Dickinson and Howe

November 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

I chose Howe’s My Emily Dickinson for some critical perspective on the poet. However, I also have it in mind as an example, in Howe’s own writing and thinking, of a descendant of Dickinson. And of Emerson. Howe’s book strikes me as very much in the mode of whatever Emerson means by “creative reading” in “American Scholar”: one must be an inventor to read well. I think Howe is reading Dickinson well by reading inventively. This is insightful criticism; this isn’t easy to read or grasp, at the same time.  Among the initial insights I think we–in this course–can grasp: for Dickinson, as for Emerson before her, and Wallace Stevens after her, “Poetry is the scholar’s art” (15). Howe surely demonstrates this mix of scholarship and poetics in her writing about Dickinson. What have we seen of this scholar’s art in Dickinson? What does that mean, a poetry written as a scholar’s art?

For Howe, this means Dickinson deals with her language not just as a poet, but as a scholar deals with language. I recognize this in the final line of part one: Forcing, abbreviating, pushing, padding, subtracting, riddling, interrogating, re-writing, she pulled text from text. (29)

Here is Susan Howe’s recent poem, That This. It sheds some light on Howe’s langauge poetics; for more on Howe and language poetry, visit her page at Poets.org. I hear in these pronouns variations on Dickinson’s interest in the markers of relation–this, then, here–that bridge eternity with the very moment of the poem, the general with the specific. In this sense, since we as readers are related in that relation, situated in the “this” of the poem we are hearing now in our brains, or holding in our hands, this that serves something like Whitman’s “you.” Here, hear.

For audio of Howe reading and briefly discussing “My Life had stood–a loaded gun,” the poem central to My Emily Dickinson.


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