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Susan Howe; courtesy Electronic Poetry Center, SUNY Buffalo

Susan Howe

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Isabelle Alfandary

Reading «My Emily Dickinson» by Susan Howe


In this paper I would like to consider a book by Susan Howe, a book whose status has struck since I first read it as undecidable. Written in 1985, My Emily Dickinson reads as a critical essay but is essentially a book of poetry. In My Emily Dickinson, critical writing is inseparable from poetic writing, just as if the difference slowly became invisible, the generic distinction was indifferent. My Emily Dickinson is undoubtedly the book of a distinguished scholar, but it fails to simply stand as an academic opus.


As Elizabeth Willis suggests on the backcover of the 2005 re-edition, My Emily Dickinson is not the only example of a poet’s reading of a literary text: In the American Grain by William Carlos Williams and Call Me Ishmael by Charles Olson belong to the same tradition. What distinguishes Howe’s reading from other readings, academic readings, is that in My Emily Dickinson the reader is not under erasure, does not hide in the course of writing. The reason why American readers are more prone to sign their names might not be indifferent to a distinct American relationship to the Book. This American reading practice as performed by Susan Howe remotely resonates with Puritan exegesis, which consists in a creative reading of the Gospel. Emily Dickinson, as Susan Howe reminds us, ironically signed herself as “America” in one of the letters she sent to Mabel Loomis Todd (L 1004). This signature may serve as an introduction to Susan Howe’s creative reading of Dickinson.


In his seminal essay, “The American Scholar,” Emerson advocates an American way of reading:


I would not be hurried by any love of system, by any exaggeration of instincts, to underrate the Book. We all know that as the human body can be nourished on any food, though it were boiled grass and the broth of shoes, so the human mind can be fed on any knowledge. And great and heroic men have existed who had almost no other information than by the printed page. I only would say that it needs a strong head to bear that diet.


One must be an inventor to read well. As the proverb says, “He that would bring home the wealth of the Indies, must carry out the wealth of the Indies.” There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusions. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world. We then see what is always true, that as the seer’s hour of vision is short and rate among heavy days and months, so is its record, perchance, the least part of his volume. The discerning will read, in his Plato or Shakespeare, only the least part―only the authentic utterances of the oracle; -- all the rest he rejects, were it never so many times Plato’s and Shakespeare’s (The American Scholar, 91).


Pursuing what Emerson calls “the least part,” never fishing for hidden sources, Susan Howe reads Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning or Emily Bronte with and into Dickinson. Quotations in My Emily Dickinson are to further paraphrase Emerson in his essay entitled “Experience” are always “oblique and casual.” The texts cited resound with Dickinson’s poems, shed light on them. The reason why a specific intertext is singled out, brought to the foreground is never manifest or accounted for. Quotations are to be read in the context of their inscription: the works quoted are not even meant to explicate the poems or the letters, ― why not further complicate them ―, but to open up possibilities of meaning and literally re-member Dickinson.


Dickinson however was not primarily nurtured by books but by nature too, just as Emerson would recommend. In this same letter to Mabel Loomis Todd she makes it clear that her world is nature surrounding her. Shakespeare she could not touch or only by proxy: hence this striking injunction to her addressee: “Touch Shakespeare for me.” In Dickinson, the world of books is no less real but can only be experienced metonymically. Shakespeare to that extent is like the butterfly which cannot be grasped. Shakespeare touches you, only you cannot touch him. Let me recall the whole sequence for it is quite significant: “I write in the midst of Sweet-Peas or by the side of Orioles, and could put my Hand on a Butterfly, only he withdraws. Touch Shakespeare for me.”


As I shall try to show, Howe’s reading is not only creative with respect to meaning but to form too. The poetic dimension in My Emily Dickinson does not result from a mere discursive intention or a specific lyrical emphasis. My Emily Dickinson is silently informed by typographical notations, which discreetly remind the reader of the presence of a writing instance, manifest the existence of a reading voice. One of Dickinson’s sentences excerpted from Letter 710 and highlighted by Howe’s reading applies to the reader of Susan Howe’s essay: “The look of the words as they lay in print I shall never forget” (19). In My Emily Dickinson, the author silently plays on the material dimension of the printed page displaying words on the page when quoting from Dickinson, or from other writers or sources, capitalizing words when including a dictionary definition such as HESITATE (21), italicizing a pronoun when she means to point to some gender trouble issue, inserting a facsimile of the ninth poem in fascicle 34: “My Life had stood – a Loaded gun―” before reproducing the Johnson edition version of poem 754, drawing the reader’s attention in a footnote on a difference between the Franklin and the Johnson editions regarding line-breaks issues. Susan Howe’s editing marks and remarks are too frequent and too insistent not to lend themselves to be analyzed as a text within the text, signaling Susan Howe’s presence, signing her creative reading. Indeed, these typographical notations give My Emily Dickinson its visual rhythm and its graphic identity.


