Susan Howe 1937-
American poet and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Howe's career through 1999. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 72.
Howe is known for poetry that combines biographical narrative with resplendent language to create a distinct panorama of historical events. She has often been included among the “Language poets,” a group distinguished by their skepticism about the efficacy of written language to fully express emotion and experience. Unlike most authors associated with that movement, however, Howe acknowledges the importance of visionary poetry, exceeding in her verse the emotional impact achieved by her contemporaries.
Howe was born June 10, 1937, in Boston, Massachusetts, to Irish-American parents. As a child she became interested in art and was later educated as a painter at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts. She became attracted to poetry after being exposed to collage and performance pieces, and published her first collection, Hinge Picture, in 1974. Howe became an instructor in the English department at State University of New York at Buffalo in 1988 and has been a visiting scholar at several institutions such as the New College in San Francisco and Temple University. Her work has been awarded two Pushcart Prizes as well as an American Book Award, and she was a Guggenheim memorial fellow in 1996. Howe has continued to pursue her interest in painting and has exhibited her work in galleries in New York City.
Howe began her career as a visual artist and critics have commented that her artistic sensibility is reflected in her attention to page design—the “look” of her poetry is often central to the images she conveys. For instance, in Pythagorean Silence (1982), Howe makes ample use of wide margins and large spaces between words and phrases to increase their impact. She has also been noted for her use of seemingly unrelated but phonetically similar words to create an opposition of ideas in her poems, as well as for exploring the dual meanings of single words. Howe's attention to linguistic matters frequently enhances the allegorical expressions that she uses to illustrate her primary subject matter—the encroachment of historical issues on modern consciousness. In her poetry, Howe often comments indirectly on contemporary events through the recreation of historical events. The title of Defenestration of Prague (1983), for example, refers to a seventeenth-century Czech religious conflict, but the work also serves as a commentary on Catholic-Protestant discord in Ireland. Howe's criticism, like her poetry, is marked by its confrontation with established norms. Throughout her career, Howe has focused on the possibilities of vocabulary and the freedom that language offers. Her criticism reflects this belief as well, acknowledging the importance of commentary and theory, while declaring the need for poetry to remain separate from both.
Howe's work has been noted for the author's combination of several genres within her text, including poetry, prose, reportage, autobiography, and fragment. Some critics have derided the irregular visual layout of Howe's poetry, contending that the organization of these poems obscures the meaning of the pieces and confuses the reader. Others have praised the originality and power of her fragmentary syntax, lack of punctuation, and visual placement of lines. Many reviewers have complimented Howe's ambitious reassessment of language, historical events, and patriarchal notions of women in history in her poetry and essays. Her treatment of such iconic figures as Emily Dickinson, Mary Magdalene, and Mary Rowlandson has also garnered positive critical reaction. Considered one of America's foremost experimental poets, Howe has been compared favorably with Wallace Stevens, H. D., Ezra Pound, and Marianne Moore.