Frame Structures

by Susan Howe
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Frame Structures

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 256

FRAME STRUCTURES includes poems from Susan Howe’s four early chapbooks: HINGE PICTURE (1974), CHANTING AT THE CRYSTAL SEA (1975), CABBAGE GARDENS (1979), and SECRET HISTORY OF THE DIVIDING LINE (1978). In the preface, Howe discusses Paul Demund Evans’ book, THE HOLLAND LAND AND COMPANY (1924), describes her relationship with her father, recalls her family’s tie to the New England area, and ponders the intricate connection between history and literature. In “Hinge Picture,” the central image is the sea. If the sea is emblematic of time and history, the voyage is what connects both. In “Chanting at the Crystal Sea,” Howe shifts her topic from that of the storm at the sea to that of the storm of human relationship. “Cabbage Gardens,” describes war’s cruelty and those who are innocently involved. Ostensibly, the poem is narrated from a cabbage’s point of view. In “Secret History of the Dividing Line,” Howe consummates poetic rendition of history by examining the divisibility and indivisibility of the past and the present and distance and connectedness.

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As one of the country’s leading experimental poets, Susan Howe has consistently shown her interest in finding a medium to make emotional engagement with the reader. FRAME STRUCTURES marks the beginning of a journey in search of such a medium. Words provide the author with a frame, rendering “a pure past that returns to itself unattackable” and make it possible for her to emancipate herself from the manacles of her false self.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Review. XLII, Spring, 1996, p. 103.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, March 18, 1996, p. 65.

Frame Structures

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1953

Since the release of Susan Howe’s The Nonconformist’s Memorial in 1993, many readers have eagerly been waiting for her next book. Frame Structures turns out to be a collection of Howe’s early poems written and published between 1974 and 1979. It is only appropriate that a person whose inspiration derives as much from her interaction with the present as from her attachment to history decides to republish some of her earliest poems in the forms which she cares to have them last. It is a revisionist approach firmly grounded in what Howe believes should be permanent, a leitmotif which melodiously and rhythmically threads some of the poet’s best poems together. Howe is a professor of English at the State University of New York at Buffalo. She started writing poetry in earnest in 1972, after she moved to Connecticut with her husband. Her training in the visual arts had laid a solid foundation for her development as a poet. In quite a few of her poems, not only does she use words to create mental images for the reader, she also uses them to draw pictures literally. Fascinated with history and the landscape of the Long Island Sound area and the Atlantic Ocean around Massachusetts, Howe deals with both themes in poems which are collected in The Europe of Trusts: Selected Poems (1990), Singularities (1990), and The Nonconformist’s Memorial. Besides poetry, she is also interested in postmodernist criticism. She is a two-time winner of the Before Columbus Foundation Book Award for Secret History of the Dividing Line (1978), a collection of poems, and My Emily Dickinson (1985), a postmodern critical study.

Frame Structures includes poems from Howe’s four early chapbooks: Hinge Picture (1974), Chanting at the Crystal Sea (1975), Cabbage Gardens (1979), and Secret History of the Dividing Line (1978). In the “Preface” written specifically for the collection, Howe discusses Paul Demund Evans’s book, The Holland Land and Company (1924), describes her relationship with her father, recalls her family’s tie to the New England area, and ponders the intricate connection between history and literature. The juxtaposition of history, literature, and personal memoir suggests a cohesiveness between history and the present, between primitivity and modernity, and between family and country. For “in the cold drama of moral lucidity there is primitive reason just as in the calm dicta of moral lucidity there is personal reason.” Everything, indeed, starts in primitive forms; everything starts with the individual; everything starts with the family.

It is quite apparent that Howe’s painstaking study of her family pedigree in the “Preface” represents an effort to reclaim her sense of identity by (re)connecting with history. The title of the book, however, suggests that she is interested in both history per se as well as the way it is “framed.” In the context of poetry, the only way a person can “frame” history is with the help of words. Howe has expressed doubts about the reliability of words. According to Geoffrey O’Brien, she once questioned: “Words are the only clues we have. What if they fail us?” Her affection for words, nevertheless, is revealed by her belief that the past can only live through the way we read it. In Frame Structures, Howe’s interest in words moves beyond their conventional use. In one of the examples she presents in the “Preface,” what looks very much like a working manuscript with deleted, overtyped, congested, and incomplete lines, in effect, represents a “trajectory in imagination where logic and mathematics meet the materials of art.” The congested lines present a visual display of history’s potential, whose reconstruction can be just as confusing as human hermeneutic interpretation. It is an expressionistic approach placed in a new historical form. By combining words and imagery, the poet has turned form into message.

Frame Structures is divided into four parts. In “Hinge Picture,” the author uses the Bible as a bedrock for her study of history. If Howe’s previous book, The Nonconformist’s Memorial, takes a deconstructionist approach to the study of religion, Frame Structures uses religion as a means to facilitate its poetic representation of history. It provides the author with one of several lenses through which history is viewed, reviewed, reiterated, and reconstructed. In the very core of its highly subjective perception lies the very foundation Howe wants to build her edifice. The central image in “Hinge Picture” is the sea. If the sea emblematizes time and history, the voyage is what connects both. In between the past and the present, between distance and connectedness, and between the visual and the literal, the voyage is what weaves a picture with which the author attempts to make an emotional connection with the reader. Words are also used in this section to represent movement in history, not in a linear line but in the form of exchange back and forth between historical facts and human interpretation. In some parts, the author uses words to create what looks very much like the picture of a ship whose movement coincides with that of the narrative.