Dickinson was famous herself for her idiosyncratic use of the horizontal dash. For Howe, American modernism originates to a great extent in what she calls Dickinson’s writing process. Dickinson’s writing process, as Susan Howe argues, which she concerned herself with, is either silenced or expressed metapoetically, but always at stake and at work in her poetry. Editing was Dickinson’s constant concern, a concern dating back to the actual making of the fascicles, and the subsequent history of Dickinson’s publication, a concern which Susan Howe takes up as a poetic motif in her analysis and turns into her own preoccupation in the composition of her essay: “Forcing, abbreviating, pushing, padding, subtracting, riddling, interrogating, re-writing, she pulled from text to text.” (29). Editing, which happened to be Dickinson’s subject, becomes Susan Howe’s object. The fact that Howe addresses Dickinson’s writing process in a footnote does not necessarily marginalize it as an issue. Let me cite in full the footnote:


Johnson breaks the lines into four per stanza, as Dickinson must have known would happen if they were ever printed. In her own handwriting the line breaks. Although I have used the Johnson numbering for convenience, it should be remembered that she never numbered her poems. The Franklin edition is huge, Dickinson’s handwriting is often difficult to decipher, and the book is extremely expensive. Few readers will have a chance to use it for reference, which is a pity, because it is necessary for a clearer understanding of her writing process.(35)


I would like to dwell for a minute on the assumption formulated by Susan Howe and what this typographical consideration entails. The issue of line-breaks, which has usually been muffled or disregarded by the editors rather than addressed for obvious reasons, is not merely technical. On this particular occasion, however, Susan Howe clearly takes sides with Emily Dickinson and interrogates her ambivalence as to typography. What the essayist does here is to think of Emily Dickinson, if not as Emily Dickinson, at least to think of Emily Dickinson with Emily Dickinson, retrospectively questioning editorial issues from the hypothetical standpoint of the unpublished poet. This enunciative situation manifests Susan Howe’s distance with her subject, or shall I say lack of distance with her subject, the intensity and intimacy of her contact with the poet. In My Emily Dickinson, Howe is ceaselessly tempted to embrace her subject.


However, what the line-breaks assumption reveals is the perceptible , moving, difference―which could probably be spelled with a derridean a―between Dickinson’s stylized handwriting and the neutrality of the printed page. The underlying transition, transaction between the two versions, displays the economy of the printed sign together with the unrecoverable loss of the subjective trace. Remarkably, Susan Howe’s footnote is one of the very few, if not the only footnote in the entire volume. The size of the characters makes it very legible, immediately visible, hardly contrasting with the above paragraph. A line has been drawn as the typographical convention prescribes which separates the text from the note. The text of the paragraph reads in the vicinity of this footnote, in relation to it, as a distant echo, a reflected image, a supplementary remark: “For years I have wanted to find words to thank Emily Dickinson for the inspiration of her poetic daring. I hope by exploring the typology and topography of one singularly haunting work to make her extraordinary range perceptible to another reader.” (35). The typographical mode in Susan Howe is the other side of the same coin, the locale where meaning is figured cryptically, as is clearly suggested by the paronomasia (typology/topography).


