Souls of the Labadie Tract
A significant problem facing experimental writers is that of reputation. Once identified as such, the writer suffers from the reaction that “experimental,” to many readers, is nearly synonymous with “inaccessible” or “incomprehensible.” This especially holds true in poetry. Many general readers feel reluctant to open a book of poems, of any sort. Having it described as experimental only makes their reluctance the greater. Susan Howe certainly ranks among the most prominent poets of an avowedly experimental nature in the United States. In her new collection, Souls of the Labadie Tract, she adopts a strategy that seems designed to mitigate this reaction to her work.
Rather than asking the reader to dive into the poems without explanation, a common practice among experimental writers, Howe opens the book with several prose pieces. Even esoteric poetry, Howe essentially acknowledges, can acquire more lucidity when original source materials are unveiled. Her poems are of an esoteric nature, to be sure, yet the reader of these prose pieces can move forward into the poetry with more assurance than would be the case had Howe offered no helpful context or explanation.
In a book whose contents page lists only six items, half are prose. Two selections have identical titles: “Errand.” Another is titled “Personal Narrative.” In addition, the collection’s title poem, “Souls of the Labadie Tract,” opens with two pages of prose. Each prose section focuses on some area of personal fascination for Howe, always relating to New England history. Journeys of various kinds also figure in these accounts. The first “Errand,” for instance, discusses horseback rides taken by Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) during his ministry in Northampton, Massachusetts. One particular habit seizes Howe’s attention: “As an idea occurred to him, he pinned a small piece of paper on his clothing . I love to imagine this gaunt and solitary traveler covered in scraps, riding through the woods and fields of Massachusetts and Connecticut.” The second “Errand” discusses, among other matters, walks taken by American poet Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), including his daily two-mile walk from home to office, when he, too, would jot thoughts on scraps of paper. In its dictionary sense, the word “errand” refers to a short journey, often relating to the delivery of a messagea meaning making the word a most fitting choice for title, in these two instances.
The name of the longest of these prose works, “Personal Narrative,” takes on resonance because of the subject of the first “Errand.” In an essay of his own, written around 1743, Jonathan Edwards described his life in terms of his Puritan Christian awakening, and he titled it “Personal Narrative” as well. Edwards’s account progressively moved through the stages of his life, beginning with childhood. In contrast, Howe’s account begins at a moment in her adult life, when she was “a poet with no academic affiliation” in the 1970’s and early 1980’s and living near New Haven, Connecticut. While reading a narrative written by a seventeenth century Massachusetts minister and militia member, the Reverend Hope Atherton, Howe experienced a moment of awakening of her own: “I vividly remember the sense of energy and change that came over me one midwinter morning when, as the book lay open in sunshine on my work table, I discovered in Hope Atherton’s wandering story the authority of a prior life for my own writing voice,” Howe writes.
Howe’s “Personal Narrative” describes her research in Yale University’s Sterling Library and her encounters with the past. Although these encounters took place within a library, the historical literature with which she engages is not of a tamed and wall-constrained nature but rather wild and natural. She cites the beginnings of Henry David Thoreau’s 1862 essay “Walking” and describes how Thoreau saw his walks out of Concord, Massachusetts, into the “impervious and shaking swamps” as a journey into a sacred place. Thoreau’s example helps give Howe words to discuss her own journey. She employs little of the diction or expansive approach of Thoreau, however, presenting her thoughts in a manner distinctively hers. Both the thoughts and the means of their expression reveal her intentions and desires as a writer. “I wished to speak a word for libraries as places of freedom and wildness,” she writes in “Personal Narrative.” “Often walking alone in the stacks, surrounded by raw material paper afterlife, my spirits were shaken by the great ingathering of titles...
(The entire section is 1899 words.)