(Poets and Poetry in America)

Susan Howe’s poetry challenges habitual assumptions on many levels, but the level the reader is most likely to notice first is the syntactic; what Howe says of Dickinson can with equal force be applied to herself: “In prose and poetry she explored the implications of breaking the law just short of breaking off communication with a reader.” Generally, Howe’s poems make much use of the page, where the white space is allowed to interrupt the sequence of print, so that a variety of statements may be derived from relatively few phrases, and the overall thrust of the syntax is continually thwarted. Denied easy access to an overarching meaning, the reader must work with smaller units (phrase, line, couplet) and can only gradually constitute the meaning of the whole. This process parallels the approach to Being advocated both explicitly and implicitly in Howe’s work. The presumptions of categorical value that modern Western culture persists in advocating are resisted at every turn, for Howe sees (and reveals) just how damaging such presumptions and categories can be. Often, she labors to construct a fresh view of her subject, be it Esther Johnson (known to Jonathan Swift’s readers as Stella), Dickinson, or American theologian Jonathan Edwards. To this end, Howe employs the various devices of deconstruction, notably the fracturing of sentence, phrase, or even word.

Such a project inevitably must challenge received notions of the poetic. It is for this reason that traditional forms are absent from Howe’s poetry. Such forms by their very ease of recognition would defeat her purpose. To arouse the critical faculties in her reader, Howe must abjure whatever constructions might encourage a reader to glide effortlessly onward: The work must be difficult, not only to reflect accurately the difficulty of living but also to remind the reader at each turn of his or her preconceptions concerning the nature of reality, art, and the very act of reading. For Howe, as for other poets wedded to this task, the question then becomes, What portion of the inherited conceptions of beauty, truth, and the good ought to be retained (as inherent to the art of poetry), and what portion uprooted and discarded (as inimical to a faithful representation of the present)? Language, derived from Being, comes then to govern Being; the reader projects back onto the world expectations previously drawn therefrom: However, the world is always in process, always changing, always endangering one’s assumptions and rendering them obsolete. It is therefore to language itself, argue poets who share Howe’s address, that the poet ought to draw attention; the reader must be kept aware of the ways in which language governs not only one’s concepts but also one’s perceptions, and it is for this reason that Howe through “parataxis and rupture” never lets her readers forget the effect of words and phrases on content. Content, in fact, always includes the agony of choice, whether it be the deliberations as to formal procedure or their counterparts in other modes of action.

Inescapably, Howe is, by birth and gender, both American and a woman, subject to the assumptions of those categories, and at once in revolt against such predications and eager to discover their underlying realities. In My Emily Dickinson, she would rescue the Dickinson of her particular vision from the several inadequate characterizations that prevent, to Howe’s view, a full experience of the poetry. To this end, Howe, in a work that is cousin to both William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain (1925) and Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael (1947), rereads the contribution of figures vital to Dickinson’s production: Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning, James Fenimore Cooper, Emily Brontë, Charles Dickens, Jonathan Edwards, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Cotton Mather, Mary Rowlandson, William Shakespeare, Henry David Thoreau, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Howe finds that, approached from this rich assortment of angles, Dickinson’s poetry yields a wealth of information about Being in general, but also about being American and being a woman, and about how a poetry grows consanguineously. Howe is severe with certain feminist critics who, while lauding Dickinson, laud a Dickinson who is essentially the creation of patriarchal vision, swallowing whole this distortion. Toward the end of My Emily Dickinson, Howe observes: “Victorian scientists, philosophers, historians, intellectuals, poets, like most contemporary feminist literary critics—eager to discuss the shattering of all hierarchies of Being—didn’t want the form they discussed this in to be shattering.” Howe’s poetic practice is the negation of this widespread and persistent error.