In My Emily Dickinson, Susan Howe does more than merely pay a tribute to Emily Dickinson. In her reading, she allows Dickinson to be read as the American poet she was, to be read in the context of her own readings, but also by so doing to escape all forms of determinations, be they cultural or biographical. Interestingly enough, Susan Howe does not avoid these longstanding issues but deals with them obliquely. Howe refuses to carry on the academic or biographical discourse she harshly criticizes, (“the silly books and articles which continue to disregard this great writer’s working process”). My Emily Dickinson aims at defining Emily Dickinson, at revealing her working process, through her letters, her poems and readings. Reading for Susan Howe means begging to differ. Her reading of the figure of Higginson for instance, usually pictured as Dickinson’s mentor goes against the grain of the conventional critical discourse. Howe portrays him as a non-conformist figure: a Unitarian minister, an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, a courageous anti-slavery activist. The sentences she quotes from him reveal the range of his understanding of Emily and the unfathomable depth of his delicacy: “She was much too enigmatical a being for me to solve in an hour’s interview, and an instinct told me that the slightest attempt at direct cross-examination would make her withdraw into her shell; I could only sit and watch, as one does in the woods; I must name my bird without a gun, as recommended by Emerson.” (121). Higginson’s words actually also manifest his ambivalent position: declaring himself to be endowed by nature with (feminine) instinct, he portrays himself as a bird hunter, incidentally echoing the bobolink in Dickinson’s poem. And indeed T.W. Higginson recalling his meeting with Emily Dickinson subtly reminds Susan Howe’s readers of one of Dickinson’s most emblematical poems, a poem which happens be the object of a book-long running commentary: “My Life has stood – a Loaded Gun.” Emblematical is by the way the very adjective, Susan Howe resorts to in order to describe her Emily Dickinson, as her originary topos: “Emily Dickinson is my emblematical Concord River.” (7).


Gender is an underlying preoccupation in My Emily Dickinson, but gender issues, as we have just experienced with Higginson as read by Susan Howe, are not exactly to be found where you would expect them to be. From the outset, Howe makes a case for a woman poet, or shall I say for women poets who happen to be less anthologized than their masculine counterparts, and to be ignored even by radical female critics, like Cixous unconsciously taking sides with male academics when commenting on Joyce and not even mentioning Gertrude Stein. Together with Stein, whose name and destiny is singled out in the very first lines of the introduction, Emily Dickinson stands out as an American feminine voice. Even though Gertrude and Emily diverged in personalities and destinies, they had in common to be American poets whose works confront patriarchal authority in its grammatical expression. It takes Susan Howe just one question in her introduction to pin down the entire patriarchal logic: “Whose order is shut inside the structure of a sentence?” (11).


And yet, gender issues turn out to be more complex and problematic than one would expect. As Susan Howe justly puts it in the Introduction, even if gender issues affect our use of language, determine the nature of our experience, these questions tend to dissolve when it comes to writing. This has to do with what the author of Grammatology, would call the structure of writing: “My voice formed from my life belongs to no one else. What I put into words is no longer my possession. Possibility has opened. The future will forget, erase, or recollect and deconstruct the poem. There is a mystic separation between poetic vision and ordinary living. The condition for poetry rest outside each life at a miraculous reach indifferent to worldly chronology.” (13). If Susan Howe cannot ignore these issues, she will deliberately not build on them. Another underlying and related thorny question, that of feminine writing, keeps surfacing throughout the essay, just as when Susan Howe recalls George Eliot’s gendered conception of writing (“George Eliot believed there were different voices for both sexes, and scorned women who congealed into the literary mold men made for them.” (19).


However, Susan Howe seems to have mixed feeling with respect to the question of feminine writing as the first lines of the introduction suggest. After quoting from In the American Grain a passage where William Carlos Williams makes enigmatic statements about Emily Dickinson and ends by saying: “Never a woman, never a poet. That’s an axiom. Never a poet saw sun here”, she begins: “My book is a contradiction of its epigraph.” (9). Later in the introduction, she adds: “Never a woman, never a poet ... Never a poet saw sun here,” I think that he says one thing and means the other.” The ambivalence of Williams’ statement and her ambiguous reading of it serves Susan Howe’s own approach. By denying the possibility of gendered writing, Williams suggests that poetry is not merely determined by identified causes. If Howe cannot renounce asking the question and raising the issue, she will not provide the reader with any definitive answer or thesis on the matter and will leave the issue deliberately open.


Likewise, facts of Emily Dickisnon’s life are recalled in the essay but never over-interpreted. As Susan Howe puts it in simple words later in the book: “In some sense the subject of any poem is the author’s state of mind at the time it was written, but facts of an artist’s life will never explain that particular artist’s truth. Poems and poets of the first rank remain mysterious.” (27). The facts of life will eventually be lost but the poem will remain free of intention and yet calling for interpretation. The division between the self and writing is the problem My Emily Dickinson tackles, a problem that Dickinson and Howe have in common.


