You are here

2016 MLA Sessions

MLA 2016, Austin Texas

517. Lyrical Ecologies

Saturday, 9 January, 10:15–11:30 a.m.
Program arranged by the Emily Dickinson International Society and the Melville Society

684. Dickinson, Melville, and Posthuman Poetics

Saturday, 9 January 5:15-6:30 p.m.
Program arranged by the Emily Dickinson International Society and the Melville Society

517. Lyrical Ecologies

Saturday, 9 January, 10:15–11:30 a.m.
Program arranged by the Emily Dickinson International Society and the Melville Society

Program arranged by the Emily Dickinson International Society

Presiding: Marta L. Werner, D'Youville Coll.

This session focuses on Dickinson’s relation to human and non-human eco-systems. Presentations will engage Dickinson's textual and material ecologies, including her interrogation of anthropomorphism; her stakes in human-non-human crossings; her creation of “soundtopes”; her imagination of a post-human “world without us”; her investment in the sociality of poetic form, and her continued existence in a new digital ecology.

1. “‘We Send the Wave to Find the Wave’: Dickinson’s Wave-Particle Duality,” Mary Loeffelholz, Northeastern Univ.

2. “Dickinson and the Politics of Plant Life,” Mary Kuhn, MIT

3. “‘Quiver Down, with Tufts of Tune’: Dickinson’s Palpable Soundscapes,” Joan Reiss Wry, Saint Michael's Coll.

4. “Dickinson’s Humanimal Poetics,” Alison Fraser, Univ. at Buffalo, State Univ. of New York

Mary Loeffelholz, Northeastern University (

MARY LOEFFELHOLZ received her Ph.D. from Yale University and taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign before joining the English department of Northeastern University, where she is currently Professor of English and Vice Provost for Academic Affairs. She is the author of Dickinson and the Boundaries of Feminist Theory (University of Illinois Press 1991), From School to Salon: Reading Nineteenth-Century American Women’s Poetry (Princeton University Press 2004) and The Value of Emily Dickinson (forthcoming from Cambridge University Press), and of essays on nineteenth-century American poetry and culture that have appeared in American Literary History, The New England Quarterly, The Emily Dickinson Journal, The Yale Journal of Criticism, Genders, Legacy, and The Cambridge History of American Poetry, among other venues. She edited the journal Studies in American Fiction from 1991 to 2007, is currently the editor of volume D (1914-1945), of the Norton Anthology of American Literature, and coedited with Martha Nell Smith the Blackwell Companion to Emily Dickinson (2008).

“We send the Wave to find the Wave”: Dickinson’s Wave-Particle Duality

We send the Wave to find the Wave –
An Errand so divine,
The Messenger enamored too,
Forgetting to return,
We make the wise distinction still
Soever made in vain,
The sagest time to dam the sea
is when the sea is gone - (Fr 1643A, about 1884)

For at least some readers of the 21st century, this brief poem from the final years of Dickinson’s life reads almost irresistibly as a thought experiment in quantum mechanics, like the imaginary microscope that Werner Heisenberg came up with to illustrate his uncertainty principle. In Heisenberg’s microscope, if a researcher tries to locate an electron with a beam of light, a photon that collides with that electron will impart momentum to the electron, and in doing so will blur the observer’s characterization of the electron’s position. The shorter and more energetic the wavelength of the light impinging on the electron, the more precisely the electron’s location can be measured, but the more momentum is imparted to the electron in the process. The electron under this imaginary microscope looks less and less like a discrete particle to be pinned down and more like a continuous curve of probable locations—a wave function. In Dickinson’s words, we send the wave to find the wave.

Dickinson was not, of course, intentionally writing about quantum mechanics. The lines above survive in the draft of a note intended for her Norcross cousins, Louise and Francis, with an introductory sentence form Dickinson—“A tone from the old bells, perhaps might wake the children”—that Dickinson’s editor Ralph Franklin glosses as encouraging them to write. In this paper I’ll be interested in Dickinson’s exploration of what present-day physics calls “the wave-particle duality,” both in the natural world and in the realm of human being and human language.

