George F. Butterick (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: “The Mysterious Vision of Susan Howe,” in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 4, 1987, pp. 312–21.

[In the following essay, Butterick examines Howe's body of work and poetic technique.]

I've not been more intrigued in recent years with how a poet composes than I have been with (the rhyme is unavoidable) Susan Howe. Does she write a line or a block of lines and then cut back, literally erase? (Is she, in Charles Boer's term after the cult movie, an “eraserhead”?)1 Does she consult “sources” or make notes from sources, including the dictionary (of which Olson was the greatest example I know)? Was there an original continuity or an ever-receding Big Bang? There is the strongest sense that she deliberates, that she hunches and slaves, her writing desk a light-table, her pen an X-acto knife. Does she mix and match? Does she sit until her hand jolts into action, almost like old automatic writing?

She is, in other words, a poet of technique—I am somewhat perplexed to realize, since it was her subject matter that so interested me at first, and continues to absorb me. Her subject is the world of history, legend, and the most palpable of natural things, such as the snow. Still, her technique was always of interest for how one might accomplish a narrative without a narrator, or with a minimum of intrusive narrator asking for one's trust.

I imagined her manuscripts, worksheets, all but illegible with revision. Since there is but a minimum of associative flow between her lines, I couldn't envision each poem written out at length. Perhaps lines on scattered slips, pinned to a cork board, then reassembled; or page after notebook page, with lines, words, phrases, circled, then typed according to theme. There are several recurrent themes—most notably, migration, the mistful Celtic past, daughterhood to the blind King—a few of which are so concentrated as to be allegorical.

Her first published poems, appearing in Telephone magazine in 1973, are as much examples of spell-casting as any of her later work.2 I have never seen any earlier writings, if there are any; she just appeared full-blown in the garden in the early seventies, in her own late thirties, getting a helpful start in Maureen Owen's magazine, although she did briefly conduct a radio program for other poets' work over WBAI in those years when living in New York. Unlike other writers, whether Williams (Poems, 1909), Olson (“A Lion upon the Floor,” 1946), or Ron Silliman (Moon in the 7th House, 1968), she does not make her earliest appearance with relatively predictable work, and then markedly develop from there.

She is another argument for the late start, like Olson; though in her case it is more reflective or representative of recent women's history (an early, unsuccessful marriage, children, etc.), combined with a powerful instinctual reclusiveness. Her family history is actually quite interesting, and I'll quickly if too neatly recount it. She is from one of America's more dynamic and dynastic families, like the Adamses of originary days, and from the same Boston. Her father was dean of the law school at Buffalo, later professor at Harvard; her mother an Irish actress, friend of Beckett's, active in the Poet's Theatre of Cambridge at the time of Bunny Lang and Frank O'Hara; her aunt Helen a locally successful Boston writer (her Gentle Americans, 1864–1960: Biography of a Breed contains a one-sentence anonymous portrait of Susan Howe); her sister Fanny's writings many of the readers of this essay will be familiar with (some day someone will eventually do a...

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“Bronte” on them); her cousin Tina a successful playwright; Uncle Quincy Howe, the well-known newsman of the 1940s; grandfather Mark Antony DeWolfe Howe, honored historian. It's in the blood, you see.

Etymology, however, is her true genealogy. Howe favors etymologies in her work perhaps as much as feelings. She instinctively seeks to possess language to its roots, pre-family, pre-historical, even before language semanticizes itself.3 She wants language at its least encumbered and most pristine emergence, where it separates itself from silence, as can be seen in the section of Secret History of the Dividing Line to come. Whatever is random about her language is secondary, subjected to her intense curiosity.

Howe emerged more fully in 1974 with Hinge Picture, with few clear precedents. Hinge Picture is a book of miniatures—voluptuousness of reference confined in small formal spaces. (The title derives from a construction proposed by Duchamp.) In it she presents a world of wonders, shivers of a tale of marvels made wicked:

oarsman, oarsman,
          Where have you been?
I've been to Leafy,
I've dismembered the Queen.
oarsman, oarsman,
          What did you there?
I hid in a cleft,
I braided the air.

The wonders are Biblical (but from a medieval and popular Christian perspective) or those of a Mandeville's Travels. Each poem is an illustrated page. She is content to let each tale tell itself unaided. The first forty or so poems are relatively free of the speaking subject, until four-fifths of the way through appears this magnificent setting:

light of our dark is the fruit of my womb
or night falling through the reign of splashes
a hidden fold of flesh that shoots out air like water
liquid light that bathes the landscape in my figure
Clairvoyant Ireland
eras and eras encircled by sea
the barrows of my ancestors have spilled their bones
across the singing ear in hear or shell
as wrack or rack may be in daring
there were giants on the earth in those days
feasts then on hill and fort
all night the borders of my bed
carve paths across my face
and I always forget to leave my address
frightened by the way that midnight
grips my palm—and tells me that my lines
are slipping out of question

It is one of the few poems in which the narrative “I” has so large a role. More usually, it is Howe's remarkable ability to absent herself, to shed herself, from her lines that allows them to stand with such authority. At the same time, she redistributes herself throughout a book or series (she tends to compose in sequences; the occasional is not an end in itself for her). Without the intrusive ego as binding force, the poems have a different order of linkage (“endless protean linkage,” she will write in Defenestration of Prague), a different measure of transition, repetition, and recapitulation. The result is a poetry of texts and contexts, text as the ultimate authority, not personality. Language is shoved up close, like Melville's pasteboard masks; foregrounded, and yet with a residue of symbolism (she is, for instance, recurrently concerned with kings and captives), which we can either examine more closely or leave alone. Confession is not her purpose, although revelation is.

Secret History of the Dividing Line of 1978 is already mature and consummate work. As always, she starts from the beginning. As a woman, she takes nothing for granted, neither the language of the potential “oppressor,” nor the convenience of completed thought. She seeks the genetic code of language itself, knowing that how one says it is as important as what is said. Language is a conveyance as well as a convenience:

In its first dumb form
language was gesture
technique of travelling over sea ice
before great landscapes and glittering processions
vastness of a great white looney north
of our forebeing.
Died of what?
Probably Death.
I know all that
I was only thinking—
quintessential clarity of inarticulation
family and familiar friends of family
pacing the floes nervously
climbing little ridges
the journey first
before all change in future
westward and still westward
matches coughing like live things.

The subject is migration, but also articulation, by which she declares her own. Language is simultaneously imbued with and free of personality. It is a magnificent force beyond the immanent personality, and as pervasive as life. Language is a technique of transcending wastes of silence, of achieving the transmigration of intention.

The opening poem of the book, given numerals to indicate it has a definite (and definition) form, is carefully constructed into two quatrains, both of which end incompletely (with “Americ” and the more open-ended “un,” respectively) yet are readily completed by the reader. The second poem more firmly states the theme, titled (if it is a title) “THE LAST FIRST PEOPLE,” Olson's epigraph for Americans or the Peoples of the West. Indeed, the historical nature of the poems is evident—discovery and settlement, and the establishment of generations, in a specifically New England setting.

There are references throughout the volume to American history. Also, a great many military references, all from an earlier era of war technology, including a history of the conquest of Swords (as introduced in the poem, it sounds like right out of the Tarot deck, but is in fact an ancient Irish town), mention of Nelson and Achilles, and of redcoats. Some Biblical references, many references to kings, and to cold. The overall sense: a New England of the spirit to be fought over.

The subject seems to be the taming of a wilderness, not least the wilderness of language itself. The most repeated theme is that of coldness, northernness. In all Howe's work there is a “frontier,” together with a shelter (in Hinge Picture it is a literal house) constructed against the threat of such bitter chaos. Nor is there a tropical lushness to the writing, no surrealistic fronds or decorative borders. Hers is a stripped, spare language, puritanical even, and coolly effective. And while there is far-ranging speculation on the most ethereal of planes, there is never any humid, cloying feeling.

The “dividing line” is that which separates past from present, the wilderness from occupied lands; also, that which “demarks” (with a pun on her grandfather, father, son, and the King of Cornwall). It is that which measures differences and thus makes discovery not only possible but dynamic. It requires a deliberate sighting, including insight.

The discontinuities are so thorough, there are hundreds of stories going on incessantly, like snow falling (snow is one of her constant images), building up wherever one stops to contemplate. No one story is told conclusively at the expense of another. Yet the effect is positively singular, the outlook assuredly whole: one controlling mind made these; in the storm of language stands one who chooses. She is the sovereign of her evocation.

One sense of her technique: she writes a sentence or sentences, then carves the heart out of them and discards the rest. Snatches are overheard, and are all the more beguiling for what is unheard. We are kept in a state of perpetual becoming, leaning toward satisfaction. More was there than meets the eye.

She already possesses her language of myth and legend, inherited epic encounters long ago that are fought again on her own terms and in her own New England of the mind. One notes the reclusive nature of her lines, keeping from one another rather than seeking associations. She writes a mentally conceived disordering of the sentence. Syntax is not denied, it is encouraged to be more complex than usual.

Almost despite themselves, certain lines shake out, distinguish themselves from others:

I know the war-whoop in each dusty narrative
the little heir of alphabet
lean as a knife
searches the housetop in tatters.

With each poem, she is closer to repossessing a lost homeland. Each section carries elements of a vast post-exilic fiction. It is not easy. Images of war abound—at times colonial, at times the subjugation of the indigenous peoples, at times the War of Independence itself. Howe is locked in struggle for the independence of language, and by that, her own liberation. The words she writes are a moral equivalence of war.

The form of the poems holds them from sinking into a jumble. They are carefully arranged in single lines or couplets—the limits to the paradoxes the mind can maintain at one time. Overall, it is a collage in which she achieves her effect as much by subtraction as by the addition of elements. She is one of the new American poets not descended from Whitman—though she follows from Jonathan Edwards, Emerson, Melville, and of course Dickinson. Dickinson is her fore “father,” her protogonic spirit, matrix. (Stein is her gynecologist.) Dickinson already has all the discontinuities and acute angles she needs. Howe is intent upon reinventing while rediscovering the tradition. And whereas other language-oriented poets find their encouragement in Derrida or Bakhtin, she goes back to James Fenimore Cooper and Mary Rowlandson or Shakespeare and Swift for her discoveries.

The Liberties, her third book, was first published in 1980 and reprinted in Defenestration of Prague. In it, like Swift to Stella, Howe uses a “little language.” Her pages are filled with “chat, pun, politics, plans, gossip, history, dreams, advice, endearments, secrets”—though not so much chatter as revelations. One could hardly accuse Howe of being verbose. If anything, some may find the difficulty lies in the opposite direction: does she always give enough?

The Liberties is a voyage back to ancestral Ireland under the guise of Swift's Stella, who in the mists of time also becomes Lear's Cordelia. (The theme of fathers' daughters is also constant throughout Howe's work.) An impulse behind much of the sequence is genealogical, charting her own Irishness as it is joined to a Puritan and Tory heritage (“Across the Atlantic,” she writes, “I / inherit myself / semblance / of irish susans” including her grandmother, Susan Manning, to whom the book is dedicated). The series contains several of her more remarkable poems, including one with a newly invented portrait of Lear (Defenestration 89):

                                        leans on his lance—he
                              has holes instead of eyes
blind (folded)
                              bare (footed)
                                                  nuclear (hooded)
                                                            w i n d b r i d l e d
                                                  for how or to who

Another I reprint here with her spacings and spellings carefully observed (92):

I can re
my steps
between thwarts
Do not come down the ladder
ifor I
it a

(The clever way “eye for eye” is snuck in there.) A third, following immediately after (93), summarizes her realm: “Rat-roofed caution of a cautionary tale / swallows the rat, a pin, wheat / while singing birds recover lost children.” It is the material of märchen, a world in which there can be heroism and triumph.

The text includes a play, titled “God's Spies” (Lear's phrase, of course), in which Stella and Cordelia are aligned to balance the Ghost of Swift. The drama is more subtle than Antigone's. The play ends with a ritual incantation and gesture of renewal, the title-promised “liberties.” The author has reinvented Stella so that she need never depend on Swift for her identity again. Cordelia, likewise, is friend and coeval, an active agent rather than a dependent. We refrain from a too obvious psychological reading, but by this work Howe seems to have gained her own “liberties” from whatever ancestral spirits ruled her youth.

The third and final section of The Liberties is a “strew of words,” as she says, strewn as a geomancer or some diviner might, one who sorts, throws the lots. The initial assortments are in evocative blocks, similar to those at the opening and close of Robert Duncan's “The Fire” (Passages 13) and a pattern often to be found in Howe's work. One doesn't usually think of Duncan as a “language” poet, but his interchangeable building blocks in “The Fire” are a model. Howe is obviously reconstructing a world.

There are discontinuities in Shakespeare and Donne, Melville and Dickinson, of course, but here they are sought out for their own sakes, encouraged exponentially. Elliptical writing for a lopsided, elliptical time. First, it must be allowed that such writing defies linear analysis, is impervious to causal interpretation and semanticizing. How, then, to read such poems of scratched continuity, space-invaded units, nonsemantic trace occurrences, where a sense of erasure is more powerful than of closure? Severally. She is master of the multiple. In previous writing, an author pre-sorted realities for the reader. Howe is distrustful of such authoritarianism, in part because it is “patriarchal” or, where poems are concerned, “patrilineal.” Unlike some of her contemporaries, however, her subject does not betray her, she tolerates no ideological limits, texture is not substituted for text. She embraces a wide range of referents, even if those references float and hover. She accepts a vast collage or collagenic network (“protean” is also protein) of myths and legends, an immense mother-lode of stories, generations of stories that are themselves generative.

She lives out on a frontier of the imagination, along with a family of thought in a wood of words. Yet patterns do emerge, seemingly random and barely overheard fragments of speech and lore, gradually settling into couplets. In Pythagorean Silence (1982), the interstices widen as the poem progresses, until all time slips through, words rain out. What begins as an autobiographical play—the author as young girl in Buffalo at the zoo with her father, off from his duties at the university, on the day Pearl Harbor was bombed—yields to the next succession of couplets and an invasion of legendary, Arthurian time (no longer just “authorian” time) along with other ways of knowing, including the Pythagorean and Platonic, until space and silence have as much mass and weight as words:

wicket gate
wicket gate
cherubim          golden          swallow
amulet          instruction          tribulation …

Her lines are without compromise; there is every confidence of a major sub-text revealed with them. I use the term with reluctance, owing to its certain overburdened fashionableness, but the sense is there nonetheless. That sub-text is our legendary and historical past, that strata of data on which we are founded and, more importantly (since we are asked to be active), by which we continue to found.

In one of her most recent works, Articulation of Sound Forms in Time (1987), Howe has chosen as her guide into the fray, into a forest of subjugation and genocide, of historical strife and human un-kindness (written at a time when persons, including her own son, were involved in anti-apartheid demonstrations at Yale not far away), a minister who fought with the local militia against the Pequot Indians. Hope Atherton's attempt to save himself by surrendering was rejected by the Indians, who thought as he approached them—“a little man with a black coat and without any hat”—that, ironically, he was none other than the “Englishman's God.” Some of the sections or “articulations” are written close to an original source and an original syntax (including, perhaps, the Pequots' own Algonquin) as if over a rough terrain, a stumbling through language, like Atherton staggering forth to surrender himself:

Soe young mayde in March or April laught
who was lapd M as big as any kerchief
as like tow and beg grew bone and bullet …
War closed after Clay Gully hobbling boy
laid no whining trace no footstep clue
“Deep water” he must have crossed over

It is Howe's materializing of the parts of speech, her recreation of the particular language—a new mimeticism—that makes the poem wonderful. In each section, as above, there is a stepping through; the final words break clear as if a boot freed from undergrowth. The field of language, with its own tufts and nettles, is traversed. No universal discourse here. All is particularized, individualized, authenticated.

After language is reduced to its soil of signification, she returns in fuller lines, her familiar useful couplets, and evokes a proto-American history in myth:

Impulsion of a myth of beginning
The figure of a far-off Wanderer
Grail face of bronze or brass
Grass and weeds cover the face
Colonnades of rigorous Americanism
Portents of lonely destructivism …

The language settles briefly into a buzz (“MoheganToForceImmanenceShotStepSeeShowerFiftyTree …”), before emerging in direct address, open declamation (presumably delivered by Atherton himself):

Loving Friends and Kindred:—
When I look back
So short in charity and good words
We are a small remnant
of signal escapes wonderful in themselves …

—which ends the Atherton section on a note of (her pun) hope.

The finest poems in the volume are still to come in a section called “Taking the Forest,” but one thing we know by now is disallowed: it is not possible with this kind of poetry to seize a single phrase and hold it up—stop-time—as a summation of principle or technique, whether the phrase is “stumbling phenomenology” or the “infinite miscalculation of history.” Rather, an equal distribution of attention is demanded. The narrative documents itself, delves into roots and cognates. Words survive at their primordial limits. The result is a report as from under hypnosis, where thresholds have been eased and language and its components, including mumbles, halts and even hisses, arise. Her lines are a chart of articulation, a wave-scan of linguistic activity, from the subliminal to the sublime.

In the dozen or so years since she struggled forth, Howe has proved herself one of the very few poets with a scope that might be called sufficient. The sense of a private present confronting a collective past has been restored to our poetry. If Dickinson and the other early New England writers found Nature emblematic, Howe finds Language itself a collection of signs, hieroglyphs, portents, and analogues to an historic past and the onrushing, mysterious present, the only future we've got. As for her method of composition, there can be no more accurate description than what she herself writes about Dickinson (My Emily Dickinson, 29): “Forcing, abbreviating, pushing, padding, subtracting, riddling, interrupting, re-writing, she pulled text from text.”


  1. See also Andrew Benson, “Excision, A Way of Life,” Exquisite Corpse, 3:9–10 (September-October 1985) 4–5.

  2. “February 28” and “Beauty and the Beast,” Telephone, no. 9 (Fall 1973) [6–10].

  3. I have already written that it may be necessary for readers to cradle their OEDs while balancing her books. See my “Endless Protean Linkage,” Hambone, no. 3 (Fall 1983) 150–51, a review of Howe's Defenestration of Prague.


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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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

David Baker (review date February 1992)

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SOURCE: “Smarts,” in Poetry, Vol. 159, February, 1992, pp. 282–98.

[In the following excerpt, Baker provides a mixed assessment of Singularities.]

Poets these days want us to think they are smart, it strikes me as I read much of the poetry written in the last few years. If the decade of the Seventies favored the shorter lyric and the Eighties became a decade of narrative extension, then the Nineties are shaping up as an age of discourse, of poetry infused and sometimes laden with obvious smartness: the Poem Thinking. That's certainly a preferred rhetorical method, one of the most common stances, among poets currently. I think, therefore I instruct.

This should not be an altogether surprising development, given the circumstance of a dramatic number of poets these days. They teach. But perhaps the current instructive and discursive modes may be explained by considering other matters, too. Perhaps poets are articulating a desire to engage and educate their audience toward a further enjoyment. Perhaps poets feel overshadowed by the critical superstars of the day and so wish to appear au courant with the more hip talk of theory. Perhaps they feel critically abandoned and therefore charged with the task of explicating their own work. Perhaps, in widening the scope of poetry from the personal to the historical, political, scientific, or more broadly cultural, poets are struggling to find appropriate voices and forms to bear such heavy weight. Indeed, it's finally not a bad development. Poetry had better be able to think hard. But our best poets are careful also not to destroy the passions, humilities, and mysteries that make poetry—not merely to talk so smart that only a few other poets (or critics) will care or pretend to understand them.

Susan Howe is an obviously speculative poet. She is by far the most didactic or patently “smart” of the five poets here considered. She is also a Language poet. That is to say, her poems quite readily abide by the primary tenets of post-structural poetics: they partake of visual experimentation; they are only loosely syntactic; they appear to want to question the structures of power and authority often tacitly or openly accepted by traditional poetics; they depend to a surprising degree (given their claims of social justice and political equity) on a thorough and privileged awareness of scholarly discourse and exercise, treating language as such; they are not pretty.

Singularities is composed of three long poems and describes a fairly conventional view of American history. Its project is to participate in and concurrently to revise the ongoing American experiment: the rugged individual who traipses or is forced to flee into the wilderness to construct a brave new Eden. The structure is chronologic, from “Articulation of Sound Forms in Time” with its partial grounding in 17th-century Puritan America, to Howe's alternately sympathetic and parodic rendering in “Thorow” of a writer's exile in the wilderness, to “Scattering As Behavior Toward Risk,” the shortest and perhaps most overtly theoretical of these texts. The wilderness into which Howe travels is not really a setting but rather a circumstance, an occasion for the enacting and revising of language and history. Howe's hero/sojourner takes along a hefty literary armament—the letters of the Rev. Hope Atherton, Thoreau's Walden, the critical theory of Deleuze and Guattari, and more:

Fence blown down in a winter storm.
darkened by outstripped possession
Field stretching out of the world
this book is as old as the people
There are traces of blood in a fairy tale

The figure of the trace serves throughout these poems as a clarifying mark, a “track of Desire,” as Howe calls it in “Thorow”: a footstep out of the erasures of history, by whose remnant presence we are connected to the past and by whose heading we are directed to the future. The trace is as well a recurring literary device: a deconstructionist's trace, a lingual clue or currency by which we may, as Culler translates Derrida, “think the present starting from / in relation to time as difference, differing, and deferral.” Howe seeks to tell the history of the individual by tracing the history of language, reiterated, renewed, and revised in its reuse. In astrophysics, as in Howe's theory of language, a “singularity” is an event which can happen or be proved to happen once and only once; history is to Howe a field of singularities rather than a unified, linear construct with constant integrity. The postmodern American wilderness is language itself, and its meaning is ever-shifting in an ongoing, explosive dynamic of destruction and renewal.

The Rev. Hope Atherton, the first minister of Hatfield, Massachusetts, provides Howe with a forgotten hero in “Articulation of Sound Forms in Time.” In May, 1676, forced into the woods where he hid for days after witnessing a battle between English soldiers and members of a Mahican tribe, and where upon capture he was forced to watch the torture by fire of several soldiers, Atherton later emerged to find his story disbelieved and his reputation ruined. His “literal attributes” as hero are clarified by Howe:

Effaced background dissolves remotest foreground. Putative author, premodern condition, presently present what future clamors for release?
          Hope's epicene name draws its predetermined poem in.
          I assume Hope Atherton's excursion for an emblem fore-shadowing a Poet's abolished limitations in our demythologized fantasy of Manifest Destiny.

A mere letter away from Howe, Atherton's female forename is an obvious misnomer, suggesting peace and optimism, hope for salvation; it ironizes his eventual “baptism of fire,” his estrangement from his community, and his ignominious death. He is Howe's personification of American experience, where a journey into the wilderness is more likely to result in tribulation and default than in spiritual vision or material creation. Howe absorbs Hope's voice and proceeds by word-gaming—by puns, sound-alikes, phonetic spellings, and revisionist remeaning. Her poetic method derives most often from the palimpsest, the text overwritten by subsequent texts, as a means to suggest a “Visible surface of Discourse // Runes or allusion to runes.” She integrates Atherton's language and experience, his “Cries hurled through the Woods,” with more contemporary discourses in theory, history, and politics, to create a many-layered, plural, difficult, sometimes exasperating text:

We turn suddenly
Lords of the Lay
Letters sent out in crystalline purity
Muddled and ravelled
Sigh by see
Smoke faces separate
Lore and the like
Sucked into sleeping
—Hegelian becoming
—Hugolian memory
Patriarchal prophesy at the heels of hope
Futurity—. …

When this technique works, it is a startling and generative achievement. It surprises, and it smartly resists the doldrums of typical poetic stances and modes. Poetry in Howe's hands becomes a sort of battleground for sense-making, a constantly altering field of matter and language whose self-aware purpose is to resist being permanently fixed (that is, permanently situated as well as reliably repaired). When it fails, and indeed I believe it often does, its failure stems from a few primary causes. What can be joyful or inventive can turn mightily sober or severe, off-putting, superior, or intellectually indulgent. Her work is certainly not reader-friendly. …

The difficulties of Howe's poetry derive from her commitment to one of the oldest theories of art: mimesis. She insists to replicate, in form and syntax, the unstable or unfinished conditions of language, story, and meaning. Her aesthetic so depends on this notion that she often willingly forsakes sense in favor of sensation, signification in favor of sound and sight, our patience in favor of our tolerance. Perhaps this is the largest risk of Language poetry. It too completely depends on the kinds of knowingness and receptivity gained through very special scholarly preparation, sympathy, and privilege. Not that it is ultimately hard or even strikingly new, but that the poetry requires a prior, exhaustive, and specialized theoretical education. And there's the rub: If poetry abides by or merely proves a critical agenda, if indeed the theory is more engaging than the poem, what good is the poem? Though Howe's poetry is about people and their language, not very many people can read it.

Principal Works

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Hinge Picture (poetry) 1974

Western Borders (poetry) 1976

Secret History of the Dividing Line (poetry) 1978

Cabbage Gardens (poetry) 1979

The Liberties (poetry) 1980

Pythagorean Silence (poetry) 1982

Defenestration of Prague (poetry) 1983

My Emily Dickinson (criticism) 1985

Articulation of Sound Forms in Time (poetry) 1987

A Bibliography of the King's Book, or, Eikon Basilike (poetry) 1989

The Europe of Trusts: Selected Poems (poetry) 1990

Singularities (poetry) 1990

The Birth-mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History (essays) 1993

The Nonconformist's Memorial (poetry) 1993

Frame Structures: Early Poems, 1974–1979 (poetry) 1996

Pierce-Arrow (poetry) 1999

Bed Hangings (poetry) 2001

Gillian Conoley (essay date Spring 1992)

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SOURCE: “Susan Howe and Sam Cornish: Two Poetries, Two Histories,” in Kenyon Review, Vol. 14, Spring, 1992, pp. 176–83.

[In the following excerpt, Conoley discusses Howe's use of language in Singularities.]

The impulse in Susan Howe's ninth book of poetry, Singularities, is also revisionist. She, too, uses several genres, several “media” in her text—poetry, prose, reportage, autobiography, fragment, concrete poetry. Like [Sam] Cornish's book [1935,] the text has a visual as well as a verbal life. A far more experimental writer than Cornish, especially concerning language, Howe searches through history's “mortal particulars / whose shatter we are” (50). Yet for all its experimentation and inventiveness, its high and serious play, the book's forward movement is linear—from Puritan New England where “Land! Land! Hath been the idol of many in New England!” (Increase Mather) to contemporary America where “Money runs after goods / Men desire money” (68). Stylistically, Howe begins with representational reportage, delivered in the assured voice of a historian, and gradually moves, or increasingly deconstructs, to a discordant, dissonant poetry whose range of sounds, tones and moods range from a heavy, Anglo-Saxon consonance delivered in bulletlike speed, “Men whet their scythes go out to mow / Nets tackle weir birchbark” (12) to a delicately nuanced, lightly melodious sort of homegrown charm laced with dark undercurrents:

We must not worry
how few we are and fall from each other
More than language can express
Hope for the artist in America & etc
This is my birthday
These are the old home trees


Howe's subject is early and late, our altogether too late, America. By looking anew at history as a female artist committed to aesthetic exploration, she hopes “not to look off from it / but to look at it / original of the otherside / understory of another world” (50). She begins her project with the New England of the Indian wars, most specifically with the retelling of the story of the Reverend Hope Atherton, who became separated from the colonialist army during the battle known as The Falls Fight in Deerfield, Massachusetts, May 1676. What actually happened to Atherton is not known. While he claimed he was tortured with fire in a Native American encampment, the Native American version of the story runs contrary: “… a little man with a black coat and without any hat, came toward them, but they were afraid and ran from him, thinking it was the Englishman's God …” (5).

Upon returning to Hatfield, Hope Atherton wrote a letter to his congregation to dispel any rumors of desertion. No one believed him; he died a stranger in his own town. Howe uses this story, of a wanderer—perhaps a liar, perhaps a man of faith who had courageously escaped torture—as a touchstone for the beginning of her own journey through this history: “In our culture Hope is a name we give women. Signifying desire, trust, promise, does her name prophetically engender pacification of the feminine. … Hope's epicene name draws its predetermined poem in. I assume Hope Atherton's excursion for an emblem foreshadowing a Poet's abolished limitations in our demythologized fantasy of Manifest Destiny” (4).

Howe re-imagines and retells the event, Hope Atherton lost in the forest in his black frock coat, possibly burned or not: “Impulsion of a myth of beginning / The figure of a far-off Wanderer” (12). She describes the event as well as her own searching aesthetic:

Marching and counter marching
Danger of roaming the woods at random
Men whet their scythes go out to mow
Nets tackle weir birchbark
Mowing salt marshes and sedge meadows


Howe's task is to weed through versions of patriarchal history to whatever truth she may find:

Consciousness grasps its subject
Stumbling phenomenology
infinite miscalculation of history
Great men thicker than their stories
sitting and standing
to mark suns rising and setting
Ridges of sand rising on one another
Mathematics of continua.


One thinks of Adrienne Rich's plea to explore the wreck. “… the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth,” a world where language must be called into question, must be subverted as a patriarchal construct. In such a context, on such a search, Rich warned almost twenty years ago, “The words are purposes. / The words are maps.” Searching through “crumbled masonry windswept hickory” Susan Howe plunges into the forests of Hope Atherton, the metaphorical forests of history, where “Cries open to the words inside them / Cries hurled through the Woods” (38).

While Howe may be working in a direction Rich helped to reveal, stylistically she couldn't be further from Rich's commitment to accessibility, to a referential language and conventional syntax that would help to assure Rich a large audience. Howe's particular strain of influence can be tracked more accurately from Dickinson (her My Emily Dickinson illuminates, extends the influence, most especially concerning wordplay and syntactic ambiguity). But Howe also belongs to another strain of contemporary feminist poetry, remarkable in its inclusionary range—from the more linear and stanzaic Lorine Niedecker to other poets who have questioned and presented experience in a searching language fraught with possibility and utterly open to change, to shifts of syntax and diction: Lyn Hejinian, Kathleen Frazer, Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Of course, Stein is the great, encompassing figure here.

Howe declares herself an adventurer / explorer who approaches the land (and language) not as a possessor, but as one who is possessed by. Above all she cherishes chance: “In paternal colonial systems a positivist efficiency appropriates primal indeterminacy. In March, 1987, looking for what is looking, I went down to unknown regions of indifferentiation. The Adirondacks occupied me” (41). Reading Howe's text is a journey for the reader as well—her writing is bold, adventurous: “Lawless center / Scaffold places to sweep / unfocused future / Migratory path to massacre / Sharpshooter's in history's apple dark” (22). Howe's search is an experience that can leave the reader with the exhilaration of discovering a new vista: “Lake George was a blade of ice to write across not knowing what She” (41).

Given Howe's inventiveness it's difficult to imagine why her perceptions suddenly turn stale when she describes the same Lake George in an autobiographical prose passage. In a section called “Thorow,” a pun that links Howe to Lake George as Thoreau was connected to Walden Pond, her outrage at the town's “scandal of materialism,” which is, after all, impressive—“a fake fort where a real one once stood, a Dairy-Mart, a Donut-land, and a four-star Ramada Inn built over an ancient Indian burial ground” (41)—seems naive, given that much of America has been thus trampled, thus fetishized. That we turn our history, archetype, and allegories into fetishistic trinketalia should come as no surprise, unfortunate as that may be. This is the only moment in the book where Howe fails, as she says, “Not to look off from it / but to look at it / Original of the Otherside / understory of another world” (50).

Howe's real and lasting contribution in this book is the way she calls attention to the shifting multiplicities of language, to the conceit of representation, to the self-conscious presence of herself as a writer without cynicism or a sense of alienation or isolation from her subject. The reader will be grateful that ennui is absent. Equally concerned with event and the materiality of history, Howe makes her central compositional element the fragment, a line severed and cut out of time. Its antecedent is the Romantic fragment poem; its contemporary model is our disjunctive, discordant experience of time. Howe turns any idealized version of history or time, any remnant of Romanticism, on its head, and yet there is no cynicism, world-weariness, or despair. The overriding tone or emotion in much of the text is of a high sincerity, even a transcendentalism:

In a chain of Cause
The eternal First Cause
I stretch out my arms
to the author
Oh the bare ground
My thick coat and my tent
and the black of clouds
Squadrons of clouds
No end of their numbers
Armageddon at Fort William Henry
Sunset at Independence Point
Author the real author
acting the part of a scout


Sam Cornish is a black male who was raised in poverty by his mother and grandmother in Baltimore during the Depression and World War II. He is now a professor at Emerson College in Boston. Susan Howe, who has been a painter, an actress, and a stage designer, is an Irish-American New England-born female, the daughter of a Harvard Law School professor and an Irish playwright and actress. Susan Howe and Sam Cornish are two writers whose life experiences and working aesthetics couldn't be farther apart. But together they represent the high variance of an increasing number of writers who are going back, and therefore forward, into history, into experience, to lift the inherited veils of race and gender, to truly see for the first time, and then to tell.

