“DISCRETION IN THE INTERVAL”: EMILY DICKINSON’S MUSICAL PERFORMANCES
Smith, Martha Nell
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“Discretion in the interval”: Emily Dickinson’s Musical Performances considers Dickinson’s writing in the context of improvisational aesthetics prevalent in musical and writing cultures during her lifetime, but now largely effaced from their print reproductions. Her manuscript poems fall into two broad categories: those she preserved for herself, which I liken to musical scores, and those shared with friends, family members, and acquaintances, often by mail, which I liken to extemporaneous musical performances. These two sets of manuscripts coexist in a dynamic, cyclical, and generative process, through which Dickinson generated a growing set of performance possibilities each time she inscribed a given poem or added a variant word, phrase, or punctuation mark. Collectively, these manuscript variants comprise a set of performance instructions, akin to an improvising composer’s marked-up score or scores. This project accords with recent feminist and manuscript-based Dickinson criticism that considers the poems to be open-ended, allowing recreation by readers with each rereading. My discussion of improvisation is informed by the use of the term within ethnomusicology, which considers extemporaneous creative practice within, and constitutive of, the cultures that produce it. Dickinson's work also arose from, enabled, and constituted a community of readers and writers. Nineteenth-century musical, literary, and religious cultures prized improvisation. In the United States, distinct but interrelated strains of improvisational aesthetics existed within European-American and African-American cultures. Dickinson's engagement with these creative cultures is evident in her letters as well as poems, as a set of key terms and practices. Dickinson’s rewriting and sharing within her self-selected network refused the stabilizing, duplicative tendencies of print, allowing instead a practice of writing in multiple, audience-directed iterations. Rather than revising teleologically, Dickinson writes toward increasing multiplicity and possibility. For improvisers, no single text or performance is definitive. Each increases the set of possible performances. Dickinson's manuscripts, often written extemporaneously to accompany a letter or note, drew from preserved manuscripts, on which she recorded guiding words, phrases, and markings that signal available variations. Her engagement with improvisation has implications for representation of her work in print and online, and for nineteenth-century literary studies more generally.