Articulation of Sound Forms in Time Analysis

Susan Howe

Articulation of Sound Forms in Time

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

During the 1970’s, a new group of poets, dubbed “language” or “language-centered,” sprang up in New York and San Francisco. These poets, who detach language from its conventional meanings and forms, produce an “unreadable” text. They protest political oppression by rebelling against the restrictions which the traditional structure of language imposes on the reader. Among the leading figures in this group are Ron Silliman, Charles Bernstein, and Susan Howe.

Articulation of Sound Forms in Time resembles a long ski run. With no titles or page numbers, and little terminal punctuation, the poems allow the practiced reader to glide in their synchronic flow. Reading the work is like skiing fresh powder. The brief book contains two major sections: “Hope Atherton’s Wanderings” and “Taking the Forest.” Immediately preceding these two sections, an extract from a letter dated June 8, 1781, describes how Atherton, a minister ordained in 1670 in Hatfield, Massachusetts, participated in the fight against the Indians at the falls above Deerfield in May, 1676. Atherton, unhorsed and separated from the company, wandered in the woods for several days before he reached Hadley, on the opposite side of the Connecticut River from where he first lost touch with his companions. According to his own story and that of his son, who had talked with the Indians, Atherton offered to surrender to the Indians, who fearfully ran from him.

Section 1 consists of sixteen brief poems, easily identified as separate pieces because of their unique forms and placement on the page, although none has a title. Form ranges from that in poem 10, which consists of two lines jammed together vertically, through poems composed of triple-, double-, and unspaced lines, to the uniqueness of poems 14 and 15. These poems each contain seven lines consisting of exactly the same words. Lines 2 through 5, however, mirror one another, one section beginning with “is” and ending with “Mohegan,” and the other beginning with “Mohegan” and ending with “is.” Also, the final two words of the last two lines in these poems are set apart and reversed: “upside/sideup” in poem 14 becoming “sideup/upside” in poem 15.

Skiing through section 1, the novice reader can tumble not only on the variety of forms but on the poems’ sparse terminal punctuation, their broken syntax, and their varied spacing. The punctuation scheme of the poems makes the reader stop completely only twice, signaled by the period after “etc” in poem 1 and the colon and dash after “Loving Friends and Kindred” in the final poem of the section. Added to the scarcity of terminal punctuation, broken syntax causes the reader to inch through the majority of poems in section 1, making poems 8, 9, 13, 14, and 15 especially challenging. For example, poem 8 reads in its entirety:

rest chondriacal lunacyvelc cello viable toilquench conch uncannuncdrumm amonoosuck ythian

Other devices slow the reader, such as triple spaces between some words and no spaces between others, emphasizing the fractured syntax of many of the poems in section 1.

In contrast to this unconventional punctuation and spacing, the diction in section 2 relies heavily on tradition. Words such as “espied” and “Mylord,” coupled with “Prest” and “Stedyness,” lend a seventeenth century flavor, as do abbreviations such as “abt” and “ordr.” Such diction permeates especially the first seven poems of section 1, as do such proper names as “Capt. Turner” and “Clay Gully” and such food items as “two rotted beans” and “Pease of all sorts.”

The diction in poems 12 and 16, however, sounds distinctly twentieth century. “Grail face of bronze or brass” and “Talismanic stepping-stone children” evoke the power of twentieth century figurative English, whereas a line such as “We must not worry/ how few we are and fall from each other” shows the plain, direct style popular during the same period.

Howe also provides, in poems 8 and 9, a clear distinction between two major contributors to both seventeenth and twentieth century English language, the classical and Germanic antecedents. Of the thirteen words in number 8, ten have...

(The entire section is 1809 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

London Review of Books. IX, October 15, 1987, p. 6.