Susan Howe’s book, My Emily Dickinson, was my choice for Week 1, so that I would at last read it. It’s been on my bookshelf since ModPo 2015, my second season of ModPo. Suffice it to say that Howe’s Emily Dickinson has changed my Emily Dickinson. I had read a book about her life and her family, but this book is about her writing and the context. Eliot Weinberger, in his preface, writes, “Avant-gardist criticism—of which this book is a classic—is a territory that’s been barely named, let alone explored.” This book is not easy reading, and though I’ve done a first reading, I need to read it again (and again.)
Howe’s extensively quotes Dickinson’s poems and letters (including her enigmatic “Master” Letters) and many texts by others who influenced her. Howe takes a deep dive, verse by verse, into a poem that is part of the ModPo syllabus: “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –” which she calls “one of Dickinson’s most powerful and puzzling poems.” The backdrop is slavery, the Civil War, “a past that is a huge imagination of one form”: Dante, Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Browning. The exceptions to males from another continent were Sappho, Emily Bronte, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. (You can see that I can’t possibly sum up all of these influences in this short writing.)
Howe posits “My-Life” as Gun’s name in Dickinson’s poem, a la James Fennimore Cooper’s Killdeer, Deerslayer’s gun. Dickinson’s Gun does not “come from women who lived on or under water” (as with Excalibur, for instance.) “My-Life is a woman and a weapon.” This is just one of example of the ideas in Howe’s book.
The final section of the book is devoted to Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911) who was Dickinson’s “literary lifeline.” She credited him with saving her life. She corresponded with him for twenty-four years, and wrote her last letter to him shortly before her death in 1886.
If you are interested in modern and contemporary poetry, Emily Dickinson’s work and Susan Howe’s book about it are likely to appeal to you.