Online Edition: Spring 2011

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Write Through This: The Poetry of Susan Howe


photo by Nina Subin


 The Poetry of Susan Howe

 History, Theology, Authority

 Will Montgomery

 Palgrave MacMillan ($80)


 The Small Space of a Pause

 Susan Howe’s Poetry and the Spaces Between

 Elizabeth W. Joyce

 Bucknell University Press ($65)


 That This

 Susan Howe

 New Directions ($15.95)


  by John Herbert Cunningham

Prior to creating the lexicon of Cubism, Picasso and Braque began an exploration of collage. One of the things that distinguished Picasso from Braque in that art form was Picasso’s use of the print medium, generally in the form of newspaper headlines that were made clearly distinguishable from the other objects that littered his canvas. Half a century later, along comes a poet whose visual art training makes her aware of both this period of art history as well as the developments of the de Campos brothers, Eugen Gomringer, bp Nichol, and Steve McCaffrey in the sphere of concrete poetry. Combining collage and visual poetics with the concept of marginalia, she creates a new form of poetry.

Why is there so much interest in a writer whose works are so difficult to fathom? Perhaps it’s just that. They present a challenge to the reader who has grown tired of the usual fluff that passes itself off as literature these days. In the process, the works of Susan Howe extend our concept of what poetry (and writing in general) is, creating new dimensions, new problematics and techniques to be understood and mastered by the adventurous writer. And thanks to Will Montgomery’s new book The Poetry of Susan Howe, the reader can gain new insights into Howe’s work.

Howe’s mother was an “Anglo-Irish actress, playwright, and director,” her father a New England lawyer. Montgomery uses these two facts as the opening into Howe’s world. In the first chapter, “The Maternal Disinheritance,” he examines certain of Howe’s poetry from her estranged Irish inheritance. For example, he says of The Liberties:

Howe situates herself at the crux of a horizontal, geographical disjunction and a vertical, historical one. Surrounded by the desirable and undesirable burdens of cultural and familiar inheritance, the "homeward rush of exile" in The Liberties works as a paradoxical twinning of refuge and displacement at the level of the personal (the relation of Howe’s poetic vocation to her father and her mother), of populations (the Irish diaspora), and of lyric (the formal consequences of seeking to address a notion of absence in poetic language.)

We can see this maternal influence appear in other ways, as well; for example, Montgomery says of The Midnight that it is

a book about books—books cited, inscribed, inherited, and loved. It is stylistically diverse, combining literary speculations, memoir, lyric poetry, and photography. . . .
     The Scare Quotes sections are built around the editions of Yeats, Stevenson, and others that Howe inherited from her mother and her mother’s brother.

Montgomery then moves on, in the chapter “The Ghost of the Father,” to an examination of how paternalism enters into Howe’s poetry: “Alongside the maternal associations of identity, speech, and inheritance discussed in the previous chapter, there runs in Howe’s work an appraisal of ideas of law, authority, and patriarchy.” Before even beginning to close the circle on Howe’s inheritance, Montgomery takes a tangent into Language Writing and Howe’s relationship to it as examined from the perspective of the lyric “I”:

Although the lyric "I" was anathema to many of Howe’s contemporaries among language writers—the "guard", if anything, of the specious claim to coherence of the poem’s speaking subject—for Howe, despite the polyphony of her writing, the I appears to guarantee an ethics of poetic "vision". The I is, in this view, not identical with the speaking subject. It is a notional, quasi-divine absence that serves to underwrite the poem by preserving the strangeness of poetic speech.

Montgomery initially uses Howe’s The History of the Dividing Line (1978) to explore issues of paternity, assessing Howe’s long love affair with library stacks and archives:

There is, then, a more profound ambivalence toward an institutional acquisition of knowledge that is thought to be aligned with patriarchy . . . On one hand, archives are considered to prolong the hegemony of those who guard America’s cultural heritage; on the other, they are places in which to get ecstatically lost, the sources of wild, "out-of-the-way" knowledge that might undermine that patrimony.

Leaving behind that type of inheritance, Montgomery goes on to explore, through analysis of Pythagorean Silence (1982) and Defenestration of Prague (1983), Howe’s indebtedness to the literature of the Renaissance: “Pythagorean Silence and Defenestration of Prague both draw substantially on motifs from the literature of the Renaissance. I will be concerned with Howe’s adaptation, via Ovid, of the notion of metamorphosis and of her use, when I come to discuss Defenestration, of the aesthetics of the masque and of Renaissance pastoral.”