In “Chanting at the Crystal Sea,” Howe shifts her topic from that of the storm at the sea to that of the storm of human relationship. Throughout the section, a person can feel the presence of danger and the narrator’s high level of anxiety. It starts with the description of the besiegement of Captain Stork and ends with a governor’s proclamation: “I will not yield my ground until annihilation.” In contrast to the previous section which is narrated from a third person’s detached, omniscient point of view, the voice in this section belongs to a female who takes the center stage. She plays in turn the role of a child, an innocent observer, and that of a participant in the creation of history. Unlike the male figures in the poem who are very much involved in the fight for control and superiority the narrator, chanting the line: “I told them to lie down and put their mouths in the dust,” is more concerned about her family’s safety as well as the loss of innocent lives. The narrator’s description of her family life reveals Howe’s close tie to the Confessional School in contemporary American poetry.

“Cabbage Gardens” portrays the conflict between war’s cruelty and those who are innocently involved. In the epigraph, Howe quotes Samuel Johnson: “You know there is already The Hop-garden, a Poem: and, I think, one could say a great deal about cabbage. The poem might begin with the advantages of civilized society over a rude state, exemplified by the Scotch, who had no cabbages till Oliver Cromwell’s soldiers introduced them; and one might thus show how arts are propagated by conquest, as they were by the Roman arms.” The paradoxicality implied in Johnson’s statement constitutes the center of conflict in “Cabbage Gardens.” Ostensibly, the poem is narrated from a cabbage’s point of view. The narrator’s innocent view and the cruelty of war it witnesses: fire, blood, and homeless people, creates the very foundation of the tragic conflict. “Cabbage Gardens” also exemplifies Howe’s experiment with words to create visual images. Sometimes, the stanzas form a picture resembling that of a stem on a cabbage leave cut in half; other times, they look like sad human faces. It is in the correspondence of the natural world and the human world, people see a similarity eradicable only by human ignorance, deliberate or otherwise. Hence the paradoxical nature of the cabbage’s experience and the human sufferings it witnesses. Typical of her practice in the other sections, Howe does not hesitate to split words into separate lines. In the following stanza, for example, she sacrifices several words apparently for the perfection of a picture:

Life la
nd friend
no lighthous
marin
ere
people of the
Land
Darkened
V1erilous
mana
cled with ice
to a torn floor
Let my lea
ves
press ankl deep
into full fur
rows
howls a wind
ow stil
lness in rooms
sombre and slo

The separation of the words is partially necessitated by the perfection of form and partially required by content. In both cases, the stem of the leaf, if the picture indeed represents that of a cabbage leaf, is what connects the form and the content, enabling a person to see panorama through singularities. The forced separation, besides vividly representing the cruelty of war, also reminds readers of, among other things, the arbitrariness of the arrangement of words themselves.

In “Secret History of the Dividing Line,” Howe consummates her poetic rendition of history by venturing into the study of what is divisible and what is indivisible. The section examines the division as well as the indivision of the past and the present, distance and connectedness, and displacement and reconnection. The horizon, for example, represents the ultimate freedom. Yet the horizon is also what condemns humans into an existence which belies their true selves. “Secret History of the Dividing Line” is about restriction and freedom. It is about spiritual exile from a person’s true self into territories which are marked by property lines and cage like family life. It is about the “quintessential clarity of inarticulation.” For the “dividing lines” threaten to eradicate “numerous singularities.” Just like a “CLOSED FIST” can withhold “AN OPEN PALM,” however, the narrator starts to see the positive side of the horizon at the end of the poem. She wakes up one “sunny morning” watching “a new line of earthworks/ in the rear of the old ones” and decides to take refuge in the “Ancient of Days,” “hint of what light/ the open sky.”

As one of the country’s leading experimental poets, Susan Howe has consistently shown her interest in finding a medium to make emotional engagement with the reader. Frame Structures marks the beginning of a journey in search of such a medium. As has been demonstrated in many of her poems, Howe’s affection for words underlines a tie closer to the School of New Criticism and Deconstructionism than to those who believe in the omnipotent power of content. Poet and critic T. S. Eliot once posited that the “only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an objective correlative,’” “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked” (“Hamlet and His Problems,” An Introduction to Poetry, 1986). Scholars who belong to the so-called School of New Criticism concur. The group, once headed by literary critic and scholar John Crowe Ransom, has vehemently been arguing that it is the nonlogical texture, but not the logical core, which distinguishes poetry as a literary genre. Howe knows that there is a “war-whoop in each dusty narrative” and words have the power to emancipate a person from the manacles of one’s false self; they have the power to connect the present with the past and form with content. Besides providing the author with a vehicle to connect with readers at the visual, emotional, and rational level, words in Howe’s poems also play a role similar to that of a hinge. They provide history with a frame, rendering “a pure past that returns to itself unattackable,” which enables individuals to relive the past, makes it possible for them to record and interpret historical facts, and underlines the connectedness of human existence. For the whole history is like a “Beast found/ descended from harmony/ enduring in unity/ far back in some story/ heard long ago.”

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Review. XLII, Spring, 1996, p. 103.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, March 18, 1996, p. 65.

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