“The lyric poet,” Howe writes in My Emily Dickinson, “reads a past that is a huge imagination of one form,” and while the labor of precursors in one sense is enormously beneficial, providing as it does countless elucidations of Being, in another sense it becomes a mighty burden, because of the irresistible nature of preexisting formulations, whether to the poet or to her audience, formulations which nevertheless demand to be resisted if one is to come to a personal definition of one’s epoch. Howe, then, in her determination to “make it new,” aligns herself with such high modernists as Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Williams, although she must also—for the reasons given above—keep her project distinct from theirs. The world in the 1970’s and 1980’s is far from the world of the 1910’s and 1920’s; Howe is among those who see the poet’s calling as a demand to make forms consonant with her own day.

The Liberties

The analysis provided during the 1960’s and 1970’s of dominant patriarchal elements in Western society is one example of this altered ideology to which Howe would be responsible. Therefore, The Liberties, a book of poetry whose sufficient cause is the largely masculine-engendered version of Esther Johnson, known— and it is the commonality of this means of recognition Howe intends to attack—as Swift’s Stella. Howe would liberate from this patriarchal version another picture of this historical personage. As she writes in another context (in her analysis of the received idea termed “Emily Dickinson”): “How do I, choosing messages from the code of others in order to participate in the universal theme of Language, pull SHE from all the myriad symbols and sightings of HE?” In The Liberties, Howe begins by providing a prose sketch, “Fragments of a Liquidation,” whose import can best be summarized by repeating the last two sentences of its first paragraph: “Jonathan Swift, who gave allegorical nicknames to the women he was romantically involved with, called her ’Stella.’ By that name she was known to their close friends, and by that name she is known to history.” The poems that follow spring from Howe’s desire to liberate Esther from Stella and, by extension, Howe’s own self from equally pernicious assumptions. In practice, it is not always possible to distinguish from each other these twin liberations, and so a composite woman, struggling to be freed from the roles provided for her by men and a male-dominated history, becomes the shadow heroine of Howe’s pages.

If the method is to question in this manner and to reconstitute a truer history, the technique that Howe develops and that is consonant with her method is to call meaning into question not only at the level of the sentence (these poems are so severely underpunctuated that the reader usually must decide the limits of the sentence) but also at the level of the phrase or even the word. One poem, for example, begins “and/ she/ had a man’s dress mad/ e/ though her feet ble/ d/ skimming the surf/ ace,” a series of ruptures that militates against any “skimming of the surface” on the reader’s part.

In a subsequent section of The Liberties, Howe extends her attention to Shakespeare’s Cordelia, surely attractive to Howe for her refusal to accede to the patriarchal demand to accord with the picture of herself that her father wished to perpetuate. This section, titled “White Foolscap,” puns on “fool’s cap” and thus reminds the reader that Cordelia is a dramatic character whose only “real” context is the play King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606), complete with Fool. However, the title also refers to the blank page that the writer addresses: metaphorically, the nothingness into which she throws herself, composing. In the next section, “God’s Spies,” a playlet, Stella and Cordelia meet, together with the ghost of Swift; the women are dressed as boys in their early teens. The action is fragmented, the dialogue sparse, truncated, enigmatic. The longest speech is Stella’s, a poem the historical Stella wrote, very much in the manner of Swift: When it is done, Stella shoots herself. To so sink herself in the style of another, Howe is saying, is tantamount to suicide.

The third and final section of The Liberties, “Formation of a Separatist, I,” is prospective, as the previous sections were retrospective. Howe has composed these poems of isolated words—single words with white space between each, arranged in blocks—and celebrates their individual tones, rather than their syntactic possibilities. There are, however, other poems in this section that depend on phrases and sentences; in fact, the book ends with these lines: “Tear pages from a calendar/ scatter them into sunshine and snow.” The nightmare of history disperses into a present that is subject to elements in their own nature.

Pythagorean Silence

Pythagorean Silence is divided into three sections: The first, “Pearl Harbor,” opens with a poem titled “Buffalo, 12.7.41” and the announcement of the cataclysm that has unleashed such terrible forces upon the second half of the century, the cataclysm that has so thoroughly trammeled survivors and inheritors in an ethical dilemma that becomes, for the artist, an aesthetic dilemma as well. Theodor Adorno, the German theoretician of art and society, averred that it has become impossible, since the deaths...

(The entire section is 4185 words.)