Emily Dickinson's influence on modern writers topic of book

May 30, 2002

BLACKSBURG, Va., May 30, 2002 -- As simple as Emily Dickinson's poetry seems on superficial reading, her deceptively rich works continue to bring up religious and philosophical questions for modern writers. Thomas Gardner, professor of English at Virginia Tech, has received a Guggenheim Fellowship to complete a book on this 19th-century poet's influence on themes addressed by today's poets and novelists.

The book Gardner is writing explores the influence of Emily Dickinson's "fallen poetics" on contemporary works of such poets as Jorie Graham, Charles Wright, and Susan Howe and novelist Marilynne Robinson.

The term "fallen poetics" comes from Elisa New at Harvard, Gardner said, and is "the idea that poetry most fully demonstrates who we are as human beings by calling attention to our distance from wholeness or perfection or full insight." In other words, "we are fallen from paradise," Gardner said. "As our language changes to acknowledge that fact, Dickinson shows, we become much more responsive to the world around us. We inhabit the world more fully when we acknowledge its difference from the limited terms and models and expectations we approach it with." In his book, Gardner will explore the ways contemporary writers have been expanding and testing this idea.

For example, Gardner realized after reading Wright's long poem "A Journal of the Year of the Ox" that the poem's central image is a beam of light in the afternoon, an image from Dickinson's poem "There's a certain Slant of light." The phrase brought up a series of religious and philosophical questions that Wright dealt with in his poem, Gardner said.

Robinson, in her novel Housekeeping, uses an orphaned girl and her vagrant aunt's relaxed approach to housekeeping to expand on Dickinson's poem "I dwell in Possibility--." "In the poem, Dickinson speaks of gathering paradise by spreading wide her narrow hands and letting it go," Gardner said.

Gardner's book, Emily Dickinson and Contemporary Writers, will examine the way writers such as Robinson have returned to the works of Dickinson, "powerfully responding to and extending her investigations of the link between an acknowledgement of human limits and the opening out of human responsiveness to a world beyond our capacity to master or possess." Robinson, in an earlier interview, had lamented that the ideas brought up by earlier American writers such as Dickinson, Melville, and Thoreau, were "dropped without being resolved." Gardner will look at the way writers today are picking up the ideas of Dickinson in their own novels, poems, and essays.

The book will consist of Gardner's in-depth essays on works by Robinson, Graham, Wright, and Howe and an introduction that touches on the works of about 10 other writers. In addition, the book will contain interviews of the four writers talking about Dickinson and her influence on their writings.

Gardner held a Fulbright Bicentennial Chair in American Studies at the University of Helsinki and has received several Virginia Tech awards for teaching and scholarship, including the Certificate of Teaching Excellence twice, the Alumni Teaching Award, membership in the Academy of Teaching Excellence, the Diggs Teaching Scholar Award, and the Phi Beta Kappa Sturm Award for Outstanding Faculty Research. His scholarly articles have been published in numerous professional journals.

The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation offers fellowships "to further the development of scholars and artists by assisting them to engage in research in any field of knowledge and creation in any of the arts." The fellowships go to people who have "already demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts" and who show promise of further outstanding work.

Gardner has published several books about poetry, including Discovering Ourselves in Whitman: The Contemporary American Long Poem and Regions of Unlikeness: Explaining Contemporary Poetry. He is also a poet in his own right. His 12-poem sequence called "Running Journal: Finland" was published in Roots and Renewal: Writings by Bicentennial Professors, and his poems have been published in numerous poetry journals.
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The Guggenheim Fellowship will allow Gardner to take the 2002-2003 academic year off to complete the Dickinson book.

PR CONTACT: Sally Harris (540) 231-6759 slharris@vt.edu

Virginia Tech
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