Customer Reviews: The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
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on July 11, 2003
So, here's the deal, boys and girls. There are two versions of the reading edition of Emily Dickinson's poems that are usable. And by usable, I mean that the texts (note the work "texts") are what Emily Dickinson wanted the texts to be. The first version is, as I read the description of the volume in question, is the Thomas H. Johnson text. Now, friends, (excuse me if I seem patronizing, but as a Dickinson scholar, long of tooth, and weary of stupidity, I have my prejudices), Johnson's text has been a fully acceptable and competent version since it was published as the authoritative Dickinson in 1955 (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press issued the variorum, three volume version of all the authoritative poems in the same year.) This is cool. The newest version of Emily Dickinson poems was edited by R.W. Franklin, and the readers' edition was published in 1999. There is also a new variorum edition published by Belknap Press of Harvard and edited by Franklin. So. I am boring you with all of this detail to tell you that the Johnson texts are good texts. If you are serious about Dickinson--meaning if you actually care about what she wrote on the page--the Johnson and the Franklin will give accurate texts. F.W. Franklin has been working on details where Johnson lacked insight since the '60's. He knows whereof he speaks, and he has done his utmost to reassemble Ms. Dickinson's original manuscripts in their proper order. Previous versions of the poems--those before Johnson and Franklin--regularized rhyme and otherwise abrogated the accuracy of the poems. They were cleaned up according to late 19th century standards, and the texts--despite editorial comments to the contrary--are corrupt. That means that they are inaccurate. So, dear friends, if you want Emily Dickinson with accuracy--despite the rapturous testimony of some reviewers--go for the Johnson or Franklin texts. The others are mostly fraudulent. And in case you actually care, my credentials are respectable, and I don't work for a publisher. Use Johnson if you have him with confidence. Franklin is most current and should be impeccable. Other texts, including some that are in supposedly respectable American literature anthologies, may be suspect. (One of the most respectable uses texts that derive from late 19th century texts that were declared corrupt some 40 years ago.) So--hope this is of some use.
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Nearly everyone who's had a brush with American lit knows the story of Emily Dickinson - her poetry unpublished in her lifetime, and then even after her death, her verses seeing the light of day only after having been "improved" on by an editor who found her rhymes imperfect and her meter "spasmodic." He even went so far as to make her metaphors "sensible." The fact is, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, to whom Dickinson had sent her poems, was a representative of the poetic establishment, and as with all artistic establishments then and now, was too rigid in his thinking and too impoverished in his imagination to comprehend a new voice of genius. As Editor Thomas H. Johnson writes in his terse but very instructive Introduction, "He was trying to measure a cube by the rules of plane geometry."

Of course other women of literature suffered something similar during the nineteenth century. What I wonder is, who is being misread, ignored or denied today?

Anyway, suffice it to say that this IS the definitive one-volume collection of the poetry of Emily Dickinson. It includes all the 1,775 poems that she wrote in her lifetime, and they are presented here just as she wrote them with only some minor corrections of obvious misspellings or misplaced apostrophes. Johnson has retained the sometimes "capricious" capitalization, and preserved the famous dashes.

There is a subject index, which I found useful, and an index of first lines, which is invaluable.

Dickinson can be playful...

I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you - Nobody - too?
Then there's a pair of us!
Don't tell! they'd advertise - you know!

...she can be sarcastic...

"Faith" is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see -
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.

[Alas, the editor does not support italics. The words "see" and "Microscopes" are italicized above, and it really does make a difference!]

...and grave...

I heard a Fly buzz - when I died -
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air -
Between the Heaves of Storm -

...and observant...

I like a look of Agony,
Because I know it's true -
Men do not sham Convulsion,
Nor simulate, a Throe -

...and profound...

Love reckons by itself - alone -
"As large as I" - relate the Sun
to One who never felt it blaze -
Itself is all the like it has -

..and desperate...

"Hope" is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -

And never stops - at all -

...and self aware...

I meant to have but modest needs -
Such as Content - and Heaven -
Within my income - these could lie
And Life and I - keep even -

...and even radical...

Much Madness is divinest Sense -
To a discerning Eye -
Much Sense - the starkest Madness -
'Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail -
Assent - and you are sane -
Demur - you're straightway dangerous -
And handled with a Chain -

...and much more.

She is a poet of strikingly apt and totally original phrases imbued with a deep resonance of thought and observation, especially on her favorite subjects, life, death and love. She can be cryptic and her references and allusions are sometimes too private for us to catch. She can also be amazingly terse. But the intensity of her experience and the "Zero at the Bone" emotion displayed in this, her "letter to the World/That never wrote to me -" are second to none in the world of letters. Unlike Shakespeare, who mastered the psychology of people in places high and low, Dickinson mastered only her own psychology, and yet through that we can see, as in a mirror, ourselves.

--Dennis Littrell, author of "Like a Tsunami Headed for Hilo: Selected Poems"
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on February 19, 2011
The first review is correct that the table of contents and divisions help greatly in navigating this edition. I have a huge issue, though, with the formatting.

Poetry flows - or, should. A poem comprises both linguistic content and graphic display. Its presentation on the page is a part of the poem. The display of poems in this edition is flawed in a ways that can be jarring and distracting: Although many of the poems are short, short enough to fit on a page, they are not arranged that way. A poem of just a few lines will frequently begin on a page and be continued on the following page, often with the division occurring in the middle of a stanza. Then, below it, the next poem will begin and be chopped up in the same fashion.