Having explored the European legacy in her work, Montgomery now turns to Howe’s Chanting at the Crystal Sea (1975), where “Howe begins her long poetic engagement with American history.” Her discovery of Hope Atherton inspired many a poem, right up to her recent book Souls of the Labadie Tract (2007). Regarding this source of inspiration, Montgomery states:

The two major serial poems of Singularities—Articulation of Sound Forms in Time and Thorow—show Howe wrestling into being a form of poetic speech that is adequate to a constellation of issues involving the archive, the transplantation of the Western tradition to another territory, femininity, and power. . . .
      . . . For many observers, their representation, through a language of rupture, of the underside of American colonial history has rendered them exemplary among Howe’s poems.

Throughout a long and distinguished career, numerous themes have interested Howe, the strands of which she has woven into a tapestry. In The Poetry of Susan Howe, it is evident that Montgomery has done an amazing amount of research regarding Howe’s career and writings; the pages are peppered with numerous quotations from her writing and from interviews with her. His analysis is also exceptional, making this a book full of insight into a “difficult” poet.

Elizabeth W. Joyce takes a different approach to this difficult poet in The Small Space of a Pause, examining Howe’s interaction with what Deleuze and Guattari have termed the “third space,” i.e. “the silences of history, the margins of the page, the placeless migrants, and the uncharted lands.” But there is something else—much more, in fact. Anything that can aid in understanding the work of a major contemporary poet is highly valuable, and this book does just that.

Joyce, in her introduction, begins by examining the concept of space from the perspective of numerous other writers, such as Charles Olson and Steve McCaffery. She also references Howe’s 1987 text Articulation of Sound Forms in Time, combining this with a discussion of W. J. T. Mitchell’s “Spatial Form in Literature” in setting out the relation between space and time. These discussions lead to what Joyce refers to as “the manifesto . . . for Howe’s poetry” which she finds in an interview Omar Barrada conducted with Howe, in which Howe states: “What has always fascinated me is the space in the fold between two pages in a book, or the space between one poem and the next in a series. I see an area between poems; even if I cannot control what the reader sees, there is an area.”

While referring to Howe’s reluctance to be labeled a feminist, fearing that everything henceforth will be analyzed from that perspective and thereby create a reductive analysis of someone who’s work is polyvalent, Joyce does mention the importance of the “third space” as being “a potential solution to the binary system of human existence which sets up a hierarchical power system that reinforces the lesser social position of women, among other things.” Through significant reference to Brian McHale’s “How (Not) to Read Postmodernist Long Poems: The Case of Ashbery’s ‘The Skaters,’” in which McHale argues the ineffectiveness of attempting to come to an understanding of long poems through an analysis of discrete points, Joyce delimits the scope of her work in this text stating that “not only does this book not analyze each of Howe’s poems; it also does not attempt to analyze any of them fully.”

The first chapter, “Contextures: Susan Howe’s ‘voices stuttering out of the wilderness,’” examines Howe’s A Bibliography of the King’s Book, or, Eikon Basilike from the perspective of intertextuality. As Joyce says of Howe: “In most of her work she, like other postmodernist writers . . . takes a particular text or group of related texts on which to focus each poem.” Howe, in this poem, takes an alleged text by King Charles I—supposedly written just before his execution by the Cromwellians— and attempts to extract truth from fiction and outright lie. This permits Joyce in the opening paragraph to categorize Howe as a plagiarist, as she does not “differentiate between her words and those of others by using quotation marks or citations.” Joyce then goes on to state: “plagiarism is a ‘necessary’ component of writing in the later twentieth century (I take the word in quotation marks from Kristeva, who quotes Lautréamont, saying ‘The plagiarist in necessary’).” The phrase “stuttering out of the wilderness,” a phrase invented by Howe herself, she uses to indicate those times when “Howe does not integrate multiple sources smoothly into her work . . . retain[ing] closer ties to their original context than to the created context of the poem.”

The next chapter, “’Thorowly’ American: Susan Howe’s Guide to Orienteering in the Adirondacks,” examines her poem “Thorow” from the perspective of naming and, by extension, the concept of mapping as an appropriation. This thought-provoking chapter renders the entirety of the book worth reading. As an additional bonus, we encounter for the first time Howe’s use of language fragments sprinkled helter-skelter upon a page and sometimes piling up as if in a multi-vehicle collision. Joyce relates this to the mapping concept: “The space of the land given perspective and division by the act of mapping has no structure in the absence of orientation. Howe vitiates the power of the map, of the surveyor, of the purveyor of culture, by dissolving the tool that represents cultural imprinting. . . . Howe, too, looks for the sublime in the absence of direction, either spatial or temporal.”