Mary Kuhn, MIT (‪‬‬‪)‬‬‬

‪MARY KUHN is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Literature at MIT. Her current book project, The Garden Politic, examines how nineteenth-century literary writers in the U.S. used botanical theories and horticultural concepts to engage with vital political issues. Her article on Stowe's ecological ‪abolitionism is forthcoming in the September 2015 issue of American Literature.‬ ‬‬‬‬

Dickinson and the Politics of Plant Life

Sentiment and science overlapped in rendering plants intimately strange to nineteenth-century gardeners. As conventional sentimental tokens, flowers conveyed emotional significance. As commodities and specimens, plants had a value tied to the economic or scientific system in which they circulated. Dickinson recognizes all of this, but she demonstrates that plants were not so neatly relegated to the realm of objects, and that their living qualities might disrupt human-centered systems of order. Dilating on plants across her poems and her letters, Dickinson explores how the creative energy of the botanical realm is shockingly sentient, escaping, challenging, and in some ways reorganizing human-centric models. In this sense, she departs from dominant theories of natural philosophy that elevate human consciousness above other forms of life, aligning herself instead with an emergent scientific discourse about plant feeling. This paper explores the consequences of this alignment for our understanding of Dickinson’s politics. If plants are vital, sensible, and mobile, they cease to simply reflect back the human values projected upon them. Such autonomy is both difficult to imagine and politically charged, for it creates an organically organized other to the human that encourages an environmentally engaged sensibility. Whereas the many theories of life in the nineteenth century tended to see the world as an orderly and stable hierarchy with humans at the top, I argue that Dickinson finds in the plant realm another possibility: life whose very nature is collaborative, decentralized, and communicative with other environmental agents in ways that human actors cannot anticipate or control.

Joan Wry, Saint Michael’s College (

JOAN WRY received her PhD from McGill University and is currently Associate Professor of English at Saint Michael’s College in northern Vermont, where she teaches 19th century American Literature. She has published essays on Shakespeare, Shelley, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Margaret Fuller, and Lydia Sigourney. For the past eight years, she served as the Associate Dean of the College at Saint Michael’s College.

“Quiver down, with tufts of tune”: Dickinson’s Palpable Soundscapes

Current theories of Soundscape Ecology suggest that the sound recordings of landscapes—the “soundtopes” of the intersect of biological and geological sounds—may one day become “tomorrow’s acoustic fossils, possibly preserving the only evidence we have of ecosystems that may vanish in the future.” Another recent study also laments “the sparseness of literature on the auditory aspects of landscapes,” a reality that reflects the “hegemony of vision.” But a number of Emily Dickinson’s poems offer their own form of acoustic fossils in which landscapes vibrate with sound; their “tunes” are both heard and felt. Dickinson’s emphasis on palpable sound is supported by the laws of physics and the research of modern soundscape theorists: because sounds produce a series of vibrations that penetrate all animate and inanimate matter, we can expect different “sonic ecologies” based on the distinct modalities of the transmission of sound through various mediums. Moreover, a single vibratory movement is also known as a “quiver”—a term Dickinson uses with its variant forms for both inanimate wind and animate birds in a number of her landscape poems. Birdsong can be a particularly “felt” sound; the singing bird of Fr397 “trilled, and quivered, and shook his throat” until “all the churchyard rang” with the converging sounds of a funeral train; in Fr621 the “Push” of numerous vibrating Humming Birds is as palpable as the “Speech” of a tapping Wind. The more forceful “Bugle”-like Wind of 1618 “quiver[s] through the Grass” in a chaotic soundtope that includes the wild vibrations of a steeple Bell and the palpable breath of animate “panting Trees”; in Fr334, the “Phraseless Melody” of the Wind has anthropomorphized “fingers” that first “comb the Sky” and then “quiver down” the landscape, their audible touch forming “tufts of tune” perceived only by poets and deities. Often in lyric poetry, birdsong is the poet’s song, and Wind (or Spiritus) is the poet’s inspiration; my paper proposes that both tropes are significant aspects of Dickinson’s sonic ecologies—embodying the heard and felt music of her lyric landscapes.

Alison Fraser, SUNY—Buffalo (

ALISON FRASER is a PhD candidate at SUNY-Buffalo, where she works at the Poetry Collection and studies scrapbooks and poetics.

“Dickinson’s Humanimal Poetics”

