Friday, January 14, 2011

The Intention of the Author -- Part 1

When Emily Dickinson died in 1886 her close relatives entered her house and eventually her private room where she wrote poetry. This was a small room upstairs. It had a small desk in front of a window and it was at this desk (really just a small table) where, evidently, she wrote her poems.

They discovered thousands of poems separated into neatly bundled packets, tied together with ribbons. This took everyone by surprise. Although Dickinson's interest in poetry was known, and she had published a few poems decades before, and although her letters often contained poetry, she kept this collection hidden away.

Her relatives recognized the high quality of the poems and set about getting them published. They faced one difficulty. Emily's poems were, in some ways, eccentric by the standards of the time. Her sense of rhyme was quirky, her rhythms sometimes awkward in the sense that one line of a poem might have a few extra, or a few too few, beats.

So her family set about editing the poems. Smoothing out the rhythm and reworking the rhymes so that the rhymes were all 'pure' and slant rhymes were removed as much as possible. The intent was generous; they wanted to get Emily's poetry out into the world.

For many decades the Emily Dickinson people read and knew was this edited version. It was only in 1955 that the poems were published as Dickinson had written them, with all their irregularities retained, including sometimes eccentric spelling.

Today people prefer to read the version that Dickinson wrote.


This isn't obvious. Some of the edited versions are good poetry, are memorable and, I think, would receive good comments at a contemporary poetry seminar. It's not that the edited versions are terrible or lacking in any value. People enjoyed and admired the edited versions for many decades.

What is critical, I think, is that the version we read today reflects Dickinson's intention. That is to say the poems we read today are the poems she intended to write. The earlier versions are interpretations, or commentaries, on Dickinson's poems. The earlier versions stand between us and Dickinson, blocking our access to what she actually wrote. I think it is for this reason that today we prefer to read the unedited version rather than the sometimes more polished versions that were first published, but did not reflect Dickinson's unique voice.

This is the first post in a series about the intention of the author and translation, and how this has effected the access that we have to foreign-language poetry, particularly that of China and Japan. As I progress in this series I would like the reader to keep this example of Dickinson's poetry in mind. I'm going to use it as a template, or a measure, regarding a cluster of issues that center on translation.

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