Emily Dickinson and the Em Dash

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One thing I always find challenging about Dickinson’s poetry is her affinity for the em dash. How exactly does the saturation of em dashes augment the meaning of a particular poem? Sometimes when I read I feel as if they aren’t particularly meaningful, just a stylistic tick. But this has to be wrong, considering she is probably one of the three most famous poets in American literary history. That is, the dashes have to be intentional, or at least add some meaning to the poem-right?

I haven’t done the work to confirm this, but a teacher once told me that the first editor of Dickinson’s poetry removed all of the em dashes. Try removing the dashes (in the anthology they kind of look more similar to en dashes, in fairness, but in the PoFo edition they look more like em dashes) from a poem like “Because I could not stop for Death” and see how it changes the experience of reading the poem. Pretty different, right? I think the caesuras in this particular poem create a really interesting tension. I mean, in some sense, to die is to stop–to stop loving, to stop living, to stop breathing. So you might think it makes sense that we stop along our now-centuries-dead narrator as we read. But the whole point of the poem is that she couldn’t stop for death, and yet the reader stops–and stops–and stops when reading the poem. A challenging and interesting choice, in my opinion.

(Also a good example, like Walt Whitman, of poets breaking “rules” and being remembered for doing so.)

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