The aim of Susan Howe’s intertextual technique is to unsettle and challenge our misconceptions and prejudices with respect to Emily Dickinson. Recalling the context of American Puritanism, Howe implicitly objects to the prejudiced and phantasmatic conception of Dickinson’s isolated position in the history of American letters, according to which she is either conceived of as an exception or an outcast. By reinscribing her in the Puritan context of her childhood and ancestors, by connecting her with her religious and literary roots, Susan Howe makes it clear that Dickinson belongs to the American tradition, that she is true to her name and the suffix (–son) she can hear in it (“Dickinson, an unwed American citizen with “son” set forever in her name sees God coolly from the dark side of noon.” (94)).


Howe’s reading of Emily Dickinson in the obscure light of Jonathan Edwards is illuminating. For Dickinson, it has been argued, does not have much in common, nor did she have much to do with the Transcendentalists. Severe agoraphobia may not be the only reason why she refused to cross her father’s garden when Ralph Waldo Emerson spent the night at her brother’s house. What Susan Howe calls Edwards’ negativity is more akin to her tonality and style. In My Emily Dickinson, Howe makes a case for Edwards as well, calling him a “philosopher,” the precursor of Dickinson and of American philosophical tradition: “In fact Edwards was far more than a ranting Calvinist preacher of hellfire and damnation: he was the most astute and original American philosopher to write before the age of James, Peirce and Santayana.” (48). Associating Dickinson with her terse and radical forerunner, Susan Howe lays the emphasis on Dickinson’s Calvinistic genealogy. The impact of Dickinson’s words, the economy of her syntax cannot be fully grasped outside the rhetorical context of the Puritan sermon: “Each word is a cipher, through its sensible sign another sign is hidden. The recipient of a letter, of combination of letter and poem from Emily Dickinson, was forced much like Edwards’ listening congregation, through shock and through subtraction of the ordinary to a new way of perceiving. Subject and object were fused at that moment, into the immediate feeling of understanding. This re-ordering of the forward process of reading is what makes her poetry and the prose of her letters among the most original writing of her century.” (51). Of all Puritan preachers, Edwards was the first as Sacvan Bercovitch recalls in The Puritan Origins of the American Self “to turn personal experience in diary, autobiography, spiritual biography, case histories of conversions into a vehicle of prophetic fulfillment.”(154). In one brief and unrelated paragraph, Susan Howe concludes on Edwards’ editing obsession reminiscent of Dickinson’s own private passion: “Jonathan Edwards carefully sewed his work into handsome notebooks, as did Emily Dickinson. Among his manuscripts are several containing 212 numbered entries he made with different inks and pens over the span of his life. Miscellanies-fragments; like her poems they were never meant for publication.” (52).


Susan Howe’s discourse in My Emily Dickinson verges on the performative mode. Not only is Susan Howe convincing in her statements and arguments, but she is the author of a series of what I would call interpretative speech acts. Here are a couple of examples: “I say that Emily Dickinson took both his legend and learning, tore them free from his own humorlessness and the dead weight of doctrinaire Calvinism, then applied the freshness of his perception to the dead weight of American poetry as she knew it (51). Or ten pages later in the following chapter, she writes: “I call Withering Heights a poem.” (61). These statements do not go usually without rational justification. Yet on some occasions, the reading subject, Susan Howe, resorts to some violent linguistic device to make her point. I take these declarations to be of a poetic nature and yet not to be devoid of critical pertinence. Surprisingly enough, the lyrical does not exclude or preclude the critical mode in My Emily DIckinson. The title of the essay can be read to that extent as a speech act: My Emily Dickinson is a self-assertive poetic declaration together with a critical essay. Hence the book no longer reads as an act of appropriation but as an act of declaration.


Not all of Susan Howe’s demonstrations follow the academic prescriptions with respect to argumentation: some could even be termed poetic. One passage will make it clear. At the very core of the volume (page 80 to be precise), a remarkable sequence of quotations and interpolated statements can be found. For want of time, I will only allude briefly on this crucial page: After quoting from John Adams “The Sovereign is the whole country” and John Stuart Mill “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is Sovereign,” Susan Howe lingers on the adjective sovereign, quoting two consecutive definitions of a word Emily Dickinson must have looked up in what she considered her “only companion,” The Noah Webster American Dictionary of the English Language, 1854 (edition cited). Half way through the page, before disclosing contradictory statements, Susan Howe ironically remarks: “Ameridians found, to their cost, trust in the code word ‘sovereign’ could mean all or nothing.” (80). The word, which turned out to be the key to the Language, that is the moral and political discourse, of America, assumes contradictory if not controversial meanings. Howe’s collage further includes a brief but striking quotation by Jonathan Edwards (“God’s arbitrary and sovereign good pleasure”). The page closes on one no less brief and assertive sentence by Susan Howe which eventually answers the page opening question (“Who owns the woods?”): “Dickinson takes sovereignty away from God and bestows it on the Woods.” Interestingly, the only discriminating factor which distinguishes Howe’s voice from Edwards, Noah Webster, Mill or Adams’ is once again visual, i.e. results from the size of the characters on the page: the sovereignty of her reading, the authority of her voice―which only relies on a fragile typographical device― is here challenged by the visual polyphony. However, Susan Howe uses intertextual collage as a demonstrative and even speculative means. Echoed and re-echoed throughout the page, the concept of sovereignty is a key but an ambiguous concept all the same, meaning being all or nothing. In the end, Howe’s poetic practice seems to contradict the concept of sovereignty: for her voice fails to take precedence over the others.