Peter Quartermain (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: “And the Without: An Interpretive Essay on Susan Howe,” in Disjunctive Poetics: From Gertrude Stein and Louis Zukofsky to Susan Howe, Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 182–94.

[In the following essay, Quartermain discusses the defining characteristics of Howe's poetry.]

How do I exist in a language that doesn't want me to exist, or makes me exist as a fiction, as la femme?

—Nicole Brossard1

There's a deceptively literary or bookish flavour about Susan Howe's work, especially at the beginning of many of her sequences and books, prefaced as they often are with a quotation or quotations (e.g., Hinge Picture,Articulation of Sound Forms in Time); or opening with lines that have the feel of quotations, unmarked and unacknowledged, though the words may actually be Howe's (e.g., “Thorow”); or opening with a directly identified one.2 Often, as in the case of Cabbage Gardens or The Liberties, the poem responds to the challenge explicit or implicit in the quotation, debunking or deconstructing the assumptions underlying and/or the circumstances giving rise to the words quoted. Cabbage Gardens is prefaced with Samuel Johnson deriding the notion of poems about cabbages whilst playing with the notion that the cultivation of the cabbage marks the history of civilization. The Liberties gives us Jonathan Swift writing the personal “little language” of the Journal to Stella, his writings to her preserved (“so adieu deelest MD MD MD FW FW Me Me / Fais I don't conceal a bitt. as hope sav'd”), hers to him destroyed, prefacing a poem that, in passionate rage, retrieves Hester Johnson (Stella) from her “liquidation.”3 Insofar as these works are bookish, they are revisionist. This is true, too, of those more explicitly radical works that seek to revise our notions of the world, and that are prefaced by quotation, such as Articulation of Sound Forms in Time and “The Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.” I read the last-named work as a poem, for its direction is determined, much as the direction of Howe's astonishing My Emily Dickinson is determined, by her reading of language as an emblematic collection of signs, potential meanings, abbreviations, wonders, and terrors to which she is subject rather than of which she is “master.” As George Butterick has observed, Howe “is another argument for the late start, like Olson,” for “she does not make her earliest appearance with relatively predictable work, and then markedly develop from there.”4 I would add that her work is, too, all of one piece: It all makes one work, one life, one poem, but carrying with it a multiplicity of works, lives, poems.

It is in these terms that I take as thoroughly representative of Howe's writing the eight-poem sequence “Scattering As Behavior Toward Risk,” collected in Singularities. The first poem begins with an identified quotation from an American literary “classic” and the last ends with the words, significantly in upper case, “THE REVISER.” The sequence itself is a further installment in Howe's radical reassessment of canonical notions, of history and of language, of patriarchal notions of women and of power and of truth. While her reassessment and indeed her poetics, rejecting the possibility of definitive statement, invite elliptical commentary (if they invite commentary at all), there are indeed identifiable and even definable concerns and themes recurring throughout Howe's work. I think that the great energy of Howe's writing arises from a series of tensions, between the more-or-less explicit themes and subject matter of the work, and the unstated verbal and schematic activity of the poem (between the algorithmic and the heuristic might be one way to put it); between Howe's enchanted fascination with and desperate possession by history and with language, and her intense desire to be free of them; between her desire for the secure, the stable, and the defined, and her apprehension of them as essentially false; between her impassioned attraction to, and sheer terror of, the wilderness. What I offer is only one way of reading Howe. Here is the opening poem of “Scattering As Behavior Toward Risk”:

“on a [p < suddenly … on a = was shot thro with a dyed ← < dyed ← a soft]”∗
(became the vision)(the rea) after Though          [though]That
But what is envy [but what is envy]
Is envy the bonfire inkling?
Shackles[          (shackles)          ] as we were told the … [precincts]

Billy Budd: The Genetic Text

In the course of the following pages, my remarks are largely confined to the opening three lines.

Bluntly uncompromising and problematic, the opening line emphatically and unabashedly draws attention to itself as text, as written rather than spoken language, indifferent to the reader. How, after all, can one voice this unfamiliar and cluttered-looking notation: Is it musical, with its p, its greater-than/less-than brackets? Is it conventional American-English literary orthography, with its quotation marks, lower-case beginning, square brackets, italics, elision marks, and asterisk? What are we to make of those arrows? Surely this is a code, though we cannot recognise which one: a computer text, perhaps? Voiced or not, it proceeds in bits and pieces, stops and starts, repeats. Problematic, and emphatically for the eye. So uncompromisingly is it removed from the forms and modes of “normal” discourse that there is a haze of uncertainty, what Howe elsewhere calls “a halo of wilderness” (“Illogic”), thrown about the line. We know—or at any rate trust—that it's verse, the look of the page tells us that, but how can we possibly voice it, how does one bit lead to the next? Are we to read “suddenly … on a” as grammatical subject to the verb “was shot”? What sorts of relationships are these, in this asyntactic writing? That “suddenly … on a” has something of the air of quick instruction on how to voice the first two words, and that closing “soft” looks like an echo, especially if we read the italicised p as piano (another voicing instruction). “Shot through with a dyed—[pause?]—dyed—”: like shot silk, then? or to do with death? We do not know what we see, for we do not recognise it. (Yet we do know, of course. But there are no customary meanings here—or seem to be very few.)

The second line is similarly difficult, with its offbeat spacing, its variety of parentheses, its (apparently) fragmentary words, its use of upper case, and its equally problematic syntax. It's almost as though the notational system is continually being pushed (is falling?) off balance, subverting convention, undermining itself: The paired parentheses look like the mathematical notation for multiplication (and why are the round brackets such latecomers on the parenthetical scene?); the square brackets pushing that word “though” tight against “That” do not seem to be used the way they were in line I; the large gap after “Though” comes as a welcome break for the eye after the headlong crowded impetus of the first line (the arrows forwarding, forwarding), but is difficult to interpret (a new breath? a second thought?). Parentheses and spacing mark words off into groups while signalling a tentative uncertain quality to them, and suggesting that the movement of thought in this writing need not necessarily be progress. Semantic grounds shift: “became” means turned into? Was fitting? Syntax continues to break down (what “became the vision”?) and indeed extends into the fragmenting and fracturing of words (“rea”; “[though]That”). The second line, like the first, gives us small islands of localised meaning, a haze of uncertain stumbling bursting into pockets of lucidity, clearings in the thicket, the movement toward coherence (“became the vision”) shifting instantly to fragmentation and incompleteness (“the rea”), the lines diminishing down to the initial and terminal fragment “Fa” of line 3. Far? Father? Fate? The uncertain context makes all three (and a lot of others) possible, and the fragment suggests they might all be under erasure. It is worth recalling, though, that Fa is, according to both the Oxford English Dictionary and the Century, a musical term (the fourth note of the octave)—so the lines sing a diminishing music? The same sources tell us that Fa is an obsolete word for few and for foe, as well as Scottish for fall. If the word is complete, it is no less uncertain.

What is remarkable is not simply that the notation for the eye plays against and with that for the ear, but that moving toward fracture and fragment the syntax and the diction move also toward completion. The “rea” in line two invites us to read “Though” as similarly “incomplete,” especially after the abbreviation “thro” in line one, yielding “thought”—an invitation reinforced by what comes next, the close-packed “[though]That” (a kind of apo koinou at the level of the letter). This itself gives rise to a rather complicated little movement in which, rhyming “thro” in line 1 with the “though” of line 2, the ear, reminded of Robert Duncan's habit of spelling “thought” thot, proposes a rhyme between the putative “Though[t] though” of line 2 with the “shot thro” of line 1. The ear hears what the eye does not see, and the movement of the poem depends upon and is a response to the shifts and uncertainties in the language.

So the lines are packed with transformations, and we see how, amid and because of the uncertainties, language generates text, the poem generates itself. The sheer closeness of the sets of parentheses incorporates the Rea(l) into the vision, making it visionary. And what follows? another fairly dense play, this time predominantly semantic/lexical—“after Though.” The upper case on “Though” makes it seem an afterthought, a substitution for “after,” which immediately suggests (if we had not seen this already) that in these lines we are privy to the processes of writing, the processes of composition, the processes of thought—a word remarkable in these lines for its absence. As a conjunction or as an adverb expressing contrast (but here syntactically it seems to work as a noun?) though manifests thought—and after a gap, a pause (for thought?), the terminal group in the line emerges: “though[that]”: that, deictic, pointing, a gesture toward the concrete object—or, as the Century dictionary says of real, “always importing the existent.” So the last two words (one word?) of the line bring together the insubstantial/nonmaterial (thought) and the actual/material (thing). The last two words bring together, then, enact, the vision and the real, the perceived and the thought.

“Fa” is a crux, encapsulating as it does the fracture and fragmentation of language in the very act of moving toward completion. Howe's work, from the very title of her first book (Hinge Picture) on, treads borders, boundaries, dividing lines, edges, invisible meeting points. Her language returns to such cusps again and again, for they mark extremities, turning points, limits, shifts, the nameless edge of mystery where transformations occur and where edge becomes centre. Hope Atherton, in Articulation of Sound Forms in Time, moves from the centre to the margin, to the wilderness, and (like Mary Rowlandson) thus marginalises the centre. “Extremities. Paths lost found forgotten. Border margin beginning. Birth/Death. Inside/Outside. She/He. Moving/Staying. Finding/Losing” (“Armantrout” 209). Kings, Howe tells us in My Emily Dickinson, ruled by “divinely ordained decree, the allegorical point where God, the State, and human life met” (81), and King Lear “rashly gave his world away. Balance, confusion, naming, transformation—. Arrived at the point of initiation, stopped at the moment of conversion, instinct draws up short” (114). Mary Rowlandson, at sunrise “on a day of calamity, at the inverted point of antitypical history, looks out at the absence of Authority and sees we are all alone” (CMR 115). A cusp, where two curves meet and stop. Or do they. At the point where one realm meets another there is a crossover. And the great crossover place is language, always “at the blind point between what is said and meant” (MyED 82), always at the blind point between the static authority of name and the fluidity of nameless object. Language, moving toward definition, moving toward name, moving toward Authority, toward the arbitrary, toward Power, toward Noun, to assert control: “it was the primordial Adam to whom God gave the power of naming.” But a world without names? “In the brave new world of Death there are no names” (“Armantrout” 211). Emily Dickinson and Emily Bronte entice Howe “away from comprehension to incommunicable mystery that may be essential harmony or most appalling anarchy” (“Women” 63). Mystery is nameless, incommunicable, pathless, wild, but irresistible. “Artists bow to no order” (“Olson” 6).

Hence the text is uncertain, indefinite; it resists description. How many words are there in line 2? How many groups? How many languages? Is “rea” a word? If “rea” is conventionally incomplete, is “Though”? If “though” is complete, is “rea”? You will not find rea in the Oxford English Dictionary, nor in the Century. But you will in Lewis and Short's A Latin Dictionary. It is a juridical word:

I. Originally, a party to an action (res), either plaintiff or defendant; afterwards restricted to the party accused, defendant, prisoner, etc. II. In the stricter sense. A. A party obliged or under obligation to do or pay any thing, or answerable or responsible for any thing, a bondsman, a debtor; one who is bound by any thing, who is answerable for any thing, a debtor. B. One who is accused or arraigned, a defendant, prisoner, a criminal, culprit.5

And it is feminine, a woman. Rea is also, as readers of Williams's Paterson find out, a Spanish word for whore. What vision what perception of women is this? Howe's poem is packed with transformations indeed, and the transformations are wrought by the apparent disorder of the language, the very irrationality of the text, out of which possible figurations and configurations of meaning emerge.

Unparaphraseable, these lines seem to register a process of perception and thought subject perpetually and continuously to re-casting, re-seeing, re-vision. They register a process of cogitating, meditating and exploring an old enigma, endemic perhaps to all human culture but especially acute in the history of New England, perpetually evoked and invoked by the complex of the known and the unknown, the seen and the unseen, the cultivated and the wild: The relations between the real and the visionary. Hesitant, seeking certitude and clarity, rejecting them as impossible, the vision immediately corrected (?), re-seen, re-assigned, to the necessarily and perpetually incomplete real. Caught in the field as it is, caught in the field of language, thought can progress no Farther. Fa. The doubleness of the movement is a doubleness of desire. Clarity and definition of deixis, of pointing, of the, lead only to fracture in language. “The” revised, surrounded by a halo of wilderness.

But there is more. The asterisk at the end of line 1 points to a text that proceeds through a series of more or less minor surprises, lurching, hiccupping, stopping and starting, stuttering and stammering along, casting jerkily around for words: “Billy Bud: The Genetic Text.6 Line 1 is a quotation, a found text. Not—as the footnote carefully keeps clear—Melville's, but a coded text recording Melville picking his way in stops and starts through the writing of Billy Budd, a text recording Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts picking their way through the tangled manuscripts of Billy Budd. Decoding it, not knowing at any given moment whether the words we read will two words later be crossed out, perhaps only to be restored a couple of pen strokes later, we discern a text “criss-crossed with erasures and corrections” (as Susan Howe wrote of P. Inman's Platin [9]), a text so urgently stumbling almost blindly along through a mind-boggling series of tentative and at times almost desperate castings-about for words and phrases that we are caught up in the sheer suspense the processes of the telling generate, a stuttering narrative of inarticulation unspoken within the narrative.

Howe's first line comes from the top of a left-hand page of the book (412)—it stretches from margin to margin—and is just the sort of line that might catch the casual eye—or at least Susan Howe's—casting through flipped pages, or drawing the sorts. Decoded, it says:

“on a [cross out in pencil all the words from ‘suddenly’ to ‘on a’; insert, above the line and with a caret, the words ‘was shot thro with a dyed’; cross out with (the same?) pencil the word ‘dyed’ and insert, above the line, with a caret, the words ‘a soft’].”

The first line of Howe's poem then, decoded, tells us that Melville's manuscript looks (more or less) like this:

suddenly dyed by the sun behind
approaching near the horizon, took
                                                                      a soft
                              was shot thro with a dyed glory
on a

Such a translation of Howe's first line, thus made more or less coherent (“with a a soft glory”?) and intelligible, does not get us very far (but where were we going?). The meaning of the line, as it appears in the Genetic Text of Billy Budd, seems to be nothing like its meaning in Howe's poem (meaning is a function of context). The asterisk points us explicitly to this text, and what we have is a poem which in the act of inviting translation/decoding denies it, at the same time asserting the primacy of context and drawing the reader's attention to the processes of (Howe's) writing as well as of her/his reading. What is on the page is what we see. Yet the word “suddenly,” one of the words the code tells us is crossed out, is not otherwise in Howe's line: it is, that is to say, present in its erasure. We see it in its absence. We see what we do not see.

The context from which this line comes might help if we're looking for clarity (whatever that might be) in Howe's poem, looking for a way of sorting out the syntax, the code. The sentence from which this line comes does afford a clue as to where that “(became the vision)” in the second line might have come from, but on the whole the context is not especially enlightening if we're looking for some sort of definitive meaning for Howe's text. Melville is describing the precise moment at which Billy Budd, that young man with something of the feminine in him, that young man Captain Vere has already called “an Angel,” is being hanged:

At the same moment it chanced that the vapory fleece hanging low in the East was shot through with a soft glory as the fleece of the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision, and simultaneously therewith, watched by the wedge of upturned faces, Billy ascended; and, ascending, took the full rose of the dawn.


But how much clarity does this provide? Hayford and Sealts, in their commentary, say that “as to the implications of this … passage the critics are in wide disagreement” and “draw opposite conclusions from the [same] evidence” (192). Readers cannot agree on the meaning of Melville's text, though all seem to agree not only that the sentence from which Howe's line comes is of crucial significance in the narrative of Billy Budd but also that Billy Budd itself is a crucially significant document in the American literary canon (significance is a function of context). The text of Billy Budd is bristling with (unspecified) significations, but we hardly needed Howe's poem to tell us that. Why then does line one point outside the poem to the Genetic Text of Billy Budd?

This is not an easy question, even if part of the answer is to rejoin that the footnote dissolves the distinctions between a world inside the poem and a world outside the poem. It points to that set of attractions and repulsions I referred to in my second paragraph and establishes the quoted line as a boundary, a turning point of the visible and invisible. It may indeed look as though Howe is trying to eat her cake and have it, using the footnote reference as a source, using it to declare that this writing, so difficult to sort out and decipher, so uncompromising in its eschewal of conventional meaning, so determined in its rejection of conventionally intelligible syntax, is after all not eschewing or rejecting those things, but is instead actually decodeable, is indeed “about” something, does have a paraphrasable content. Perhaps those words and notations which lie so uncompromisingly opaque on the page, language, are after all transparent, and the poem is to be seen as forum, vehicle, and hence finally static. Perhaps the reference is a sort of apron string connecting the poem to the conventional world, making it intelligible in conventional terms. It may indeed look that way. The pull of the footnote is toward the conventional, toward the “intelligible,” toward the “classic,” toward “meaning,” toward a paraphrasable “content,” toward Noun. The pull of the syntax, of the weird notation on the page, is away from that, subverts and transforms the apparent stability of the transparent word, pulls toward Verb. The resulting tension is not only one source of energy for the poem, not only a source of the poem's passion—for this is indeed a poem of feeling as well as of thought; it also, in grounding the language of the poem in the perceived and physical world, reminds us that language is, itself, physical, the perceived and felt world.

In addition, it points to a complex of thought and feeling identifiable in that tension. The footnote points to the notations, the editorial apparatus and code, which clutter the line and which litter the Genetic Text. For significant as the Genetic Text (and Melville's manuscript) may be, it (and Melville's manuscript version) is also incoherent. Jerking and stuttering along and then bursting momentarily free into coherence and even lucidity.

          Having settled upon h←<h→the cou→<the cou→his→this<Having
… upon→Having determined upon the course to adopt,


it is littered with misspellings and broken-off words

                                                            [p <striker of the blow] Too well the thoughf
→<thoughf→ thoughtful officer knew what his superior meant. [p <Too well
… meant]


and with omissions (the result, perhaps, of haste)

          what remains primeval in our formalized humanity may in
          end have caught Billy to his arms


and with repetitions.

What this poem does, by making both Melville's and the Genetic Text visible, is point to the incoherence, the uncertainty, the groping of Melville's text—those features of his writing that are erased, made invisible, liquidated, in the Reading Text—and assert them as a compositional principle, insisting that we attend to the writer in the act of composition, responsive to the detailed notation of uncertainty's hesitation and accuracy's register. The first line of the poem insists that we read the Genetic Text the way Howe insists we read Emily Dickinson. “In the precinct of poetry,” she says, “a word, the space around a word, each letter, every mark silence or sound, volatizes an inner law of form; moves on a rigorous line” (“Illogic” 7).

Yet one great interest of the Genetic Text of Billy Budd is that, unlike Melville's manuscript and unlike Howe's poem, it is indeed littered. It is littered by the editors who interrupt their coding with such editorial comment as “left incoherent,” “revision leaves the sentence incoherent” (386, 367, and elsewhere). In the long run this means for the editors that even the Genetic Text, as they say of their own Reading Text transcribed from it, only “approximates Melville's final intention” because he might have engaged “in further expansion or revision” (vi.) For the editors thus to conclude that the text of Billy Budd is indeterminate is to assume that a text is only determinate if it conforms to grammatical, syntactic, and even perhaps thematic and cultural conventions. It is also to assume that Melville had intentions for the text that either were clear to Melville himself and deducible or that conformed to an implicit but nevertheless clear set of grammatical, (etc.) conventions. Or both. Howe's poem assumes the contrary: that Melville's “litter” of emendations, faulty grammar and syntax, misspellings and incoherence is not litter at all—and neither, once it is before us, is the editorial apparatus. In transcribing Melville's manuscript the editors invented the Genetic Text, and in preparing a Reading Text they turned their backs on what they had wrought. For the Reading Text presents us with a composition whose order has been wrestled from an intractable text, from a Genetic Text that simply cannot be confined within the coherence imposed by the conventional obedience of the Reading Text. The Genetic Text bristles with tentativeness and is rich with possibility; it is thematically straitjacketed in a Reading Text which, like Captain Vere sacrificing Billy Budd to the principle of law, legislates away the sheer mystery of the Genetic Text and of Melville's actual writing encoded within it by seeking to control and to possess.

Thus Hayford and Sealts's edition of Billy Budd Sailor (An Inside Narrative) is, Howe's poem tells us, a trope. Within its covers we see enacted two conflicts: that between Melville and his “material” (the essentially inchoate story of Billy Budd); and that between the editors and Melville's text. It is a trope for a history in which “little by little grandmothers and mothers are sinking in sand while grandfathers and fathers are electing and seceding” (“Women” 69); a history of settlers exterminating the Indians and “redeeming” the souls of the Indians' captives by buying them; of the English repressing the Irish by force and by doctrine until, irreversibly divided, they begin to exterminate themselves in the name of certitude and righteousness; of the hegemony of an intellectual and economic power which would, by revising and acculturating the texts it recognises as central, marginalise and even abolish the actual texts as written because it seeks, by stabilising the world so that its processes are arrested or invisible, to manage it.7 As Howe remarks of Emily Dickinson in “The Illogic of Sumptuary Values,” “in a system of restricted exchange, the subject-creator and her art in its potential gesture, were domesticated and occluded by an assumptive privileged Imperative.” It is a trope telling us, says the poem, that “malice dominates the history of Power and Progress. History is the record of winners. Documents were written by the Masters. But fright is formed by what we see not by what they say” (“Poetics” 13).

It thus enacts the essential human conflict, between the known and the unknown, the seen and the unseen, the cultivated and the wild. The two editors, wrestling the wildness of the manuscript into stable and definitive canonical shape, evoke the complex of the relations between the real and the visionary. Howe invites us to read Billy Budd as Melville wrote it, spasmodically erasing itself, constantly deconstructing and reconstructing itself. Throwing a halo of wilderness around the line from the Genetic Text with which it begins, the poem throws a halo of wilderness around Billy Budd itself and points to a textual, literary, intellectual and cultural arrogance which in homogenizing a work shackles it into invisibility. Here (again) are the last three lines of this opening poem:

But what is envy [but what is envy]
Is envy the bonfire inkling?
Shackles[          ](shackles)          ] as we were told the … [precincts]

Howe sees that arrogance as patriarchal, and the conflict, between the world as is (wild) and the world as wanted (ordered), as devastating. A cincture is a girdle, a belt, a barrier, an enclosure, and a fence. While the text longs for resolution, it insistently demands that its disorder not be dissipated in mere definition. The blankness of the page surrounding each poem in the sequence—and indeed Howe's deeply ingrained necessity to compose in units of one page—is essential to the poem's decontextualizing of utterance, forcing us to read Genetic Texts (surely each poem itself is one) without translating the code, so the eye sees and attends everything on the page without hierarchising or invisibilising according to the demands of the canon. Eyes pre-cinct the poem. As the last line of the poem suggests, our history, what we were told, precincts the text and our reading.

Such a thematic view of the opening of “Scattering” as a radical rereading of Billy Budd sees the poem as a further stage in Susan Howe's archaeological retrieval of lost or straitjacketed American texts, in her retrieval of historical persons (women especially, but also writers) straitjacketed or obliterated by being textualized and then erased: Hester Johnson, Mary Rowlandson, Thoreau, the emblematically named Hope Atherton, Emily Dickinson. “I write to break out into perfect primeval Consent,” she told the New Poetics Colloquium in 1985. “I wish I could tenderly lift from the dark side of history, voices that are anonymous, slighted—inarticulate” (“Poetics” 15). They have been hidden by a utilitarian, canonizing, and classicizing impulse; they have willy-nilly succumbed—like Cordelia in The Liberties—to an authoritative “rationalization” which, patriarchal, seeks to possess the text by removing or rationalizing all “accidentals,” confining it to a single body of meaning, to a single role, to a single order of understanding. It does so by reshaping and “correcting” the text in the interests of tidiness, in order that it conform to notions of formal (“literary”) decorum. It rejects outright the notion of world as text, world as language, world as trope, viewing the world instead as a series of fixed categories of meaning whose validity is determined by the rationality of the forms of discourse in which that meaning is couched. It confines Mary Rowlandson in a “familiar American hierarchical discourse of purpose and possession” (CMR 116) and, rhetorically, appropriates her march “away from from Western rationalism deeper and deeper into limitlessness” (CMR 116) until she “excavates and subverts her own rhetoric” (CMR 117) lest she be false to her sense of the world and to herself. Such a convention-ridden view of writing not only confines value to conformity but also finds incomprehensible and reprehensible the notion that Emily Dickinson's work is as great as it is because it is like Melville's Billy Budd and like angelic Billy Budd. It stammers and stutters and jerks along, more silent than it is loquacious, breaking and breathing in awkward places, violating customary syntax and vocabulary and diction, occasionally incomprehensible, often incoherent, perennially uncertain because it articulates a world where, as Howe says of Rowlandson, “all illusion of volition, all individual identity, may be transformed” (CMR 116). And perennially incomplete, unfinished. So Dickinson appends to her poems alternative versions as “a sort of mini-poem” (“Illogic”); she obeys not the traditional rigidities of the quatrain, but the topography of the poem's composition, the page. Line breaks and stanza breaks, shifts of attention and energy resulting from reaching the edge or the end of the page, from turning the paper over and starting a new page, affect the course of the poem's breathing, and thus of the poem's making, and the course of our reading. “Specialists want to nail things down,” Howe says in an essay on Charles Olson (himself notably inarticulate and incoherent). “Poets know to leave Reason alone” because “all power, including the power of Love, all nature, including the nature of Time, is utterly unstable.”8

“What does not change / is the will to change” (Olson, “The Kingfishers”). For Howe this is not a matter of will (save in that Nature might be willful), but of necessity to which one must submit. And the impulse to disorder in the world leaves its mark in the sheer isolation of Howe's poems on the page, surrounded by white: a visible trope of Howe's tough and difficult feminism. There are figurations in these figures who are figured against no ground, who move away from ground, who move without. Such a movement, to be free of the burden of ground, freed of definition by others, freed of singularity, freed of language, freed of the necessity to be sane or to be mad, freed of history, is terrible and is exhilaration. But it is impossible and doomed. Howe knows that the primeval (that “lost prelapsarian state”) “may have existed only in the mind” (“Armantrout” 209) if it existed at all; that we all suffer violent “primal exile from the mother” (MyED 107); and that we can never escape “that language outside language we are all entangled in” (“Women” 61). Always one balances on the edge, on the turning point, on the move to without. Always one carries language, desire, history. One balances, as she said of Emily Dickinson, between and in “reverence and revolt” on the cusp of the present, carrying “intelligence of the past into future of our thought” (MyED 85). Caught between loss and desire, Howe's vision is difficult, uncompromising:

No hierarchy, no notion of polarity. Perception of an object means loosing and losing it. Quests end in failure, no victory and sham questor. One answer undoes another and fiction is real. Trust absence, allegory, mystery—the setting not the rising sun is Beauty

(MyED 23).

Howe is, more than any American writer I can think of except perhaps Melville or Henry Adams, burdened by history: The burden, of retrieving from erasure and marginality those (women) who have been written out, without (as Howe puts it in her prose introduction to “Thorow”) appropriating primal indeterminacy, is compounded by the drift of the primal toward the immediate, toward the abolition of history (and hence of language) altogether. History, like language, is not and cannot be linear. Her writing is essentially religious, devoted to a lively apprehension of the sacramental nature of our experience of the world, and of the sacramental nature of the world. Like Emily Dickinson she is an utterly astringent formalist.


  1. Nicole Brossard at The New Poetics Colloquium, Vancouver, 23 August 1985.

  2. In what follows I refer to the following titles by Howe, abbreviated, as indicated.

    “Armantrout,” “Rae Armantrout: Extremities,” The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, ed. Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1984) 208–10.

    ASFT,Articulation of Sound Forms in Time (Windsor, Vt.: Awede, 1987).

    CG,Cabbage Gardens (n.p. Fathom Press, 1979).

    CMR, “The Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson,” Temblor 2 (1985): 113–21.

    HP,Hinge Picture (New York: Telephone Books, 1974).

    “Illogic,” “The Illogic of Sumptuary Values” (unpublished typescript).

    Liberties,The Liberties, reprinted in Defenestration of Prague, (New York: Kulchur Foundation, 1980) 64–127.

    MyED,My Emily Dickinson (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1985).

    “Olson,” “Where Should the Commander Be,” Writing 19 (November 1987): 3–20.

    “Scattering,” “Scattering As Behavior Toward Risk,” Singularities (Hanover, NH and London: Wesleyan UP/UP of New England, 1990) 61–70.

    “Owen,” “Howe on Owen,” L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E 13 (December 1980): [28–30].

    Platin, “P. Inman: Platin,L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E 12 (June 1980): [8–10].

    “Poetics,” “[Statement],” Poetic Statements for the New Poetics Colloquium, August 21–25, 1985 (Vancouver: Kootenay School of Writing, 1985) 12–15.

    “Women,” “Women and Their Effect in the Distance,” Ironwood 28 (Fall 1986): 58–91.

  3. The words “little language” are Swift's, as are those in parentheses. They are quoted by Howe (Liberties, 66); Part 1 of The Liberties is titled “Fragments of a Liquidation.”

  4. George F. Butterick, “The Mysterious Vision of Susan Howe,” North Dakota Quarterly 55 (Fall 1987): 313. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “Whowe: An Essay on Work by Susan Howe,” Sulfur 20 (Fall 1987): 157–65, is, like Butterick's essay, essential for anyone interested in Howe's work. She manages that difficult task of elucidating Howe's poetic without in the least diminishing the deep rage and pain so intrinsic to it.

  5. Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon, 1879) entry for reus.

  6. Herman Melville, Billy Budd Sailor: An Inside Narrative. Reading Text and Genetic Text, ed. Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr. (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1962) 412.

  7. Howe's insistence on reading Melville's works as Melville left them is an act of reading markedly close to Zukofsky's retrieval of the Shakespearean canon: Lacking canonical certainty, the forty-four items of the canon must be treated as one work, no matter when written, no matter how moot Shakespeare's authorship. Viewed thus the work is longeval as a unity which is (in Shakespeare's words) from “itself never turning” (Bottom: On Shakespeare [Austin: U of Texas P, 1963] 13; permission to quote refused by Paul Zukofsky). Zukofsky amplifies this view throughout Bottom, but especially in “Definition” (266–341).

  8. “Olson” 17; MyED 116. Guy Davenport says of Olson that “his poetry was inarticulate. His lectures achieved depths of incoherence” in The Geography of the Imagination: Forty Essays (San Francisco: North Point, 1981) 81.

Further Reading

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DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. “‘Whowe’: On Susan Howe.” In The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice, pp. 123–39. New York: Routledge, 1990.

DuPlessis is a well-known feminist critic, scholar and poet. Her book The Pink Guitar, is a collection of essays on several post-modern female poets, including Susan Howe.

Keller, Lynn. “‘The Silences Are Equal to the Sounds’: Documentary History and Susan Howe's The Liberties.” In Forms of Expansion: Recent Long Poems by Women, pp. 187–238. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Keller compares and contrasts Howe's approach of women's history to the approach of poet Ruth Whitman.

Simpson, Megan. “‘Cries Open to the Words Inside Them’: Textual Truth and Historical Materialism in the Poetry of Susan Howe.” In Poetic Epistemologies: Gender and Knowing in Women's Language-Oriented Writing, pp. 163–96. Buffalo: State University of New York Press, 2000.

Simpson offers a stylistic and thematic analysis of Howe's work, emphasizing Howe's pursuit of historical truth.

Additional coverage of Howe's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 4; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 160; Contemporary Poets; Contemporary Women Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 120; Feminist Writers; Literature Resource Center; and Reference Guide to American Literature.

Linda Reinfeld (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: “Susan Howe: Prisms,” in Language Poetry: Writing as Rescue, Louisiana State University Press, 1992, pp. 120–47.

[In the following essay, Reinfeld explores the poetic vision and use of language in Howe's poetry.]

