the fascicle is a node and each published version of the poems is a node. The relationships between the nodes are ordered in the BrowseSace in terms both of ordering (you can move to the next poem in the fascicle or to the next poem that appeared in a certain edition) and of individual poems (you can move through the different versions of a single poem) . I have chosen to organize the project as one big BrowseSpace, but it could be separated out into the different paths of interest. Using BrowseSpace, the texts need not directly hard-code their relationships to other texts. This information can be maintained separately, as a first-class entity in a browse-space file. So, if I wanted to add another way of moving through the files, like chronologically in terms of date of publication, I could either add that to the "master" file or create another file as a separate BrowseSpace.

BrowseSpace orderings are used by a CGI-bin script called BrowseSpace to steer user browsing sessions, but could be implemented using Java. At the bottom of each web page presented by the script, hyperlinks are included that allow the user to select an adjacent edge in the graph given the current node (HTML page) being viewed. When the user selects an edge (clicks on a hyperlink), the BrowseSpace script is invoked presents the node (HTML page) to which the link leads, and again appends links corresponding to the edges adjacent to the new node. Thus, the user is ushered through the documents by the BrowseSpace script, which uses a browse-space ordering to determine the links available from each page presented.

Once a browse space is constructed, it must be accessed via an explicit link that calls the BrowseSpace CGI-bin script with the appropriate parameters, so web-surfers can't accicdently stumble into the BrowseSpace, they need to enter from the Index page.. This index page offers a user a number of different opening links into the browse-space depending on which aspect of the project is his/her primary interest. Once in a browse-space, the BrowseSpace script automatically controls the navigation options at the bottom of each page. Thus, the project allows a user to move through the poems by following the fascicle order or by comparing many different versions of a single poems, or by comparing the different ordering schemes. At any point, the reader can move into another thread or explore a particular poem more in depth. Right now, the project incorporates 10 different editions of the eleven poems and could certainly be expanded in many ways, including the addition of annotation or commentary as well as the addition of more poetry or editions.

The point of BrowseSpace as a tool is not that it creates some new form or experience for the user, the webs that BrowseSpace produce could be produced by hard coding each document or having multiple copies of each document. The innovation is instead one of design, organization and management. This tool allows designers of hypertext space to organize and expand the space by editing one or one of a few files that retain the relationships. The same HTML document, then can be set in very different reationships to other documents depending upon which BrowseSpace navigation file you are working from.

By way of closure, in an attempt to tie together all the different threads of this paper, I would like to gesture briefly towards the secret lives of this project. They are two-fold: the first is a desire to use hypertext, this new "technological" medium of textual expression, to make evident the fact that other forms of textual expression, like the book or even the fascicle, are technology in their own right with limitations and conventions and ranges of possibility. Dickinson's work is particularly well suited to this purpose because she saw those limitations and conventions that so often seem transparent. But, secondly, I want, as I said in the beginning, to begin to "think outside of the book" using the electronic form of hypertext. I want not just to accept the options that are immediately apparent because of my familiarity with other textual technologies, but to try to break out of those pre-existing limitations. In this project, I worked closely with a computer science PhD to develop this tool. Such interdisciplinarity is absolutlely essential to develop the technology as one of textual expression. Imagining the possibilities becomes much more productive and innovative when the technical aspects are, quite literally, in conversation with the textual aspects.


Footnotes

1. Werner, p. 1

2. Cameron, p. 6

3. Cameron, p. 6



Bibliography