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War of Words


Emily Dickinson: Photo courtesy of Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

As a student, Friedlander had an inkling that the war was a key to understanding Dickinson’s work — a belief that grew stronger through his correspondence with poet Beverly Dahlen. In 1985, Dahlen wrote an essay on Dickinson that was published alongside a photo of corpses at Antietam. Friedlander read it and immediately reached out to Dahlen, telling her how glad he was that she, too, saw references to the dead in Dickinson’s work. Dahlen responded to Friedlander, expressing her regret in including the photo and calling it “a frivolous juxtaposition.”

“In trying to convince Beverly that she had been right, I started articulating my ideas in a more persuasive way, to try to convince someone,” Friedlander recalls.

That correspondence informed Friedlander’s dissertation, but when he came to UMaine in 1999, he turned his attention to other work. He earned a name for himself editing a 2008 collection of Robert Creeley’s poems, which was reviewed favorably in the New York Times, as well as a book of experimental criticism on modern and contemporary poetry. He’s also well-regarded as a small-press poet.

But Dickinson has always been his muse. He now has a hefty manuscript-in-progress that offers three frames: history, poetics and psychology.

Friedlander maintains that the war allowed Dickinson to understand her own experience better — that the war was not really what was most important. Instead, it was a way for her to understand herself.

“By writing about the war, she was able to write about her own psychological experiences without giving anything away, without speaking about the unspeakable,” Friedlander says. “One of the great things about Emily Dickinson’s work is her ability to write about inner experiences without relying on subject matter for us to be able to appreciate it. People tend to express suffering by describing what caused it. But Dickinson doesn’t do that.”

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