The act of writing unsettles all determinations and discards the so-called constitutive principles. Thanks to her intertextual method, Susan Howe is able to blur the boundaries of what Emerson in his preface to Nature refers to as the Me and the Not-Me, manages to invert the course of time, to reverse the causal process of indebtedness. Just as if effect and cause verse were reversible. Just as if time did not matter. Just as if authorship was negligible. Shakespeare to that extent could be read as Emily Dickinson’s plagiarist, “plagiat par anticipation” as the Oulipiens call it. Howe’s intertextual reading method is deliberately indirect. Bonds do not need to be justified historically: some imaginary connections will prove even more real and adequate. By pairing Emily with canonical authors, by reading her writing as haunted by invisible intertexts, Howe wants to compensate for Emily’s Dickinson’s solitude or absence.


In My Emily Dickinson, Susan Howe’s reading gesture leads to a paradoxical conclusion where Dickinson seems to belong to herself and become herself insofar as she escapes what Howe calls in a visionary projection “the violence of definition.”


After a good day’s writing with her Master’s inspiration, the poet, alone, in her clearing of Becoming, keeps on experimenting, deciphering. Melodious thought, product of her Master’s head – Beauty, was what she had been breaking and shaping when he sank with the sun into sleeping. At the limits of consciousness perceiving our nakedness, Gun stays awake guarding the Distance. She knows Originality is the discovery of how to shed identity before the magic mirror of Antiquity’s sovereign power. Like Edgar/Tom and Deerslayer/Hawk-eye, she escapes the violence of definition, blood of the hunt. (105)


There may be moments of vision, scenes of speculation scattered along the reader’s way, but the logic and rhetoric of definition is deliberately shunned and cancelled. These scenes occur whenever Susan Howe conjectures about Dickinson’s life allegorizing the poem’s and the poet’s signifiers (73), she ventures an analysis of a stanza (129). These moments, which endowed with a remarkable poetic energy result in the indefintion of the first person singular, trigger a multiplicity of fictions of the self (the writing self of Emily, the reading self of Susan, all selves) far beyond the eleven possible lives enumerated in a section entitled “Possibilities.”


The identity of the speaker itself becomes undecidable when Howe writes: “Assimilation into civilization’s chronology, its grammatical and arithmetical scrutiny calls for correcting, suspecting, coveting, corrupting my soul into a devious definition of Duty. I must pursue and destroy what was most tender in my soul’s first nature. A poem is an invocation, rebellious return to the blessedness of beginning again, wandering free in pure process of forgetting and finding.” (98). Who is this I? Dickinson’s? Howe’s? The reader’s? A gnomic I? The range of possibilities is wide and definitely open. In My Emily Dickinson, the original question Who was she? has been substituted for Who speaks ?


To conclude, I would just like to say that My Emily Dickinson can be read as “A Essay of Thank You” to paraphrase the title of Gertrude Stein’s pseudo-novels. The tribute paid to Emily Dickinson by Susan Howe is however a creative tribute. What Susan Howe refers to as “America’s text-free past” (97) is not exactly text-free as her essay argues and demonstrates. In My Emily Dickinson, Susan Howe does not mean to appropriate Emily Dickinson but to liberate the possibilities of her writing.

 — Isabelle Alfandary (Université Lyon 2)

Works Cited

Bercovitch, Sacvan. The Puritan Origins of the American Self. Yale: Yale UP, 1975

Dickinson, Emily. Letters. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1958

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature and Other Essays. New York: Penguin, 2003

Howe, Susan. My Emily Dickinson. New York: New Directions, 1985, 2007

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