If the poetry of vision is concerned less with the revelation of light than with the disintegration of light in the language that reveals it, the poetry of Susan Howe is no exception.1 Here language reaches its limit. From “zero at the bone” to the catastrophic white of Pearl Harbor, vision moves through the text of desolation toward a sovereign point at which it generates, ideally, nothing. Nothing reassures. In place of dialectics, fugitive gods and prismatic fragments—leftovers of a form of life temporarily eclipsed by the devastation of World War II—double and are broken in a series of lyric gestures endlessly repeating the history of loss and the imperfect restoration of hope.

As a poet constituting herself within this frozen landscape, Howe attempts to rescue language from silence, poetry from despair. It is her intention to illuminate the condition of all those whose rights have been violated and whose voices have been ignored. Like Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens before her, Howe writes out of a wish to envision a world more authentic than the one all too commonly promised and given. To the extent that she succeeds, it is because of her capacity to see through the complex geometric structures of a language clearly not her own.

Unlike those two predecessors, however, Howe declares herself a refugee, a creature whose coming into language is defined by war. Her piece “Statement for the New Poetics Colloquium, Vancouver, 1985” begins:

For me there was no silence before armies.

I was born in Boston Massachusetts on June 10th, 1937, to an Irish mother and an American father. My mother had come to Boston on a short visit two years earlier. My father had never been to Europe. She is a wit and he was a scholar. They met at a dinner party when her earring dropped into his soup.

By 1937 the Nazi dictatorship was well-established in Germany. All dissenting political parties had been liquidated and Concentration camps had already been set up to hold political prisoners. The Berlin-Rome axis was a year old. So was the Spanish Civil War. On April 25th Franco's Lifftwaffe pilots bombed the village of Guernica. That November Hitler and the leaders of his armed forces made secret plans to invade Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Russia.

In the summer of 1938 my mother and I were staying with my grandmother, uncle, aunt, great-aunts, cousins, and friends in Ireland, and I had just learned to walk, when Czechoslovakia was dismembered by Hitler, Ribbentrop, Mussolini, Chamberlain, and Daladier, during the Conference and Agreement at Munich. That October we sailed home on a ship crowded with refugees fleeing various countries in Europe.

When I was two the German army invaded Poland and World War II began in the West.2

The line between personal history and public tragedy is here put into question: “I became part of the ruin.” But in this instance the “dividing line” (Howe's own earlier phrasing)—or perhaps the line of the lyric mode itself—derives its strength from precisely those circumstances by which it is so negatively defined.3 Like Theodor Adorno in Minima Moralia, Howe presents us with reflections from damaged life.

Her most recent book, Articulation of Sound Forms in Time, explores both the question of how vision emerges from marginal experience and the question of visionary coherence: If in the modern world all public authority is debased, if the reliability of sources is never absolute, what can be trusted? What is sound? What ground is left to the American poet for whom writing itself is form and function of having been displaced? Throughout Howe's work, her very ambitious project involves the making of an independent American self, that is, herself (as in “The Formation of a Separatist, I,” concluding The Liberties; Defenestration of Prague [hereafter cited as DP] 114), and the remaking of an American intellectual tradition within which these primary questions of location, theological and philosophical questions often more directly addressed by scholars than by poets, may be forcefully encountered. Howe is therefore an acute reader of Jonathan Edwards and Cotton Mather, for example, and knows how to interpret their thought in the light of Continental, especially German, philosophy from Nietzsche to Heidegger without lapsing into an inappropriately Germanic critical idiom. Of course, such self-consciously intellectual activity on the part of a major American poet is not without precedent in American letters: one thinks at least of Wallace Stevens' Adagia, Louis Zukofsky's Bottom: On Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot's dissertation on F. H. Bradley, and the lectures and poetry of Gertrude Stein.

In her critical essay on Emily Dickinson, My Emily Dickinson, Howe demonstrates the range of her own literary exploration as she constructs a contextual reading of the earlier writer's major poetry. At one point, Howe engages in a bit of self-characterization as she draws from the Adagia of Stevens: “Poetry is the scholar's art” (Adagia [hereafter cited as A] unpaginated). She adds, crisply enough, “It is for some” (My Emily Dickinson [hereafter cited as MED] 15). Herself a solid scholar, Howe mines libraries, but letters, historical documents as the text represents them, draw readerly eyes on into the lines and lies of a narrative surface that finally refuses to make sense. Faith in letters is misplaced. Thus, Articulation of Sound Forms in Time can be read first of all as a journey of literary scholarship: it begins as a chronicle of Howe's researches into the myth of her own very specific locality as it appears in the printed histories of Hadley and Hatfield, Massachusetts. The focus of her investigation is the story of a seventeenth-century New England minister, Hope Atherton, who disappears during the course of a riverside battle between white settlers and American Indians and is thereafter presumed dead; some days later, however, he mysteriously reappears, unharmed but not entirely coherent, miles from the scene of the battle and on the opposite side of the river. Like the experience of the poet who explores the edges of consciousness, Hope's experience may be impossible to reconcile with the experience of what we think of as “mainstream” America.

Howe's Hope, in a dark moment, can sound like this:

rest chrondriacal lunacy
velc cello viable toil
quench conch uncannunc
drumm amonoosuck ythian

The apparent opacity of this discourse is deceptive. Given that the historical Hope Atherton, in the very process of crossing the river, must have been suffering from severe fatigue and hunger (he is reported to have gone for four days without food or drink), the passage opens into a number of possible and plausible (re)constructions: lunacy denotes madness but also carries with it a cyclical quality, an innocence that turns impotent in conjunction with the want and severe deprivation—here specifically the desire for and lack of rest—that precede it. Spatial dislocation, loss of ground, parallels “chrondriacal” dislocation in time. The neologism chrondriacal evokes a sense of periodicity but suggests more than the “chronicle” of a “hypochondriac,” or “chronic” restlessness: the lunatic unpunctuated repetition of goodness uprooted and gone mad. The word velc—like Velcro—sticks, has the quality of a gulp; also, backward and truncated, it recalls cleave, pathetic in an instance where there is nothing to cling to. Sliding Is evoke a slippery medium: as language liquefies, it flows almost out of control. The lyricism of cello breaks down into the singular containment of cell and senses of isolation, while lo exactly places the speaker in the deep. As Lyn Hejinian remarks in another context, “To listen to music too closely resembles drowning.”4

Critical readings of Language poets by Language poets often proceed in somewhat associative fashion, so that although the common practice of explication is not ruled out, alternative, though certainly not infinitely variable, readings are always possible. But such modes of underwater writing as surface in Hope's discourse—and the resemblance to Finnegans Wake is not fortuitous—tend to discourage traditional explication (the ripples continue to puzzle, the folds resist wishes to smooth them out), just as they invite elaboration in a critical idiom “intoxicated with its own metaphoricity.”5 Open poetic structure—what Hejinian calls the “rejection of closure”6—is one generally agreed upon mark of Language poetry and accounts for the fact that Howe's writing, in some respects so obviously Romantic, is included in anthologies like Ron Silliman's In the American Tree and Douglas Messerli's “Language” Poetries.

Articulation of Sound Forms in Time, the title of the book in which “Hope Atherton's Wanderings” appears, could serve as a definition of music, and has; the phrase, Howe says, is drawn from the writing of Schoenberg.7 One does not have to have read Schoenberg, though, to discern in Howe's method an attempt to let the sounding qualities of language break through the narrative and referential frames: this process of breaking and sounding is the necessary “articulation” and musical abstraction of Howe's phrase. The process is necessary because the ordinary unbroken literary language, as we have it literally exemplified in historical documents, has not been able to dramatize or even to record for public consideration the historical Hope Atherton's erratic, nondialectical journey through British and Indian forces, through the strong current of the Connecticut River, into a living present that would still prefer not to listen. When Atherton claims to have been left unharmed by the native Indians, for instance, his speech either is not believed, and is dismissed as crazy, because Indians are known to be heartless (such was the response he met from his contemporaries) or is believed, but then is dismissed as merely heartfelt, sentimental, because Indians are known not to be heartless (such is more likely to be the response today). Either way, his account is cast away, for the story does have holes in it. To my mind, the excellence of the kind of writing Howe attempts lies in its lacy, elliptical texture, the play between what one might call the discursive and dramatic Emersonian part of her poetry and the dark part, the refusal of that cocky American greeting (Good morning, good morning) so many of us as readers of American literature have grown to count on. The sound forms here articulated are sometimes more like gurgles than greetings. Such things happen: the trail can disappear.

For the poet in desperate circumstances (and it is as such that Howe sees herself: neglect combined with misunderstanding has often marked what is newest and most excellent in American poetry), coherence may not even be a value. Emily Dickinson, in Howe's reading, finds meaning in the chance meeting of words, but neither chance nor lack of recognition limited her range: “She, who converted every obstacle to rich material, never stopped writing about Liberty” (MED, 107). Howe, too, impresses the reader with her own fierce determination to remain absolutely free as she converts both the logic and obstacle of language into the material of vision. “Reaching out alone in words oh / peerless poesy” (DP, 28), Howe says, characterizing herself. A poet capable of assuming such a stance is not likely to shrink from heroic obligations. Perhaps in this respect her position is more elegant than kind. If she meets us at all, she meets us—like Hope—as she moves along the opposite side of a river: her writing reminds us how absolutely time flows between text and textual interpretation, the poet and her vision. Words and the wrecks of words surface at the rupture. Articulation of Sound Forms in Time functions as a poetics of wreckage and of exile.

At the outset, there are an epigraph and a mystery. But who speaks? What is the threat? What is the sibilant revelation?

from seaweed said nor repossess rest
scape esaid

These first lines occupy a full page, inviting interpretation, yet already the absence of fixed context serves as a warning: one needs to proceed with caution. Perhaps this poem, like Howe's book on Dickinson, is a “contradiction of its epitaph” (MED, 11). Though Hope serves Howe as the figure of the poet, something other than live poetry here struggles to be born. A snake hisses, hints at Eden. What we have is not quite Melville's Ishmael, certainly not Olson's blustering Maximus, though Howe is mindful of them both, but a bit of wet text to begin with, a Joycean provocation—another aspect of the mother in a portrait of the artist, perhaps, in a not so subtle evocation of originary rage. Of course, even in the case of this most self-consciously Irish-American poet one need not look for relations so far from home: like Charles Bernstein, Howe describes herself as a writer located specifically within a new-world, not a British or European, tradition, and her technical expertise alone could serve as evidence of her education in American verse. Experience informs; for Howe, as for Hawthorne, whose sense of evil resonates with Howe's, white America now has no innocence to lose. And if, as Stevens has it, “death is the mother of beauty,” Howe is quite possibly engaged in writing as the record and rescue of self in pursuit of death. It is the intensely ambivalent sense of death as lyric origin and end—in effect a fascination with teleology—that gives her poetry its specific elegiac quality as well as its extraordinary power and range. The first hissing s of Articulation signals a fierce initiation, an I twisted out of shape: it is at once the negativity at the heart of language and the initial S that stands for Susan.

Thus, though Howe's discourse is often driven by a rage against theory and the threat of patriarchy that theory may represent (as Howe's feminist readers have been quick to notice),8 there is literally a matrix of theory from which Howe's signature is never quite detached. If the original snake is real, so is the original garden. Language poetry itself is inseparable from theory: it demonstrates how the structure of any language is as contextually determined as the structure of the culture nourished by that language within which that language exists. Howe knows and does not know this; for her, as well as for her contemporaries, there is even some question as to whether what she writes may be usefully thought of as Language poetry at all.9 But as a poet who combines mystical vision with extreme linguistic exploration, Howe brings off an achievement that is unique. Her faith is not in her world but in her disappearing self; her hunger is itself a rage for light the eye (or I) can finally neither know nor bear. The protagonist of Beckett's Murphy, that solitary attic poet, might recognize himself in Howe's “heroine in ass-skin”:10

I can re
my steps
between thwarts
Do not come down the ladder
ifor I
it a

(DP, 92)

Though Howe was formally educated as a painter (and she always places her words on the page with painterly awareness), her constant preoccupation with light is not purely or simply visual. Truth, no longer ladderlike, is specifically imagined as negative knowledge, not as a product of rational, or dialectical, enlightenment: a Wittgensteinian asceticism prevails. And as pure light bends and breaks in the medium of language, so language is broken and made strange by the history it seeks to articulate. It is in this sense that Howe's work as a poet has a more than superficial resemblance to the writing of Adorno, a philosopher with whom Howe shares neither an ancestry nor a discipline but an affiliation of subject and seriousness—even grumpiness—of tone: one could perhaps call it a kinship of experience, a concern with language as that which articulates the experience of exile even as language itself is broken down by the cultural filters and deceptions of the text upon which language as history, or personal history, must depend.

In the view of Adorno, the written texts of a culture, even the texts of failed philosophies and cultural criticism, are the prisms through which the world in all its differences is most accurately perceived. For him, the exemplary text is an instrument of reflection: “Proust says in the second volume of Le temps retrouvé that the work is a kind of optical instrument offered to the reader in order that he make self-discoveries perhaps not otherwise possible” (Prisms [hereafter cited as P] 183). Prefacing his translation of Adorno's Prisms (and it is probably through this translation, published in 1967, that Howe encountered Adorno's work), Samuel Weber writes that “the specificity of Adorno's thought is inseparable from its articulation. If conceptual concreteness may be measured by the density with which thought and articulation permeate each other, then Adorno's style can be characterized by the constant striving to be concrete” (P, 11, 12). The message of the concrete is not wasted on Howe. Her concern is not with theory or textuality in general but with specific texts, presented and represented accurately on the page she makes her own.

In Articulation of Sound Forms in Time, Hope Atherton is first introduced by citing (without correction) the matter-of-fact and by no means fictional “EXTRACT from a LETTER (dated June 8th, 1781) of Stephen Williams to President Styles.” Howe goes on to quote a substantial portion of this letter (literally, an account of an account) and by this doubled set of citations enacts the textual distance—and difficulty—through which Atherton is perceived: “Mr. Atherton gave account that he had offered to surrender himself to the enemy, but they would not receive him. Many people were not willing to give credit to this account, suggesting he was beside himself. This occasioned him to publish to his congregation and leave in writing the account I enclose to you.”

For Hope—as for Howe in her dual role of scholar and poet—fugitive meaning is followed as it retreats from the complex battles of fact and theoretical speculation (how do we know what we know?) back into the black and white of primitive imagination, a vast minimalist canvas relieved only by bits of hearsay and copies of old letters. We hear from Howe a truncated version of the tale—in effect, a prismatic version of the text (the English word prism, like the German Prisma, is derived from the Greek prisma, meaning “something sawn,” a sawed object; Adorno would of course have been aware of that etymology). What, as Howe presents it, we have of Williams' writing ends, “I had the paper from which this is copied, from his only son Jonathan Wells, Esq., who was in the fight and lived afterward at Deerfield and was intimately acquainted with the Indians after the war, did himself inform me that the Indians told him that after the fall fight, a little man with a black coat and without any hat, came toward them, but they were afraid and ran from him, thinking it was the Englishman's God, etc., etc.” Williams succeeds, though with difficulty and some unintentional humor, in making the necessary distinctions: “Indians,” “me,” “him.” The wish to clarify identity does not escape confusion.

For the idealist, as Adorno points out, “to think is to identity” (Negative Dialectics [hereafter cited as ND] 5). Hope, though, for us as for the Indians, is impossible to identify, and not only because he is removed from us in time. He is in fact not identical with himself. The very gender of this person is ambiguous (it is usually a woman who is called Hope), and lacking even the characteristic hat of his profession, Hope must appear to us at first as a self without a sign. To be hatless in Hatfield is very close to not being, or not being seen, at all. Because Howe has a somewhat Heideggerian sense of poetry as being in the process of becoming visible, “Hope Atherton's Wanderings” leads inevitably from deep loss into allegory, one that reaches past a Christian ministry gone astray. “Nonidentity is the secret telos of identification,” writes Adorno. “It is the part that can be salvaged; the mistake in traditional thinking is that identity is taken for the goal” (ND, 149). This principle of nonidentity, which for Adorno is the figure of thought, is for Howe the figure of Hope as well, and as such lends itself to a certain nostalgia: “‘A’ is to be what it is not yet. Such hope is contradictorily tied to the breaks in the form of predicative identity” (ND, 150). Thus, if vision is to function as a mode of thought, it will not be enough to point to the nonidentity nor to romanticize the break. That way madness lies: “To define identity as the correspondence of the thing-in-itself to its concept is hubris; but the ideal of identity must not simply be discarded. Living in the rebuke that the thing is not identical with the concept is the concept's longing to become identical with the thing. This is how the sense of non-identity contains identity” (ND, 149). And just as nonidentity contains identity, so intense conceptual longing, at bottom a wish to be somehow contained, is everywhere evident in Howe's work. Like Adorno, Howe sets this nostalgia off against an equally intense capacity for discrimination, a delight in technicality and fine distinction.

It is perhaps in Defenestration of Prague that Howe comes closest to outlining an explicitly elegiac theory of loss and language. In one sense, that volume is the interpretive apparatus most useful for readers of Hope's journey. George Butterick, editor of the correspondence between Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, and diligent annotator of The Maximus Poems, reads Howe with scholarly empathy. Reviewing Defenestration of Prague for Hambone, he glosses the title:

Prague is a city rich and labyrinthine in associations, as is this poem. It may be remembered that Prague is where in 1618, in the heat of the religious struggles of the seventeenth century, royal councillors were tossed from the palace window into a moat below, beginning the Thirty Years' War. Rilke and Kafka also walked these streets. More recently, the Prague school of language-theory bared its brows, subcontracting projects to every tool-and-die shop in the academy. Even poets sought to prove themselves no laggards. Susan Howe, fortunately, is not one of them. She has kept the mystery in language, kept it as a vow.11

Butterick senses Howe's allegiance to sound over sophistry, mystery over method. Howe has perhaps inherited not only the enthusiasm of Olson's followers but the authority of Projectivist poetics as well. Certainly her writing shows a fine attention to breath and measure. The marvelously lyric set of pieces entitled “Speeches at the Barriers,” for example, longingly follows the voice:

Say that a ballad
wrapped in a ballad
a play of force and play
of forces
falling out sentences
(hollow where I can shelter)
falling out over
and gone

(DP, 19)

Such lines are perhaps even more reminiscent of Hart Crane than Charles Olson. Howe would like to move back through those “icy and bright dungeons” of Crane's imagination into the prisms of a more sophisticated textuality.12

Language, even—or especially—language this lovely, holds; but behaves with dangerous ambivalence. It cradles the story—cradles, plays, encloses, and drops. The nostalgia is spun out, the mythy instance specified: “Iseult of the snow-white hand” (DP, 19) and “allegorical Tristram” (DP, 20) are the island images through which the I may look from tragic past into tragic present. When Howe writes, “For we are Language Lost … in language” (DP, 19), a new generation of American poets, many of them wishing for both music and a bit of philosophical sophistication, recognize the familiar pathos of the situation and find themselves appropriately named. I suppose Howe, herself gathered up into the story of Tristram and Iseult, the story as it is repeated and filtered through one text into another, may also be keeping in mind the passage by Wilhelm von Humboldt at the beginning of Prisms, which Samuel Weber places at the head of his own prefatory essay entitled “Translating the Untranslatable”: “Man lives with things mainly, even exclusively … as they are conveyed to him through language. Through the same act by which he spins language out of himself he weaves himself into it, and every language draws a circle around the people to which it belongs, a circle that can only be transcended in so far as one at the same time enters another one” (P, 9). The spell of the self-writing self is circular, serpentine, exhausting, unavoidable—a perpetual motion machine. At the same time, however, Howe's writing, her self ever spinning out of herself, also carries within it a wish for rest, an impulse toward entropy: the poem composes itself with genuine elegance even as it falls from wide allusive rings and distances into broken sets of rigid type and tone. Because what lives cannot be grasped whole, Defenestration of Prague becomes, at last, a language lesson in the manners of articulate disjunction.

Movement, smooth or rough, is not from language to some truth outside it, but always from language to language, an exercise in division. Text provides illustration. On one page (DP, 119) we find inscribed, first, a nine-line riddle; second, a set of enigmatically presented alphabets (ending with “z or zed”—a fine, significant distinction for a child whose parents, one Irish, one New England-born, differed pronouncedly even in the naming and articulation of letters); third, seven lines that appear to be spoken admonitions from a teacher of a class in elocution; fourth, a set of two simple questions and a list of two-syllable answers. The first of the four, a riddle or play on her own name, is the most daring (she shows herself even in her games as openly as a child) and the most literally characteristic: like the figure of a person, it can be read in context or can stand by itself, and it works even as a comment, perhaps not an entirely ironic one, on the writer who counts, at this point almost without hope, on the not quite human shape of self. Herself is written, as if on a monument, with nothing else beside:

I am composed of nine letters.
1 is the proposition of a subject in logic.
2 is a female sheep, or tree.
3 is equal to one.
4 is a beginning.
5 & 7 are nothing.
6 7 & 8 are a question, or salutation.
6 7 8 & 9 are deep, a depression.

The I is multiply composed and decomposed; the I cannot satisfy the poet's desire for life beyond life. The grail, though it served admirably in the Modernist work of Frost and Eliot as an image—even a lost image—of wholeness and humanity, is by now no more than a depression: “6 7 8 & 9” remain.

“The name alone, revealed through a natural death, not the living soul, vouches for that in man which is immortal,” writes Adorno in his “Notes on Kafka” (P, 271): such a sentence marks the end of a chapter, even the end of a book. Not so for Howe, whose point is otherwise directed. The private self is the spell cast in common language, the sensibility not so far from Dickinson's riddle of the “narrow Fellow in the grass” (No. 986). “Whose order is shut inside the structure of a sentence? What inner articulation releases the coils and complications of Saying's assertion?” (MED, 11–12). It is the poet as public speaker who bears the discomfort of public visibility, the revolutionary's unnatural stance: both Eve and evil, she offers words to the wish, risks banishment and shame. Howe remembers even these first painful lessons in public speaking and the plight of the young scholar for whom the issue is again one of proper volume and articulation:

Speak out.
Do not bawl.
Speak so
that all
in the room
will hear

(DP, 119)

Notice here how the lines break against the sense, how in context the use of the period is cutting, almost sinister: such punctuation fractures the lyric possibility of verse. What are eyes for? asks the impersonal authority. What are ears for? Bits of classroom and schoolyard crystallize here. The questions belong to the voice of a child. The answer


(DP, 119)

if it is an answer, is cut and cold, yet spoken in the powerful voice of a woman whose vision aspires to prophecy.

Critical discourse, enlivened by such prophetic aspiration, is heady stuff: in her writing on Dickinson (what follows serves as commentary on Dickinson's poem beginning, “In many and reportless places”), Howe is remarkable not so much for her interpretation of a preexisting text as for her appropriation of that text as a space for the writing of her own journey, that is, her own journey figured as the journey of Hope. The line between writing and writing simply disappears: “On this heath wrecked from Genesis, nerve endings quicken. Naked sensibility at the extremest periphery. Narrative expanding contracting dissolving. Nearer to know less before afterward schism in sum. No hierarchy, no notion of polarity. Perception of an object means losing and losing it. Quests end in failure, no victory and sham questor. One answer undoes another and fiction is real” (MED, 23). Howe writes right in the gist of Stevens' dictum: “One reads poetry with one's nerves” (OP, 162). Hope Atherton, surely a “sensibility at the extremest periphery” and in some crucial sense the first poet of the new world (“Implusion of a myth of beginning / The figure of a far-off Wanderer”) could not be more precisely or originally situated.

Similarly, Part II of Articulation of Sound Forms in Time, “Taking the Forest,” begins with a consciousness of self as a consciousness of perceptual loss: origin is again agony as self in a ravaged and war-blighted landscape comes to itself through the refusal of narrative or hierarchical order:

Corruptible first figure
Bright armies wolves warriors steers
scorned warning captive compulsion
Love leads to edge
Progress of self into illusion

Again what surfaces is the concern with teleology, first things and last. “Love” is the quest of “naked sensibility” to “extremest periphery,” a quest that “leads to edge” out of an Eden, where language is one with the world, into a state of writing where verisimilitude is no longer a possibility. “The realist,” comments Adorno, “in literature sworn to the palpable, writes from the mentally retarded perspective of the person whose impulses are limited to reflex actions” (P, 217). From that point of negativity, the subject descends, midway through “Hope Atherton's Wanderings,” into a barely perceptible present where the human capacity for reason (one may be reminded of Gertrude Stein's comments on “patriarchal poetry” or Jacques Derrida's critique of “logocentrism”) carries neither the potential for enlightenment nor a way back to the first garden but becomes instead a chamber of horrors, a reflection of demonic power. Language so used indeed turns to a place of terror where in the ritual worship of false gods, “fiction becomes real”:

dim mirror Naught formula
archaic hallucinatory laughter
Kneel to intellect in our work
Chaos cast cold intellect back

This is revolutionary language, terrorist language, without question, engaging, enraging. Howe embraces the oldest mode of protest. Lucifer—Blake's Lucifer, the Romantic Lucifer—is invoked against “cold intellect”: no household gods or pale philosophers can survive for long in the fantastic territory of Howe's negative imagination, and the laughter she delights in is here without lightness, without light. As noted by Adorno, “On the map of ‘divinely structured being,’ Hell becomes a tourist attraction” (P, 201).

Marjorie Perloff, in a recent article, is generously appreciative of Howe's revolutionary project.13 Perloff's writing, unlike Howe's, tends to be published by widely circulated journals and respected university presses, but writers who are less well-known, especially those committed to what is often called the “alternative press,” have at last learned not to regard her as if she were simply a tourist. In any case, Perloff's essays on contemporary poetry (poetry by David Antin and John Ashbery, for instance) have helped make much new writing accessible to an academic community that is, on the whole, somewhat uncomfortable with, if not downright hostile to, Language poetry and the discourse it engenders. Perloff interprets Howe sympathetically for a literate and literary audience: “The genre of Susan Howe's My Emily Dickinson is, as the dust jacket comments by Michael Palmer and Don Byrd make clear, not that of ‘critical commentary’ but the genre of Williams' In the American Grain, Charles Olson's Call Me Ishmael, and Robert Duncan's H. D. Book—texts in which one poet meditates so intensely on the work of another that the two voices imperceptibly merge. ‘Howe's ear,’ says Kathleen Fraser, ‘almost becomes Dickinson's, hearing each musical phrase and its hesitancy as fierce intention and mindful resistance’ (dust jacket).”14 Perloff continues, indicating the direction of Hope's at that time yet unpublished “wanderings”: “Howe's subject, broadly speaking, is the impingement of historical or biographical narrative on lyric consciousness, a subject she has already made her own, especially in Defenestration of Prague.” Here one might fairly add that Howe's capacity for appropriation is at least as great as her capacity to identify with those who suffer as a consequence of having been unfairly appropriated: the captivity narrative is at the heart of her personal mythology.

If it is true that Hope is traumatized by the deprivation he encounters and taken captive by the language in which he is imagined, much as Mary Rowlandson is taken captive by the Indians and her imagination of divine providence, Howe's rescue attempt is bound to turn back on itself in failure. Hope may be dismissed as incomprehensible, the stuff of fiction—or as the reference to the story of Pandora implies (“Epithets young in a box told as you fly”; A, unpaginated), he may escape out of this world into poetry: “Mythology reflects a religion's reality. For many years the struggling Puritan communities did endure the fact and fantasy of Indian captivity. Villages worried and prayed over the strange behaviour of returned captives, many of whom had been permanently altered by their experience” (MED, 43). Howe's declared religion is “peerless poesy.” If Howe is among the elect, among those who have been “permanently altered” and thereby rescued from the limits of an insular or provincial consciousness, perhaps it is as a result of her having been captured by the reality of the texts she reads: “The subject and conflict of Wuthering Heights and ‘My life had stood—a loaded Gun—’ is complete union with another soul and absolute separation. Catherine and Heathcliff are each other's central source. They contain, define, and defy one another, and everyone else around them … Who is knower, who is known—sure opinion will surely break down. Sadism knocks down barriers between an isolate soul and others. Violence forces reaction. That unity of souls may be linked to sadism is the sad riddle of the world” (MED, 136). Sometimes one may have the sense that Howe in her prose quite literally dramatizes herself as if she were a mythological figure or a literary creature formed by a more than literary text: the subject of Howe's discourse (the “she” or “I” or a conflation of the two), like the “loaded gun” of the Dickinson poem, appears to demand an authority even greater than the negative authority of paradox achieved in the identity of hunter and hunted, captor and captured. When Howe writes in her introduction to My Emily Dickinson that “the ambiguous paths of kinship pull me in opposite ways at once,” she does more than hint at the configuration of her personal history or literary ancestry; she anticipates the manner of Hope's disintegration and her own.

In reading, Howe would seem to imply, truth appears when the self (for example, her self) merges and collides with its object (for example, her Emily Dickinson): what results is the dazzle of creation, sometimes an enchanted replay, with fireworks, what Adorno called those “apparitions par excellence” (AT 120), sometimes a more serious reenactment of the central scene, the origin of the work of art. It seems to be Howe's position that neither thought nor language is adequate to the experienced extremes of human feeling. If, however, to read is also to make distinctions—to question and not deny the possibility of an impasse, as Howe has so often done in her earlier work (for example, Secret History of the Dividing Line)—certain difficulties, or perhaps more exactly the difficulties of tone inherent in a state of such authorial certainty, must be overcome. How much of Howe must I as a thoughtful reader take on faith? And how much am I permitted to take? There is more than a “sad riddle” at issue in the struggle for mystery and mastery. Adorno writes: “The direct expression of the inexpressible is void; where the expression carried, as in great music, its seal was evanescence and transitoriness, and it was attached to the process, not to an indicative ‘That's it.’ Thoughts intended to think the inexpressible by abandoning thought falsify the inexpressible. They make of it what the thinker would least like it to be: the monstrosity of a flatly abstract object” (ND, 110). Howe has every right, of course, to refuse the dialectic of Western philosophy as a model for the imagination of her own experience, but when the preferred mode of thought or expression is so purely declarative, so contained by the authenticity of its own being, the reader may be left with all and with nothing: “My voice formed from my life belongs to no one else. What I put into words is no longer my possession. Possibility has opened. The future will forget, erase, or recollect and deconstruct every poem. There is a mystic separation between poetic vision and ordinary living. The conditions for poetry rest outside each life at a miraculous reach indifferent to world chronology” (MED, 13).

The indifference to process and “worldly chronology” is perhaps what most clearly separates the revolution of Howe from that of Gertrude Stein, for whom the ordinary, the present, and the repetitious became the stuff of lyric and the spring of art. Though for Howe “ordinary living” may not suffice (even the poet must live in a world practically devoid of innocence), her extraordinary profession of “mystic separation” is already anachronistic—and dangerous: “The more passionately thought denies its conditionality for the sake of the unconditional, the more unconsciously, and so calamitously, it is delivered up to the world,” writes Adorno in the “finale” of Minima Moralia (Minima Moralia [hereafter cited as M] 247). Adorno provides the caveat. Hope's “wanderings” illustrate the process of such deliverance and its contradiction.

The sixteen sections of “Hope Atherton's Wanderings”—each unnumbered section from two to fifteen lines long and each centered on its own unnumbered page—can be read as sixteen temporally consecutive and prosodically various articulations, that is, sound forms, of distress. They are done in the Joycean manner. Each section in the poem gives us a scene in that drama of loss and restitution which is at the same time both Christian and pagan, old-world and new. Reader and writer are drawn, with an errant Hope, into the tension between letter and memory, minister and Indian. Like Gertrude Stein's Ida, Howe's Hope is no newcomer to “writing at the boundaries.”15 “Collision or collusion with history,” writes Howe, posing the choice between dislocation and mislocation. Lone self, lone language, both break at the borders, refuse the customary definition. Here “Perception crumbles under character / Present past of immanent future.” Whatever prospect the local poet may have entertained for a more homely and articulate vision—and Howe is after all writing herself home too—survives only through the exploration of a damaged past.

