Articulation of Sound Forms in Time

by Susan Howe
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Articulation of Sound Forms in Time

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1809

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.

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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 either Greek or Latin roots or references. Poem 9, which totals fourteen words, includes nine with Germanic origins, such as “scow” and “quagg.”

Although section 1 contains primarily concrete diction, in poem 13 abstract words—“perceiving” and “realm”—begin to appear. Poems 14 and 15 contain “spatio-temporal” and “Immanence,” adding momentum to the work’s glide toward philosophy. By interweaving traditional words in unique patterns, Howe provides the reader with a varied landscape; with each perusal of this section, the reader can discover new trails.

Section 2 of the book offers fresh challenges. Although it contains seventeen poems indicated as separate units by their brevity and placement on the page, poems 1 and 2 are almost indistinguishable, and poem 11 could stand as two poems. This point, coupled with the facts that poems 1, 2, and 11 are much longer than any of the pieces in section 1 and that no terminal punctuation appears, enables the reader to glide without impediment in this section. In addition, Howe abandons her dazzling experiments with form and alternates between only couplets and single lines.

Her diction changes also. All references to the seventeenth century are gone. Instead, philosophical-religious diction and twentieth century language dominate. Figures such as Baruch Spinoza, Puck, and Icarus surface briefly and randomly. Phrases such as “Parabolic scholar” and “World as rigorously related System” help to create the philosophical tone. Such terms as “Corruptible first figure” and “lilies spin glory” incorporate the Christian tradition in this section, whereas “Hares call on Pan,” “Celt heaven,” and “Mahomet touched a flower” bring to mind other religious traditions.

Howe uses twentieth century language, as in section 1, both in figurative and literal ways, employing such metaphoric language as “pin-eyed children” and “Sharpshooters in history’s apple-dark.” Literal phrases—“Love leads to edge” and “halves draw into a circle”—occur throughout this section, lending clarity to an otherwise mystifying text.

Whereas section 1 alludes to the historical event of Hope Atherton’s wanderings, making the reader move slowly and observe unfamiliar sites, events, and people, section 2, “Taking the Forest,” creates this historical setting only occasionally. Such scattered references as “oakleaf wreathe” and “Threadbare evergreen season” focus the reader on a concrete setting. Poem 12 uses forest imagery throughout, and the address in the final poem to “kin” in the “Iron-Woods” helps to coalesce the section’s forest references.

Drifting above this setting, Howe or her persona meditates on history and language. She mentions the “Linear theme” which “Vision sweeps away” and asserts that “System [is] impossible in time.” Stressing that one must transcend the limits of history in order to find authentic completeness, she says that when “Recollection moves across meaning/ Men shut their doors against setting.” In other words, memories of the past prevent people from participating fully in the present. Humankind is fated either to “Collision or collusion with history.” Becoming more specific, she talks of the discovery of new worlds: “Caravels bending to windward” whose colonists establish new civilizations which “stray into custom,” each one becoming a “kingdom of Possession,” the “Pagan worlds moving toward destruction.” In a direct reference to the discovery of “Far flung North Atlantic littorals,” she describes how “Lif sails off longing for life/ Baldr soars on Alfather’s path,” setting in motion the patriarchal possession of America.

Howe finds possible solutions for this tendency of civilizations to limit the spiritual development of the individual in three areas: language, the inner journey, and reunion with nature. In answer to the “Wagons pegged to earth/ Tyrannical avatars of consciousness/ emblazoned in tent-stitch,” she suggests the “Five senses of syntax” and says, “Dear Unconscious scatter syntax/ Sythe mower surrender hereafter,” and scatter syntax she does.

The poet can fragment traditional linear thinking only after an extensive inner journey, which Howe describes throughout her book. By beginning with concrete language, she shows Hope Atherton still tied to the ordinary sense perception of this world. The first seven poems of section 1 describe his consciousness as disoriented yet conventional. In poems 8 and 9, however, he loses touch entirely with conventional modes of perception, reaching to the roots of his existence. Alternately opening and closing himself to his new views, experiencing moments of clarity and experimenting lavishly within his expanded horizons, Hope Atherton melds with the poet or the poet’s persona, who speaks clearly and directly in the section’s final poem. Addressing her fellow artists as “Loving Friends and Kindred:—,” who are “a small remnant/ of signal escapes,” she says that “We march from our camp a little/ and come home.” Such explorers lose “the beaten track” and experience the “dark,” but “We must not worry/ how few we are and fall from each other.” She advises: “Hope for the artist in America & etc.” Howe concludes section 1 by saying, “This is my birthday/ These are the old home trees.”

The birthday to which she refers is the birth of vision, the reunion with the self which can occur only after the inner journey. Section 2 continues the journey on a more meditative plane, circling the notion of “home trees.” Phrases in section 2 such as “Coming home through past ages,” “Left home to seek Lost,” and “Home in a human knowing” bring the reader to the “Last line of blue hills/ Lost fact dim outline/ Little figure of mother.” Yet Howe does not end on a soft note of comfort. In her last poem she explains that she will turn again to “dark Fells.” Much work remains in this land of “Crumbled masonry windswept hickory.”

The book’s final word, “hickory,” draws attention to a important element in Howe’s book. “Hickory,” one of approximately one hundred Algonquian words assimilated into English from the most widespread Indian linguistic family in North America, points the reader to the natives of the forests through which Hope Atherton wandered. The forests dominated the life of the Indians in the northeastern tribes, and many tribes used the Youth’s Vigil to initiate their young men into manhood. During his time of testing, the young person fasted for many days, remaining alone in the forest to test his fortitude and to learn to feel the supportive yet challenging forces of nature. His fasting provoked dreams and visions of supernatural forces that would guide and protect him throughout his adult life.

Howe enables the reader to experience the vigil of a historical figure, Hope Atherton, paralleling his experience to the psychological journey undertaken by modern artists. The rough ground of the first section illustrates the difficulties involved in undergoing such an experience. Once the vision is clear, as it is at the end of section 1, the poet’s language can become more fluid and lyrical, her forms less experimental, because she has achieved her vision and now may synthesize it into the rest of her life in order to learn in what ways nature is supportive. Relying heavily upon alliteration, such lyricism as

Sigh by seeSmoke faces separateLore and the likeSucked into sleeping

enables readers to dream their own visions. Howe’s work provides a challenging yet delightful journey.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7

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

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