Biography

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Susan Howe has a reputation as a leading experimental poet, and her varied experiences have given her a rich background for her unusual writings. She has been active as an actress, a painter, a radio producer, and an assistant stage designer at the Gate Theater in Dublin. Howe’s father was a Harvard Law professor, and her mother was an Irish playwright and actress. Howe graduated in 1961 from the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts, where she received first prize in painting. During the next ten years she moved from painting pictures to painting with words to writing poetry.

Howe’s interest in the unusual in literature began in the 1950’s when she was still in high school and spent her time in libraries, searching for out-of-the-way volumes and unfamiliar words. History was her favorite subject in school.

Howe was influenced by the poet Charles Olson, the painter Agnes Martin, and the historian Richard Slotkin, as well as by poet Emily Dickinson and Cotton Mather and other early Puritan writers. As a writer she has identified most persistently with Virginia Woolf, whose work she began to read early.

The artistic experimentation and freedom of the 1960’s remain Howe’s permanent milieu. Her work during that time was in paint but anticipates some of her later preoccupations, for she began listing words under her paintings and, increasingly, leaving white space around her art. Collage, a favorite technique of hers, can still be seen in her poetry today.

Strongly as her background as a painter influenced her poetry, her interest in the theater may have influenced it even more. A Susan Howe poem looks like a stage, with words as actors. The placement of her words is crucial, and it follows that the way the eye moves across the page of a Howe poem is part of the poem: The eye skips, jumps, bounces, the attention is distracted, then brought sideways. There is evident drama in her words.

The strongest motivation in Howe’s writing is neither visual nor theatrical art but topographical: the landscape around her, particularly that around the Long Island Sound and Atlantic Ocean. Her love of the water may have grown out of her childhood in New England but was certainly enhanced by her second husband, David von Schlegell, who taught sculpture at Yale University and was devoted to sailing. He spent much of his life designing boats and sailing them, and his ties to water and design clearly influenced Howe, who has said that through him she connected writing and drawing in her mind.

Howe’s poetry is visibly unconventional. Often the lines of her poems are not placed horizontally on the page but diagonally, upside down, or at odd angles. She makes frequent use of mirror images and collage. Often her words appear initially to have no relation to each other. Much of what she is trying to say is absent from the poem, in the white space surrounding it or in the gap in meaning from one word to the next. Those who have been traditionally denied a voice in history, especially women, embrace her writing as a medium that communicates the unspoken. Indeed, Howe is always concerned with how her poetry sounds when read aloud, and in her own readings she emphasizes changes in dynamics, rhythm, and volume. Howe’s poems require deep concentration, for, spare as they are, they approach limitlessness in their implications.

Howe began teaching in 1988 at the age of fifty-one at State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo; she has also taught at the University of Denver. A woman of great energy, she...

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lectures at universities throughout the United States as a visiting poet.

Howe has gained widespread respect for her writing. She is a two-time winner of the Before Columbus Foundation book award, for the collection Secret History of the Dividing Line and for My Emily Dickinson. Her nonfiction book The Birthmark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History was named one of the “International Books of the Year” by the Times Literary Supplement in 1993, and in 1996 she was made a John Guggenheim Memorial fellow and received the Ray Harvey Pearce Award. She has been visiting foreign artist-in-residence at the New Poetics Colloquium in Vancouver, British Columbia. During the summer of 1988 she was one of five American poets at the Rencontres Internationales de Poésie Contemporaine in Tarascon, France. In 1988 she was appointed as a Butler Fellow in the Department of English at SUNY at Buffalo. She has been named writer-in-residence at Temple University and the University of Denver. She has come to be known not only for her innovative poetry but also for her probing analyses of marginalia in the works of famous writers.

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