I am disappointed to find yet another Kindle book that shows disregard for quality as evidenced in negligent formatting. ok, it's cheap, but reinforces what should be a constant 'Kindle rule': always view the sample before buying anything.
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on April 25, 1999
I have 1000 words to tell what Dickinson means to me, an impossible task I gladly take up. I'd like to respond to others on this page. I once called Dickinson the "patron saint of lonely people everywhere," so I can identify with what one person said about teenage shut-ins. And I don't blame the person who snubbed her for not leaving a name--I'd be embarrassed to as well. Emily egotistical? The poet who wrote, "I'm nobody"? Wow. I love Dickinson's work so much because her vision of life is so fully her own, so at odds with the views of those around her. Can you imagine knowing you are the most brilliant lyric poet of your time (Whitman was more an epic or narrative poet), and knowing no one understood you? It's like trying to communicate in a foreign language that only you know. In fact, that is exactly what she did--she explodes the syntax, vocabulary, and syllabication of English and transforms it into her own private means of communication. She demands that we meet her on her ground. True, reading her work is not "fun"--there's too much pain and burning beauty in it to be an easy ride. She is not for everyone--only for those who see that life's disappointments both destroy and liberate us at the same time: comparing human hurts to trees destroyed by nature's forces, she says (in poem 314), "We--who have the Souls-- / Die oftener--Not so vitally--." Those may be the finest lines any poet ever wrote in English.
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on March 16, 2007
If you know Dickinson's compositional method -- with almost no publication in her lifetime, often with many versions of one poem, and with poetic significance altered by the paper and exact handwriting -- you will recognize that any printed edition of her work cannot be perfect. Still, Franklin has worked with care, intelligence, scholarship, and order on finding the best renditions of her poems, and these are those. If you learn to love her, you may want the hardback! Her "little" lyrics are a joy forever, and you may wear out your copy.
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on March 9, 2006
Only when I started a unit on Emily Dickinson did I notice discrepancies between various published versions of her poems. For example, some student anthologies preserved her quirky capitalizations, others didn't. One day a student reading from her own book said her version of "The Soul selects her own Society" had an entirely different verb in the fourth line. It was then I discovered that Dickinson's editors had betrayed her by "correcting" her grammar and diction. That very afternoon I ordered this book which restores her poems to their original and better state. I should add the book is beautifully printed, solidly bound, and an excellent value.
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on January 15, 2012
Kindle owners who stumble on this scholarly print edition of Dickinson's poems by Thomas Johnson which preserves her punctuation might imagine that this is what they will get if they download the Kindle format. Not so; instead they get the inferior edition edited by Higginson and Dodd in the 19th century in which commas and full stops are substituted for Dickinson's dashes, and many poems have been altered to conform to the era's notions of good poetry. In particular, many of Dickinson's near rhymes ("kneaded" rhymed with "boded") have been changed to exact rhymes. Kindle owners, you have been warned!
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on June 9, 2012
When you pay 99 cents for this because you clicked on the T.H. Johnson version you end up paying for what turns out to be the Higginson version. The Johnson version preserves her original format, while the Higginson version is heavily edited and changed. I'm glad I read another review that warned about this fraud, as I had already downloaded the Higginson (for free - if you want that version buy the public domain version on Kindle) and did not need another copy. I downloaded the sample and confirmed what the earlier reviewer pointed out. When you click the Kindle version and look at the info, it actually shows that it has been changed to the Higginson version. The Johnson version is not available for Kindle. Shame on Amazon for this deception.
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HALL OF FAMEon December 9, 2000
I can't think of "The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson" as simply a volume of poetry. Rather, it seems to me to be the uninhibited testament of a latter-day prophetess; it reads like the visions of a rare mind who pierced through the prisons of convention, and who dared to record what she perceived.
Forget any preconceptions you may have had about Dickinson, and start reading the book. As a whole, this collection is a stunning exploration of many themes and images: the world of nature, metaphysics, human emotion, and more. And throughout, these short verses radiate with psychological insight.
And if you read with the attentiveness that these poems deserve, you will discover many treasures. I have been a particular fan of Dickinson's "blasphemous" verses, in which she deconstructs the conventions of mainstream religiosity, and of her erotic poems, which celebrate the sensuous delights of the human and nonhuman worlds. Check out such gems as #324 ("Some keep the Sabbath going to Church-- / I keep it, staying at Home") or #339 ("My Cactus--splits her Beard / To show her throat"). Dickinson is full of surprises, all written in a style that is stunning and subtly seductive.
Dickinson writes, "Exhilaration--is within-- / There can no Outer Wine / So royally intoxicate / As that diviner Brand" (#383). But if you must rely on an "Outer Wine," dip into the "Complete Poems" and get high on Emily. It's an addiction that's good for you.
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on July 1, 2000
As a few have stated already, a lot of Emily Dickinson's poems appear simple on the surface. Don't let the simplicity or brevity fool you, boiling underneath the metaphors of Dickinson's poems are some of the most beautiful visions I've ever read. Intelligent, thoughtful..haunting are all words I'd use to describe her poems. She has quickly vaulted to the top of the list of my favorite poets along with William Blake and Edgar Allan Poe.
And speaking of her poems, there are plenty. All of them in fact, in chronological order allowing the reader to see the progession in her poems. This is a great book at a great price to be able to own all she has written.
Since her poems have no titles, there are two invaluable features included at the back to help aid the search for the desired poem. One is an alphabetical subject index, with words and lines linked to poems with which they belong. The other index includes the first lines of all 1775 poems.
An excellent all around souce for all your Emily Dickinson needs. Enjoy.
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