(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson meditates on the political, social, and cultural conditions that informed Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Howe’s work, though erudite, is a poet’s investigation into the poetic imagination rather than a critic’s analysis of poetry. Like Howe’s own poetry—or that of Dickinson—My Emily Dickinson defies any easy categorization. Howe’s text is not commentary; instead, it is an assemblage of meditations and citations from other works, compiled in an attempt to reconstruct Dickinson’s reading and poetic connections. With its lyric energy, it is as much a poetic essay as it is an essay on poetics. The most significant implication of Howe’s work is that Dickinson’s poetry is as informed by textual appropriations as it is by autobiographical events. Howe’s reading of Dickinson seeks to reinvoke the visionary capacities of Dickinson’s poetry.

My Emily Dickinson is divided into three parts. The untitled first part provides the context for the second and third parts, whose central focus is Dickinson’s poem “My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun” (c. 1863). Although questions of gender and difference are significant, Howe rejects superficial feminist critiques and programs that “relegate women to what we ‘should’ or ‘must’ be doing.” Instead, Howe argues that there is a “mystic separation between poetic vision and ordinary living"; thus, the “conditions for poetry rest outside each life at a miraculous reach indifferent to worldly chronology.”

Although social and economic conditions define a life, a poet’s writing, Howe argues, can only be understood through the poet’s reading. For Emily Dickinson, her “life was language and a lexicon her landscape.” To move toward an understanding of Dickinson’s vision, one must read her in conjunction with the English poets and novelists Emily Brontë, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Browning, Charles Dickens, George...

(The entire section is 804 words.)