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Winner of the 2022 Award for Best Undergraduate Essay: Sophia Houghton

Winner of the 2022 Award for Best Undergraduate Essay: “A Fire that ‘Lasts’: Dickinson, Liminality and Potential Energy,” by Sophia Houghton, B.A. in English & Comparative Literature, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2021, advised by Eliza Richards. Sophia is attending Columbia University’s graduate program in English this year.

 Through a close reading of the poem, “The smouldering embers blush” (1142A), I investigate how Dickinson’s disjunctive poetic forms engage the limits of her speaker’s perception relative to a specific material phenomenon: flameless combustion. In her deferral of complete metaphors (and, in turn, of what Maurice Merleau-Ponty calls “conceptual peace”), and through her use of apostrophe, Dickinson locates the sustained thermal output of a bed of smoldering coals within a partly literal, partly figural mesh, upending Romantic fire-symbolism in the process. Rather than worshiping flame as a figure of poetic inspiration in the tradition of her male contemporaries, Dickinson renders fire but one ephemeral expression of an ongoing, complex atemporal phenomenon. Placed in dialogue with Michelle Kohler’s theory of “metaphoric vision” and “object-oriented feminism,” Jane Bennett’s concept of “vibrant matter,” and Ryan Heryford’s study of the poetics of decay, I argue that in poem 1142A, Dickinson draws on methods of empirical and poetic observation to celebrate deep potentiality, a “lasting” quality that connects human resilience with nonhuman energy in a liminal space.
This is an important way we can invite young scholars into the circle of Dickinson studies and encourage their future work. Please encourage your students to submit their essays at the end of the academic year.

Link to the essay