Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Form is the principal achievement of this work; its use of quotation, echoed paraphrase, fragmentary allusion, song, balladlike narrative, prose introduction and critical commentary, and scholarly apparatus constitute a new texture and structural diversity for the long poem. Through these varying modes of telling a story, the life of one woman is elevated to an archetype of the plight of female nature in Western life. The flow of discourse is disrupted internally by the ever-changing locus of a voice, which appears to emanate from different sources of information provided by the poem. The reader is at once in the thoughts of the poet herself, in the character’s mind, seeing through the perspective of invisible witnesses, or reliving aspects of Hester Johnson’s experience through analogous situations stated in poems, letters, and historical data. This kaleidoscopic array of media for telling the life of one person opens the narrative to epic universality without heroizing the subject. The poem tackles one of the essential debates of modern time, the revisioning of history through examination of so-called peripheral evidence. Here is a rare instance of a poem taking up a leading issue of academic debate, the reconceiving of the past through a nexus of contending viewpoints and unused facts in what has been called “new historicism.” The poem shoulders part of the burden of such revisionism without proposing a full-scale argument of its own. It is a poem foremost, an argument secondarily.

Howe’s narrative method is derived from other long poems, chiefly from the work of the poet Charles Olson, whose open poetry specialized in discontinuous narrative using myth, association, and line fragments to establish a “field” of reference informing an event or situation in his verse. Such openness dissolved formal boundaries between poetic language and the surrounding world of prose...

(The entire section is 776 words.)