Emily Dickinson and the Discourse of Intimacy
SEMANTICS OF SILENCE IN LINGUISTICS AND LITERATURE, Gudrun M. Grabher, Ulrike Jessner, eds., pp. 191-210, Universitätsverlag Winter, 1996
24 Pages Posted: 1 Jul 2009
Date Written: 1996
Emily Dickinson is unique among major poets for being both very obscure and very popular, not only among academics but in the world at large. But although critics for more than a century have described their various responses to the seemingly paradoxical impression of obscurity and popularity, they have not explained it. Dickinson is, I believe, popular because she creates a sense of intimacy in which she iconically represents a crucial fact about intimate conversation: the closer the relationship between participants in a discourse, the more implicit the speaker’s discourse becomes and the less help the hearer needs to process it. Precisely this contrary to fact intimacy between persona and reader accounts for the 'difficulty' of a Dickinson poem, difficult because it leaves to silence what formal discourse among strangers normally would demand. This very same intimacy accounts for the closeness and strong sense of identification that Dickinson’s readers feel, even though they sometimes find it difficult to explain exactly what a poem might be saying.
Dickinson is remarkable precisely because she is able through silence to capture the essence of true intimacy that gives her poetry its power. She draws the reader into a feeling of intimacy by adopting strategies of language that can be explained through a number of cognitive principles of discourse. The five principles I discuss in this paper all share the iconic feature that relates linguistic 'lesion' with responsive 'intimacy.'
Keywords: iconicity, discourse, elision, Emily Dickinson
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