This paper explores Dickinson’s humanimal poetics, revealing possible ways she conceived of this amalgamation of human and animal that, as with Deleuze and Guattari’s compound “becoming-animal,” does not imitate another but acts with its own beingness. The humanimal is problematic to human-focused ecologies and offers alternative possibilities to the hegemonic socio-economic and intellectual systems. Where Dickinson’s engagement with humanimal subjects is most visible is at the point of rupture between human and animal, especially as seen in her poems about bees. While the bee appears as a rowdy drinking fellow in many of the poems, in others, like “Bees are Black - with Guilt Surcingles” (Fr1426), the bee takes on a more complicated role, operating in the animal world without humans (though with their objects). Through comparative analysis with the history of bees in America, this paper will demonstrate how Dickinson reconsiders assumptions about the human-centered hierarchy of social progress and in some ways anticipates twentieth-century ethologist Karl von Frisch’s discoveries of the human-like qualities of communication and social order in bees. Although European settlers brought with them bees to colonize America, in “Bees are Black,” Dickinson actively imagines a world where the agents of colonization have become the colonizers, displacing their former masters. Dickinson describes hive life as a colonial activity, where these “Buccaneers of Buzz” conquer the surrounding territory, suggesting that, like humans, these bees are more interested in conquest than natural instinct, since the flower—supposedly the object of their labor—is in fact so incidental that it is never named. The bees colonize, conquer, and ride abroad in carriages rather than under their own wing power—like humans, they have figured out ways to make others work for them. Dickinson’s self-actualizing bees demonstrate new ways of understanding her conception of humanity, community, and progress.

684. Dickinson, Melville, and Posthuman Poetics

Saturday, 9 January 5:15-6:30
Program arranged by the Emily Dickinson International Society and the Melville Society

This panel explores the ways that androcentric traditions of literary criticism have limited our understanding of nineteenth-century poetic experimentation with categories of body, form, and environment. In five 8-minute formal papers, panelists investigate how nineteenth-century poets identified by their experimental poetics—especially Dickinson and Melville—located authorial sovereignty at an indeterminate juncture between the human and the nonhuman.

Presiding: Eliza Richards, Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Speakers: Stephanie Youngblood, Tulsa Community Coll., OK, Karen Leona Anderson, Saint Mary's Coll. of Maryland; Jason Bell, Yale Univ.; Michael Jonik, Univ. of Sussex; Brian Yothers, Univ. of Texas, El Paso

1. Stephanie Youngblood, “19th-Century Poetics in the 21st Century, or; What Melville and Dickinson Teach Us About 9/11”

Youngblood explores how 19th-century poetics challenge contemporary political theory’s contention that testimony is antithetical to politics. She claims that indirect modes of response facilitate political aesthetics. She shows how lyric figurations in Melville and Dickinson engage the so-called impossibility of representation that contemporary theorists like Jacques Rancière say destroys the dissensus needed for politics. A queer rhetorical approach to both Dickinson and Melville reminds us that formal conventions cannot be distinguished from material bodies. The queer figures embedded in both Melville and Dickinson’s work navigate the need to testify without consolidating that testimony into the representative art that political theorists reject.

2. Karen Anderson, “Melville, Dickinson and Unspeakable Nature”

Anderson argues that in Dickinson and Melville’s writing, the depiction of nonhuman objects as subjects redefines the material world as opaque and therefore decenters authorial subjectivity. Dickinson and Melville substitute a propositional or experimental subjectivity that applies equally to nonhuman and human subjects, via experiments in anthropomorphism. Though Dickinson and Melville diverge in their emphases on the ability of the human to provide proxy articulation for the natural world, both insist on the opacity of other people and things.

3. Jason Bell, “Looming as an Experiment in Extinction”

Bell engages the power of this ‘disarticulated’ aesthetics in “Looming as an Experiment in Extinction.” “Looming” was a well-known optical effect in the eighteenth-century, drawing the attention of George Berkeley and Thomas Jefferson: “its principle effect is to make distant objects appear larger, in opposition to the general law of vision, by which they are diminished.” In representations of the visual in the poetry of Melville and Dickinson, Bell claims, American empire refracts a major debate in empiricism: how can we see an object at the distant but approaching moment of that object’s disappearance? Looming becomes a hypothesis that tests the history of a time situated after the contemporary but before the future, a time in which violence has already destroyed the world entering into view. As an experiment in the temporality of extinction—of the senses, the body, ecologies, and ultimately, the human—looming imagines a form of contingent and ironic responsibility for a shared future.

4. Michael Jonik, “‘Was it a future?’ The Art of Belatedness and Dissolution in Melville, Blood, and Dickinson”

Jonik claims that ‘experimentalism’ in the works of these poets becomes less a posture toward the “new” than a complex investigation of temporal belatedness and material dissolution. Melville dramatizes this as a tension between monumentalizing and erasure, endurance and ruination, in which “Art’s long after-shine” is elaborated through figures of personal or material dissipation. Dickinson also articulates a tension between forms of lateness and futurity, materiality and dissolution. Famously a poet of “possibility,” she disorders the logical sequence of time, layering the past, present, and future to create temporal disruptions.

