Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Wayne Koestenbaum

Committee Members

Susan Buck-Morss

Eric Lott

Amy Wan

Subject Categories

African American Studies | American Material Culture | Ethnomusicology | Literature in English, North America | Women's Studies


Historical poetics, environmental studies, American poetry, critical race studies, African American Studies, lyric


Emily Dickinson and her poetry have famously been used as a defining example of American lyric poetry. The traditional scholarly perspective maintains that the lyric poem and its speaker exist in isolation and at a remove from social and political contexts. Recent scholarship on American poetry of the long nineteenth century, however, has taken a more historical and cultural turn, reconsidering how poetic and vernacular forms and genres circulated both privately and publicly. “Odd Secrets of the Line”: Emily Dickinson and the Uses of Folk joins this conversation by theorizing how Dickinson’s poetry, written during the 1859-1865 period, registers the emerging interests in folk and black song. At the onset of the Civil War, interests in black song, later to be renamed as spirituals, led to a proliferation of transcriptions, imaginative copies and a variety of rhetorical descriptions published across a range of print media. I argue that Emily Dickinson, like other writers of her time, indexes the local and national interests in folk and the spiritual, engaging representations of dialect, black voice and materials associated with blackness, such as bird song and volcanoes, through which to experiment poetically. As such, this project takes an interdisciplinary, cultural studies and materialist approach to consider how Dickinson’s poetry listens into the expansive uses of folk of this period to achieve a poetic disequilibrium and opacity very much rooted in the terms of her historical moment.