Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, June 2, 2017

Susan Howe, _My Emily Dickinson_

HERE'S THE QUESTION: should I shelve this with my Emily Dickinson books or with my Susan Howe books?

As a general rule, a book by a poet about another poet tells you much more about the written-by poet than it does about the written-of poet. As an extreme case, take Yeats. His essays on Blake and Shelley (and going beyond poetry, his essays on Synge and Balzac) provide abundant insight into Yeats's own poetics, but will leave you little the wiser about Blake and Shelley. Eliot aimed at a more objective, scholarly tone, as befitted someone writing for the Times Literary Supplement, but his essays on Milton, Tennyson, and the metaphysical poets tell you a lot more about Eliot's poetics than they do about those of his putative subjects. Even the generous, self-effacing Seamus Heaney--Heaney on Robert Lowell turns out to be really about Heaney.

Possible exceptions: Randall Jarrell and Stephen Burt. Pound, once in a while.

Generally, though…would anyone except a library put Ted Hughes's Shakespeare book in the Shakespeare section?

So, might as well take the personal pronoun in Howe's title seriously and put My Emily Dickinson with my other Susan Howe books.


Howe explicitly posits her book as being in dialogue with Dickinson criticism circa 1985; she sees it filling an obvious gap: "The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson by Jay Leyda, and Richard Sewell's meticulously researched Life of Emily Dickinson, are invaluable sources of information about her living, but the way to understand her writing is through her reading. This sort of study, standard for most male poets of her stature, is only recently beginning." Ruth Miller, Joanne Feit Diehl, and Albert Gelpi have gotten this work going, Howe writes, and she is taking it further.

In short--My Emily Dickinson does for "My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun" what John Livingston Lowes's Road to Xanadu did for Rime of the Ancient Mariner and "Kublai Khan." (Do people still read Lowes? I notice the book is out of print. It is available on Kindle, though.) Howe situates the tone and imagery of Dickinson's poem in the imaginative context created by Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," Shakespeare's King Lear and the first English history tetralogy, and Cooper's The Deerslayer, to list only those that come up most often.

This is illuminating. While it makes sense to read the text of a writer in more immediate kinds of context--what were the theological conversations in Amherst about in 1862? what was the latest news of the war? what was going on in her family?--it is also true that some important part of a writer lives in the world of writing, not so confined by space or time or circumstances. The poet who rarely left her house, whose life seemed so circumscribed, could even so be in a momentous conversation with great writers long dead.

So, there's a case for placing My Emily Dickinson with Sewell, Cristanne Miller, Helen Vender, et al. on the Dickinson shelf.


Was Lowes--or any critic--ever so quicksilver in mapping the terrain as this?-- "During the first two Removes of Emily Killdoe's Captivity Narrative of Discovery; the unmentioned sun, blazing its mythopoeic kinship with Sovreign and shooting its rhyme,--flash of sympathy with Gun, has been steadily declining."

Among the plates Howe keeps spinning here (discussing lines 5-6 of "My Life had stood--") are not only Shakespeare and Cooper but also Mary Rowlandson and even a little bit of Lewis and Clark. Don't blink while reading My Emily Dickinson, in other words; its un-skimmable. Rather like a poem, in fact.

Then there are the lightning flashes of Howe's poetics:

A lyric poet hunts after some still unmotivated musical wild of the Mind's world.

Connections between unconnected things are the unreal reality of poetry.

I think My Emily Dickinson needs to be with The Europe of Trusts, The Birth-mark and Singularities after all.

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