Defenestration of Prague

by Susan Howe

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Forms and Devices

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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 reality. The new poem was porous and subject to the influences of other texts and realities, which it incorporated into its flexible structure. Such are Howe’s working principles as well.

Howe has been grouped with certain other poets in a movement called “language” poetry, which emphasizes composition as a process and human expression as ambiguous and chaotic. Though she draws attention to the accretive and aleatory patterns of writing poetry, she will not stray beyond a certain “meaning” boundary in breaking down language to its nonsemantic detritus of syllables and punctuation, as have other “language” poets. Also evident is the dense verbal conciseness of Emily Dickinson, whom Howe reveres here and elsewhere in her work, and the wordplay of Gertrude Stein, who not only punned on the associative relations among words but also exploded conventional syntactical relations. Both Dickinson and Stein helped to establish a feminine poetics and literary tradition from which Howe derives her own mode of composition.

Howe is not, however, a militant or doctrinaire feminist in this poem. Her views on the life of Hester Johnson are too complex to comply with any orthodoxy on either side of the gender debate. Instead, she assimilates into her historical views the attitudes of Jonathan Swift (from whom she quotes liberally) and of Shakespeare, with whom she is evidently in sympathy for part of her argument. Howe’s method of telling one woman’s story is both to establish the principle of sexual inequality and its damage to women and to note the ambiguous forces that perpetuate the oppression of females in patriarchal societies. Men are not lumped together as villains; social institutions and cultural habits are criticized more emphatically than are particular figures or social groups.

Howe’s phrase for describing the terms in which people live their lives is “endless PROTEANL inkages,” where the...

(This entire section contains 776 words.)

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social ambiguity of evil and oppression is pointed up. The social rules constitute a heritage without firm beginning or end; they change according to the vagaries of social evolution. Thus the limits placed on behavior and access to privilege form an endlessly changeful framework of linked causes, the linkages of her ambivalent phrase. It is this protean state of things that Howe strives to reproduce through her intertextual narrative, which affirms and distorts the causality of the poem’s events as a way of mimicking social history itself.

Defenestration of Prague uses a large rectangular page that gives the poetry ample room to explore open structures. Some of the poems are composed of loosely suspended lines featuring large gaps to underscore textualized silences, pauses, abruptly severed lines of thought, or the fragmentation of words themselves. Howe thus reminds the reader that her thinking is a process of digging down through history to learn the experience of a woman whose silence and obscurity make her largely inaccessible to the author.