→ Justina Ashman
Dickinson’s daring dashes
This wouldn’t be a dash debate if I didn’t bring out nineteenth century American poet Emily Dickinson as a case study. Dickinson was famous—or perhaps, infamous—for gratuitous dashing. One critic, R. W. Franklin, argued that there was no logical system behind her idiosyncratic dashes, writing that they ‘were merely a habit of handwriting’ and Dickinson ‘used them inconsistently, without … special significance’. But, upon a closer look at Dickinson’s poetry, this claim is tenuous. It’s hard to argue that her punctuation is unintentional when it’s been put to such dramatic use.
Dickinson’s Poem 465 (‘I heard a Fly buzz – when I died’) is a shining example of her distinctive dashing. She embraces the multiplicity of the dash, using it to join and fragment words and phrases, but also as a mark of silence, of censorship. Take the final stanza:
With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –
Dickinson uses the disjointed dash—so criticised by Malone—to full effect. Dashes separate ‘With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –’ and the words stagger unevenly onward, rhythmically evoking the image of the bumbling fly, which comes ‘Between the light – and me –’ where ‘the light’ and ‘me’ are literally divided, driven apart by the interjecting dash. When finally the speaker ‘could not see to see –’, the poem ends on a dash; death interrupts, the dash evoking both the act of being silenced and a sense of moving forward. It retains the possibility of connecting to more—it has none of the sombre finality of a period.
Franklin’s mistake was trying to impose a logical system upon Dickinson’s dashes. While the purpose of punctuation may ostensibly be to marry logic and language to create clarity, Dickinson uses punctuation to subvert convention, disrupt language and create new meaning. Analysing her poetry from a purely sense-making perspective erases the figure of Dickinson, the Rogue Writer, out to shake up the English language with rebellious dashes and anarchic capitalisation.
This anarchy has historically quite upset editors of Dickinson’s work, who tried to bring order to her poetry, forcing conventional punctuation standards onto her writing. In early editions of Dickinson’s poetry, her daring dashes are hidden away in a shameful corner of the cutting room floor as editors brought structure to her disorderly diction.
You could reject this as editors overstepping into interventionist territory. But, in her essay on Dickinson’s punctuation, academic Kamilla Denman writes that Dickinson ‘was her own rigorous, if unconventional editor’. Denman describes how Dickinson would change word groupings, separating and connecting them and ‘never allowing words to remain static or in static relationship with other words’. This laborious self-editing evokes a sense of perpetual forward motion—Dickinson was always pushing language, testing its limits, forging ahead—dashes in hand—into a brave new world of irritatingly fragmented emails and interestingly fragmented literature.
To those about to dash—
Dickinson is clear example of why Truss is right to balk at a blanket ban on the dash. If we, as writers and editors, disown the dash, what potential literary delights might we be smothering? Do we want to be that intrusive editor—do we want to be Franklin, imposing logic to the detriment of interpretation? Or do we want to be Dickinson, taking language—and punctuation—beyond the standard, beyond the conventional, and into the unknowable future—