Thus, as the journey unfolds, Hope moves from an only slightly disturbed language of narration at the beginning of Part I of Articulation of Sound Forms in Time

Prest try to set after grandmother
relieved by and laid down left ly
little distant each other and fro
Saw digression hobbling driftwood
forage two rotted beans & etc.
Redy to faint slaughter story so
Gone and signal through deep water
Mr. Atherton's story Hope Atherton

—where, in spite of the absence of the I and the conventions of reportage, distortion is relatively minimal (compression and omission, effects of haste and fatigue, produce a “hobbling” after-the-battle discourse, which, in view of the wreckage evidenced by driftwood and digression, we can interpret as a mode of imitation within the given narrative frame), into a world of militant accents more and more rigid and threatening:

Rash catastrophe deaf evening
Bonds loosd catcht sedge environ
Extinct ordr set tableaux
hay and insolent army
Shape of so many comfortless
And deep so deep as my narrative
our homely manner and Myself
Said “matah” and “chirah”
Pease of all sorts and best
courtesy in every place
Whereat laughing they went away

At this point in his wanderings Atherton seems to have encountered some soldiers from a British regiment, remnants as it were of an “extinct ordr.” They are “insolent” and by their insolence insulated from the tragedy around them, “deaf” to the “catastrophe” and “so many comfortless” of whom Atherton is so keenly aware. They are deaf also to the language natural to Hope, speaking as they do in accents unfamiliar to natives, white or Indian, of America. Howe cites matah and chirah; similarly, “pease of all sorts” breaks down into a variety of meanings in conflict with one another: “Peace” as a greeting or term of surrender; “pease” as a form of porridge and by extension a plea for food. The verbal structure of this section, moving from the staccato of the first line, where each separate word demands an accent and refuses to move into syntactic combination, to the short two-word phrases of the third and fourth lines (“set tableaux”), then on to the more fully developed combinations of the fifth through eighth lines (“Shape of so many comfortless”) and the narrative statement of the final three lines (“Whereat laughing they went away”), figures the predicament of individual person in relation to collective language, for as the words come together into coherent patterns of “courtesy in every place,” all pattern is ironized and Hope is abandoned. If Hope Atherton survives, if poetry survives, it is, oddly enough, by virtue of isolation from human company and communion. To the extent that language makes sense, to the extent that it forges connections, it risks falsity and bad faith: it becomes regimental, the enemy. Only those chosen are saved and only the poet—specifically, the poet set apart by a capacity for visionary experience—can hope to emerge from chaos with something like self-possession (“My voice, drawn from my life, belongs to no one else”). As we move toward meaning, “deep so deep as my narrative,” we move into a language so fluid that the rescue of reason becomes impossible. But then, it is not in reason that Howe has put her faith.

Faith should make it possible to read even the most profoundly mysterious visionary script. In the two sections preceding Hope's public address to his “loving friends and kindred” (one wonders who may be counted among them) language approaches perfect innocence, empties itself in the perpetual motion of reflection and refraction. Thought dissolves into the medium of thought so that the word alone, like Hope in the destructive element immersed, generates the zero degree of meaning that makes possible a providential imagination of grace and the renewed possibility of life. Because the sense of this crucial passage depends as much on its visual effect as on sound or denotation, one needs to read the page as it is printed, but the transcript into typescript runs,

Posit gaze level diminish lamp and asleep(selv)cannot see
is notion most open apparition past Halo view border redden
possess remote so abstract life are lost spatio-temporal hum
Maoris empirical Kantian a little lesson concatenation up
tree fifty shower see step shot Immanence force to mohegan
blue glare(essence)cow bed leg extinct draw scribe          upside
even blue(A)ash-tree fleece comfort(B)draw scribe          sideup
Posit gaze level diminish lamp and asleep(selv)cannot see
          ReddenBorderViewHaloPastApparitionOpenMostNotion is
blue glare(essence)cow bed leg extinct draw scribe          sideup
even blue(A)ash-tree fleece comfort(B)draw scribe          upside

Here the position of the subject, Hope as if unborn within the waters (note that the poet may be overwhelmed but not inarticulate), has something in common with the position of an underwater voyager, or even an ordinary swimmer, one of those for whom the waters of the river—or the Red Sea, or the language—do not part. The surface of the medium immersing the self is visible from within that medium as a moving line (as the line we read) catching the light, so that to go under means to undermine the opacity of that line and to perceive surface instead as a series of translucent planes or shifting mirrors where distorted images of earth and sky fragment and are reflected. Such surfaces freely accommodate the heterogeneity of mohegan and Maoris,Kantian and cow bed leg: the forms and sense of the world, real writing and its images, are played off against one another and detached from every kind of categorical relation. “Posit gaze” or position perception so that self or selves (“selv”) cannot determine meaning (“cannot see”), and what is left is the is of invisibility, an impotent language in which only language is reflected, reversed, displaced, condensed, dismissed—and then, in a gesture of restitution escaping sentimentality by no more than a hairbreadth, reborn.

The openness of structure here apparent is different in kind from the openness of structure encountered earlier in the poem, where the lacunae functioned as invitations to narrative construction on the part of the interpreting reader. Here so little is made explicit, so little is solid enough to go on, that the subject—Hope, or the reader as a creature moved by hope—will search in vain for traces of coherence or for referential links to a familiar world. Yet even now the writerly text unfolds within a space designated by the readerly one. For Howe, as for the Eliot of The Four Quartets, the moment of emptiness, when “the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing” comes before the moment of redemptive truth: “I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope / For hope would be hope of the wrong thing.”16 Though Howe would disavow Eliot's metaphysics, she reveres the mystery.

Not that the writer's intention is a measure of the text. The text in its most mysterious moments accounts for itself. In the extreme instance of such writerly poetry, Adorno's notion of construction may apply: “Construction is that form which is neither imposed ready-made from outside nor emerges from the interior of works; instead, it springs from their being reflected in subjective reason” (AT, 315). The relation of the two “Posit gaze” sections of the poem to each other—where each of the lines performs a specific reflective action—dramatizes the constructive role of the poem in action: simple repetition, for the first line of either section is a simple duplication of the first line of the other; reverse reflection and condensation, inasmuch as the second through fifth lines of the two sections are composed of the same words exactly but with the words repeated backward and placed closer together in the second section; double repetition mixed with reverse reflection, since the sixth and seventh lines of each section work like a refrain ending with a one-word exchange: upside and sideup become sideup and upside in the second section. Language is inevitably caught by its capacity for imitation. As so often happens in the poetry of deconstruction, meaning or the negation of meaning resides not in the perception of formal depth but in the contingent activity of lateral motion.

Howe's Hope walks the fine line between art and chaos: “Nothing deserves to be called an art work that keeps the contingent at bay. For by definition, form is a form of something, and this something must not be allowed to degenerate into a tautological iteration of form. And yet the necessity of this relation that form has to something outside itself tends to undermine form. Form seeks to be pure and free of all heterogeneity, but it cannot be because it needs the heterogeneous. The immanence of form in heterogeneity has its limits” (AT, 315–16). It is possible to argue that language pushed to the limit of form cannot work successfully as art—to argue, for instance, that the heterogeneity of a line like “MoheganToForceImmanenceShotStepSeeShowerFiftyTree” is threatened by Howe's attempt “ToForceImmanence” or, conversely, to argue that “tree fifty shower see step shot Immanence force to mohegan” disintegrates into an undistinguished mix of unrelated and incommensurable vocabularies. “This tendency of English syntax to break thought down into its smallest, self-contained parts is probably the most formidable barrier to dialectics,” comments Weber in his preface to Prisms (P, 13); Howe's poetry extends this tendency within the language to the point where translation into the order of legible prose becomes nearly impossible. Howe is no dialectician. It is not possible, however, to dismiss the argument provoked by such writing without at the same time dismissing the possibility that the human capacity for argument is inseparable from the human capacity for hope—or, in the allegorical figure of this instance, Hope. Hope is possible precisely because of, not in spite of, the decadence of language, our inability to bridge the great gap between the one and the many, truth and reason, faith and mystery. “In a world of brutal and oppressed life,” writes Adorno, “decadence becomes the refuge of a potentially better life by renouncing its allegiance to this one and to its culture, its crudeness, and its sublimity” (P, 72).

It is a marvelous tour de force, this attempt by Susan Howe to read a surface from beneath it, to “posit” or position the self within language just below the level at which it might appear to make sense—no less wonderful than the somewhat more simply presented reading of the historical Hope Atherton as he addresses his congregation upon his return from underwater exile:

Loving Friends and Kindred:—
When I look back
So short in charity and good works
We are a small remnant
of signal escapes wonderful in themselves
We march from our camp a little
and come home
Lost the beaten track and so
River section dark all this time
We must not worry
how few we are and fall from each other
More than language can express
Hope for the artist in America & etc
This is my birthday
These are the old home trees

“There is nothing that gives the feel of Connecticut like coming home to it,” wrote Wallace Stevens. “It is a question of coming home to the American self in the sort of place in which it was formed. Going back to Connecticut is a return to an origin.”17 Like Stevens, like Eliot, Howe goes back, back to a significant landscape (“words are my way in sylvan/imagery,” she writes at the outset of Pythagorean Silence) and back to the fragments of significance rescued from the works of an earlier time. These bits and pieces broken from their contexts—dislocated, as Hope Atherton is dislocated—have something pathetic, childlike about them: Adorno, elaborating the position of Paul Valéry, catches the tone exactly. In “Valéry Proust Museum,” which seems to me the most remarkable essay in Prisms (Howe could not have missed it), Adorno writes:

Painting and sculpture, the demon of knowledge tells him, are like abandoned children. “Their mother is dead, their mother, architecture. While she lived, she gave them their place, their definition. The freedom to wander was forbidden them. They had their place, their clearly defined lighting, their materials. Proper relations prevailed between them. While she was alive, she knew what they wanted. Farewell, the thought says to me, I will go no farther.” With this romantic gesture, Valéry's reflection ceases. By breaking it off, he avoids the otherwise inevitable conclusion of the cultural conservative: the renunciation of culture out of loyalty to it.

(P, 177–78)

The doubled gesture of renunciation and loyalty, the tone of nostalgia, is characteristic of Howe. What is most touching in the discourse of Hope, what makes it appear as art, is in part its presentation in a mode of almost childlike fragility: Hope cannot quite say what he means, but his moments of articulation, his perception embodied in the poem as a work of art (Howe's Hope) are meant—for a time—to go beyond the limits of intention. “Their transcendence is their spoken or written language, yet a language without meaning or, more precisely, a language with a truncated or veiled meaning” (AT, 115). In the afterlife of Hope's utterance, that is, in Part II of Articulation of Sound Forms in Time, the landscape of desolation is explored.

Part II, “Taking the Forest,” is formally twenty-six literally linked, not logically sequential, meditations arranged mostly in couplets interspersed with single lines, again as in Part I, each meditation printed on its own page. It takes back the first promise of regeneration: whatever is said is contradicted, everything named is stolen away. Naming is retraction. “Indians is wicked,” Olson noted in his Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn: minds all made up in opposition betray the living wilderness.18

“Sharpshooters in history's apple-dark”—reasonable men, as Howe might see them—are all too likely to fall for a false music, romantic resolution. The result is territorial war, man against man, father putting the life of son at stake: a William Tell Overture and a prelude to disaster. Order demands sacrifice. Howe listens for another music, a crossing of Irish and Indian in “Cries open to the words inside them / Cries linked through the woods.” She would restore to Native Americans a genuine nativity:

Threadbare evergreen season
Mother and maiden
Singing into the draft
Keen woes centuries slacken
woe long wars endurance bear
In forest splinter companion
essential simplicity of Thought
wedged back playmate of Remote
Hares call on Pan
To rhyme with reason revels run

Language poetry turns to lyric, and laughs.

If the Christmas play is as much an occasion for the reproduction of rabbits as it is a celebration of spiritual engendering, if the modes mix and implicate opposites, then ceremony—even the ceremony of art—is no longer a gesture of stability. The drama repeats itself and resolves nothing, determines nothing, ends nothing. What does survive, however, at these “outskirts of the ordinary” is a sense of life at its most intense, with “vision closing over vision” and poetry as history putting itself at risk. That risk can also be read as an invitation, a chance to look back and to look through, to place ourselves on unfamiliar ground.

“Old men ought to be explorers,” writes Eliot in Four Quartets. “Here and there does not matter.”19 One way to indicate the distance between the nostalgia of high Modernism and our own is by saying that to us—readers of Howe, of Adorno—“here and there” does matter very much. World War II, the catastrophe into which all the writers of Howe's generation have been born, created in America what Adorno calls a “new social type, the intellectual emigré” (P, 97). Many were absorbed by American civilization, overwhelmed. Some turned away from language altogether. Some learned to speak in the accents of a foreign land. Some—and these have been the explorers—fashioned in their own writing those “perspectives … that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light” (MM, 247). This is the task Howe has set for herself. Where Hope succeeds, we may suppose, language has already marked the way.

“The test of the power of language,” writes Adorno, “is that the expression and the thing will separate in reflection” (ND, 111). But Susan Howe is no sophist. She writes not only in the name of the devil but in her own name as well: she believes in the power of her art and the power of her self. Her reach is through language toward pure light. Her burden is the knowledge of extinction haunting the history of our time. Her poetry draws its life from the great cyclical myths of Western culture, always beautiful, always moving, always—as she takes us back—the same.


  1. For the angle of vision and syntactic contortions that permit me to begin, I am especially indebted to Theodor Adorno's essay on Oswald Spengler in Prisms, 53. Adorno's Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1973), has also been useful.

  2. Susan Howe's “Statement for the New Poetics Colloquium, Vancouver, 1985” first appeared in Jimmy and Lucy's House of “K,” V (1985), 13–17. It is a dramatic biographical statement merging with the opening of Pythagorean Silence. I cite Howe's first five paragraphs in full, from pp. 13, 15. Lufftwaffe is in the original.

  3. For Howe, language itself is the “dividing line,” its history the generation of war: “I know the war-whoop in each dusty narrative / the little heir of alphabet / lean as a knife” (Secret History of the Dividing Line [Somerville, Mass.: New England Free Press, 1978], 15).

  4. Lyn Hejinian comments that some readers fear reading poetry as if reading poetry were a danger akin to drowning. See “Lyn Hejinian/Andrew Schelling: An Exchange,” Jimmy and Lucy's House of “K,” VI (1986), 10.

  5. Bernstein, Artifice of Absorption, 11.

  6. Hejinian, “The Rejection of Closure,” 134–43.

  7. Howe, interview with author, March, 1987.

  8. See Tina Darragh on Howe in In the American Tree, ed. Silliman, 547–49.

  9. Howe does not call herself a Language poet. If by a Language poet one implies membership in a community with shared Marxist ideals, Howe is not one of the group. If by a Language poet one implies a poet committed to intellectual investigation and experimentation with the formal qualities of language, Howe surely is a member in good standing.

  10. See Beckett, Murphy, 188: “Do not come down the ladder, they have taken it away.”

  11. George Butterick, Review of Susan Howe's Defenestration of Prague, in Hambone, III (1983), 149.

  12. Hart Crane, “Voyages,” in The Complete Poems and Selected Letters and Prose of Hart Crane, ed. Brom Weber (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1966), 40.

  13. Marjorie Perloff, “Recharging the Canon: Some Reflections on Feminist Poetics and the Avant-Garde,” American Poetry Review, XV (1986), 11–19.

  14. Ibid., 13.

  15. See Davidson, “Writing at the Boundaries,” 1.

  16. Eliot, The Complete Poems, 126.

  17. Stevens, Opus Posthumous, 296.

  18. Charles Olson, A Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn (San Francisco: Four Seasons Foundation, 1964), 14.

  19. Eliot, The Complete Poems, 129.

Ming-Qian Ma (essay date Winter 1994)

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SOURCE: “Poetry as History Revised: Susan Howe's ‘Scattering as Behavior Toward Risk,’” in American Literary History, Vol. 6, No. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 716–37.

[In the following essay, Ma explores Howe's overriding concern with history and discusses the impact that it has on her poetry.]

… the double of his path, which, for him, has meaning, but when repeated, does not.

—Jean Baudrillard, Please Follow Me

… till other voices wake / us or we drown

—George Oppen, Primitive

Collision or collusion with history

—Susan Howe, Articulation of Sound Forms in Time

“My poems always seem to be concerned with history,” Susan Howe says in an interview with Tom Beckett. “No matter what I thought my original intentions were that's where they go. The past is present when I write” (“Difficulties” 20). To Edward Foster in a subsequent interview, she thus acknowledges, in terms more affirmative, “So history and fiction have always been united in my mind. It would be hard to think of poetry apart from history” (“Interview” 17); “I don't think you can divorce poetry from history and culture” (22). So composes the poet, writing in poetry a history “[o]utside authority, eccentric and unique” (My Emily 28).

Howe's concern with history, described by Joel Lewis as “continual, obsessive” (60), presents a familiar and yet peculiar characteristic in contemporary poetics. It is familiar in that the literary engagement with history is probably the most persistent, if not the most prominent, trait of fin de siècle modernism, a legacy of its overarching presence in the modernist tradition. Advocated by Ezra Pound and carried out by such modernist and postmodernist precursors as T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and Charles Olson, the praxis of writing poetry “including history” finds its diverse forms in, for example, The Cantos,The Wasteland,In the American Grain, and Call Me Ishmael. Moreover, contemporary poets like Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejinian, and so forth, the so-called language group, also make frequent use of historical material in their poems.

All this is well known. Despite the familiarity, however, Howe's use of history departs radically from that of other poets, past and present, in several ways. What distinguishes Howe especially in this respect is the poet's unremitting insistence upon the fusion of “history and fiction.” In contrast to the modernist “poetry including history,” which still demarcates truth from untruth, Howe's fusion of “history and fiction” not only erases that boundary but also, by extension, calls our attention to the artificiality of such a distinction. Thus engendered, then, is a critical perspective which insists that “what we were given of tradition is what we must break off, examine, fabricate” (DuPlessis 130).

Closely related to Howe's fusion of poetry and history is her position in relation to history and its hegemonic discourse. Gender oriented, Howe's position can be described in DuPlessis's terms as that of “both/and” or “insider-outsider” (6, 8). While the poet is inside history “by her social position, by her class,” she is by gender “outside the dominant systems of meaning, value, and power” (DuPlessis 8, 14). In this sense, Howe analyzes history critically with “[d]oubled consciousness. Doubled understandings,” disclosing its “shifts, contraries, negations, contradictions,” and “reground[ing] representation in, at least, a critical reading of its formerly assumed and unquestioned mechanisms” (DuPlessis 6, 8, 122). When reading history, she examines “what is inside the book, what is outside”; when writing poetry, “[s]he is inside the book writing almost outside the book,” taking “the responsibility of writing the book outside the book” (DuPlessis 130, 136). Indeed, it is this double position that enables Howe to critically engage history. As Teresa de Lauretis argues, “[P]aradoxically, the only way to position oneself outside of that discourse is to displace oneself within it—to refuse the question as formulated, or to answer deviously (though in its words), event to quote (but against the grain)” (7).

Howe's use of history also differs in why it is evoked in the first place. Although poets frequently resort to historical material, seldom is history per se their focal point. Rather, it is invoked for diverse purposes: Pound's attempt to maintain a global and cultural coherence; Eliot's effort to make the world and art possible when, as Yeats puts it, “[t]hings fall apart; the center cannot hold” (“The Second Coming” 3); Williams's plan to rescue and rename “the strange phosphorus of the life, nameless under an old misappellation” (v); or Olson's intention of reconstructing what Joel Lewis calls the “Gowandaland's Atlantic rip” (60). More recently, history is invoked in the name of Andrews's desire to explore the “social, political dimension in writing” (24); Bernstein's interest in being “drenched in the downpour of words” (11); Silliman's concern, particularly in Tjanting, with how social dynamics can actually “act upon and enter into the subjective in order to create the Subject” (35); and Hejinian's emphasis on writing, which, she believes, “emerges from within a pre-existent text of one's own devising or another's” (30). Whatever the purpose, history as a political and ideological construct is not directly challenged on its own terms.

Howe's poems, on the contrary, subpoena history for an investigation of its violent crime against women. “Sometimes I think my poetry is only a search by an investigator for the point where the crime began,” says the poet (“Difficulties” 21). That being so, poetry becomes for Howe counterdiscourse to history, a “rereading [of] the reading that a social status quo puts [her] through” (Andrews 27). When enacted in poetry “with the foregrounding of language” (Hartley xii), Howe's rereading demonstrates itself through a complex and peculiar textual feminism that, “growing out of but rethinking the work of Stein,” is characterized by its “rematerializing written expression” (Lazer 10).


In Howe's work, history, particularly in the sense of historiography, has two diametrically disparate versions. On the one hand, history is viewed as “the record of winners. Documents … written by the Masters” (Howe, “Statement” 15). As a predominantly male-gendered, rationalized fabrication, it exists, therefore, only inside what Howe describes as “some intellectual fusion or agreement” (“Interview” 17). As such, Howe contends, it is a discriminatory as well as coercive construct vested with a historical consciousness which “is still male” (“Interview” 26) and in which women “have no choice” (“Statement” 16). Dictated by such a unilateral consensus, history is found “always stamped PASSED BY EXAMINER” (“Statement” 16) and, when occasion requires, “can be falsified, has been falsified” (“Interview” 17). On the other hand, history is keenly felt by the poet as “an actuality,” one that exists “outside” that patriarchal process of intellectual fusion or agreement (Foster, in Howe, “Interview” 17) and with which women identify themselves. Though concrete, original, and uncompromising, as “actuality” suggests, this “outside” version of history, according to Howe, is nonetheless deprived of its right to articulate in a language that, itself, is “the absolute male” (McCaffery, “Scene” 88). As a result, history as an actuality is rendered expressionless except in the forms of “the gaps and silences” in which women, otherwise already represented and spoken for, find themselves (Howe, “Interview” 17). It is with these two versions of history that Howe's poetry attempts to “collide” and “collude,” respectively.

Howe's poems, taken collectively or individually, embody what Marjorie Perloff describes as “the impingement of historical or biographical narrative on lyric consciousness” (29), so much so that history and poetry become virtually inseparable. Howe's fusion of history and poetry, carried with increasing emphasis to the point of interdependency or mutual identification, functions to reposition the power relations between the two by providing poetry with an entry point into history, into what hitherto has always been the sealed authoritarian discourse of history. In this readjusted relationship, history is transformed into a flawed text yet to be examined by a sensibility that, “read[ing] a past that is a huge imagination of one form,” pulls a different text from it, a text of “SHE from all the myriad symbols and sightings of HE” (Howe, My Emily 106, 17–18). While history as traditionally understood and defined ceases to be definitive, poetry, or the writing of poetry as a present, continuous praxis, acquires a new political and historical status. Not only does poetry refuse, for the first time, to take history for granted, already “a direct challenge to social norms” (Andrews 31), it also tries to rectify the historically wrong. For poetry “brings similitude and representation to configurations waiting from forever to be spoken”; as a poet, Howe writes, “I write to break out into perfect primeval Consent. I wish I could tenderly lift from the dark side of history, voices that are anonymous, slighted—inarticulate” (“Statement” 17). A corrective response to the limits of history, poetry becomes the rewriting of “its material … the raw materials of a society, a collection of practices & avowals & disavowals, governed by discourse” (Andrews 29). For Howe, the rewriting of history lies in the writing of a poetry that in and of itself represents “a recognition that there is another voice, an attempt to hear and speak it” (192) and “acknowledges, or faces up to, its material base as a rewriting of the language” (Andrews 25).

Written “in and against” (Howe, “Interview” 17) history as an actuality, Howe's poetry can be characterized as what Janet Rodney calls “Language Engendering” (50), one that is based upon its deconstructive posture toward the existing sociolinguistic formation. For poetry to “shelter other voices” (Howe, “Difficulties” 25), the poet has to reorient herself to language: “I think the poet opens herself. … You open yourself and let language enter, let it lead you somewhere … let various things—memories, fragments, bits, pieces, scraps, sounds—let them all work into something. This has to do with changing order and abolishing categories. It has to do with sounds in silence” (“Interview” 23). Out of this de/reconstruction process emerges “a new kind of narrative [that] will lead to a new kind of history” (Barone 108) in which the poet is enabled to meet the past. As an effort “to understand the writers or people,” this meeting with the past is intended, however, “not to explain the work, not to translate it, but to meet the work with writing—… to meet in time, not just from place to place but from writer to writer, mind to mind, friend to friend, from words to words” (Howe, “Interview” 17).

Howe's meeting with the past, then, occurs simultaneously in several dimensions: temporal (“in time”), geographical (“from place to place”), perceptional (“from writer to writer, mind to mind”), relational (“friend to friend”), and linguistic (“from words to words”). If the geographical and relational aspects manifest themselves mainly in Howe's pre-occupation with certain physical locations (New England, for instance) and her sympathetic treatment of some historical figures (Reverend Hope Atherton, Mary Rowlandson, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, to name a few), the others find expression in a poetry textually designed as “[m]essages [that] must be seen to be heard to say” (Howe, “Interview” 16).

Howe's perceptional meeting with the past “from writer to writer, mind to mind” is what constitutes her poetry as “messages.” The mutual embracing of two minds, which leads to “the immediate feeling of understanding” (Howe, My Emily 51), finds in poetry “a different way of knowing things” (Foster, in Howe, “Interview” 23). Also different is that this “new way of perceiving” (Howe, My Emily 51) “depends on chance, on randomness” (Howe, “Interview” 23). Moreover, since poetry as messages can be deciphered only by way of “the immediate feeling of understanding,” the meeting with the past is, by nature, a reliving experience, the physical aspect of which is materialized in the meeting “from words to words.” Poetry, for Howe, has to be presented visually “as a physical act” and “must really be experienced as handwritten productions … the print on the page … the shapes of words” (“Interview” 16). Equally related to this “seen” quality of Howe's poetry is the temporal aspect of the historical meeting. More than “just chronology” (Foster, in Howe, “Interview” 30), time is conceptualized by the poet in this context as “space-time,” the intrinsic property of which Howe specifies as “the thing that isn't chaos” (“Interview” 30). And this space-time dimension is evidenced in poetry in “the surface—the space of the paper itself” (16).

So presented visually and physically, poetry as messages, however, still has to be sounded to be heard. Howe's sustained interest in sound is closely tied to her search for the origins of history as an actuality. “In my poetry,” the poet claims, “time and again, questions of assigning the cause of history dictate the sound of what is thought” (“Statement” 16). For Howe regards sound as the “key to the untranslatable hidden cause,” as both “a refuge and a bridge” (“Difficulties” 21, 17), whereby a retreat from conventional significations paradoxically uncovers an unacknowledged message from “an undervoice that was speaking from the beginning” (“Encloser” 192). There is, in this view, “a direct relation between sound and meaning” to the extent that “little by little sound [grows] to be meaning” (Howe, “Encloser” 182, 179). Indeed, in her effort to unravel the message from history, Howe in her poetry “tries to sound every part” (“Difficulties” 21).

Howe finds support for her belief in sound as “always part of perfect meaning” (My Emily 55) in algebra and in catastrophe theory.1 “Algebraic formulas,” Howe suggests, “are also articulations of sound forms in time” (“Interview” 30) realized through singularities. A singularity, defined by the poet as “a chaotic point,” constitutes the juncture “where plus becomes minus. … where there is a sudden change to something completely else. … It's the point chaos enters cosmos, the instant articulation. Then there is a leap into something else” (“Interview” 30–31). But the focus of Howe's enthusiasm is not chaos and catastrophe per se but that which is to emerge from them.2 In other words, the poet perceives, beyond the singularities, a new, different order envisioned either implicitly as “the thing that isn't chaos,” “something completely else,” “the potential,” or explicitly as in “[c]atastrophe theory says that there is order in catastrophe” (“Interview” 30–31).

In addition, Howe sustains her belief in order by a corresponding belief in the engendering capability and capacity of words, of language. She takes a bifurcated view of the poet in relation to language, which is suggested in a pronouncement in her Defenestration of Prague: “For we are language Lost / in language” (99). Here the speaker aligns herself with one language against the other in which it is lost: the systematic network of linguistic signs “already ordered into social codes, into meaning making & mediating” (Andrews 25), precluding the legitimacy of “an undervoice.” Socially imprisoning and yet “life-giving,” this language, then, circumscribes what Howe describes as “a wild interiority” whose “linguistic nature is always foreign” to the poet (“Difficulties” 26). With this language of interiority as a forbidden zone, the poet finds herself “a foreigner in her own language. I don't want to stay inside” (“Difficulties” 27). But at the same time, “[w]e are language,” a language that carries each individual's “context, or imprint” (Andrews 26), that forms the “dark life” in that “wild interiority” and in which the poet seeks refuge (Howe, “Difficulties” 26). Yet this “dark life” beyond the singularity is for Howe anything but dark: “Words are candles lighting the dark. … I think that there has to be some order if only order in dis-order. And words and sounds are … they reach up out there. A little flicker in silence … a signal” (Interview” 22). Both in time and in space, words form a configuration in which the poet, as Howe sees in Dickinson, discovers “sense in the chance meeting of words” (My Emily 24). Truly indeed, “[t]he fight for language,” as Steve McCaffery remarks in “From the Notebooks,” “is also a fight inside language” (159). In this sense, Howe's own exploration in poetry of “the implications of breaking the law just short of breaking off communication” (My Emily 11) finds its encouragement in the belief that a word “persists even in the state of its own excommunication” from traditional semantics (McCaffery, “Sound” 90). As “[l]ife opens into conceptless perspectives,” Howe writes, “[l]anguage surrounds Chaos” (“Statement” 16).


The title page of “Scattering As Behavior Toward Risk” consists, strictly speaking, of three texts: a passage from “Deuteronomye,” the title “Scattering As Behavior Toward Risk,” and a graphic of a coffin (61). Although the layout of the title page indicates no necessary hierarchy among these texts, some evidence—the change in typeface from Trump Mediaeval to boldface and finally to a conspicuous graphic vis-a-vis the change in texts from a historical record to a lyric utterance and finally to a symbol—does suggest a shift of emphasis from historical representation to poetic presentation. When read in that order, each text functions as a critical explication of the preceding one. Centrifugal in propensity, all, however, point at a singularity, a catastrophe of both conflict and bifurcation.

Taken from “Song of Moses,” “‘Deuteronomye,’ XXXII. 26” (Howe, “Scattering” 61) recalls, according to standard Bible commentary, God's decision to refrain from destroying the nation of Israel so as to assert his absolute lordship over the whole earth. Yet paradoxically, this supreme monotheism, intended by God so as not “to scater the therowout the worlde” (qtd. in Howe, “Scattering” 61), was subverted: the Jews were to scatter when Moses's death prevented him from guiding them to the promised land. Howe's citation of this passage forcefully foregrounds this historical context, which is usually pushed into the background by God's presence. In the context of the title page, it is not so much the authorial intention (“I haue determened to”) as the action verb (“scater”) that holds the spotlight, and faith, when so viewed, seems more a property of the latter than the former. In this manner, Howe's citation brings back a historical moment temporally balanced between holding on to and letting go of authority and control, beyond which awaits no necessary destination. But there remains another question. If Howe's action verb “scater” suggests Howe's challenge to authorial centering, what, specifically, is the targeted monotheism?

What is implied in the citation from Deuteronomy is explicated in “Scattering As Behavior Toward Risk.” As a response to the biblical text, this title is distinctly secular, unconcerned with God's determination or Moses's anxiety about his people's future. Devoid of any trace of devotional vibrance, it focuses immediately and exclusively on scattering. The poet explicates “Scattering” as “Behavior,” a term of scientific note in chaos theory, which also suggests, by way of a play with its moral connotations, individuality as a critique of authority. For behavior denotes “the way a person behaves or acts … in conformity with the required standards of decorum” (Webster's). Since scattering is certainly not prescribed by God, it is performed in accordance with a different, individual standard, the value and the validity of which are acknowledged through the conspicuous absence of adjectival modifiers for “Behavior,” modifiers like dangerous,unfaithful, or blasphemous that could otherwise be present. Moreover, “Scattering” is a “Behavior,” so continues the poet, “Toward Risk.” Defined as “the chance of injury, damage, or loss” (Webster's), risk in fact encompasses in its semantic range the juxtaposition of two existing possibilities. Although its denotation focuses on the negative, its connotation does not exclude the positive. What the word really highlights, then, is chance, which, in the context of the title as a critical response to “‘Deuteronomye,’ XXXII. 26,” seems to favor gain over loss. Also implied in risk is voluntariness (danger,Webster's) by the individual taking an action; hence the poet's further privileging of personal autonomy over a collective, subjugated mind-set.

