Arion Lyre

80. Sampler, poetry by Emily Dickinson, with art by Kiki Smith

More about the poet, the artist, and the book


At the time of her death in 1886, Emily Dickinson had not sought to publish any of her writing. She had circulated poems to relatives and friends, and in this activity she might be said to have self-published her work. Beyond that purity of endeavor in her lifetime, the publishing history of this poet is complex, reflecting the bitter divisions among the parties who sought to be her literary guardians.

Portrait of Emily DickinsonA week after Dickinson’s funeral, her sister Lavinia found a locked case that held her manuscripts and was amazed to discover how prolific Emily had been. Lavinia determined to publish the poems with the help of both her sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson, and Mabel Loomis Todd, the wife of a professor at Amherst College. This was not to be a cooperative project, for these two women were at odds over the affections of Susan’s husband, Emily’s brother Austin Dickinson. Four years later the first collection of the poems was published, transcribed and edited by Mabel Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a mentor of Emily Dickinson. It was well received. A second edition followed a year later, in 1891, and a third volume appeared in 1896 under the editorship of Todd alone. In 1914, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, the daughter of Susan and Austin, brought out The Single Hound, poems sent by Dickinson to her mother that added to those in the earlier collections.

By now, one might assume that the work of a nineteenth-century poet would be in the public domain. But the rivalry between the two families persisted and the release of the entirety of the poetry was so gradual that claims of copyright continue to this day. Martha Bianchi realized that many poems in the manuscripts she inherited from Lavinia had not been published. These were issued in Further Poems (1929) and Unpublished Poems (1935). Still more unpublished poems (some 650) were released by the competition when Mabel’s daughter Millicent Todd Bingham brought out Bolts of Melody in 1945. With that, almost all of the poems had been published, though to uneven editorial standards. In 1955, the first variorum edition of Emily Dickinson’s poems, then numbering 1,775, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, was published by Harvard University Press. In 1998, the second variorum edition, edited by Ralph W. Franklin, was published by Harvard. The number of poems identified as authentic increased to 1,789.

The manuscripts Lavinia shared with Susan and the ones she turned over to Mabel remain divided even now. Millicent Todd Bingham gave what her mother Mabel had retained to Amherst College. After the death in 1943 of Martha Dickinson Bianchi, her companion, Alfred Leete Hampson, sold the manuscripts she had inherited from Lavinia to Harvard University. Harvard claims that, along with the manuscripts, it purchased the literary rights to Emily Dickinson entire from Hampson, the heir of Dickinson’s niece, and therefore owns all the manuscripts, including those at Amherst, although ultimately it allowed that the Todd papers could continue to be housed at that college.

With full access to the Dickinson manuscripts, Ralph Franklin was laudably thorough and rigorous. In 1999, Harvard issued a one-volume “Reading Edition” of the poetry under Franklin’s editorship. He chose the version of each poem that he considered to convey Dickinson’s best intentions, and the transcriptions are faithful to the manuscripts, with her eccentricities of spelling, punctuation, and capitalization, and with her lineation left intact.

When Arion Press came to issue the poetry of Emily Dickinson, we decided to limit selection to two hundred poems from those published prior to 1923 that are clearly in the public domain. In editing this selection, we have regularized capitalization to current standards and punctuation to house style. Readers with attachment to Dickinson’s dashes, her marks of many (or any) meanings, may miss them. Dashes dashed off at ends of lines have been replaced by conventional punctuation, or none, and other dashes have been retained where they belong. It is our contention that the poems are not harmed and that imposing punctuation conveys an understanding of the poem that might otherwise be missed. The poems should be clearer for this exercise. In the process, the variant versions of each poem have been closely studied to present what we believe to be a good and conscientious reading.


Kiki Smith with SamplerKiki Smith was born January 19, 1954, the daughter of opera singer and actress Jane Smith and architect, painter, and sculptor Tony Smith. She is one of the foremost artists in the United States. The retrospective exhibition “Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980– 2005” was organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and appeared at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, touring from November 2006 through February 2007. In its catalogue, Kathy Halbreich wrote:

“Over the last twenty-five years, Kiki Smith has developed into one of the most protean artists of our time, and the range of materials she has explored is as bountiful as her interests. This unusually compelling body of work — consisting of unsparing and often exquisite mediations on the body as well as on the realms of myth, spirituality, and the natural world — possesses the power to bring one to a complete stop.”

Smith’s work includes sculptures, installations, prints, drawings, photographs, multiples, and videos. As the curator Siri Engberg writes in the catalogue, “she has always been drawn to traditionally feminine practices, such as embroidery, sewing, papier-mâché, and dyeing. Smith often refers to her early choices of materials as relating to ‘women’s work’.”


Sampler coverKiki Smith decided to make images for this book in the manner of samplers, traditionally sewn by young women to demonstrate their domestic skills. She studied examples in the collections of the Department of Textile Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Department of American Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Her artwork emulates stitchery by using short straight and slightly curved strokes. The subtle patterns of cross-stitches and hatchings become recognizable figures or mysterious forms related to the wondrous imagery in Emily Dickinson’s poems.

The process used for creating the prints for Sampler produces an effect similar to etching, where lines are scratched through a ground applied to a copper plate, exposing the metal to acid, which makes recesses in the surface that hold ink for intaglio printing. Although letterpress printing presses raised inked surfaces into paper —the reverse of intaglio, which pulls ink out of the etched areas — the linear quality of the two methods is similar.

Smith worked on the matrices over many months, starting at Arion Press in the summer of 2006 and continuing at her home studio in New York City and during her travels. As batches of her scratched negatives arrived at Arion Press, plates were made and proofed. Two sets of proofs were pulled, one sent to the artist, the other retained at the Press. When well over two hundred images were done, the publisher Andrew Hoyem began to pair images with poems and to pair images on facing pages. Although the artist was shown trial pages with type and imagery printed in the format of the book, such was her trust in the collaborative process that Smith saw the final selection and placement of her work only after the book was printed.

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Pages from Sampler

Detail from Sampler print

Detail from Kiki Smith's print, available to accompany Sampler

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