I was delighted that in the first pages of Susan Howe’s 1985 Book, My Emily Dickinson, she refers to Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein as “two writers whose work refuses to conform to … Anglo-American literary traditions.” Yay! They are both obsessions of mine and I read on with relish (as Joyce says): “Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein are clearly among the most innovative precursors of modernist poetry and prose, yet to this day canonical criticism from Harold Bloom to Hugh Kenner persists in dropping their names and ignoring their work.”
Still on the first page of her book, Howe writes “Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein also conducted a skillful and ironic investigation of patriarchal authority over literary history.” And then a couple of sentences that struck me so that I copied them into my running journal: “Who polices questions of grammar, parts of speech, connection and connotation? Whose order is shut inside the structure of a sentence?” Whose indeed.
In a few minutes I put Howe aside to read some poetry by Dickinson.
I turned first to my library copy of Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them edited by Cristanne Miller and read:
A sepal – petal – and a thorn
upon a common summer’s morn –
A flask of Dew – A Bee or tow –
A Breeze – a caper in the trees –
And I’m a Rose!
Miller ‘s footnote is illuminating: “RWF silently emends ED’s phrase ‘a caper’ to ‘a’caper,’ assuming it to be a verb.” RWF is R. W. Franklin and edited quite a bit of Dickinson. I don’t have his edition but my Thomas H. Johnson edition did not follow him in policing the grammar and parts of speech in that instance, but Johnson substitutes commas for the hyphens in the first line and does not indent the last. I know that mine above appears not indented but this is an instance of me not being able to get WordPress to do the layout I want.
It seems to be a quick instance of Howe’s patriarchal authority attempting to exert itself in the face of the skill, irony, and beauty of Emily Dickinson.