While “Scattering As Behavior Toward Risk” suggests that individuality and chance may lead to something ideal, the graphic of a coffin delineates what the poet sees as “breaks in world-historical reason” (“Difficulties” 20). Emblematic of death, the coffin refers back to the passage from “Song of Moses” in two ways. On the one hand, as an icon, it embodies the intended preservation of the spirit, the painstaking effort at containment, and the conscious assertion of a remote control. On the other, it works as an index to the paradox that to make a coffin is to begin its simultaneous decomposition. Particularly in this context, the coffin brings to the immediate fore not only the extinction of Moses's physical life but with it, and more importantly, the death of his songs, his speeches, his words. Still supposedly functioning as the center, the coffin in this sense becomes what Howe describes, in A Bibliography of the King's Book, or, Eikon Basilike, as “[t]he absent center [that] is the ghost of a king,” the king being, in Foster's words, “authority and so the origin of meaning” (in Howe, “Interview” 34). With the death of the king, “what is left in words themselves” (Foster, in Howe, “Interview” 34) is “the singularity … a catastrophe of bifurcation … a sudden leap into another situation. The ghost (the entrance point of a singularity) is the only thing we have” (Howe, “Interview” 34). Howe's targeted monotheism, viewed in this light, seems to be patriarchal language. Indeed, in contrast to the well-formulated syntactical and grammatical structure of the quote from “Song of Moses” at the top of the title page, the coffin leaves behind it, in textual illustration, only a wide open space, a perfect silence, or, in the poet's own words, “another situation,” in which the poet is “THE REVISER” (“Scattering” 70), and her working material is language in its received model.

The first line of the poem, with its quotation marks and its asterisk footnoting “Billy Budd: The Genetic Text” at the bottom of the page (63), identifies itself as a borrowed text to which the rest of the poem constitutes a response (see Quartermain). The line's larger context is the description of the exact moment of Billy Budd's execution. Decoded, this line may read as follows, according to Peter Quartermain: “on a [cross out in pencil all the words from ‘suddenly’ to ‘on a’; insert, above the line and with a caret, the words ‘was shot thro with a dyed’; cross out with (the same?) pencil the word ‘dyed’ and insert, above the line, with a caret, the words ‘a soft’]” (76). Howe's visual reproduction of this line undergoing complicated editing makes two statements. First, a “text itself,” as Rodney argues, “is history, is people” (47), whatever its kind, and the production of a reading text out of a genetic one mirrors the fabrication of chronicles out of actuality. For in both, “[m]alice,” in the form of editorial violence, “dominates the history of Power and Progress” (Howe, “Statement” 15). Second, what is usually edited out, the poet further indicates, is the feminine.

With this in mind, Howe's citation of Melville's Billy Budd in the first line becomes meaningful. Howe keenly feels a mysterious bond with the nineteenth-century writer, because manifest in Melville's work is a quality of “the feminine” (Howe, “Difficulties” 18; “Interview” 37) that she finds irresistible. “If his were just a masculine World View I wouldn't be so fascinated by it and feel so close to it” (“Difficulties” 18), the poet believes; “There has to be a reason why his writing speaks so directly to me” (“Interview” 37). One particular expression of Melville's feminine quality is stutter or stammer. “A ‘sheltered’ woman,” Howe remarks in My Emily Dickinson, “audaciously invented a new grammar grounded in humility and hesitation. HESITATE from the Latin, meaning to stick. Stammer. To hold back in doubt, having difficulty speaking” (21). Stuttering, for Howe, becomes the “sounding of uncertainty. What is silenced or not quite silenced. All the broken dreams” (“Interview” 37).

The connection could not be clearer. Not only does Melville associate Billy Budd with feminine beauty but he also portrays him as “illiterate,” a person without a language, who cannot speak for himself or say “No” to others, but who “could sing, and … was sometimes the composer of his own song” (239). When “under sudden provocation of strong heart-feeling,” his already limited oral articulation would be further impeded by “an organic hesitancy,—in fact more or less of a stutter or even worse” (241). The result is a double victimization of this “Handsome Sailor” (241). First, Billy Budd is framed by John Claggart, “the master-at-arms” (252), whose ability to manipulate words makes his official title in fact synonymous with “the master-at-language,” and then executed by Captain Vere, whose patriarchal eloquence helps justify his killing of Billy Budd by killing first his own “immediate feeling of understanding.” The whole incident, so manufactured by language, is then permanently established “in one naval chronicle of the time, an authorized weekly publication” and “has stood in human record” ever since (325, 327). There is no better example to illustrate Howe's argument.

Viewed in such contexts, the first line of the poem becomes a literal demonstration. How to read it in the traditional sense becomes then entirely irrelevant; for the line is designed to show, through its form, how a patriarchal, linguistic order is being “wrestled from” the dark life (Quartermain 78) and how history as the record of winners violates and murders history as an actuality through editors' pencils, erasers, scissors, and knives. Both literally and metaphorically, grammatical signs such as [], < =, …, and — are seen busy at work, effecting sentencing and imposing imprisonment in the selective procedure of semantic construction. Conversely, however, a detailed presentation of a line violently dismembered by editing erects obstacles to routine information processing, which forces the traditionally trained sensibility to sound out for clarification. What is reexperienced, through an individual meeting with the words, is the “uncertainty. What is silenced or not quite silenced. All the broken dreams.” Through her borrowed text, then, Howe outlines a revised history, in which the so-called chronicle of civilization is exposed as a murderous campaign against the Other and in which what has been formerly kept invisible and silent is given form and voice.

The first line's demonstrativeness finds its explication in the second. The thematic consonance between the two is shown in the repeated use of parentheses and brackets, suggesting the restrictions and relegations against which the feminine has to struggle in order to emerge. The seemingly ambiguous subject for “(became the vision)” (63) is now rendered graspable: it is the first line—what it shows rather than what it says. Moreover, in its incompleteness, “(the rea)” (63) offers itself as a clue. For in Latin, as Quartermain demonstrates, rea is “a juridical word,” meaning, among other things, a defendant or a prisoner of feminine gender (74–75). And the parenthesis, while semantically confining “the rea,” also designates the word as the logical appositive to “the vision,” thus specifying “the vision” as a prisoner's / feminine vision. Equally plausible is that “(the rea)” functions, simultaneously, as the adjectival modifier for what follows it. As the physical embodiment of the nature of “(the rea),” the disjunct form of “after Though [though]That” (63) shows something quite visible but not quite bridged, which is, discernibly, “Thought.” The letter t, essential to the coming into being of a complete and independent intellectual entity, is either imprisoned (“Though [t …]”) or taken away (“[though]T …”). Further, the incomplete “Though,” with its first letter symbolically elevated into upper case out of the bracket but relegated into lower case in it, can only be an “after Though” (63), meaning, as the word after denotes, a “Though” “in spite of” or “in defiance of; regardless of; notwithstanding” (Webster's) “the old army / Enlightened rationalism” (Howe, “Scattering” 64). Yet as much as the second line shows the imprisonment of the feminine vision, it does offer, again through its form, a way out. The solution lies in “[though]That / Fa” (63). Physically as well as grammatically, the word “That,” as a relative pronoun, stands for both “[though]” that precedes it and the subject of a restrictive clause that follows it, thus reaching backward to complete “[though]” by ignoring the bracket (“[though]T”) and forward to suggest how to do so (“Fa”). As “a musical term (the fourth note of the octave)” (Quartermain 73), “Fa” clearly refers to a sound form. Hence this paraphrasing of “[though]That / Fa”: “though” that sounds will become “ThoughT.”

This “immediate feeling of understanding,” acquired by way of an encounter with the past through form and sound, fosters an inquiry into the causes of history as the documents written by “the Masters.” In a tone not without ironic sting, the rhetorical question “But what is envy [but what is envy] / Is envy the bonfire inkling?” (63) pinpoints one cause by repeating the key word envy three times. The winners or masters resort to violence, these two lines suggest, not because they feel superior in possession of all essential qualities, but because they realize they do not and cannot have them.3 Therefore, as remedy, they suppress what they lack: “Shackles [(shackles)] as we were told the … [precincts]” (63). Shackles and parentheses, precincts and brackets, the former enclosed in the latter: every element in this line, appositionally employed, mirrors forced restrictions and confining boundaries. Equally illustrative is the use of the passive voice, “as we were told,” in which the speaker, by virtue of her syntactical position and grammatical status, is identified with “(the rea)” in the second line. Besides, the two “shackles,” one's first letter in upper case and the other's in lower case, create a visual difference in that the latter seems smaller, an effect further enhanced by its double enclosure. What is effected by this bracket-within-parenthesis configuration is “space-time,” in which the word “shackles” is seen retreating into the background, existing in the past, but recognizing its present-day counterpart “Shackles.” Such a textual design in turn dictates that the sounding of these two words must vary in both tone and volume to produce an echoing effect. In Howe's poetry as revised history, “the language of the present” is indeed “charged with echoes from an earlier time” (Perloff 31).

If the poem's first six lines comprise an introduction to what is suppressed in Billy Budd, the rest of the poem continues to explicate the issue, proceeding from general to specific, from saying to showing. Howe begins this with a broad portrayal of the nature of the official history:

A Vengeance must be
a story
Trial and suffering
of Mercy
Any narrative question
away in the annals
the old army
Enlightened rationalism


History, in the form of “the annals / the old army / Enlightened rationalism,” is seen by the poet as a series of reoccurring vengeances initiated from patriarchal perspectives and inflicted upon a woman not for what she has done but for what she is. History as such can be nothing but “a story,” the fictitiousness of which demands, as its supplement, “measured forms” (Melville 323) and high theatricality concretized in “Trial and suffering / of Mercy.”4 The result is a complete record or document without any loophole, because of “Any narrative question / away in the annals”—away meaning, as an adjective, “not present; absent; gone” (Webster's).

After these eight lines delineating publicized history, the following nine sketch a “dark life,” history as an actuality:

dreadful at Hell
bears go in dens
No track by night
No coming out
in the otherday
on wild thoughtpath
Face of adamant
Steel of the face


Two things stand out in this stanza. First, the sense of the Other, of wilderness, and of an unprecedented wandering in an uncharted territory is brought out by the four lines in the middle, where phrases such as “No track,” “the otherday,” and “wild thoughtpath” suggest that this is “another situation.” Second, what marks this wandering “on wild thought-path” as different is the wanderer's unbending determination, expressed not only in her “No coming out” but in her “Face of adamant / Steel of the face / Breast.” Emphatically capitalized and gender-specific, the word “Breast,” in addition, relates itself to “bears” in the second line, which puns upon the verb bear in its third person singular form, meaning, among other things, “to give birth to … to bring forth; produce or yield” (Webster's). Thus, the wandering in the wilderness is, in its own right, a productive process as opposed to “a Zero-sum game” (68).

These two sections then find, in a stanza across the page (65), an almost line-to-line substantiation grounded in the story of Billy Budd. Clearly reminiscent of Captain Vere's eloquent defense of the interests of the King at Billy Budd's trial, the first six lines in this section again expose, more explicitly, the nature of patriarchal history. Such a history, the poet argues, presents a “political literature,” the author of which is no other than the “iconic Collective” or, as the poet mentions later, the “Patron of stealthy action” (67). This history's “Soliloquy and the aside” (65) aim, politically, at “Violent order of a world” (65), but socially and economically, at “The protection of sleep / The protection of sheep” (67). History thus becomes equivalent to the “Fiction of administrative law” whereby “Rules are guards and fences / in the court of black earth / to be infinite” (67).

This is immediately challenged in the following seven lines by a manifesto of history as actuality. Unequivocally labeled as “Iconoclastic folio subgenre” (65), this history mirrors, in contrast, a dark life, “a life lived by shifts / evil fortunes of another” (65). For the first time, this “another” is identified as the “me” that “Fathers dare not name” (67) and subsequently entitled “the lean Instaurator” (65) or “THE REVISER” (70). “Halfway through Wanderings” (65) “on wild thoughtpath” (64), this “another” experiences “Birth of contemporary thought” (65), a birth already foreshadowed by the words “Breast” and “bears” in the preceding section. Furthermore, this “contemporary thought” is specified as “Counter” (65) to “the old army / Enlightened rationalism” (64), or “thought thought out” (65), an expression in which the past participle phrase “thought out”—both by its resemblance to the modified word and by its “out” denotative of “completely or to the end” (Webster's)—unmasks “Enlightened rationalism” as self-referential logic, or a fabrication totally exhausted.

Yet for Howe, the “Birth of contemporary thought” (65) only signals, at this stage, “a singularity … a chaotic point … the point chaos enters cosmos,” and its form of articulation, therefore, still lies in those forms that materialize or show its actual “breaking free” from the traditional discourse.5 In this sense, poetry, as an attempt to revise history, “has involved a breaking of boundaries of all sorts. It involves a fracturing of discourse, a stammering even. Interruption and hesitation used as a force” (Howe, “Encloser” 192). When written in this manner, poetry then becomes “language stripped to its untranslatability” (Howe, “Difficulties” 19). A word of caution—to take the word “untranslatability” at its face value is to miss a crucial point in Howe's poetics, for the word does not denote for the poet a linguistic passivity, much less a resignation. Saturated with ironic overtones, it posits itself in open defiance of the “translatability” of the patriarchal discourse, a defiance constitutive, by implication, of a new kind of “translatability.” Moreover, precisely because Howe's poetry is “about the impossibility of putting in print what the mind really sees” (“Interview” 32), it automatically includes, both in its objective and in its methodology, a concomitant search for the possibility of finding a way to do so. In other words, what begins as a demonstration of impossibility may proceed in due course to the discovery of possibility. The poet's “chance meeting of words,” in this respect, suggests probably the first move in that direction.

“Birth of contemporary thought / Counter thought thought out” (65) is then physically presented on the next page, where linear syntactical formations are interrupted by free-floating words. The first line here, the only one that seems free from any interruption, problematizes nonetheless its own capability of saying what it is constructed to say in that it lacks a proper subject. The inevitable question What is loaded into … ? crudely mocks the adjective “perfect” by leaving its answer wide open to a game of word substitution, not excluding, of course, those words floating freely. More interesting, then, is the sense created by chance meetings of words and the site at which such meetings occur. What, for instance, seems to be both torpedoed from below by “VIZEADMIRALL” and bombarded from above by “Bisket,” “Risk,” “Herring,” and “Salmon” turns out, significantly, to be the past participle phrase “The best ordered,” the very attribute of “commonwealth.” What is important, in this case, is not what these words represent, much less what they mean. Rather, the “Iconoclastic” (65) gesture is shown in what they do or how they are used: “The best ordered” is put under erasure. Such an attack is immediately reinforced by a dissection of the modified itself as primarily a linguistic construct. Literally and metaphorically, the “commonwealth” is seen as founded comfortably on “Watchwords,” a manipulation of language; and the phrase “That open,” meeting “Watchwords” above and “markets” below, points upward to demilitarize them (“Watchwords That open”) and downward to reveal their secrecy: It is the unilateralness and arbitrariness of language that, in the true sense of the word, “makes” the official history (“Watchwords That open markets”).

Functioning alongside the chance meeting of words here is “Potentiality of sound to directly signal.” Its antiestablishment stance is doubly emphasized in the pronouncement, “They do not know what a syllable is,” the linear formation of which is rebelliously tilted in an unsupported space, associating it, by illustration, with a falling, if not already fallen, condition still regressing continuously without a period, or more accurately, a stop.6 In this light, the lines “the sayd / Utopian communism comes in pieces while the Narrative wanders” begin to yield something different. Not only do they shed light on the nature of “the sayd / Utopian communism” as the product of linguistic manufacturing by “comes in pieces while the Narrative wanders” but they also deconstruct such a constructedness through a meeting between “comes”—the key verb suggestive of the birth of social and political structures out of language—and “aboord.” Absent from standard dictionaries, the latter, with its alien grouping of letters, produces a sound that approximates that of abort as a transitive verb. Thus, when the two words meet, the sound of “aboord”/abort takes charge and “end[s] (a [linguistic] pregnancy) prematurely” (Webster's). In a like manner, “aboord” also meets “Shrowds.” Positioned above and between two lines, “Shrowds,” sounding like shrouds, reifies a linguistic operation that subordinates one line to the other and provides, as a result, a form of articulation for a relationship historically suppressed and disguised: “Values in a discourse. / Shrowds / Potentiality of sound to directly signal.” Exposure then leads to subversion. Again, when “aboord”/abort meets “Shrowds”/Shrouds, the former, its offensive posture shown in its physical position in relation to the latter, “cut[s] short” (Webster's) a language action disclosed by the sound signal.

However, “Potentiality of sound to directly signal,” as its phrasing indicates, must yet be adequately developed to counter “Values in a discourse” on a full scale. What it can do, at this moment, is “To hull in the night,” in the dark life lived by the “Instaurator.” As a noun, says the dictionary, hull means either “1. the outer covering of a seed or fruit … 2. the calyx of some fruits … 3. any outer covering” or “1. the frame or body of a ship … 2. a) the main body of an airship b) the frame or main body of a flying boat.” To hull means “to take the hull or hulls off” or “to pierce the hull of (a ship) with a shell, torpedo, etc.” (Webster's). The intended target of “To hull,” seemingly missing here, is nevertheless found through a chance meeting of “the” and “Meaning.” Hanging and dangling awkwardly, the word “Meaning” is presented graphically in this context as an artifact thrown away or a deceptive covering peeled off. To hull the authoritative “Meaning,” then, is to create “the absent center,” to invite “the ghost of a king,” and to initiate “a catastrophe of bifurcation.” With “Meaning” “wavering,” sound begins to celebrate its own audibility: “harmony sparrow that lamentation,” “brawling.”

As Howe's rereading of Billy Budd, the poem becomes, both in form and in content, increasingly expressive of the physicality or materiality of language. In ways “just short of breaking off communication,” the configuration shows, by combining the residue of a formulaic language and the chance meeting of words, the actual dethronement in progress of the patriarchal language, the very moment of a singularity, of a catastrophe of bifurcation (69). Still retaining the basic syntactical units, the cross-page axis can be roughly treated and analyzed as a sentence that consists of these parts: 1) subject: “Wedged destiny,” suggestive of “catastrophe of bifurcation,” of wanderings “on wild thoughtpath”; 2) verb: “shed [cancel whole],” mutually appositive, with the former meaning “a) to cast off or lose … b) to get rid of” (Webster's); 3) object: “halter measure mutiny Act Wars,” with “mutiny Act Wars” in apposition to “halter measure” and with halter meaning “that by which something is held” or “execution by hanging” (Webster's). When put together, these parts form a semantic cluster, the rebellious message of which seems self-evident.

As a sentence, this line is nevertheless undercut by the lack of a period. Instead, it ends with a signature in the form of a self-portrayal, “Child / regical,” which, through its physical resemblance, evokes the image of a regicide or a subordinate “who kills, or is responsible for the killing of, a king, esp. of his [her] own country” (Webster's). Situated at the end of the line, “Child regical,” having voiced her defiance of the patriarchal “Fiction of administrative law” (67), commits the capital crime of destroying its material language base, pulling its linear structure literally out of balance and, by so doing, ushering in “the entrance point of a singularity.” Finally freed from the “halter measure,” words begin their chance meeting in “another situation.” The three words “Mute,” “fluke,” and “squall,” when met with one another, seem to deliver a certain message. With fluke denoting, as a noun, “an accidentally good or lucky stroke” or as a verb “to hit or get by a fluke,” and squall “a harsh, shrill cry or loud scream” (Webster's), the sense of this three-word configuration can be roughly paraphrased as, “Mute, by chance and with risk, could be heard,” or “Silence is loud.” Other meetings of words, similar though even more chancy, appear equally perceivable, such as “in mum,” “tone,” “open,” and so forth.

The poem then ends with what can be viewed as a picture, in which the relationship between history as an actuality and history as a record of the winners is shown in the form of an edifice, a shaky one perhaps. Always suppressed and imprisoned at the bottom, history as an actuality, with its “Freak inside the heart” (70), in fact constitutes the broad foundation on which an official history is masterfully fabricated. The process of manufacturing the latter is also the process of its abusing and misusing the former, though white-washing itself along the way as—read vertically—the “Human / Record” (70). To be “human,” in this sense, is to be “[authoritative]” (70), to be inhuman in an Enlightened rational sort of way. History as such, the poet argues, “cumbered the ground” (70) and therefore has to be thoroughly revised. To fulfill this purpose, there is no better place to start than the foundation, where the suppressed becomes by right “THE REVISER,” a “title” for a “fact,” for an actuality, however “secret” it has been (70).


In My Emily Dickinson, Howe begins part 1 with this observation: “Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein also conducted a skillful and ironic investigation of patriarchal authority over literary history. Who polices questions of grammar, parts of speech, connection, and connotation? Whose order is shut inside the structure of a sentence? What inner articulation releases the coils and complications of Saying's assertions? In very different ways the counter-movement of these two women's work penetrates to the indefinite limits of written communication” (11–12). Also in a very different way, Howe joins her two precursors in “Scattering As Behavior Toward Risk.” Colliding with authorized chronicles but colluding with suppressed actuality, the poem shows through its form “[c]onnections between unconnected things,” exhibiting a historical panorama of “Liberty, Exile, Origin” (Howe, My Emily 97, 107). The speaker's “outside” position in relation to history as a traditional discourse enables her not only to unveil the nature of “thought thought out” as a stifling patriarchal institution but also to become an explorer “dwelling in Possibility” (My Emily 76). In this sense, “[p]oetry,” as the rewriting of history, “is affirmation in negation” (My Emily 138), with its centrifugal trajectory hurtling not into nothingness but into a space-time where a new, more comprehensive order already exists in embryo.


  1. Howe is evidently influenced by Rene Thom, particularly his Mathematical Models of Morphogenesis (1983) and Structural Stability and Morphogenesis (1975). Her interest centers on his concept of singularity.

  2. Howe seems to associate herself with what N. Katherine Hayles considers the second branch of chaos theory, which emphasizes order out of chaos, self-organization, and disorder as the stimulation to self-organization. For a more detailed discussion, see Hayles, esp. 12.

  3. This also holds true for Billy Budd, in which everyone is, to various degrees, envious of the Handsome Sailor, whose perfection in physical beauty and spiritual simplicity causes admiration at best and hatred at worst. John Claggart exemplifies the latter case, which culminates in his outright lies about Billy Budd. Captain Vere, one may argue, is in fact no better. For his envy is disguised under the cloak of his ardent concern for the welfare of the Commonwealth.

  4. See, for example, the background of Billy Budd's execution and Captain Vere's performance in the drumhead court, especially his appeal to Billy Budd's heart for his decision.

  5. Howe's own definition of singularity implicitly suggests a two-step process leading to a new order, in which the second step, the “Then there is a leap into something else” part, still stands in need of an expression, a difficulty yet to be overcome given the fact that “[t]he fight for language,” as I have quoted from McCaffery, “is also a fight inside language.”

  6. Invariably, the poet or the speaker identifies herself with only first person pronoun forms but never third person pronouns, suggesting that “it” (“More imagined it”) and “They” (“They do not know what a syllable is,” “They cumbered the ground” [70]) represent the antithesis. Compare “as we were told” (63), “Fathers dare not name me” (67), and “My heavy heavy child” (68).

Works Cited

Andrews, Bruce. “Poetry as Explanation, Poetry as Praxis.” The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy. Ed. Charles Bernstein. New York: Roof, 1990. 23–43.

Andrews, Bruce, and Charles Bernstein, eds. The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1984.

Barone, Dennis. “RE-VISION/IN TIME: Our Susan Howe.” Difficulties 3.2 (1989): 105–16.

Bernstein, Charles. Rough Trades. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1991.

de Lauretis, Teresa. Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Hartley, George. Textual Politics and the Language Poets. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.

Hayles, N. Katherine. “Introduction: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science.” Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science. Ed. Hayles. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991. 1–33.

Hejinian, Lyn. “If Written Is Writing.” Andrews and Bernstein 29–30.

Howe, Susan. A Bibliography of the King's Book, or, Eikon Basilike. Providence: Paradigm, [1989]. N. Pag.

———. “Defenestration of Prague.” The Europe of Trusts. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1990. 85–146.

———. “The Difficulties Interview.” The Difficulties 3.2 (1989): 17–27.

———. “Encloser.” The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy. Ed. Charles Bernstein. New York: Roof, 1990. 175–96.

———. “An Interview with Susan Howe.” With Edward Foster. Talisman: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics 4 (1990): 14–38.

———. My Emily Dickinson. Berkeley: North Atlantic, 1985.

———. “Scattering As Behavior Toward Risk.” Singularities. Hanover: Wesleyan UP-UP of New England, 1990. 61–70.

———. “Statement for the New Poetics Colloquium, Vancouver 1985.” Jimmy & Lucy's House of “K” 5 (1985): 13–17.

Lazer, Hank. “Singing into the Draft.” American Book Review Oct.-Nov. 1991: 9+.

Lewis, Joel. “Grappling Bigman: Secret History of the Dividing Line.The Difficulties 3.2 (1989): 59–62.

McCaffery, Steve. “From the Notebooks.” Andrews and Bernstein 159–62.

———. “The Scene of the Cicatrice.” North of Intention: Critical Writings 1973–1986. New York: Roof, 1986, 88–92.

———. “Sound Poetry.” Andrews and Bernstein 88–91.

Melville, Herman. Billy Budd, Foretopman. The Shorter Novels of Herman Melville. New York: Liveright, 1956.

Perloff, Marjorie. “Canon and Loaded Gun: Feminist Poetics and the Avant-Garde.” Stanford Literature Review 4 (1987): 23–46.

Quartermain, Peter. “AND THE WITHOUT: An Interpretive Essay on Susan Howe.” Difficulties 3.2 (1989): 71–83.

Rodney, Janet. “LANGUAGE AND SUSAN.” The Difficulties 3.2 (1989): 46–51.

Silliman, Ron. “Interview.” The Difficulties 2.2 (1985): 34–46.

Webster's New World Dictionary. 2nd College Ed. 1982.

Williams, William Carlos. In the American Grain: Essays. New York: New Directions, 1933.

Bin Ramke (review date Winter 1994)

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SOURCE: “‘Between Ourself and the Story’: On Susan Howe,” in Denver Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 3, Winter, 1994, pp. 89–96.

[In the following favorable review of The Birth-mark and The Nonconformist's Memorial, Ramke argues that the two books allow readers “an opportunity to read across boundaries and to allow the margins of [Howe's] own works to coincide.”]

American poetry of the past twenty or thirty years often suffered from (gloried in) a now-horrifying sentimentality. A narrowing range of vision (I lie abandoned, / abused by rain) added to an indulgence of the generalizing impulse (I am the little death / beneath your feet) became the ploddingly inexorable formal development. The lessons all came from Whitman, but few of the voices were big enough to compass such freedom. Perhaps as a kind of unconscious corrective aesthetic, the LANGUAGE poets developed poetic language into a public anti-ego; as Michael Palmer wrote in “On the Way to Language”: “little / memory jars // empty of their pickled plums.”

Meanwhile there was Susan Howe [The Birth-mark,The Nonconformist's Memorial] immersed in libraries and history and watching her own sensibility developing out of the languaged world surrounding her: articulating sound forms in time. An idea of the place of ego in her work is suggested by this comment from an interview:

It was during the time I was finishing the Dickinson book and I was so interested in captivity narratives. I wrote an essay on Mary Rowlandson, and, as I said, I found her through Dickinson, I think Rowlandson is the mother of us all. American writers, I mean. Already in 1681, the first narrative written by a white Anglo-American woman is alive with rage and contradiction. She is a prophet. She speaks for us now, in the same way that slave narratives do. She says our sin.

(Talisman Interview, with Edward Foster)

That the poet recognizes rage and contradiction does not relieve the poet of any traditional duties—the world must still be dealt with on its own terms as well on the terms of the individual consciousness/conscience. The search for an authoritative basis for the individual voice is the/a major task of the poet, and the easiest place to begin looking is usually called scripture. It is written. There is a scripture for American poets, and while Whitman is certainly a part of it, as Dickinson is part of it, it is vaster than even the multitudes these two contain.

Susan Howe's new collection of essays has as its subtitle one of the most intriguing ecological prescriptions to be suggested in quite some time: unsettling the wilderness in American literary history is no doubt attractive to Greenpeace as well as to the NAACP and NOW. From the time Cotton Mather first turned around in the car and told us to Settle Down, the definition of American has implied the deadly contest between the settled/settling and the wild/wilding. To win is to wound. Even Howe's publication history is a reflection of the American conflicts between the taming-canonical and the individualist-marginal: for instance, Howe's poetry publishers, in order of publication, move from the margins somewhat inward: Telephone Books, Tuumba Press, The Montemora Foundation, The Kulchur Foundation, Awede Press, Paradigm Press, Sun & Moon Press, Wesleyan University Press, until we reach the most recent book, from New Directions—curiously describable as an old, established avant-garde publisher.

On the acknowledgments page of The Nonconformist's Memorial we find that “Melville's Marginalia” is indebted to another “Melville's Marginalia, edited by Wilson Walker Cowen, re-edited by Stephen Orgel, published by Garland Publishing Corporation. …” And the Howe poem itself includes:

untractable in darkness un
manacled beside the capital
he s waging political babble
a context goes awry in novel
He took out American money
Question of a happy life
any asylum in moderation
Object is something erased

My point is the librarianship, the tracing of language and literacy through the margins and the media. Questioning authority (“authoritative” editions, as in Dickinson, as in Melville's Billy Budd) and re-authorizing the language of Mather, Melville, the Coleridges; exploring or obliterating the boundaries between poetry and essay, art and history; remaining meticulous in her scholarship and refusing the limitations of ego and eye in her poetry (lines of type askew, overlaid, and upside down, some unreadable), Howe has been establishing an unsettling oeuvre which refutes the very concept of finality, official order, and authorization. Poems from her previous books are reprinted in later books; poems by other poets are raided for her “own” poems (again from the acknowledgments: “Pages 125–127 in “Melville's Marginalia” are taken almost directly from John Mitchel's “James Clarence Mangan: His Life, Poetry, and Death …” [1859]).

If a writer finds herself marginalized, she finds herself restricted to the most vital and dangerous aspect of a culture and an art. Like reading tree rings, accepting the finalized, approved, authorized versions of life and art (the same event) is to ignore the thin wet line between the bark and the stiffening dead, if beautiful, fibers—the living margin of tree. Some of us have a habit of tidying the papers on our desk too often, straightening the stacks and tapping the loose sheets to make them disappear. Howe is a kind of archaeologist of the language who finds the careless gesture of loose leaves on the desk a gesture of poignance and power. This from her essay “Flames and Generosities”:

Much critical and editorial attention has been given to Dickinson's use of capitalization and the dash in her poems and letters; while motivating factors for words and phrases she often added to a “poem proper,” sometimes in the margins, sometimes between lines, but most often at the end, have aroused less interest. Since the Johnson edition was published in 1951, it has been a given of Dickinson scholarship that these words represent nothing more than suggested alternates for specific words in the text the poet had frequently marked with a cross.


Howe disagrees. Of the frustrating (to the typesetter) fragmentation of Dickinson's manuscripts, Howe says: “This space is the poet's space. Its demand is her method. … Codes are confounded and converted. ‘Authoritative readings’ confuse her nonconformity” (139).

Susan Howe is known as a “difficult” poet and as a liberating essayist. The nearly simultaneous publication of a new book of essays and a new book of poems is an opportunity to read across boundaries and to allow the margins of her own works to coincide. The issue in all her writing is, and always has been, finding a place to be, to live. In the interview reprinted in The Birth-mark Howe speaks movingly of her acquaintance with the author of American Renaissance, that landmark twentieth century work of main-stream scholarship which named “the age of Emerson and Whitman” and ignored Dickinson:

… I can't remember what Matthiessen looked like—I think I was about twelve when he killed himself. … I thought of his suicide as an irrational act from out of nowhere for no reason—it was doubly frightening that way. Recently I was looking over his book on T. S. Eliot, and it is so ordered, so gentlemanly, so polite and well-meant. At the same time it misses the passion in Eliot, and the doubt. … The doubt he left out of his studies could not so easily be repressed. Perhaps a great sadness engulfed him.

Howe herself seems to avoid the great sadness by trying for, hoping for, inclusiveness. Repression and exclusion are the dangers to be faced and feared in her poems as well as her essays. And while there is not a lot of laughter here, the seriousness often has a deft lightness (in several senses) of touch. Again from her interview:

I've recently been editing the question-from-the-audience section of a book … of lectures some of us gave for a course Charles Bernstein gave at the New School last year. Someone in the audience said, “Is anything real? I personally don't know if anything is real.” In the text, in a printed bracket, there is the word laughter. During the real event, the audience must have laughed, and I was too preoccupied at the time to notice. When I saw laughter in brackets, it made me angry. There is real suffering on this little planet. I mean we can discuss whether the Hittites believed in chronology and history before Herodotus, and in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, this month a young African-American man was murdered by a gang of Italian-American teenagers. Where did the poison of racial hatred in America begin? Will it ever end? Why are we such a violent nation? Why do we have such contempt for powerlessness? I feel compelled in my work to go back, not to the Hittites but to the invasion or settling, or whatever current practice calls it, of this place. I am trying to understand what went wrong when the first Europeans stepped on shore here. They came here for some reason, something pushed them. What pushed them? Isn't it bitterly ironic that many of them were fleeing the devastation caused by enclosure laws in Britain, and the first thing they did here was to put up fences? Racism is by no means unique to America. There are things that must never be forgotten. It's not a laughing matter.

