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Editing Poetry: Manuscript to Printed Page

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Manuscripts offer an opportunity to discuss editorial decisions.
Image Credit: 

"Metallic Ballpen Tips" via photosteve101's Flikr stream

Brief Assignment Overview: 

Students work on transcribing an Emily Dickenson poem from manuscript form into print. Their transcriptions are then compared with each other and with several printed editions of the same poem and used to discuss editorial decisions.

Type of Assignment: 
Assignment Length: 
Pedagogical Goals - Writing: 
Pedagogical Goals - Digital Literacy: 
Additional Pedagogical Goals: 

Generating an awareness of bibliographic/textual concerns and raising questions about the physical status of books. Thinking about the material conditions of a work’s production and circulation. Questioning received texts in anthologies and elsewhere and complicating the students’ perception of “authorship.”

Required Materials: 

Photocopies of a poem from a facsimile edition of Dickenson (I used “I taste a liquor never brewed” from R. W. Franklin’s facsimile edition).

Several printed editions of the same poem. I chose a poem that was included in the students’ anthology and also brought reading editions by Thomas H. Johnson and R. W. Franklin. I looked up several decidedly non-scholarly versions online to round out the possible manifestations of the poem.

Student access to computers (this could be accomplished with students bringing in their own laptops if not working in a technology-based classroom)

Document camera.

Timeline for Optimal Use: 
Full Assignment Description: 

Students work on transcribing an Emily Dickenson poem from manuscript form into print. Their transcriptions are then compared with each other and with several printed editions of the same poem and used as exemplary material for discussing editorial decisions ranging from choice of words, letters and punctuation to use of alternate lines, footnotes, etc.

Because Dickenson presents a somewhat extreme example of editorial intervention (few of her poems were published in her lifetime, so most of her poems have no authorized transcription), her poems offer a prime opportunity for introducing students to the impact of editorial and publication decisions on the poems they read. This activity places those decisions in the hands of the students and forces them to think both explicitly and pragmatically about what decisions have to be made to move a manuscript into printed form and what factors influence those decisions.

Suggestions for Instructor Preparation: 

I used this assignment on our second day reading Dickinson because I wanted the students to rethink the supposed familiarity with the text of the poem. I did not assign the poem I had them transcribe because I did not want them to have easy recourse to the edition in their book.

After a brief discussion of Dickinson’s composition and publication history, I told the students to close their anthologies and take one copy of the manuscript facsimile. When everyone had a copy, I divided the room into small groups (about three students each) and asked them to log into one computer per group and begin working on their own “print” editions of the poem. I gave the students about 25-30 minutes to work on their editions of the poem. Some groups finished slightly earlier, but one or two groups were rushed and had to leave some words as blanks. Since I was already going to use the document camera, I had each group print out a copy of their edition on the in-class printer (email or the “teacher folder” could also be used).

After collecting the several classroom-editions of the poem, I placed them one at a time on the document camera and had the group read their version of the poem and discuss the decisions they made about capitalization, line breaks, punctuation (including dashes). Each group took 3-5 minutes for a total of 15-20 minutes.

After looking at the students’ editions, I put the different printed editions of the poem on the doc cam and had student’s note the differences between them and their own versions. It is important to have printed versions that differ from each other so students don’t see the differences between their copies and the printed copies as definitively authoritative. We also looked at a couple of websites that host the poem.

After discussing some major differences in copy texts—treatment of alternate lines, use of footnotes, etc.—we discussed how the facsimile, their required textbook anthology, the different “Collected Poems” and the free-floating online editions vary in their broader presentation of the poem (Do they present their version as the final word? Do they acknowledge other versions? Are they aware of and do they acknowledge their editorial contributions? Do they make Dickinson’s poem look like a typical 19th century edition of poetry? If not, how do they translate the strangeness of the manuscript page into print? etc.).

Instructions For Students: 

Take a copy of Dickinson’s manuscript and, without referencing your anthology or any online sources, transcribe this poem into ‘printed form’ in a word processor. Make your final edition of the poem look how you would make it appear if you were editing a book of her poetry. If you get stuck in one place, move on to an easier passage and come back to it later. Many difficult words/passages will be clearer when you have established some context. This should take about 30 minutes.

Evaluation Suggestions: 

There were no grades assigned for the exercise beyond normal class participation.

Notes on Reception, Execution, etc.: 

The students enjoyed the hands-on process of transcription. I was worried about time constraints and ended up rushing them in that process more than I would like, so I may let them work for longer next time. If I give them more time, I will actively push the groups that finish earlier to go into more depth with their treatment of alternate lines, footnotes, etc. Some of the students didn’t see the editorial differences as very significant or meaningful, so, if I had more time to work on the assignment, I might expand the latter half to build close readings around alternate versions and see more explicitly how the editorial decisions affect the poem’s meaning. Alternately, I will adjust my expectations and remember that this is an introduction, not a conclusion, to textual problems that we will discuss through the length of the semester.

Additional Resources: 

A brief critical reading about editorial practice might be useful as a lead-in or a follow-up for the exercise.

Course Description: 

This exercise was implemented in an introduction to literary studies class.

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