(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Although Howe clearly disdains categories and hierarchies, My Emily Dickinson demonstrates how a woman writer appropriates and re-visions canonical texts—texts that establish or maintain a patriarchal tradition—and writes a wholly new poetry. Howe also clearly distinguishes between the assurance a male poet has and the voice of a woman, for whom all assurances are at best conditional.

Central to My Emily Dickinson is the implication that poetry does not depend solely on the emotional state of the author or on subject matter. Howe argues that Dickinson’s readings of other texts are sites of resistance to tradition as well as sources of intended appropriation that guided Dickinson’s writing of poetry. Furthermore, Howe provides with My Emily Dickinson an example of the necessary work of truly reading. Howe’s title insists on the reader’s own appropriation of the poem, of dwelling within the poem as the poet dwelled within other texts. Thus, Howe reminds the reader that the poem and the poet separate: “What I put into words is no longer my possession. Possibility has opened. The future will forget, erase, or recollect and deconstruct every poem.”

For Howe, each word of a poem conveys the poet’s intention and language’s possibility. Poetry succeeds if it compresses past languages and histories so as to allow the release of a constellation of connections. In the subsection “Architecture of Meaning,” Howe demonstrates this with her brief catalog of possibilities of the opening two words of Dickinson’s poem. “My Life” generates readings that portray a soul searching for god or finding herself; a poet’s idealizing of poetry; Dickinson waiting for Higginson to recognize her work and thereby enable her to join other published American poets; an allusion to the westward development of the North American continent, including pioneer literature and the erotic portrayal and domination of the land; the savage source of American myth; the United States gripped by violence threatening to break apart the original union; the captivity narratives of white women taken...

(The entire section is 870 words.)