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Tan, Dali: "Emily Dickinson’s Affectivism: Decoding the Power of Her Poems from the Perspectives of Chinese Poetics

Emily Dickinson’s Affectivism: Decoding the Power of Her Poems from the Perspectives of Chinese Poetics

Dali Tan, Northern Virginia Community College

Even though there might not be any direct influence, some aspects of Emily Dickinson’s thinking and living have resemblance to Taoism. For example, Dickinson and Taoism share emphasis on humility in front of Nature, practice of withdrawal from the mundane world and reliance on intuitive contemplation and cognition. However, we do know that Dickinson had her own copy of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Poems... (Boston, 1847) which shows many signs of engaged reading from Dickinson, such as paper slip between pages, markings and marginal markings in pencil on many pages. Emerson’s transcendentalism was influenced by philosophical thinking from the East.

Since Taoism has heavily influenced traditional Chinese poetics, I found it especially helpful to employ parameter of Chinese poetics in reading Dickinson’s poems, especially in unpacking the strong appeal of her poems to Chinese readers. I seek to enhance analytical strategies by using approaches not readily imagined by the Western mind. Revealing and understanding the similarities and differences in the poetic sensitivities of different cultures foster new reading dynamics and create innovative ways of producing critical knowledge.

Dickinson possessed natural affinities with Chinese poets in chiefly two complementary aspects: the particular emphasis on language and affectivism. Like Chinese poets, Dickinson seems to have a natural affinity with “affective-expressive” poetics. In his book, Comparative Poetics: An Intercultural Essay on Theories of Literature, Earl Miner posits the term “affective expressive” in contrast to the “mimetic.” Dickinson’s tireless experimentation with her poetic language throughout her writing career as well as the density and ambiguity or multiple levels of meaning in her poetry demonstrates her great emphasis on language. Her affectivism can be found in her employment of the lower senses, such as the senses of smell and taste for her powerful expressions, and her doubt about the reliability of the higher senses, like those of vision and hearing. Therefore, through the critical lens of Chinese poetics, we can learn new things about Dickinson’s deviation from and the resistance to a mimetic poetics that originated in drama, such as the creation of “yijing” or “jingjie (the ideal of Chinese poetry) and her tour de force at balancing “the empty” and “the solid” and her employment of senses of taste and smell, so that we can better understand some of the mechanism of the vital energy and affective power of her poetry.