Susan Howe is known as a “difficult” poet. One reason for this is that her poems include few instructions on how to read them. There is a simultaneity in her word and work that is daunting: one must read all literature (at least all American literature) simultaneously, including Howe's, for any of it to mean fully.

Having a great way to go
it struck at my life
how you conformed to dust
I have taken the library
Volumes might be written
ambiguous signs by name
Near nightfall it touches it
Nothing can forbear it
So fierce and so flaring
Sometimes by the seaside
all echoes link as air
Not I cannot tell what
so wanton and so all about

(Section 3, “Silence Wager Stories”)

To begin at the end, “all about”-ness is both physical and moral, the wanton issues which are inescapable, which one steps in simply by walking out the door, and the undisciplined, random echoes fierce and flaring (see Stevens': “He opens the door of his house // On flames. The scholar of one candle sees / An arctic effulgence flaring on the frame // Of everything he is. And he feels afraid.” “The Auroras of Autumn,” VI) are beyond the control of the Will to Conform. It touching it (a ceiling in the Vatican? an Age of Enlightenment experiment in static electricity?) becomes (?!) “I cannot tell what.” Which reminds one of the title of this nine-page poem. Silence,wager, and stories are three grammatically ambiguous words. These could be stories of a wager/bet involving silence. Or the Silence produces stories through a process of wagering. Or other possibilities, all invoking and privileging randomness, vocal modesty, and yet also the logical connected-ness and definition (bounding) implied by story. Of course, stories are also lies. Lies and stories told on rainy nights before the fire, domestic tranquility upheld by acts of kindness (“Memory was and will be / yet mercy flows / Mercies to me and mine / Night rainy my family / in private and family”). Five lines from the end of this poem is the line:

Half thought otherwise

which might be New Critically analyzed thusly: the middle of the line consists of the word “thought” doubled, while “half thought” is the first half of the line (which might result in a full thought) except for the irony of ending the line with “thought otherwise.” Halving and doubling the other-wisdom of such a line twice (the line is repeated as the penultimate line of the poem) results in “Loveless and sleepless the sea.” My point being merely that one can have this kind of fun with some of Howe's current poetry, and that is fun, and worthy. One can also merely (and legitimately) quote lovely fragments from the poem: “Lies are stirring storms / I listen spheres from far.” And it is, indeed, a poem about faith and family and the vastness of which “sea” has often been reflective in poetry.

But to reach “Silence Wager Stories” one should first read “The Nonconformist's Memorial,” since they are included in a larger unit, “Turning,” which uses for an epigraph Mary Shelley's statement, “The enthusiast suppresses her tears, crushes her opening thoughts, and—all is changed.” Soon we find a section of the poem in which the lines “In Peter she is nameless / headstrong anarchy thoughts / She was coming to anoint him” (a section of the gospel according to John has already appeared) have printed upside down beneath them “As if all history were a progress / A single thread of narrative / Actual world nothing ideal” read in that order if one turns the page 180 degrees. So now the previous pieties of modern poetry (the reader must become a collaborator with the poet and the poem, the reader's active involvement, etc.) are enacted—the reader has already been invited by Howe's essays to read pencil in hand, has been invited to fill in the margins (or at least decorate the margins). Now the reader is invited to re-orient the self to the page physically. But two pages later, our dauntless reader encounters lines of type running not only at 45 and 50 degree angles to the margins, but upside down and on top of other lines of the poem. But with effort, all is still legible. It is, however, difficult to be certain one is reading in the correct order; one feels a bit at sea after reading the page, a bit uncertain as to the direction one is sailing. The text settles down, a few hiccups on page 16 but one rides more or less comfortably to the end of the text, and meditates on the experience.

Isn't this mimesis once again? Hasn't the poet endorsed on us an enactment of the reading of ancient—or at least old—texts, the sort of thing, judging from both internal evidence of the poems and the declarations of her essays, she spends her days doing? Turning the books sideways and upside down, reading through the palimpsests of print and pencil, trying even to (temporarily) restore the erasures? Isn't it wonderful? (I am perversely reminded of Hollywood movie versions of scholarship—a low camera angle shot of darkly paneled library, leather-bound texts dusty, piled randomly on the reading table, and the reader wearing thick glasses. But no visual demands on the viewer, no attempt at what it feels like to read the genuine, the untamed, the non-standardized text.)

Susan Howe reminds us what it feels like to read. The newness and the ancientness of the act. Having turned reading into an act of will and intention, most of us no longer—or not often—feel the emotion of reading. Very small children often memorize the stories they hear in their parents' bed-time readings so they can then imitate the parent by sitting and holding a book—perhaps upside down—and reciting the story. We have heard the story but there is greater excitement in this kind of recreation which starts in mimesis and ends—unpredictably.

nerves are what they are
delusions of imagination
Hero of authentic poetry
I can compose my thought
an excursus on Tradition
trace of the word city
I will disremember marginalia
‘l’ for ‘i’ and ‘i’ for ‘l’
Ophelia Juliet Cordelia
Printing ruins it
It is as its edge
Faun ink splatter
all that antiquity
no name I remember

(“Melville's Marginalia”)

Judith Kitchen (review date Spring 1994)

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SOURCE: “A Mind of Winter,” in Georgia Review, Vol. 48, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 162–80.

[In the following excerpt, Kitchen offers a negative assessment of The Nonconformist's Memorial, deriding the collection as dull and “simple verbal manipulation.”]

This is language poetry [in The Nonconformist's Memorial] supposedly at its best, attempting to make its ever-earnest points that words are “things” and that meaning is elusive, subjective, retroactive. Interestingly, Howe tries to do this with many of the same tricks that Albert Goldbarth employs. He crosses out words; she not only crosses them out, she displays them upside-down, on the diagonal and the vertical, and sometimes superimposed on other words or divided and conjoined in intricate pairings. In addition, she gives us overlapping lines, shadow lines, lines that reflect themselves like the mirrored shore in a lake. New Directions must have spent a fortune to set the type. Certainly, these poems cannot be easily reproduced for a review.

Howe too uses historical event as the basis for present-day speculation. In three of her four sequences, she takes literary sources as her point of departure. The first recasts the experience of Mary Magdalene, starting with the account from the gospel of John. The second takes off from an old bibliography, and the third, “Melville's Marginalia,” plays off Melville's readings of a now fairly obscure Irish poet, James Clarence Mangan. The prosaic facts, as Howe introduces them, are fascinating; the resulting poems sink like stones. No matter what playfulness and seriousness it took to discover and blend these “intertextual” materials, I am not persuaded to undertake the work of attempting to unravel them. When I untwist the spaghetti-like strands of reference, there is “no there there.” The following example indicates the “work” the reader is expected to do:

Narcis if I h
“Forct” in copy
“h” from bough
Thissby this
hishis spirit
I th For th
If I am the N
This is an error

Of course this is out of “context”—I had to find something reproducible—and it does challenge both the eye and ear. But to what end? This is merely a complicated kind of “simple verbal manipulation.” In the end, Marjorie Perloff's agile defenses notwithstanding, all language poetry seems to sound one monotonous note. The Nonconformist's Memorial, ironically, conforms to type. Its sensibility seems so dull; it cannot take this winterbound reader anywhere.

John Taggart (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: “Play and the Poetry of Susan Howe,” in Songs of Degrees: Essays on Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, University of Alabama Press, 1994, pp. 114–22.

[In the following essay, Taggart discusses the importance of language play in Pythagorean Silence.]

Play, first and last, is the sovereign principle of composition and the source of all our closest attention to poetry. Lacking the significant play of language, poetry becomes a stale consideration of style and attitude, something merely to be studied by means of chronology and paraphrase for some vaguely defined cultural benefit. Lacking significant play, poetry becomes merely the dim reflection of such study. It is the quality of play, its range and depth, which determines the quality of the poetry. For play, in being most truly representative of the dynamic nature of language, is also most truly representative of the human.

The poetry of Susan Howe's Pythagorean Silence is exceptional for its forthright recognition of play. As she writes in a poem which serves as the preface to her book:

                                                            we that were wood
                              when that a wide wood was
In a physical Universe playing with
Bark be my limbs my hair be leaf
Bride be my bow my lyre my quiver

Unlike the turn-of-the-century symbolist writers or their descendants among the so-called language poets of the present, Susan Howe situates herself in this world, a world known and experienced through the senses, where she will proceed to play with words, known and experienced rather differently, as the essential act of the poet. Her poetry, then, will be neither a slavish reporting of sensation nor an exercise in solipsism. In Stevens' terms, there will be a jar in the process of being formed (or its form being apprehended), but it will not be forgotten that it takes place in Tennessee. If only as a resistance, a kind of gravity, the place may make a contribution to the process of the play. The physical universe will be given a role.

The preface poem indicates what kinds of play we can expect to find. They are: (1) various arrangements of words on the page, typography and spacing, to suggest alterations of voicing and meaning; (2) vocabulary shifts which suggest similar alterations; (3) related to both 1 and 2, assumption of dramatic or rhetorical roles; (4) sound devices such as deliberately heavy alliteration and rhyme, particularly as they occur in riddles and children's games; (5) wit, punning, the interplay of concepts. And although the last two lines of the preface poem only sound as if they were from Wyatt or Sidney translating Sappho; we will also find allusion and quotation.

None of these is new. What is new and valuable in Susan Howe's poetry is the direct declaration of play as the center of the poem and her ability to concentrate all of its means and intensities into the poem's ongoing composition. Her poetry gives pleasure in its play and produces meaning of human significance.

Pythagorean Silence consists of three sections. The first of the three, “Pearl Harbor,” develops around the poet's memory of a childhood visit with her father to the zoo in Buffalo, New York, on the December day that Pearl Harbor was bombed. The section is a meditation or brooding on this experience and on elements that, outside the immediate circumstance, she brings to bear through association. On the section's opening page, for example, a character (SHE) whispers that Herod had all the little baby children murdered. This leads to Rachel weeping for her children and, on the next page, to an extended awareness arrived at through Rachel.

(her cry
of names

This not-to-be-predicted awareness—that language is a fundamentally human vehicle for human needs, not a crude software inventory system—is achieved out of, ultimately almost outside of, the poet's original experience. Thus she is not reduced to the embarrassment that purely personal writing, the confessional, has become in our time, whatever its emotional extremity or traditional technical expertise.

As a meditation on personal experience, the section does not follow the contour of theme and variation. A meditation of this sort, like Hamlet's soliloquizing, is a continual search for theme. Its formal construction also rules out such development. Each page of the section contains a separate poem. The page is the organizing unit or frame for Susan Howe's poetry. In this first section, as in the last, each poem is composed in relation to the available space of a single page. Her meditation is literally acted out. Her own speaker voice is always present but can be displaced by other voices. There are no transitions. What keeps the sequence of page-to-page and scene-to-scene juxtaposition from seeming utterly arbitrary, untransformed cut-up, is the constant presence of her speaker voice and a sharing of terms and roles which recur, never exactly the same, throughout the section. The snow in which one is told to lie down on page 10 is and is not the same snow in which the HE and SHE characters meet on the first page. Like Noh drama, the essentially static motion of juxtaposition encourages the growth of increasingly refined play of all kinds within the space of each page unit. The static motion emphasizes the sense of boundaries. Without boundaries there can be little play.

The difficulties of such writing are considerable. Above all, the poet must stay true to the ongoing, even restless, nature of her meditation, and she must still find a way for her playing with words to matter beyond the relative skill of its own incidental activity. The child may only desire that play, any play, will never end. The adult reader has to ask for something more. In turn, the poet has the right to ask that reader to play along with the play of the poem with more than simply a willing suspension of disbelief.

With these difficulties in mind, it's of interest to consider the final page of this section. It begins with shadows seated at a kitchen table. They have been made shadows by a black cloud of war hanging over the landscape generally and by the shadow of a clock in the kitchen. The clock on this and previous pages suggests a countdown for approaching doom as the unavoidable end of war. The cause of war, here mentioned directly for the first time, is “the fist of fame.” War has turned homes into fortresses. When their doors are opened, couples “buried in epochs of armor” exhibit themselves as having failed to prolong human life.

With language reminiscent of Ophelia, the poet informs us that the words of the couples are “weeds wrapped around my head.” A withering of roses and the approach of darkness follow. There is a sense of things coming to an end as Ophelia came to her end. The words of the couples threaten to drag the poet down or to keep her life in a condition of drowning because they were used, per Rachel, in a fundamentally wrong way. They were used as things, armor, to protect the fame-craving self and actually to wage war. The words of the couples also threaten the poet purely as a long litany of defeat, a long-standing reminder of the failure to overcome war.

The poet does not portray herself as undergoing death, but she does conclude the section with a “dying” question: “Body and Soul / will we ever leave childhood together?” Properly, the question can have no final answer. This is not an evasion of responsibility. Remaining true to the principle of play, Susan Howe presents us with a question which has a large seriousness, is dramatically satisfying in its very largeness, and which must go on echoing in her readers' heads. The tension in the question is as moving as the poet's balancing of antagonistic demands is impressively accomplished.

There are seventeen numbered parts in the second section. As if to demonstrate an independence from the single-page format of “Pearl Harbor,” most of these are over a page long. More important, the poet seems to have discovered her own voice, her given breadth of cadence. The earlier character voices of the scenes are now replaced by a single speaker voice with a regular line-length and stanza pattern. The line tends to be a long phrase that doesn't quite become a complete sentence. The stanza is made up of one long phrasal line and another half its length. The voice is varied by parenthesis, spacing within the line, single lines—sometimes of one word only—set between the regular two-line stanzas. We hear a definite voice range, within which there is full articulation (play). There can't be as many quick-change surprises as before, but there can be more power.

Further, there is more power because the poet has found a home key (not a theme) in the figure of Pythagoras. Clothed in white and so associated with the snow and ice landscape of the opening section, he is an expression of play at its deepest level, wonder and mystery. To think about Pythagoras is to attempt to deal with “odds of images,” a handful of fragmentary attributions—golden thigh, theorem of geometry, mathematical relationships of the musical intervals, dietary stipulations, cult leader—which force the mind into play. Pythagoras grounds Susan Howe's play as an extension of her “Pearl Harbor” experience in the physical universe, a ground which while itself mysterious, encourages her voice to increasingly powerful play, wider and deeper because of even more definite boundaries, without turning her into the expositor of a single theme or the reteller of recostumed historical fiction.

Part no. 10, for instance, begins with reference to music and connects it with the idea of the dead couples isolated in their armor and fortresses.

Each sequent separate musician
a passion)
across a deep divided deprivation
(enchantment captivity
a paradise-prison)
seems to hear a voice walking in the
who seems to say
I am master of myself and of the

The idea is of separation, a loss of language as an exchange of interiors. The couples tried to protect the self and at the same time to aggrandize its claims. The musicians, whom I read as any artist or maker, are no better, whatever the possibility for a concord of their passions.

Each musician is situated in a deep divided deprivation as the effect of his or her art, which in its desire for enchantment promotes the twisted mishearing in the Genesis garden. Adam becomes his own lord and master of the universe. Each Adamic musician hears what the ego-driven self wants to hear, and there is no conversation. This is a private version of the war of the “engaged” couples. The end effect—isolation—is the same because, as stated earlier in the first section, rapture is always connected with rupture. Or, as in the preceding no. 9 of the second section, the musician is “rapt away to darkness.” Rapture of the private self is no better than more public war (insightfully defined in this section as “mechanical necessitarianism”). Both must end in darkness.

The poet moves from the Pythagorean motif of music to reflection on the seemingly inescapable dark isolation in which even art, insofar as it's eager for enchantment, imprisons the supposedly unwarlike maker. This becomes a reflection on the nature of language.

Ever tolling absence homeward Words
toil their way forward
a true world
fictively constructed

These stanzas recall Heidegger's discussion of Trakl's “A Winter Evening” poem in his “Language” essay. It may be that Susan Howe was drawn to it by the similarity of many of the details in her poem and Trakl's (from the first stanza of “A Winter Evening”: “Window with falling snow is arrayed, / Long tolls the vesper bell, / The house is provided well”).

In that essay, language is found to be neither expression nor even an activity of man. Rather, as Heidegger never tires of reiterating, language speaks as a kind of thing in itself. And its speaking involves naming. This naming is a calling rather than a handing out of titles or terms of classification. The naming calls and brings closer what it calls. “But the call does not wrest what it calls away from the remoteness in which it is kept by the calling there.” The calling of language calls here into presence and there into absence. What is called is present in the language of the poem, though not necessarily in the reader's living room. The poem, as a formalization of the calling, provides a place of arrival for the two.

In Heidegger's summary: “the snowfall brings men under the sky that is darkening into night. The tolling of the evening bell brings them, as mortals, before the divine. House and table join mortals to the earth.” All of these are gathered together by naming. The things called are given their existence as things in the language of the poem, and in their gathering we are given a world. We are given a home in the world by the speaking of language in the poem.

In Pythagorean Silence, Trakl's details are adopted, and portions of the vocabulary of Heidegger's understanding of language are taken over (played with). The absence Howe's words toll is a house as shelter or home, a sense of being at home in the world. The words are forever tolling in order for there to be a home. It is just this which, because of their mistaking names for things, the armored couples and separate musicians so conspicuously lack. The poet's words call forth absence, and out of the calling together of both presence and absence—Heidegger's mortals and the divine, Stevens's nothing that's not there and the nothing that is—a “true world” is constructed. It is true because it contains the physical universe and the realm of Pythagoras. In this realm, to collect at random from throughout all the second section of the poem, are the soul, Lucifer, theology's secret book, secrets and secrecy in general, dreams, King Arthur in the grey dawn, the Castle Perilous.

The realm of Pythagoras is made up of all such things or personages, actually spirits, who would not exist had they not been named by words in the calling of language (motivated by human need); it is the realm of words only. The construction of this true world is fictive because it has existence only within the poem. Thus there occurs, just before the quoted toiling and true world stanzas, the following: “Those passages as myth in Myth / remain a fiction.” Finally, at the close of part no. 10 we're told that perspectives perish with ourselves: “end of a house stretching its walls / away.” When we through whom language speaks depart, the true world of the poem, physical universe plus myth and fiction, must likewise depart. The image, returning to and transforming Trakl's house, is strange and affecting. There can be no more play when the bounding walls, lines of perspective, of the house of language have stretched away.

Let the one part stand for the whole of the second section. For while there is constant and frequently startling play (“ideas gems games dodges”) in all the parts, no. 10 fairly indicates the direction of Susan Howe's unresting meditation. Prosed, it goes something like this. We live properly in the true world in which we are given a home with its promise of shelter and family by the selfless speaking of language in the poem. In the interests of self-protection and “property” along with private rapture, however, we attempt to use and so necessarily misspeak language. The consequence, on all levels, is war. Perhaps because of this there is a certain sorrow always at the edge of all this poet's gaiety of language. She seems to share Hölderlin's sense that we live in a destitute time, a time when the evening of the world's age is declining toward its final night.

The serious question lurking everywhere in this poem is, how, having been dispossessed of our proper home by never-ceasing war, are we to go on living? But there is no answer. What is left the poet with “Poverty my mother and Possession / my father” is the wandering of a blind wisdom; Gloucester has no way and therefore wants no eyes (or whys). Wandering is a joyless, straited sort of play, but it is not playing the fool to sorrow.

Blind wisdom, though, is made feminine in the conclusion of this section: “We hear her walking in her room.” The poet's voice contains and speaks through many other voices in this poem while remaining recognizably female. Therefore, it is the figure of Ophelia, not Gloucester, which we found at the close of the first section and which is returned to in the third and final section of the poem. In fourteen parts of a single page each and without a title, this third section reviews and comments on the “progress” of the poet's “elegiac Meditation,” her movement “in solitary symbols through shadowy / surmises.”

The problem is how to bring the play to an end. By its nature play does demand an ending, but an ending that doesn't traduce the poet's playing with words into sententious summary, nonplay. Susan Howe more than solves the problem by recapitulating and even further accelerating the play of her poem by throwing words—those which either already appeared in the sections or which share some association with them—out of their previous arrangements into new grids or patterns in which each word is suddenly atomic and free.

timid          satyr          vesper          winnow
          snow          chastity          berry-blood (secrecy)
rosemary          poplar          holm-oak          juniper
holly          casket          cud

She arrives at this solution by remaining true to play as principle. That is, she puts the words on wheels—wheel of fortune and centrifuge—as the end of a chain of association that began with

Spinners and spinsters
riddles engulf
cobwebs mimic rings in rain

The effect is one of saturation, space filled, the stacking up and spewing out of shredded finales in a symphony.

If there's triumph, there is also sorrow. The quoted grid reminds us of Ophelia's mad singing of herbs and flowers. It is to Ophelia that the poem's last line refers: “weeds shiver and my clothes spread wide.” The poet's figure, her chosen voice to speak through, is Ophelia's. In my fascination with the never-failing skill of play in this poem, I have perhaps not sufficiently emphasized its darkness. From the first section to the end, we encounter a world not unlike that of Shostakovich's late quartets, a world declining toward its enduring night. For all the fireworks of her playing with words, Susan Howe's vision is of a world in which men and women have been made shadows by their own inability to let things be and so live out from under the black cloud of war. The world of Pythagorean Silence is both true and terrible.

I have written that the adult reader has to ask for something more than the sheer maintenance of play, however skillful in itself. Susan Howe's vision is that something. In Pythagorean Silence she has written a poem of rare power, both brilliant and dark. She has played with words for keeps. We cannot ask for more.

Works Cited

Some versions of the cited titles have been superseded by later or more inclusive editions. When only one such “reversion” has taken place, both titles will be given in one entry. When more than one has taken place, for example, a “collected works,” the most current/inclusive edition will be given first, followed by individual entries for earlier titles. Only those earlier titles are cited that were used in the writing of the essays.

Ahearn, Barry, ed. Pound/Zukofsky: Selected Letters of Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky. New York: New Directions, 1987.

Andrews, Bruce. Film Noir. Providence: Burning Deck, 1978. Reprinted as part of Getting Ready to Have Been Frightened. New York: Roof Books, 1988.

Aquinas, Thomas. Commentary on the Nicomachian Ethics. 2 vols. Trans. C. I. Litzinger. Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1961.

Aristotle. The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House, 1941.

Ashbery, John, and Elliott Carter. Syringa. CRI SD, 469q, 1982.

Booth, Marcella. “The Zukofsky Papers: The Cadence of a Life.” In Louis Zukofsky: Man and Poet, ed. Carroll F. Terrell. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1979.

Bronk, William. The Empty Hands. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Elizabeth Press, 1969.

———. Finding Losses. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Elizabeth Press, 1976.

———. Life Supports: New and Collected Poems. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1982.

———. Light and Dark. Ashland, Mass.: Origin Press, 1956. An unrevised second edition of this volume was published by the Elizabeth Press in 1975.

———. The Meantime. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Elizabeth Press, 1976.

———. My Father Photographed with Friends and Other Pictures. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Elizabeth Press, 1976.

———. Silence and Metaphor. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Elizabeth Press, 1975.

———. That Tantalus. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Elizabeth Press, 1971.

———. To Praise the Music. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Elizabeth Press, 1972.

———. The World, The Worldless. New York: New Directions, 1964.

Buber, Martin. Ten Rungs: Hasidic Sayings. New York: Shocken Books, 1978.

Canetti, Elias. The Conscience of Words. Trans. Joachim Neugroschel. New York: Seabury Press, 1979.

Celan, Paul. “Conversation in the Mountains.” In Collected Prose. Trans. Rosmarie Waldrop. Manchester, Eng.: Carcanet, 1986.

———. “The Meridian.” Trans. Jerry Glen. Chicago Review 29, No. 3 (1978).

Coleman, Ornette. The Shape of Jazz to Come. Atlantic 1317, n.d.

Coltrane, John. Crescent. Impulse Stereo, A-66, 1964.

Copland, Aaron. Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson. Adele Addison, soprano, with piano accompaniment by the composer. CBS Masterworks 32 11 0018, 1967.

Cox, Kenneth. “The Poetry of Louis Zukofsky: ‘A.’Agenda, double issue: Vol. 9, No. 4, and Vol. 10, No. 1 (1971–72).

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Susan Howe with Lynn Keller (interview date Spring 1995)

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SOURCE: “An Interview with Susan Howe,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 36, No. 1, Spring, 1995, pp. 1–35.

[In the following excerpt, Howe discusses the stylistic and thematic aspects of her poetry and essays, particularly the layout of her poems.]

Born in 1937, the daughter of an Irish actress and a Harvard scholar of American history, Susan Howe did not begin writing poetry until relatively late—having first explored possible careers in the theater and, more extensively, in the visual arts. Her earliest poems were published by small presses in the mid 1970s. In the 1980s, a number of Howe's poems that have since been collected in larger editions with wider circulation—such as The Liberties (1980), Pythagorean Silence (1982), Articulation of Sound Forms in Time (1987)—continued to appear as small-press books, while several anthologies of Language poetry showcased her work. In 1985 Howe's first book of literary criticism, My Emily Dickinson (North Atlantic Books), appeared. Her growing reputation was both acknowledged and furthered in 1990 by Wesleyan University Press's publication of Singularities and by Sun & Moon's collection of some of her best earlier work in The Europe of Trusts. In 1993 New Directions published a book of new poems, The Nonconformist's Memorial, and Wesleyan a collection of critical essays, The Birth-mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History.

“Is a poetics of intervening absence an oxymoron?” Susan Howe muses in her recent essay “Submarginalia” (Birth-mark 27). The phrase “a poetics of intervening absence” seems an apt description of Howe's own project: her writing embodies absence in its elliptical and disjunctive character, and in its dramatic use of space on the page. Absence is a thematic preoccupation as well, particularly in Howe's concern with voices that have been silenced, figures who have been erased. While sometimes mimetic, the absences of her poetry are also interventions. Given that “Language surrounds Chaos” (Europe 13), Howe's painstakingly arranged words and spaces give definition and even voice to what might otherwise have remained unapprehensible, incoherent, lost. Paradoxically, then—or oxymoronically—her poetry provides eloquent testament though it is filled with silences. It sings in subtle harmonies while it confronts the violence and the repressions of history, as the following (atypically straightforward) sample suggests:

age of earth and us all chattering
a sentence          or character
steps out to seek for truth          fails
into a stream of ink          Sequence
trails off
must go on waving fables and faces          War
doings of the war

(from “Pythagorean Silence,” Europe of Trusts36)

Howe combines in her writing, as in her genealogy, an (Irish) love of the word's rich music, its mystery and magic, its wealth of allusive and personal association, with a (New England intellectual's) passion for documentation, fascination with tradition, and quest for truth.

“History,” Howe reminds us, “is the record of the winners.” Her desire is to bring to light other stories, to “tenderly lift from the dark side of history, voices that are anonymous, slighted—inarticulate.” Thus her critical essays (like some of her poems) place in new perspective figures who have been marginalized as eccentric, wild, liminal, such as Anne Hutchinson and Mary Rowlandson. They are iconoclastic studies in the tradition of such poet's criticism as William Carlos Williams's In the American Grain, Charles Olson's Call Me Ishmael, D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature.My Emily Dickinson counters received readings of Dickinson as the isolated, utterly idiosyncratic, provincial madwoman by revealing the intertextual dimensions of her poetry, placing it firmly within the literary culture of her era. The Dickinson who emerges is—like Howe herself—a radically innovative writer, but one richly responsive to America's literary traditions. Howe, who labels herself a voracious “library cormorant,” uses the scholar's tools with reverence, but she deliberately resists the restrictions of academic paradigms. The results—as her work on Dickinson has demonstrated—can be revelatory for more conventional scholars. It will be interesting to see whether others pursue her recent identification in “Melville's Marginalia” of Irish nationalist poet Clarence Mangan as the model for Melville's Bartleby.

Although family connections have kept her close to academia throughout most of her life—her companion of twenty-seven years, David von Schlegell, directed the sculpture program at Yale—Howe herself did not begin university teaching until 1988. She is now a professor of English at SUNY-Buffalo. Since her husband's death in the fall of 1992, much of her teaching has been at other institutions. Based at the University of Denver where she was a visiting poet in 1993–94, Howe made presentations at universities across the country. For two packed weeks, she was a Visiting Brittingham Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A woman of great charm, she dazzled us with her personal and intellectual energy. She met in informal seminars with graduate students, discussing the American antinomian tradition; attended meetings of an undergraduate class studying Pythagorean Silence; presented a slide lecture on Dickinson's fascicles; and gave a poetry reading. These events are alluded to in the following interview, conducted near the end of her visit, on March 24, 1994.

[Keller:] I'd like to begin by talking about the visual dimensions of your poetry. You were once a painter. Can you tell me about the kind of painting or visual art that you used to do, and the relationship you see between that work and the kind of poetry you write?

[Howe:] I graduated in 1961 from the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts, where I majored in painting. I used quotation in my painting in the same way that I use quotation in my writing, in that I always seemed to use collage; sometimes I made a copy in the painting of some part of another painting, another form of quotation. Collage is also a way of mixing disciplines. Those were the early days of pop art, when it was common practice among artists to move around from one medium to another—it was a very exciting time. I moved to New York in 1964. Then I began living with a sculptor, David von Schlegell. He was involved with the group around the Park Place Gallery, which I think Paula Cooper was running at the time. There was lots of really interesting sculpture during those days and lots of interesting writing about the work in Art Forum magazine. Barbara Rose had written some really good pieces on Ad Reinhardt, there was Reinhardt's own writing, Don Judd and Robert Smithson were busily producing manifestos. Richard Serra, Joan Jonas, Don Judd, Eva Hesse, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Morris, Carl Andre, John Cage, Agnes Martin … the work of these artists influenced what I was doing. There was the most extraordinary energy and willingness to experiment during the sixties. Painters, sculptors, dancers, filmmakers, musicians, conceptual artists were all working together and crossing genre boundaries, sometimes with appalling results, more often wacky and wonderful events. I remember a show Agnes Martin had at the Greene Gallery—small minimalist paintings, but each one had a title; it fascinated me how the title affected my reading of the lines and colors. I guess to me they were poems even then. Eva Hesse's show at the Greene was also an inspiration, it was so eccentric. Daring and delicate at once.

David's work was very important to me as well, though he wasn't verbal and he didn't write about what he was doing and he was shy. This put him at a disadvantage in those very wordy times. He was an extraordinary builder. In those days his medium was aluminum and wood. He constructed his own pieces, thus going against the grain of prevailing minimalist dogma, though his sensibility was minimalist. Now I can see minimalist art of the sixties and seventies as an American movement rooted in Puritanism. I was inspired by the craft and the poetry of space in David's work, by how the two things were inseparable. He was very influenced by boat design—New England has produced some wonderful yacht designers, and David grew up on the Maine coast. He and the sculptor Robert Grosvenor were obsessed by boats; they were always going off to boat shows and discussing which boats they would buy if they could. Bob liked old military engineering manuals, and so did I. David had been a pilot in World War II; shortly before that he worked at Douglas aircraft. All of us would search out books with photographs of Herreshoff boats, or ones with pictures of early submarines. I guess it was about that time I began to connect writing and drawing in my mind. This is important because if a boat sails fast it usually looks beautiful. As if the eye has some perfect knowledge that is feeling. Some enduring value, some purpose is reflected in the material you use. The mysterious link between beauty and utility is, for me, similar to the tie between poetry and historical documents; although it would take me years to explain what the connection actually is, I know it's there. Or rather than explain it, I show it in my writing. David understood the connection by instinct—you see it in his work, and you saw it when he looked at boats.

Anyway, I began to make books—artists' books are different from poets' books. These books I made were not books of poetry or prose; they were objects. I would get a sketchbook and inside I would juxtapose a picture with a list of words under it. The words were usually lists of names. Often names of birds, of flowers, of weather patterns, but I relied on some flash association between the words and the picture or charts I used. Later I did a series of watercolors with penciled lines, watercolor washes, and pictures and words—I always left a lot of white space on the page. Around that time (1968 or '69), through my sister Fanny, I became acquainted with Charles Olson's writing. What interested me in both Olson and Robert Smithson was their interest in archaeology and mapping. Space North American space—how it's connected to memory, war, and history. I suppose that's the point at which it began to dawn on me that I needed to do more than just list words. I was scared to begin writing sentences. I'm not sure why. But it just gradually happened that I was more interested in the problems of those words on the page than in the photographs I used or the watercolor washes.

