My Emily Dickinson, like Howe’s poetry, raises central questions concerning the relationship of the literary avant-garde and feminist poetics. The issue of gender, for Howe, is not the defining element of her poetics. While the avant-garde and feminism need not be antithetical, Howe’s work does not support any reductive ideology, including that which implicitly establishes categories based on gender. Howe’s poetry and her works on poetics, such as My Emily Dickinson, explore the issues of power, domination, exploitation, and patriarchy—in the most fundamental of ways, her work is feminist. It does, however, depart from following a poetics that primarily and explicitly defines itself through the portrayal of women-centered experience.
Howe’s work breaks boundaries and defined genres. My Emily Dickinson resists any easy definition; therefore, it is easily neglected or marginalized. This is less a result of gender than it is of the relationship of experimental or avant-garde writing to writing that adheres to a poetic decorum. By turning away from a linear and hierarchical organization of argumentation, Howe’s writing acts to subvert various forms of domination. In understanding that language is a historical material as well as a spiritual source, Howe is able to embrace the feminist project of re-visioning the language.
Howe celebrates Dickinson for her adherence to her vision. The constraints placed on Dickinson are not dismissed by Howe, but those constraints are not transferred to the poetry—the poetry remains undiminished. Howe, like Dickinson before her, demonstrates a way of reading that is responsive and thereby shows her readers possibility.