Several of the chapters build on Howe’s use of language fragments as a visual poetics. This concept of the visual is legitimated by Howe’s statement that “You see I started as a painter—and am married to a sculptor and I came to poetry out of the art being done in and around New York during the 60’s and early 70’s.” We can think of Jackson Pollock with his splatter painting or Mark Rothko’s paint swatches and see parallels between how these artists approached their work and how Howe employs a similar approach. Joyce, in the chapter “When Text Becomes Images,” in describing the multi-angular splay of words on a page of Eikon Basilike, states that “it is no longer possible to pretend that these words will group together to form sentences. . . . The impact of this page style is the same as that of collage, or a kind of word cubism.”

But then there is Howe’s attraction to non-Euclidean geometry and fractal images to contend with. “The core of this interest develops through the ideas laid out by Pythagoras.” Her interest in chaos and fractal theory gives rise to her interest in the singularity: “The term most indicative of Howe’s poetry is singularity, and as with most words that she takes up, this one develops out of multiple meanings but also through her persistent avoidance of binaries. Singularity is a moment of violence, which is partly why her poetry focuses so much on war, but it is also the moments of movement and of formal innovation.”

As Joyce does an exceptional job of explaining, this difficult but extremely rewarding writer has been one of the most innovative poets of any period. She treats the edges of a page as a frame into which she unloads word and sentence fragments, unleashing the primeval forces of language creation. Her latest volume of poetry, That This, opens with prose—recollection of the day Howe discovered her husband, Peter, dead in bed. She concludes her first paragraph with an aphorism: “Starting from nothing with nothing when everything else has been said.” And she cites an historical event, probably encountered in one of her journeys through the library stacks, regarding the death of Sarah Edwards’s husband in 1758 and how Sarah was consoled by thoughts of God—a refuge which, as Howe relates, was not available to her:

For Jonathan and Sarah all rivers run into the sea yet the sea is not full, so in general there is always progress as in the revolution of a wheel and each soul comes upon the call of God in his word. I read words but don’t hear God in them.

Howe’s refuge is in writing, and she creates stunning lines such as “Your head was heavy as marble against the liberty of life.” For Howe, prose is a generic term and she does not shy away from the inclusion of a dictionary entry, an autopsy report, a letter. Here as elsewhere she reveals herself as an expert at collage, deftly assembling disparate materials. Later, Howe incorporates a technological description of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library “one of the largest buildings in the world devoted entirely to rare books and manuscripts” which was “constructed from Vermont marble and granite, bronze and glass.” Reminiscent of Marianne Moore, this reads like a brochure extolling the virtues of this building, with its “state-of-the-art North Light HID Copy Light system.” This is followed by a description of “Hannah Edwards remembering her delirium during an illness in 1736,” giving us a panoramic view of time, a view which stretches as far back as Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Pyramus and Thisbe.

The next section is called “Frolic Architecture,” and we are greeted by a transcendental Emerson epigraph. Howe provides fair warning of what we are about to encounter: “this book is a history of / a shadow that is a shadow . . .” Here we enter the realm of “writing through” which experimenters such as Jackson Mac Low did before Howe, although she has become justly famed for having explored this method’s reach. Essentially, she takes a piece of writing—hers or somebody else’s—and places across it something opaque so that part of that writing is obscured, copying only the writing showing through. On occasion she intersperses what appear to be photographs that mimic the remainder (or vice versa). Is it accidental that “tho melancholy was yet in a quiet frame” appears within a square block? On that the words “I was in, it was not without a deep” appear as a visible phrase on the next line? Howe originally being a visual artist prior to turning to poetry, is this process, for her, a development of concrete poetry?

The final section, “That This,” contains a series of five poems written in the same form—two couplets—that began the previous section before it moved into the “writing through.” The first of such poems, all untitled, reads as follows:

Day is a type when visible
objects change then put

on form but the anti-type
That thing not shadowed

Meaning appears on the edge of consciousness, unable to break through. This is Howe’s magic—to make you, the reader, reach for something you feel is there, and to keep you returning to the page in hopes that, at some point, the boundary will be breached.


Click here to buy The Poetry of Susan Howe from Amazon.com

Click here to buy The Poetry of Susan Howe from Powells.com


Click here to buy The Small Space of a Pause from Amazon.com

Click here to buy The Small Space of a Pause from Powells.com


Click here to buy That This from Amazon.com

Click here to buy That This from Powells.com