We left New York City and moved to Connecticut in 1972 because David had a teaching job at the Yale School of Art and we had two small children, so to commute seemed impossible at the time. We found this place, Guilford, right on Long Island Sound, that reminded David of Maine. So we settled there. For a couple of years I kept a space in part of Marcia Hafif's loft on Crosby Street and went down one or two days a week to work there. Before we moved out of New York I had started making environments—rooms that you could walk into and be surrounded by walls, and on those walls would be collage, using found photographs (again a kind of quotation). Then I started using words with that work. I was at the point where I was only putting words on the walls and I had surrounded myself with words that were really composed lines when a friend, the poet Ted Greenwald, came by to look at what I was doing and said to me: “Actually you have a book on the wall. Why don't you just put it into a book?”

At the time, Marcia, whose work I have always admired, was filling small sketch books with repetitive pencil strokes. She would start one at the top left corner, page 1 and continue until the end, so there were no actual words but the page was filled the way it might be in a printed book. Generally each book was filled with a different kind of stroke or mark. For some reason her books set me off, and I started in a different way with the standard four-by-six-inch (Classic Sketch Book is the brand name). As the pages are blank and the cover blank (black), there is no up or down, backwards or forwards. You impose a direction by beginning. But where Marcia was using gestural marks, I used words. It was another way of making word lists but now in a horizontal rather than vertical direction, so there was a wall of words. In this weird way I moved into writing physically because this was concerned with gesture, the mark of the hand and the pen or pencil, the connection between eye and hand. One reason I like the drawings of Joseph Beuys so much is that it seems to me he is doing both things at once. There is another, more unconscious element here, of course: the mark as an acoustic signal or charge. I think you go one way or another—towards drawing or towards having words sound the meaning. Somehow I went the second way and began writing. Ever since, I have used these little black books as a beginning for any poems I work on. Though my work has changed a lot, those books the poems begin to form in have not. I've never really lost the sense that words, even single letters, are images. The look of a word is part of its meaning—the meaning that escapes dictionary definition, or rather doesn't escape but is bound up with it. Just as a sailboat needs wind and water.

Do you still do painting or other visual art?

No. I can't believe I stopped, because I really worked very hard at it, and I was all caught up in color. I loved using color. But I just completely stopped.

Your interview in the issue of the The Difficulties devoted to your work, conducted by Janet Ruth Falon, ends with your statement that if you had to paint your writing, “It would be blank. It would be a white canvas. White.” I wondered if you could explain what you meant to suggest with that wonderfully evocative remark.

Well, that statement springs from my love for minimalist painting and sculpture. Going all the way back to Malevich writing on suprematism. Then to Ad Reinhardt's writing about art and to his painting. To the work of Agnes Martin, of Robert Ryman, of Marcia Hafif, and then to a particular group of David's wooden sculptures and to his late paintings. I can't express how important Agnes Martin was to me at the point when I was shifting from painting to poetry. The combination in Martin's work, say, of being spare and infinitely suggestive at the same time characterizes the art I respond to. And in poetry I am concerned with the space of the page apart from the words on it. I would say that the most beautiful thing of all is a page before the word interrupts it. A Robert Ryman white painting is there. Or one of David's late paintings. It's like the sky, because—though the sky has color and white isn't the absence of color, anyway—it's clear.

Infinitely open.

Infinitely open and anything possible. Malevich writes, “Under suprematism I understood the supremacy of pure feeling in creative art.” These days the word “supreme” is a bad one, but I don't care—I was born in another time. purposelessness.

Let's talk about some of your pages that do have marks on them. In poems where lines appear on angles and sometimes cross over each other, almost obliterating some of the words—for instance in the “Eikon Basilike”—what are you thinking about as you arrange those lines? What determines their position and orientation? Are you thinking about the overall design of the page? Is it the meaning of each line that determines its position? Are you thinking about where words intersect?

In the “Eikon Basilike,” the sections that are all vertically jagged are based around the violence of the execution of Charles I, the violence of history, the violence of that particular event, and also then the stage drama of it. It was a trial, but the scene of his execution was also a performance; he acted his own death. There's no way to express that in just words in ordinary fashion on the page. So I would try to match that chaos and violence visually with words. But a lot of what determines the arrangement is subconscious, in that I would start with the lines I wanted to use (which might change somewhat) and I would just arrange them on the page until they satisfied me.

How? Would you cut out lines?

First I would type some lines. Then cut them apart. Paste one on top of another, move them around until they looked right. Then I'd xerox that version, getting several copies, and then cut and paste again until I had it right. The getting it right has to do with how it's structured on the page as well as how it sounds—this is the meaning. I suppose the real answer to your question “Did you stop doing any visual art?” is “No.” I'm still doing it, but I'm doing it on pages with words.

I want to ask you about some specific examples, a couple of pages very near the beginning of The Nonconformist's Memorial. On pages 6 and 7 you have a near mirroring of text. Then on the following pages you move into something much more disruptive. I wonder if you could talk about where the impulse for the mirroring and for this movement came from.

The mirroring impulse in my work goes way back. It's there in my first book Hinge Picture and in Secret History of the Dividing Line, then in “Thorow,” even in Articulation of Sound Forms in Time. I was very interested in Duchamp's Large Glass and the book that went with it, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even Duchamp was an inspiration to me when I was beginning to shift from painting to writing. At first when I used mirroring in my writing I was very sedate about it, and it involved repetition in a more structured way. But with “Thorow” I had done one scattered page and made a xerox copy and suddenly there were two lying on my desk beside each other, and it seemed to me the scattering effect was stronger if I repeated them so the image would travel across facing pages. The facing pages reflected and strengthened each other.

So mirroring reinforces the power of the visual design.

Yes, and those places in “Thorow” were where I first consciously felt this power. As for those pages in The Nonconformist's Memorial, well, this is about Mary in the Gospel of John. On page 6 first comes “In Peter she is nameless,” and then “headstrong anarchy thoughts.” The reversed line in between—“Actual world nothing ideal”—would be an interruption to the narrative that you're trying to start. Then the third line that's right-side up—“She was coming to anoint him”—that was what was happening, but the reversed text on either side was a kind of break-in, some other thought going in some other direction. It also conveys her erasure. I'm trying to illustrate what I'm saying by putting this part upside down: “Actual world nothing ideal / A single thread of narrative / As if all history were a progress,” though you'd read those three lines in the reverse order. The order I have in mind goes through the three lines that are right-side up and then follows the order of the other three lines if you turn the book upside down: “In Peter she is nameless, / headstrong anarchy thoughts / She was coming to anoint him / As if all history were a progress / A single thread of narrative / Actual world nothing ideal.” But you could read with the reversed lines interpolated between the ones that are right-side up: “In Peter she is nameless / Actual world nothing ideal / head-strong anarchy thoughts” et cetera. I was trying to illustrate the process of her interruption and erasure, and that she's continuing through these narratives. Then page 7 picks up “As if all history were a progress” and the same lines appear, reversed. The added lines, “The nets were not torn // The Gospel did not grasp,” continue with the idea “As if all history were a progress. …” It's important that these last lines go in the same direction as the lines about history. They are linked in the process of what happens. when it becomes gospel, when it is written, grasps (this is all vaguely sexual, but then think about all the meanings of the word “conception”). Mary, the disciple, the first one who witnesses the resurrection, the one whose story we go by, gets dropped away almost at once. If I read the poem aloud I whisper all the upside-down words, and that way they sound like another voice—the hissing return of the repressed.

As for page 8—what I was really interested in here was that word “command” and the repetition of that word: “Whether the words be a command / words be a command issuing from authority or council.” So I particularly wanted to stumble around that issue of commanding. Here the phrase “his hiding is understood” is partially overwritten, almost lost. I was reading the history of the authorship of the Gospel of John, which is absolutely unknown. You can't find any author; so “his hiding.” Then it's important that the word “testimony” is in italics and upside down, because it's a little trace: what we might have would be testimony. Here at the bottom is the attempt to say “What am I?”—but that's “suddenly unperceivable time from place to place”; the half-hidden phrase “What am I?” represents identity trying to come out of all this violence of knowledge.

Where “am” and “time” overlap, are you thinking about the sound similarity, or is there a meaning connection?

It's a meaning connection. But then I love that it got so scumbled here that you could hardly read it. Here, on the facing page, “Testimony” is right-side up, and for some reason that worked absolutely perfectly. With that “Testimony” is “The soul's ascension,” going up. I would read the vertical lines, “Where he says He / Upon the Cherubim / Baffled consuming doggerel,” in that order, but I'd first read the lines that go across the page horizontally. Actually, I've never read it aloud, so I haven't plotted out exactly how I'd read it.

In your composition, then, it didn't have an order in your head?

Well, the order of most of the poem was extremely important, and I worked and worked and worked on it—the part with the “Gardener.” That's absolutely fixed. But I would have to determine how I would read the sections I worked on by cutting and pasting. The way they look profoundly affects the reading, for me, anyway. I can't speak for anyone else.

I noticed that when you read here, you didn't use the published book. You used your own typescript, which you've marked up as a script for reading. It fascinates me that your reading is so dramatic, in that you use many different voices and paces, and that these are not necessarily scripted on the published page. Are those voices in your ear as you're composing?

Well, in spite of all my talk about the way the page looks, and particularly in regard to these pages constructed as if they were a sort of drawing, strangely the strongest element I feel when I am writing something is acoustic. For example the pages in Eikon and in Nonconformist's Memorial we have been talking about are in my head as theater. I hear them one particular way. I think that comes from my childhood and very directly from my mother. Even now, when she's eighty-nine years old, the theater is her greatest passion. She was always fascinated by voice, by accents, and she very early passed on to me that feeling for the beauty of the spoken word. Then, too, of how people moved on the stage, of how you blocked out a scene if you were directing it. Sometimes I think what I'm doing on the page is moving people around on stage.

I've been thinking a lot about voice now because of an essay I have been writing on the work of French documentary filmmaker Chris Marker. Marker is so interesting, he leads you into all sorts of places; while I was trying to discuss his use of sound effects I somehow wandered over into Olivier's movie of Hamlet and theater as opposed to cinema, and I realized that I am a product of radio days. My childhood imagination was shaped by listening to The Lone Ranger,The Shadow,Grand Central Station, and then to records of actors like Olivier—not VCRs, not just music as on FM radio now, but drama, news, all popular culture. We talk a lot about the shift from cinema to television and from silent movies to talking pictures but less about the shift from radio to television. In the days of radio you connected people with their voices, not their looks. It didn't matter what they looked like—you could imagine that by simply listening.

Who knows, maybe that's why Freud's patients lay on couches rather than sitting across from him. Because he didn't have to look at them nor they at him. They followed each other's voices and silences. And perhaps Lacan's emphasis on looking is part of his appeal to this younger generation. …

When you move from publishing fine small-press editions of your poems to more mass-market editions you lose, not this arrangement on the page, but certainly a lot of the space on the page. And more than that: I noticed, for instance, that when “The Liberties” was transferred from Defenestration of Prague to Europe of Trusts, the page that has “crossing the ninth wave” on it was omitted.

You know why? Because I had to cut. I was allowed fewer pages. That was David's drawing, too; I loved that. If I could ever get that book done again, I would want it back. I love that drawing. It's part of the poem.

So when they said to you, “Look, we only have this many pages; you have to cut,” you said. “Well. This doesn't have words on it, so I guess it'll go”?

Well, technically that illustration was not part of the writing. We couldn't find the original and that was a problem too.

When it came to Wesleyan and Singularities, they were adamant about numbers of pages. I had a lot of trouble with spacing, et cetera. They treated me at first as if I came from outer space because I worked in series and didn't have a title for each poem on a page. For “Thorow” I sacrificed three quotations concerning his name. They were amusing and interesting and helped to explain my title, but technically they weren't part of the poem, so when I simply had to cut something I cut them, and it was a mistake. Whenever I read the poem I put them back.

Is there a chapbook version that has them?


So someday you would hope to reprint it differently.

Yes. And I wish I could reprint the drawing of the ninth wave. When I first set up The Liberties I was working with Maureen Owen, who edited Telephone Books. Maureen was wonderful to work with because she was open to any adventure. I showed her what I wanted and then we worked it out, though it was a mimeo edition and she had almost no money and naturally ran into trouble getting small-press grants. She has daring and vision, and Telephone Books, the magazine and the press, is where many people got into print for the first time. Of course, it stopped being funded, as is the case with so many interesting small-press magazines. She had to stop, and she was a gifted editor.

Does the Defenestration version of “The Liberties” really look like you want it to look?

Pretty much so, but the mimeo version I did with Maureen of “The Liberties” had a cover that for me was definitely part of the poem. I like the later covers, especially the one Sun & Moon has done for The Europe of Trusts, but the earlier one was truly an extension of the poem itself. In those days I was still thinking of the book as an object to a certain degree.

Would you say that the poems in The Nonconformist's Memorial look as you wanted them to look?

That was the best experience I've ever had with a bigger press. Peter Glassgold, my editor at New Directions, was just wonderful. Whereas with Wesleyan I had to fight for every inch of space. (That changed when Terry Cochran became the director. Wesleyan under his directorship was wonderful to work with when I did The Birth-mark. It was completely different.) Peter just asked, “What do you need?” Of course, I couldn't get quite that. I don't like having the poems in “Silence Wager Stories” cramped on the page. I had to make some compromises; you're always allowed a certain number of pages, so you have to make sacrifices somewhere. And in “Silence Wager Stories,” which seemed much more regular, I made the sacrifices. But in “Melville's Marginalia,” it was desperately important to have the space around individual sections. By and large, if I'd say I had to have something alone on a page, Peter would allow it. Look for instance at this page [p. 21]. I love that page, and they got it right. They went to a place that did one wrong version after another, had a hell of a problem with the typesetter, but they kept at it. Sadly, if that were ever to be anthologized, the space will get lost; space always gets lost.

Perhaps as you get more known, you have more power and can say, “You can reprint this only if you …”

No. As you get more known, you tend to get anthologized, which means your work gets jammed together. Of course, it's possible that there's something precious about all that white space around the page, especially now that so many people are doing it—it's become self-conscious.

But you do care about it.

I do. I started as a visual artist. I can't erase that.

When you gave your lecture on Dickinson using slides from her fascicles, it struck me how much you respond to her painter-to-painter when you're discussing her calligraphy and its beauty.

Maybe. I don't mean to imply Dickinson is a painter! She is a visionary poet. I also have to say again that I think sound is the element in poetry. That's the strange thing. A boring sounding poem—no matter what it looks like—is a boring poem. Sound is absolutely crucial.

Enough on the visual. I'd like to talk about Language writing and experimental writing. Perhaps partly because of your close association with Charles Bernstein from your teaching at SUNY-Buffalo, you are often identified as a Language poet. But several times, I've heard you say you're not really a Language poet. How is your work different from Language writing? What makes you want to say, “I'm not really a Language poet”?

Well, for one thing I'm older than most of the people I consider to be Language poets. By the way, that is a small group. Most of them are in their mid-to-late forties now. As I have said, I came to poetry through my art work, and my sensibility was very much formed in the sixties. I seem to have been led into writing by accident, the same way my writing then led me into textual scholarship and now I find myself writing something you might call film criticism. I have never followed an agenda or a program. Also, much of my inspiration as a poet comes from modernist writers. At first Charles Olson (a late modernist or first postmodernist) gave me a certain permission. The early edition of the Maximus Poems IV, V, VI published by Cape Goliard was crucial. I would open it up, and what he was doing with the space of a page and with history would set me off. Finnegans Wake is another work that was necessary to me. And then there was John Cage and what he did with Finnegans Wake. For a couple of years I had a correspondence with Ian Hamilton Finlay because I had written an article for the journal Archives of American Art about artists and poets (Ad Reinhardt, Robert Lax, and Ian Hamilton Finlay). Finlay is one of the great letter writers. He had me following all sorts of leads and all of them very much affected what I was doing. These people all influenced me on a formal level. Virginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson were there as the two completely necessary guides in ways that were immediate—absolutely necessary, not at a remove, but in me.

And this seems to you different from what lies behind most Language poetry.

Absolutely different. I wasn't reading the Russian formalist critics. I had no Marxist background, having never been to any university. I suppose I got some of these ideas because they were all around, but I got them first through artists' writings—through people like Reinhardt, Finlay, Judd, Smithson. Of course they were probably reading Jakobson, Adorno, Lukacs—people I'd hardly even heard of at the time. Most of the Language poets were in universities during the late sixties, and their work is fueled by the political rage and the courage of that period. I can understand it and identify with it, but at a remove. However, I feel these writers are my peers, and I care what they write and what they think about what I write. So it's complicated. There isn't an easy answer.

When I think of the major spokespeople for so-called Language poetry, they are men: Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, et cetera.


If the women who are associated with that movement were the main voices we were hearing as spokespeople, would they be saying something different from what the men are saying? Partly I'm asking how gender seems to affect the production of language-centered writing.

I don't think it's fair to say that gender affects the production of language-centered writing in a bad sense. Or rather, I would say that gender affects all writing that attempts also to be theoretical or to state a position. Why accuse Language poets of something that is omnipresent? Lyn Hejinian is a key figure in that group—as editor and publisher of Tuumba Books, as editor (with Barrett Watten) of the journal Poetics, as translator of Russian poetry, above all as a poet—and I think she would tell you that she has received encouragement, intellectual companionship, equality, fraternity, sorority from writers classified as Language poets. She has written essays and taken a critical position.

But they're not widely distributed, while Bernstein's and Silliman's are.

No, they're not. It's not necessarily the fault of the men in this group; rather it says things about our culture. I think that women who take a theoretical position are allowed to take a theoretical position only as long as it's a feminist theoretical position, and to me that's an isolation. I would be extremely wary of being put in the category of writing about “women's problems,” because then you get, I think, shifted out …

Into another kind of ghetto.

It's another ghetto. Right. And I think Lyn and I would both be very opposed to that. A ghetto is troubling; a ghetto is a ghetto. I don't know whether Lyn is bothered by these things or not; I can't speak for her. But I'll say there's no question in my mind that Lyn Hejinian is an indispensable, essential figure in what is “the main group that was.”

You say “the group that was.” Do you think that things are moving on from Language writing just at the moment when the academy seems ready to say, “Oh, there's this thing: Language writing”?

That's the sign it's over.

Where do you think “experimental writing” is headed? Do you see new directions?

A lot of younger poets are experimenting with the essay form. A couple of years ago now, there was a gathering of younger poets, Poets of the New Coast, I believe it was called. There seemed to be a good deal of excitement among them and less factionalism, less anger, less quarreling. Maybe it's just that I'm older so I don't like fighting. But I felt a lot of hope. On the other hand I have some darker thoughts: Why is it that experimental writers rarely get grants? Why is it that their work is almost completely shut out of magazines with larger distribution networks? Why are they shut out of jobs in creative writing programs? Why is it that people who have written their dissertations about the objectivists, or even Gertrude Stein, have so much difficulty finding jobs in the academy?

Let me read you a statement by Marianne DeKoven and get your response, because there could be a connection between this and what you were just talking about. DeKoven identifies “the purpose of experimental style, whether in writing signed by woman or by man” as being “to assist in changing culture by charting alternatives to hegemonic structures of consciousness” [“Male Signature, Female Aesthetic: The Gender Politics of Experimental Writing,” in Breaking the Sequence: Women's Experimental Fiction, ed. Ellen G. Friedman and Miriam Fuchs (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1989) 79]. Do you think that all experimental writing does have as its purpose cultural change and “charting alternatives to hegemonic structures of consciousness”?

I think her idea is a good idea, but when you say “all” it bothers me because there is such tremendous variety.

Do you feel that your work is invested in cultural change—or “charting alternatives to hegemonic structures” (leaving aside how grandiose that sounds)?

I always go back to the fact that Wallace Stevens is my favorite poet of the twentieth century—poems like “Auroras of Autumn” or “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction” or “Credences of Summer.” I don't know if that kind of poetry is changing culture or “changing hegemonic consciousness,” but it certainly changes my consciousness, and it's tremendously beautiful, and moving, and philosophical, and meditative, and all the things that words have the power to be, which is ultimately mysterious. If only I could write a poem like that—that's what I'm saying! And the same thing goes for Four Quartets or Trilogy. That would be my goal, something perhaps more selfish than changing society—if I could just write something that was of that caliber, that would be enough. Certainly my essays are often angry, and the drive that propels me is some kind of feeling of righting a wrong. But then language has its own message. For individual poets to be able to bring whatever it is that they feel is their deepest necessity to express—I'm thinking of “expression” in broad terms, in terms of space, in terms of sound, in terms of all those things—that's what we're here to do. It's our ethical obligation.

You need to pursue your gift, in a sense.

Yes, and to pursue it to its nth degree, until it's possible it won't reach other people—and yet you have to reach a reader. Although I may feel just writing is enough, we do live in a world where it appears we need to communicate.

People objecting to experimental writing sometimes complain that whatever claims are made for its social engagement or Marxist perspective, or its changing hegemonic structures of consciousness, that, in fact, the audience it reaches is a very narrow, highly educated one, that the reader has to have tremendous intellectual confidence even to grapple with these texts. What do you think? Does that concern you?

No. The objection offends me. I think it is part of a really frightening anti-intellectualism in our culture. Why should things please a large audience? And isn't claiming that the work is too intellectually demanding also saying a majority of people are stupid? Different poets will always have different audiences. Some poets appeal to younger people, some to thousands, one or two to millions, some to older people, et cetera. If you have four readers whom you truly touch and maybe even influence, well then that's fine. Poetry is a calling. You are called to write and you follow.

Let's talk about prose and poetry. You publish both, but as I see your writing, they are very closely intermingled forms, and not just in that some of your poems have prose introductions. I think that your historical literary essays and your poems are moving closer to each other.


Perhaps It's that your interest in textual scholarship comes more and more into your poetry. Can you talk about the relationship between your prose and poetry? Take, for instance, “Melville's Marginalia.” Why did that take the form ultimately, or predominately, of poetry? It starts out in a way where it almost could have been one of the essays in The Birth-mark. But then it moves into more definitely poetic sections.

It didn't start with the essay. It started with the poetry. I was in Philadelphia writing an essay called “Encloser,” which is about Thomas Shepherd. I had already written the essay once, and it had been published in a book Charles Bernstein edited, The Politics of Poetic Form. And it wasn't right; I was still working on it, and I was teaching in Philadelphia, and I had some extra time and all of a sudden—I started writing parts of that essay. They were the parts about women in the early conversion narratives. At the time I was up for a job at Buffalo and initially I didn't get it, and I thought, “Okay, it's all up with academia.” I'd been trying to do the right thing, I'd been nervous about my writing of essays because I knew I needed a job. And I felt, “It's over, forget the job.” Also, I'd just seen these Shepherd manuscripts. I just decided, “To hell with it: I need to speak, I need to write a certain way about Shepherd and about these narratives.” And so I started writing the essay exactly as if I were writing a poem. It shifted to a completely poetic language. It was poetry I was writing. I started rearranging lines, obsessing over lines and words, as opposed to paragraphs or pages. I included a soliloquy that I made up, Anne Hutchinson speaking or thinking. A dramatic soliloquy doesn't usually occur in an essay, a soliloquy in the form of poetry. It was as big a change for me as when I wrote Pythagorean Silence. With “Encloser” I found my own voice as an essayist. Even though I'd already written the Rowlandson essay and the Dickinson book.

So then I came to Melville. I was in Philadelphia for another semester the following year, teaching again at Temple. It's strange that though I was very lonely there and very worried about David's illness because I was away from home, each semester I was there I seemed to have extraordinary inspirations for my writing. Something about the place; I don't know what. Anyway, I chanced on Melville's Marginalia at the Temple library, two huge volumes collated and edited by Wilson Walker Cowen. I remember dragging them home on the subway—they were huge. What I did was to randomly go through the book and light on something—sort of chance operation without discipline. I would pull a line from one of the portions he had marked and then use it to make a poem. More and more the whole issue of marginalia began to interest me.

This was before you figured out the connection between Clarence Mangan and Bartleby.

Yes. I was struck by the fact that Melville owned a book by Mangan, because Mangan was part of my Irish background and childhood memories from there. What Melville had chosen to mark interested me. So one of the poems in the series had Mangan in it. A year later when I once again went to France as part of some poetry festival, this time in Paris, I was struck by the fact that Dominique Fourcade, the French poet who was translating, didn't bother to translate the poem with Mangan in it. It's amusing because Mangan was an insatiable translator. He even made up languages so he could translate them. I was interested that they didn't notice that one. The following summer I was interested enough in the subject of Melville's marginal notations to go to the Houghton Library and see his actual books and the marks he really did make in them rather than relying on Cowen's transcription. There I saw the Mangan edition and how heavily it was marked, and it made me more curious about Mangan, so then I was off on that trail. At this point the poem seemed to turn towards being an essay, and I went with it. I was convinced and still am by the Mangan-Bartleby connection; though no one takes me seriously, I am serious. But Mangan would like that because his whole career is a sort of joke or pun. He is an untranslatable translator. The interesting thing is that now I see how my interest in marks in books goes back to Marcia Hafif's books and my beginning to write at all. Marginal markings are on the cusp between drawing and writing. You say something with a gesture. But this doesn't provide the explanation you wanted.

It's very interesting, though. What about your composition process for poetry and prose? You were saying a gives me one sense. But do you write essays and poems in a similar way? Does it feel similar to you?

In some ways similar and in some ways not. Writing poetry, I feel completely free. It's meditative. I lay out all the pages on the desk and it's quiet and I have books and I can go where I want, do what I want. I'm just free, at peace. Writing an essay, I want to say something specific. I can't figure out how to say it. I'm very nervous about my scholarship; I'm very anxious to be scholarly correct. At the same time, my favorite essays are generally essays by writers about writers. Then there is sound. The power of sound never changes between poetry and essays. More and more, as I write essays I seem to be—as in the Marker essay I'm doing now—obsessing that every line is right. I started working that way in the Shepherd essay. I worked line by line, which is a problem for essays; it can make them jerky and fragmented. I would say that, for me, the big similarity is sound. When I revise it's as if I were taking dictation, but who the dictator is I do not know. I will change something if it doesn't read right. Most scholars wouldn't do that. I wouldn't change a fact, of course, but I couldn't leave a sentence be if the acoustics weren't right. So the essays are acoustically charged just as poems are, but they originate more from fear, from a feeling of needing to write or say something but having no idea how to say it. They are stutters.

When your father wrote his scholarship, was he confident? Was he fearful?

I don't know since I never talked to him about it.

Did you have a sense of it?

I think he was very worried about making scholarly mistakes, very worried about being thorough, but he did not have an exciting writing style—my mother had the ear as a writer. The interesting thing about my father was, he was obsessed by footnotes. You could say the marginalia idea is something about letting footnotes take over the text. I grew up with my father's “So-and-so wrote a very bad footnote,” or “That footnote was wrong,” or “The way the English put footnotes on the page is much better than the Americans'”—with frantic worry over footnotes and bibliographies. Yet I love the play of footnotes (though I can't write a correct footnote). That's one of the things I have such fun with in “Melville's Marginalia”; in a sense, it's one huge footnote, and I love that idea, and I think Melville was playing with that idea a lot in Moby-Dick. Certainly Mangan has an uproarious and subversive way with footnotes. This is also one of the things in Chris Marker's film Sans Soleil that most appeals to me. In many ways it's a film about editing and quotation and footnoting (in film)—and then his name “Marker” is an assumed name, and what is marking if not marginalia?

When you were reading the other night, you suggested there was a close connection between “Submarginalia” and “Melville's Marginalia,” one of which appears in a book of essays and the other in a book of poetry.

Right. I was writing them both at the Same time, and I had an August deadline for both (and if you teach a full schedule as I do, summer is the only chance you have to write at all). Terry Cochran at Wesleyan told me I needed an introduction to the essays in The Birth-mark. I thought the essays were like separate poems and could just be put together and left to connect by chance or proximity. The readers' reports backed him up; they seemed to assume there was an imminent introduction. I chanced on the Coleridge citation about marginalia in a section of the lengthy and wonderfully informative introduction to the volume of the Princeton edition related to his marginalia. I was using the volume in reference to the poem for the New Directions book. The essays were on one table, the poems on the other, so I was going across the room from each to each, and Coleridge's paragraph on himself as a library cormorant proved to be what I needed to set me off on the nonexistent introduction—it just took off, and then I had a hard time stopping. Really both the “Submarginalia” section of the introduction and “Melville's Marginalia” are a play with footnotes. I wish the two were in one book.

Perhaps I already know the answer to this question, because of what you just said about the peace you find in poetry, but I'll ask anyway: This year, I know you've had no time—

No peace.

—to write poetry. Does that drive you wild?

Yes. David died on October 5, 1992. I haven't been able to write poetry since then. I have been teaching. And working on the essay. The essay concerns some of Chris Marker's work and also a Tarkovsky film called Mirror, and two films by Dziga Vertov. I was commissioned to write it for a book of essays on nonfiction film that will probably be called Beyond Documents: The Art of Nonfiction Film. It's edited by Charles Warren for the Carpenter Center at Harvard and will have an introduction by Stanley Cavell. Wesleyan is publishing it in spring 1995. It has been an enormous challenge because I have never written about film. Of course it is turning out to be eccentric or poetic. I am very worried, though, about whether I will ever have the heart to write another real poem.

I suppose that's true for anybody who stops writing for a while.

Yes. But this isn't merely a question of writer's block. David was like a wall against the world to me. I felt I could do anything as long as the shelter and nurture he provided were there.

So that sense of freedom you described a few minutes ago in writing poetry—you're afraid that some of that may have been made possible not by writing poetry, but by David.

Absolutely. And it wasn't only his companionship and love but his work and his nature. He was of the sea. He was a wonderful sailor, and toward the end of his life when he couldn't sail because of the pain he was in, he could still row. He always had some kind of boat, and they were always beautiful ones. Now I feel that the sea went with him. The sea and poetry—actually for me they are one and the same. My favorite pieces of his resemble boats. After he died I discovered some plans he had been working on for a boat that we could live in. He designed a desk for my computer, a place he would work, and we would just take off in it and escape. But he never showed it to me. There was something utterly unique about David—his students knew it—a way of thinking about the world and about art that was generous and strong. We each worked all day at our art (when we weren't teaching); we didn't discuss our work much together, but we were living and thinking together. We agreed without having to explain.

You were very lucky. I'm sorry you lost that.

I gather from some things you've said since you've been here that sometimes theorists have provided a kind of space for you. I'm thinking of some of your comments about Foucault or Benjamin, that they have provided impetus or reinforcement for your work. Who are you reading now?

Walter Benjamin. I would call some of his essays poems. I love his interest in very short essays, his interest in the fragment, the material object, and the entrance of the messianic into the material object. I find some theorists are helpful in teaching nineteenth-century American literature: Kristeva, Benjamin, Levinas, Blanchot, Derrida, Foucault. I think they've enriched all of our thinking.

Do they give you the kind of permission you felt, for instance, when you opened Olson?

It's different. Foreign, because usually they are French, and they seem to know so much. The thing I like about Olson is what I've talked about as the stutter in American literature, the hesitation, and you won't find any of that there. French theorists do not stutter. They don't help my poetry, but they help my essays.

And feminist theorists—have they helped your poetry?

Not my poetry, no. But I like to read some Hélène Cixous. And Kristeva, who influenced the way I wrote about Mary Rowlandson. Irigaray sometimes. And there are American women who are scholars who work in the field of Early American studies—Janice Knight and Patricia Caldwell are very important to me.

But that's not for your poetry. That's really for your scholarship.

That would be for my scholarship, although these things aren't that separated always. Of course, there are women writers who have helped my poetry.

H. D., Stein …

Dickinson, obviously. It's important to me to read Lyn Hejinian's work and Leslie Scalapino's, and Anne-Marie Albiach's poetry.

Where do you see your vision parting from a poststructuralist view? This came up yesterday in the context of whether there was some historical “truth.”

Rather than attempting to talk about poststructuralism, I'll answer in terms of truth. I think there is a truth, even if it's not fashionable to say so anymore. I do think it's urgently necessary to bring Dickinson's manuscripts to light. I believe there are stories that need to be told again differently. I believe with Walter Benjamin that the story is in danger of being lost the minute someone opens one's mouth to speak; but you've got to open your mouth to speak, and there is a story, and it's probably going to be lost anyway, but whatever that story is, whether you call it fact or fiction, or an original version, it's something real.