5. Brian Yothers, “The ‘Inhuman Sea’ in Dickinson and Melville: Drowning as Experimental Form”

Brian Yothers develops this notion of dissolution in “Drowning as Experimental Form.” According to Yothers, death and near-death at sea constitute a recurring refrain for both Melville and Dickinson, from Pip’s and Ishmael’s temporary abandonment to the sea in Melville’s prose fiction to Dickinson’s depictions of human beings and elements of the landscape swallowed up by the sea in her poetry. Yothers shows that this repositioning of human consciousness on the margins of poetic representations of the sea suggests that poetry for Dickinson and Melville does not so much discern anthropocentric lessons from nature, as in the Romantic lyric, but rather creates new forms that account for a non-anthropocentric universe.

In conveying the possibilities of alternative configurations of sovereignty, these short idea papers delineate a state of consciousness that eludes exceptionalist teleologies or totalizing representations of a lyric speaker. The experimentation of these nineteenth-century poets asks us to question fully articulated contours of being – to think again about the coordinates of the self and its surroundings. Refraining from offering any concrete alternative, these papers rather encourage an openness to the pliable opportunities afforded by our mutating world.

1. Eliza Richards (presider and co-organizer, EDIS) is Associate Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at UNC-Chapel Hill. She specializes in nineteenth-century American poetry and has published widely on the topic. Her first book, Gender and the Poetics of Reception in Poe’s Circle (2004) explores Poe’s literary transactions with women poets of his time. She is the editor of Emily Dickinson in Context (2013), and she has co-edited a special issue of the Emily Dickinson Journal entitled “Networking Dickinson." She is completing a book on the relationship between poetry and journalism in the US Civil War. She also currently serves on the Executive Committee of the Emily Dickinson International Society.

2. Peter Riley (co-organizer, Melville Society) was recently appointed Lecturer in American Lecturer at the University of Exeter after having previously been an Early Career Fellow in American Literature at the University of Oxford. He has published articles in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies and contributed to the collection of essays Melville as Poet: The Art of ‘Pulsed Life’ (2013). He is also a contributor to the forthcoming Cambridge History of American Working-Class Literature, and is finishing a book entitled “Moonlighting Modernity: American Poets at Work.”

3. Stephanie Youngblood is an Assistant Professor of English at Tulsa Community College. Her research looks at what she calls “indirect aesthetics,” or the ways in which lyric figures of speech facilitate ethico-political response across American popular and literary culture. In addition to her work with the public humanities, she has published articles on early and contemporary American literature and rhetorical theory in Callaloo and GLQ; her edited collection Against Life comes out with Northwestern University Press in Fall 2015. She received her M.St. in Women's Studies from Oxford University in 2002 and her PhD in Literary Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2014.

4. Karen Leona Anderson is the author of the poetry collections Punish honey and Receipt. A recipient of the Emily Dickinson International Society Graduate Fellowship, she received an M.F.A from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop and her Ph.D. from Cornell University, where she wrote a dissertation on poetry and popular biology. Her most recent poetry and essays have appeared in The Ecolanguage Reader, ZYZZYVA, and The Best American Poetry. She is an Associate Professor of English at St. Mary's College of Maryland.

5. Jason Bell is a graduate student in English at Yale University, where he studies nineteenth-century “Alt-American” literature. He received his Master's degree in English and American Studies as Ertigun Scholar at the University of Oxford in 2014. His research interests include the environmental humanities, frontier culture and politics, and empiricism. In 2014 he organized and convened the conference Alt-American: Implausible History, Geography, Science and Literature of Nineteenth-Century America (University of Oxford).

6. Michael Jonik is Lecturer in English and American Studies at the University of Sussex. His research focuses on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American and transatlantic literature, continental philosophy, and the history of science. He is currently completing two book projects: “Melville’s Uncemented Stones: Character, Impersonality, and the Politics of Singularity,” and “A Natural History of the Mind: Science, Form, and Perception from Cotton Mather to William James.” He is a founding member of The British Association of Nineteenth-Century Americanists (BrANCA) and a former Mellon Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Society for the Humanities, Cornell University (2010-2012).

7. Brian Yothers is Professor of English at the University of Texas at El Paso and has authored several books pertaining to experimental poetics in the nineteenth century: most recently Sacred Uncertainty: Religious Difference and the Shape of Melville's Career (2015) and Melville's Mirrors: Literary Criticism and America's Most Elusive Author (2011). He is also the Associate Editor of Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies, an Associate Editor for Melville's Marginalia Online, Coeditor of the travel section of the Melville Electronic Library, and Editor of the Camden House Press series Literary Criticism in Perspective.