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This article is taken from PN Review 190, Volume 36 Number 2, November - December 2009.

Dickinson's Groove Mark Dow

At brunch one day with my parents, I put on a CD of Thelonious Monk. My mom liked it and asked me what it was. She said, It’s as if he’s not sure which note to play until the very last second. Watching the unbroken two-minute take of his hands at work on ‘Blue Monk’ (it’s on YouTube), I easily imagine that he’s always ready for the right note or chord to arrive, and knows it’s coming, and swats it at the very instant it passes through the keyboard. Pianist Hampton Hawes wrote, ‘Monk plays it strange and beautiful because he feels strange and beautiful.’

Plenty has been written about the Dickinson dashes; the most important thing I’ve read about them is editor R.W. Franklin’s observation that she used them not only in poems but in jotting down a neighbour’s cake recipe, and even when copying out passages from Keats (see The Editing of Emily Dickinson: A Reconsideration, 1967). Franklin’s point is that he, and we, have probably overemphasised the idiosyncrasy, and that it’s fair to assume she would have expected a printer to regularise her punctuation, at least to some degree. Still, of course, her fractured syntax often makes conventional punctuation unsuitable, and we can often hear the dashes as analogous to Monk’s abeyance-andpounce. We can watch her, too, pause and decide. One of her many scenarios about finding the right words begins: ‘Shall I take thee, the Poet said / To the propounded word? / ...


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