Poetry News

Dashes Performing 'Working-Class Poetry': Emily Dickinson to Johan Jönson

By Harriet Staff


At Actuary Lit, Beth Towle looks at what she considers to be "working-class poetry," with a needle-eye on Emily Dickinson, who also serves as an example for what Towle likes to call the “sound of interruption.” Here's some form-content connecting:

The lack of autonomy is a major theme in not just working-class poetry but also in actual working-class life. This has become particularly true in the last decade or so, as the number of part-time jobs rises and the number of full-time jobs decreases. Workers are often subjected to constantly-changing schedules. You might work a week of mostly early shifts, then a week of late shifts. You might work until midnight one day and then have to be back at work for a six-a.m. start the next morning. A life of constant interruption has become the standard in contemporary working-class existence. There are no set schedules, no set patterns. Instead, the pattern becomes corrupted, blown-up, destroyed. It becomes glitchy.

In poetry, this “glitch” or pattern interruption can take many forms – halting line breaks, broken rhythms, white space, et cetera. But one of the most interesting glitch forms happens when punctuation serves as interruption. I do not mean the full-stop period or the lazy comma. Rather, I mean the sudden and visually interesting types of punctuation that not only break pattern but also force the eye to reckon with the interruption. These sorts of visual clues mess with the music of a poem, force the reader to change register or voice. They are surprising and disruptive, mirroring the interrupted patterns of working-class life.

No one mastered this type of interrupted sound and vision better than Emily Dickinson. Her dashes are little breaks in form that force the reader to reconsider meaning. It can become confusing at times to read a Dickinson dash. Where do we place the emphasis of meaning – on the word before the dash or the word after? Do we assume the dash plays the same role as a period or comma or do we need to new way to think of the pause it creates? Much has been made of the possibility that Dickinson meant for her dashes to be considered as marks of rhythm or meaning. Scholars have been trying to understand the ways in which her downward versus upward slash-marks might mean different things. There are considerations about dash-length that original manuscript readers have had to take into account. Many others have pointed out the ways in which the dash is also an act of violence. And it certainly is, in that it forces unpleasant things to happen to our consideration of sound in Dickinson’s poems. Dickinson’s dashes perform better than most poets could ever hope to do with mere words: they express aching dissonance, painful interruption.

Read the full piece, in which Towle goes on to find formal commonalities with Johan Jönson’s use of dash-lines in Collobert Orbital (translated in English by Johannes Göransson), at Actuary Lit. "Jönson’s dashes work similarly to Dickinson’s in the way in which they visually and audibly break poems. How do we read them?"

At top: a page from Collobert Orbital, by Johan Jönson.