I'm thinking now about your visits to my class where you've been helping my undergraduate students understand Pythagorean Silence. I've been struck by your openness to various readings and by the ease with which you step back from your own control of the text. You revise endlessly; you work so deliberately and so carefully with very particular things determining your choices of word and image. You revise until you have a sense that it's exactly right. And yet you seem able to avoid a sense of “right” response on the part of your readers. Is that correct?

I hope so.

What are your expectations of your readers?

Freedom. It goes back to Joyce again, because you know how he was so obsessed with revision; he'd spend a day thinking about whether to put a period in or take it out.

What hell.

Yes. Well, I tend to do that, too. There's an absolute precision to his writing. At the same time, there's incredible play and freedom. I don't know what his point of view would have been, but I think the writer is commanded and commanding. Poetry has acoustic demands—and yet that's where the mystery begins. The thing that reminded me about Joyce—or Pound, say—is you pull out a word or a sentence or a fragment and go with it; you let it lead you somewhere. That's the way I begin to write a poem, anyway. I write the way I read. I wouldn't want the reader to be just a passive consumer. I would want my readers to play, to enter the mystery of language, and to follow words where they lead, to let language lead them.

Another thing that I found very interesting was that in discussing Pythagorean Silence you admitted that it contained a great deal of personal and autobiographical material—which, of course, my undergraduate students would have loved to hear. But you were quite definite about not wanting to reveal that material in any specific way. I wondered where that comes from.

Are you suggesting …

Well, for instance, one of the things that occurs to me is that there may be a gender issue here. Women poets in particular, I think, are often read in a very reductive way according to biography—or specious biography. Dickinson would be a stunning example of that. And keeping your biography out of view could be one way to avoid that kind of trap. Alternatively, I can see this reticence as having to do with more principled notions about what's important about poetry, or with ideas about what constitutes the speaking subject on the page. Or it could just come from a sense of privacy. But it does seem to me to raise questions again about what the reader takes away from the poetry, because you might say that the personal material is there so as to suggest patterns that others would be able to recognize or identify with. Or you might be content to have those aspects of the poem remain essentially indecipherable, inaccessible to your reader. Am I making any sense?

Yes. It's the whole problem of biography, right? There are a lot of people—including professors in the academy—who would say biography is not important. The work is its own thing isolated from history, isolated from biography. But when I'm teaching I like to concentrate on writers rather than movements. Take Language poetry: they're all individuals. And Romantic poetry: Shelley is not the same person as Wordsworth and is not at all the same person as Byron. They may have been friends, but they're different. I'm interested in details of difference. I'm always curious about biography. And you can't say you don't bring your own story to whatever you write, even in ways you might want not to bring it. Ezra Pound or somebody said a poet has really only about eight things to say, and he or she will say them over and over. This is true I think. It horrifies me sometimes when, knowing my own various hobbyhorses. I see that I am on one again: “Damn it! Here it is again.” But I do not like confessional poetry. These days, in America, confession is on every TV program, let alone in most poems. Just today as I was eating breakfast in your college dining hall, there was a TV suspended from the ceiling blaring out a program called True Confessions—where people come on and say, “My father molested me when I was three,” or “My mother was an alcoholic,” et cetera. By now it's totally boring, or maybe it's my Yankee sense of decorum. Yet if a reader really loves a writer—and if he or she doesn't love a writer, it doesn't matter—but if he or she does love a writer, that reader will probably do some research. He or she will look for a biography.

And yes, yes, yes, I think it's a gender issue, because women tend to get lied about, and exaggerated stories are told about them, if they are not obliterated. So I think it's important to find a story, to save a story, but I don't think it's important to bray a story.

Earlier in this interview and several times during your stay here you have said that as a poet you feel you're taking dictation. This would be at the opposite extreme from the biographical, I think—your sense that as a poet you act as a medium. Can you elaborate on that a little bit? When you talk about dictation, it's not that there are voices.

No, no. I don't hear voices (though I'm always scared I might). You don't hear voices, but yes, you're hearing something. You're heating something you see. And there's the mystery of the eye-hand connection: when it's your work, it's your hand writing. Your hand is receiving orders from somewhere. Yes, it could be your brain, your superego giving orders; on the other hand, they are orders. I guess it must seem strange that I say poetry is free when I also say I'm getting orders. It can become very frightening. That's what Melville's so good on in Pierre and Moby-Dick and elsewhere, that once you're driven onto this hunt, you can't stop until you're told to stop. It connects to blasphemy and to the sacred for me. It connects to God. That's why I like George Herbert and Four Quartets and Stevens. Being a poet is a calling. You are called and you must listen. George Herbert says it in the poem he titles “The Agonie”: “But there are two vast, spacious things, / The which to measure it doth more behove: / Yet few there are that sound them; Sinne and Love.”

For some reason I find these questions about compositional process and where art comes from particularly mystifying with musical composers: Mozart, for instance, what he could do in his head!

And why is it that a person who's not Mozart can't do it? But if you're Mozart, or even Bobby Fischer playing chess, it's grace. You've been granted some grace.

Eric Murphy Selinger (review date Spring–Fall 1995)

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SOURCE: “My Susan Howe,” in Parnassus, Vol. 20, Nos. 1–2, Spring–Fall, 1995, pp. 359–85.

[In the following review, Selinger discusses My Emily Dickinson, showing the connections it has to The Birth-mark, The Nonconformist's Memorial, and Howe's earlier poetic works.]

You can still buy the Peter Pauper Press edition of Emily Dickinson's Love Poems, a slim white book that haunts the upper floors of chain-store poetry sections, poised to foist on unsuspecting shoppers its paltry versions of the life and work. Never mind that Dickinson declined her one known suitor, the deliciously titled Judge Lord; set hastily aside the lifelong correspondence with Susan Gilbert Dickinson, at a word from whom this self-proclaimed “Idolater” would “forfeit righteousness.” Above all, forget the language of the poems: taut, demanding, and mercurial. We “know for a fact,” the introduction to Love Poems insists, that after years of romantic letters (now missing) some unknown man broke off their fine romance and broke her heart, leaving little Emily to grow “only a bit more odd, more devoted, more sentimental—as might be expected of a sensitive maiden lady with big emotions and strange words to express them in.”

Nine years ago, in her first book of prose, Susan Howe slashed this pauper's portrait.1 Behind it she discovered a writer of “Promethean ambition,” an “obsessed, solitary, and uncompromising” figure who composed the pleading Master letters, the only trace of her purported love affair, as “self-conscious exercises in prose” and whose strange words comprised nothing less than a revolution in poetic language. Even if you had never seen one of Howe's poems, available at the time only in avant-garde journals and elusive small press editions, you could guess that she too would grapple with conventional syntax, “audaciously invent[ing] a new grammar grounded in humility and hesitation.” You knew that this new grammar would aspire, like the “shock and subtraction” of Dickinson's letters, to startle you into “a new way of perceiving.” From the rustle and glimmer of association with which Howe unpacked “My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun”—a reading that lifts a word here, a stanza there, strikes it and listens (lips pursed, eyes intent) for its overtones of prior texts and distant history—you learned how the poet wanted you to greet her own ranging, allusive, associative verse. You certainly learned how not to read it. As she quotes an account of her precursor more attentive to biographical pathos than to textual detail, Howe turns regal and peremptory. “Who is this Spider-Artist?” she demands. “Not my Emily Dickinson.”

For years after I read this book, Howe's Dickinson was mine. Howe's poems, though, left me baffled and divided. Passages here and there had an incantatory sureness of sound that drew me in: “Go on the Scout they say / They will go near Skegachwey / I have snow shoes and Indian shoes” (“Thorow”). But the sequences these came from blocked my approach. They stumbled, stammered, broke their own spells. Yes, I had gathered from My Emily Dickinson what you could say and do in the face of such “linguistic decreation”; and yes, critics like Rachel Blau du Plessis, Marjorie Perloff, and Peter Quartermain had strapped on their snow shoes and Indian shoes to break paths through Howe's most forbidding landscapes. Even the poems themselves stepped up to help. They held out phrases to describe their “Stumbling phenomenology,” and I duly and gratefully circled and checked them, nodding that in a “migratory odd scrap trilogy” about the “occult ferocity of origin” I should of course expect a shattered and scattered poetics of “paper anacoluthon and naked chalk” (“Articulation of Sound Forms in Time”). Yet none of this encouragement cleared up the puzzle. Why did the project that I thrilled to read about prove not just tiring, but often—embarrassed as I am to admit it—simply tiresome to read? Was there no way to take these poems that would ease my shame and address my skepticism: a way that watched for trail markers left by the poet and her critics, but kept an eye out for switchbacks and alternate routes as well?

Wanting to admire the works of Susan Howe as much as the idea of them, I read the poet's two most recent books with some reluctance, then with growing pleasure. In The Birth-mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History, a tightly woven collection of essays on early American writers (as well as a useful interview), I hear not just the “Stern norse terse ethical pathos” of her last book, Singularities, but precisely those elements of biographical pathos that My Emily Dickinson taught me to slight or to scorn. The Birth-mark fleshes out the figure of the Poet who stands behind Howe's poems—a figure who is, I have come to believe, at the heart of her achievement—and it gives a spirited lesson in how important essays, introductions, and interviews are to the poet's otherwise uncomfortably rigorous, sola scriptura, purer-than-Puritan oeuvre. In such pieces Howe's Poet falls from language into voice, grace into works, the open house of “Possibility” into the closure and capture (though she resists it) of prose. I find it a fortunate fall. With the voice of The Birth-mark in my ears and its prose-wrought figure of the Poet as my guide I can wander a cliff path through the rugged terrain of Howe's earlier writings and gaze down on the tattered, plangent texts of Howe's latest collection, The Nonconformist's Memorial. If I stop and cry out “Maestra, il senso lor m'é duro,” I receive, at last, the help I need.


Since My Emily Dickinson was the book that first attracted me to Howe, and is still, it seems, her best-known book, let me start there. A compelling, broadly satisfying figure, Howe's Dickinson shades into the image of the woman who beholds her. (“As I am,” says Emerson, “so I see.”) On the one hand, she is a heroic avant-gardist: a poet who understands that “human dislocation and terror of uncertainty in a rapidly changing social system and cosmos must be spoken in a new tongue,” and who raids the “alien territory” of received and masculine tradition for “pieces of geometry, geology, alchemy, philosophy, politics, biography, biology, mythology, and philology” that she will set into a new syntax of audacity and stammer.2 She is also a powerfully traditional poet, however, in ways that T. S. Eliot would have approved. Defining originality as “the discovery of how to shed identity before the magic mirror of Antiquity's sovereign power,” she wrestles with and ranks herself among only the strongest, most canonical ancestors: Shakespeare, Jonathan Edwards, the Brontës, the Brownings (mostly Robert). Such writers form an ideal order that the rebel's explosive-submissive heroics allow her, not all that paradoxically, to join.

My Emily Dickinson clearly wants to be an innovating, shifting, startling, cross-generic text: a “poet's book,” signaled as such by its paratactic structure, its juxtaposed quotations and Poundian subject-rhymes, its plumbings and riffs off of isolate phrases and words (“Sovereign,” “Eider-Duck,” “Thumb”), and, above all, by its impassioned tone. But even as Howe mocks those writers who want to “discuss the shattering of all hierarchies of Being” without the form of their discussion being either shattered or shattering, her study's smash and scatteration only goes so far. Some hierarchies, moral and aesthetic, get neatly retrofitted. With its high seriousness and bravura declarations about Poetry-with-a-capital-P, for example, this book reassures you that it and its readers are engaged in something more lasting and important than, say, “fence-sitting / raised to the level of an aesthetic ideal” (Ashbery, “Soonest Mended”). And for all that she twists out of the grip of scholarly restraint and the tidyings-up of traditional explication, Howe ends up writing a highly finished study. Where there's warp, there's woof; and the pattern that emerges, shock by surprise, brings a satisfying sense of repletion, a retrospective inevitability.3

Howe weaves this curiously comforting fabric—“curiously” because she lauds the ways that Dickinson “resisted comfort and confidence”—from the voice that threads through My Emily Dickinson. With its stark, declarative sentences, anguished rhetorical questions, and intermittently personal then grandly impersonal “I,” this voice belongs to someone who needs, as we all do, and has, as we all do not, Dickinson's “courage, discipline, humor, and freedom of spirit.” (Well, not a whole lot of her humor.) Despite its commitment to hesitancy, this voice seems doomed to confidence. How else explain its ringing epigrams—“the setting not the rising sun is Beauty”; “Poetry is redemption from pessimism”—or the way it appropriates the “visionary precursor's” words as the book comes to a close?

To Edward (Ned) Dickinson                    mid-may 1880
                                        Phoebus—“I'll take the Reins.”


A voice to be reckoned with—one that, as the poet declares, “belongs to no one else.”

Just after declaring in an entranced tone that her voice belongs to no one else, Howe announces a second, safer “sovereignty of abdication.” “What I put into words,” she explains, “is no longer my possession. Possibility has opened. The future will forget, erase, or recollect and deconstruct every poem.” Now there are methods of reading where endless “possibility” blossoms into something far more fruitful than forgetfulness, erasure, and deconstruction, even if the harvest is necessarily limited, constituted by rejection—“not my Emily Dickinson”—and therefore owned. When she conjures her predecessor, Howe practices one such method, and she reaps the voice of the Poet “Susan Howe” as the reward. But in her poems Howe steps back from this accomplishment. She retires to the fairer house of “possibility,” and leans out the windows to invoke, interrogate, chasten, and above all interrupt the voice she summons up in prose. She speaks in many voices, or draws so much attention to the poem as print on a page that she unsettles any equation between voice and poetry. Possibility has opened. Or has it?

When Howe's work gives me trouble, it's usually thanks to these strategies of abdication. From others they draw praise. To Rachel Blau du Plessis, for example, they display a wrenching, admirable mixture of resistance, despair, and desire. They point the way to a new “cultural practice … that does not demand ‘sacrifice and subjugation’ to ‘form and order’ in order to write” (“Whowe”). Perhaps. I'm struck, though, by how often praise like this gestures in a more familiar direction, turning my gaze from the texts at hand to the heroic project of the Poet who stands behind them. As it trails its fingers through Howe's prose for terms of art—the phrases du Plessis quotes, for example, are from My Emily Dickinson—and as it shuffles asyntactic passages into discursive sentences about the Poet's liberating, abdicating project, such praise restores the crown that it denies. Let me turn to these ironies, if they are ironies, next.


In 1990, five years after My Emily Dickinson appeared, Sun & Moon Press published The Europe of Trusts: a “selected poems” that reprints three books Howe had written in the previous decade, along with a prose introduction. I'll come back to this introduction in a moment. For now, let me start a quick survey of Howe's characteristic voices and resistances to voice with the untitled prefatory poem that opens the first book in the collection, Pythagorean Silence:

                    we that were wood
when that a wide wood was
In a physical Universe playing with
Bark be my limbs my hair be leaf
Bride be my bow my lyre my quiver

“We that were wood”: Who could this “we” be? Dryads, followers of Artemis? A host of Daphnes, turned into woods of laurel as they fled from their Apollos? The lilt of the second line opens other, Celtic possibilities, as does the fact that “stich” once meant both a line of poetry and a row of trees. Brusquely interrupting this invitation to association, the central lines refuse to follow up one those possibilities: All this is merely “playing with // words,” they snort, in a Universe that is strictly physical, not home to spirits and voices. But once you start playing with words metamorphoses follow, the physical and the metaphysical edging into one another as readily as “words,” juggled a moment too long, spins into “sword.” The “I” who chants “bark be my limbs” in the lines that follow is about to be transfigured in this way. “Playing with // words,” she will become one of the “we” and open contact (r spins to o) with the woods.

As a prefatory poem this piece raises a number of stylistic expectations. You know from it that Howe can draw on either mystical-lyrical or dryly critical dictions: dictions it's almost too easy to parcel out by gender, since the page that follows introduces a “HE” who speaks of “The research of scholars, lawyers, investigators, judges” and a “SHE” who, with her arms around his neck, whispers that “Herod had all the little children murdered!” (Howe will complicate this opposition as the poems go on.) Since transformations of female figures into trees and reeds and such recur in myths about the origins of song and poetry—think of Apollo and Daphne, Pan and Syrinx—and since the voice who closes “we that were wood” is determined to perform such a transformation on herself without losing power and agency (she aims to marry her bow and lyre and quiver, not to loosen her barky grip), you can guess that Howe's most lyrical moments will be haunted by her knowing, uneasy place as their singer. Hence, for example, the troubled undercurrent of a carpe diem passage from part III of Pythagorean Silence, a fine example of Howe at her most musical:

                    Little girl in your greed
                    come down
                    come down
                    ivy and roses          ourself
                    will be
                    without defect
                    without decay
only what is lovely          lies
faraway […]

Poets who promise to preserve their beloveds—not always women, as Shakespeare's sonnets attest—do so through “lies,” and by playing off a “greed” to be preserved “without defect // without decay,” even if that involves a transformation into “ivy and roses” or, worse, “rows and rows of reeds” for others to scan or play upon. But Howe's moral or feminist reservations can't undo her attraction to the beauty of language such “greed” inspires; they can only complicate it, ripple the waters as she sings and some Ophelia drifts by.

Neither “we that were wood” nor “Little girl in your greed” is especially hard to read. Although neither supplies a clear speaker or dramatic situation, and although both are parts of longer sequences that likewise lack these handles for understanding, the poems themselves draw on familiar syntax, well-established genres (the spell, the love lyric), and a comfortable patterning of sound (ghosts of meter behind the arras, chiming rhymes, and so on). Elsewhere Howe is less melodic, and the path grows pricklier. She layers sentence fragments in a hushed, insistent style that makes each new line sound urgent and significant, a violin or cello skittering briefly out of the silence. To my ear these frequently range from the memorable to the merely portentous within a single passage:

Hook intelligence quick dactyl
Bats glance through a wood
bond between mad and made
anonymous communities bond and free
Perception crumbles under character
Present past of immanent future
Recollection moves across meaning
Men shut their doors against setting
Flocks roost before dark
Coveys nestle and settle
Meditation of a world's vast Memory
Predominance pitched across history
Collision or collusion with history

(from “Articulation of Sound Forms in Time”)

The three- and four-stress lines pulse down the page, often “hooking” the ear with an initial dactyl or a final off-rhyme as they “hook” the intelligence with a mix of the abstract and the concrete where “recollection” and “predominance” are as active as “flocks” and “coveys.” There's a curious blend of stiffness and momentum to a passage like this. You pause after each line, but not quite long enough to ask the hard questions it demands; you tumble onward in the hope some later line will give the clue that snaps the rest into place. Or, at least, that they'll cohere by sheer force of accretion.

Elsewhere, in still stricter moods, Howe will break syntax down even further. Her pages often offer words arrayed without syntactic connection, but with clear semantic allegiance, the raw material of a poem yet to be written or all that remains of a piece now decomposed:

cherubim          golden          swallow
amulet          instruction          tribulation
winged joy          parent          sackcloth          ash
den          sealed          ascent          flee
chariot          interpret          flame
hot          arc          chaff          meridian
in the extant manuscript SOMEONE
has lightly scored a pen over
diadem          dagger          a voyage          gibbet
sheaf […]

Entering poetry through the “wicket-gate”—a small door or gate made in, or placed beside, a large one, according to the OED, but here with overtones of the slavery-escape term “runagate”—the poet stumbles on scraps from some religious or mystical text: one including a vision of “cherubim,” perhaps, seen by following “instruction” in how to use an “amulet” but at a cost of “tribulation” to “parents” and other “chaff” left behind in the ascent. (The diction is also Dickinsonian.) The pleasure of passages like this, the end of Pythagorean Silence, comes as you begin to grasp why these words might be yoked together, or what they do to one another in proximity, like an alchemist's stones or a diviner's dice. The results are attractively heroic and vulnerable. The poet dares “daggers” and “gibbets” and that ominous “SOMEONE” as she gathers this “sheaf” of words; her “voyage” in search of a “diadem” is propelled by gusts of language and spirit that are as likely to burn her to “ash” as they are to lift her to “winged joy.” “Weeds shiver,” the book ends, “and my clothes spread wide.”

I write this gloss with a twinge of bad faith. I can't make nearly so much of other raw materials that are just as characteristic of Howe, and had I chosen one of those passages I would now tell a less encouraging tale. Singularities, especially, stings me with a sense of inadequacy. I can't ride out or read much into passages like “rest chondriacal lunacy // velc cello viable toil // quench conch uncannunc // drumm amonoosuck ythian,” or “blue glare(essence)cow bed leg extinct draw scribe upside / even blue(A)ash-tree fleece comfort(B) drawscribe sideup,” both from the first poem, “Articulation of Sound Forms in Time.” The vulnerability I savored when it belonged to the “my” of Pythagorean Silence is more painful when it's mine, when I feebly note that “velc cello viable toil” sounds, well, a little like Whitman's “Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff,” or when the “cow” of “blue glare (essence) cow bed leg” and so on recalls a taunt made to the Thin Man in Bob Dylan's ballad thereof: “You say ‘What does this mean?’ / And he screams back, ‘You're a cow, / Give me some milk or go home. … '” Something is happening here, and I don't know what it is. If I grow glib, it's in response to that confusion. Yet I can't in good conscience slip past such stumbling blocks and seize on the lines whose articulated “Sound Forms” both please and reassure me: “She is and the way She was”; “Crumbled masonry windswept hickory”; “These are the old home trees.”

I reach this impasse at some point whenever I read Howe. When I do, I turn to other readers. With some exceptions—a few paragraphs by Marjorie Perloff, an exemplary essay by Peter Quartermain—they don't give me explication of difficult passages but two other, less conventional strategies of reading. The first, which I attempted a moment ago, involves placing words and passages into sentences that describe Howe's project as a whole. The texts adduced include both the “islands of clarity or necessity” that du Plessis sees “thrown into the surrounding mystery”—those lines of self-description Howe so frequently supplies—and assorted shards of mystery itself, plucked out and arranged into a legible mosaic. The second strategy adds that explication is in fact beside the point, that stray, resistant elements ought by rights to be left mysterious. To Quartermain, for example, Howe's texts resist that “authoritative ‘rationalization’ which, patriarchal, seeks to possess the text by removing or rationalizing all ‘accidentals.’” To long for grammatical coherence, the illusion of voice, isn't merely to betray the flux and multiple reality of postmodern experience. “Like Captain Vere sacrificing Billy Budd,” Quartermain explains, such longings “legislate away the sheer mystery” of textual production, which Howe's crown-of-thorniest passages incarnate and resurrect on our behalf. “That stony law I stamp to dust,” Howe might well echo Blake's Orc, “and scatter religion abroad / To the four winds as a torn book, & none shall gather the leaves.” My frustration signals, more than anything else, a continuing bondage to the old patriarchal covenant of “works.” I'm not lazy; quite the contrary, I'm working too hard, sweeping up her scattered leaves and suffering under the Law.

Stiff-necked, pharisaic, let me split some hairs. If Howe's struggle is against readings that rationalize and shut down “possibility” (the critic as Urizen, perverting the fiery joy of textual practice to ten commands or seven types of ambiguity), don't readings that tell this story of poetic struggle undo their own attempt at openness? Don't they supply the determinate pleasures of discursive logic and narrative, pleasures that need hardly be legalistic or authoritarian? When Marjorie Perloff confronts the four lines from “Articulation of Sound Forms in Time” that begin

Mohegan ToForceImmanenceShotStepSeeShowerFiftyTree

she slips quite deftly into storytelling. The text, she writes, “is, so to speak, wounded, as if to say that the nightmare war with the Savage Other has come back to haunt Hope/Howe [the “subject” of the poem, Puritan preacher Hope Atherton, and his authorial double] with its ‘AKantian Empirical’ ‘Force’ or ‘Immanence’ of ‘Mohegan’ or ‘Maori’ presence. …” Howe may have “demilitarized” her syntax, and the critic may praise her for that liberating gesture, but in her expert reading Perloff redeploys Howe's semantic forces along a well-established barricade. Her effort reminds me that William James, no foe of pluralism or of multiplicity, found the act of selection not oppressive but essential to liberty, the very stuff of thought and art. The mind, he writes in Principles of Psychology, “works on the data it receives very much in the way a sculptor works on his block of stone,” extricating only this one sculpture from the rest. “We may, if we like … unwind things back,” he goes on, “to that black and jointless continuity of a space and moving clouds of swarming atoms that science calls the only real world. But all the while the world we feel and live in will be that which our ancestors and we, by slowly cumulative strokes of choice, have extricated out of this, like sculptors, by simply rejecting certain portions of the given stuff.” Slowly cumulative strokes of choice: That's the help I look for in other readers of Howe; and that, thank God, is what they supply, enabling me to confront the “given stuff” while remaining in the world I feel and live in. (What are “works?” Works are where we live.)

Now for a poet who identifies with the stone that was rejected, who feels only a discordant kinship with the cultural “ancestors” James has so comfortably in mind, acquiescence to works and to “the world” comes hard, or not at all. “Why does Howe erase or elide some words? The isolation of a letter, the isolation of a syllable,” du Plessis asks:

Why does she confound grammar? a well with clefts, words as stones. Why does she use syllable-sounds of semi-meaning? (“enend adamap blue wov thefthe”) (“Thorow”) Cryptograms, language always having ‘another’ message. Why and how vibrations of shadow words, as if visual afterimages, come in in her intricate split spell-ings. … Why does she make pages of cut-ups, of upside-downs, of palimpsests? Traces one can barely read, texts of physical beauty (in words) that enact their own destruction and dispersion.

Du Plessis' answer: Howe “wants to show the half-seen, the half-forgotten”; “she represents the silence half-sounded of the powerless. […] She is suspicious of languages and discourses as already made and inhabited things” and therefore attempts “a cultural practice—an ethical and humane practice—that does not demand ‘sacrifice and subjugation’ to ‘form and order’ in order to write.”

I'm tempted to go on quoting. This essay, “Whowe,” is easily the best introduction to Howe. But think of why it is so helpful. As the poet's text grows most intractable, as it calls more and more attention to itself as words on a page, du Plessis invokes a figure of the Poet to return us to the world we live and feel in. Her focus shifts to the woman behind the poems, the one who takes liberties, who identifies with both Cordelia and Lear, who is “driven,” conflicted, heroic, and so on, the one we can identify with or admire. Du Plessis quotes from a statement of poetics which Howe herself added as the introduction to her selected poems: “I wish I could tenderly lift from the dark side of history voices that are anonymous, slighted—inarticulate.” In a way that is not true of Charles Bernstein, Michael Palmer, or Ronald Johnson, at least for me, Howe's achievement as a poet revolves around this wishful, wistful, grim, determined, stammer-audacious “I”: a figure who lifts one voice, her own, but refuses to let it sing for fear of drowning out those anonymous, slighted others. A figure whom we hear, therefore, almost despite herself, and most clearly in her prose.

When you struggle to address “the material object” of the text in all its flux and possibility, “the vexed question of authorship [keeps] intruding itself.” So Howe writes in the introduction to A Bibliography of the King's Book, or, Eikon Basilike: a sequence which is (as she describes it in an interview) “filled with gaps and words tossed, and words touching, words crowding each other, letters mixing and falling away from each other, commands and dreams, verticals and circles,” and if it's impossible to print, that's all right, “because it's about impossibility anyway.” Ah. In Howe's sequence-introductions, interviews, essays on early American authors, and other prose texts, the poet herself must limit “possibility” by performing her own work and that of other writers, explaining the texts, choosing this and not that to bring to our attention, falling, much as she struggles against it, into a world of predication, convention, and biography. A world, that is, in which one may be Peter Pauperized.


In My Emily Dickinson Howe struck out bravely against reductive biographical interpretations of her precursor's work. “In some sense the subject of any poem is the author's state of mind at the time it was written,” she asserts, “but facts of an artist's life will never explain that particular artist's truth. Poems and poets of the first rank”—hierarchy, anyone?—“remain mysterious. Emily Dickinson's life was language and a lexicon her landscape. The vital distinction between concealment and revelation is the essence of her work.” Like the Eliot of “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Howe here wishes “to divert interest from the poet to the poetry”; yet in the introductory essay to The Europe of Trusts, Howe sets her own work in a loosely autobiographical frame. “For me there was no silence before armies,” she begins, and goes on in the first paragraph to tell us her birthdate, to describe her parents (in a phrase) and to tell us how they met. The essay quickly moves to interweave Howe's life with historical atrocity and the knots that history will twist in language: “Now there were armies in the west called East,” she writes. We're meant to follow it in this trajectory, to pay less attention to Howe's psychological unconscious than to these traces of her “historical consciousness.” But as she juxtaposes a section of Pythagorean Silence with a reminiscence of her father going to war, or invokes the instructions of Creon to “Antigone who was the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta”—“Go to the dead and love them”—you can't help musing on the biographical ground from which the poet's effort to “break out into perfect primeval Consent” and lift others' voices might stem. Even the essay's flickering title points to Howe's impulses towards concealment and exposure, poetic self-fashioning and shameful, biographical nakedness: “There Are Not Leaves Enough to Crown to Cover to Crown to Cover.”

Howe's most recent collection of prose, The Birth-mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History, fills in the outlines of this conflicted figure: a woman who is at once the fallen Eve hunting for fig leaves and the ambitious and revisionary poet defying myths of the fall to search for laurel in a world where there are not leaves enough (or not enough for both). With the academic colon in its title and its tips of the hat to literary theorists and a ringing, Whitmanian catalogue of American scholars (Kibbey, Caldwell, Colacurcio, Slotkin, Shrager Lang, and Bercovitch) The Birth-mark is more traditional in its approach than My Emily Dickinson. It's a hungrily, gratefully researched volume: “It is the grace of scholarship,” Howe writes; “I am indebted to everyone.” Even the grace of scholarship, however, can't entirely justify the scholarly enterprise to Howe. “I am drawn toward the disciplines of history and literary criticism,” she writes, “but in the dawning distance a dark wall of rule supports the structure of every letter, record, transcript: every proof of authority and power. I know records are compiled by winners, and scholarship is in collusion with Civil Government. I know this and go on searching for some trace of love's infolding through all the paper in all the libraries I come to.”

To search for traces of love's infolding, as opposed to mere textual or historical insight, Howe turns toward the sorts of writing that send her own critics and readers scrambling back to the scene of inscription, where they discover an affecting, emotionally resonant Poet. She gravitates, that is to say, to writing that is (messily) born and not (perfectly, instantly) made: writing marked by a birthmark, a stammer, a flaw. She champions variorum and facsimile editions, whether of Dickinson, Shelley, or Hölderlin, for these preserve the strain and grain of composition against the fatal quests of Alymer-editors for clean copy and polished final intentions. “In spite of the zealous searching of editors, authors, and publishers for the print-perfect proof of intellectual labor,” Howe observes, “the heart may be sheltering in some random mark of communication. Cancellations, variants, insertions, erasures, marginal notes, stray marks and blanks” may be “memories in disguise,” preserving the human against time's and print's “it was.” They restore an absent presence to the reader, a sense of “your being alive there,” as F. O. Matthiessen wrote to his Russell Cheney, doting on his absent lover's letters home. Like the crack in Auden's tea-cup, they open a lane to the land of the dead:

When my brother was young, he covered the margins and the fly leafs of every book in the house with lines of poetry and other quotations, and with his own name, and other names. Nothing brings him back to me so vividly as looking at those old books.

—Elizabeth Hawthorne

The being in the midst of books he has been accustomed to read, and which contain his marks and notes, will still give him a sort of existence with me.

—Elizabeth Shaw Melville

He seems ever at my ear, in his books, more especially in his marginalia, speaking not personally to me, and yet in a way so natural to my feelings, that finds me so fully, and awakens such a strong echo in my mind and heart, that I seem more intimate with him now than ever I was in life.

—Sara Coleridge on her father

The birthmarks preserved in variorum and facsimile editions present all texts as (in words Howe takes from Richard Sieburth) “events rather than objects … processes rather than products,” which turn the reader “from passive consumer into active participant in the genesis of the poem,” and they make the work of many writers (Dickinson, Melville, Shelley, Hölderlin, even Thomas Shepard) look like a text by Howe. In doing both of these they do something far greater: fulfilling the traditional promise of poets to their beloveds without a suspect appeal to greed or an evasion of defect and decay. So long as women read and eyes can see, so long live these, and these give life to thee.

As a frontispiece to The Birth-mark Howe reproduces one such annotated text: a column from Melville's Authorized New Testament with Psalms, Luke 13. The novelist has bracketed verse 34, and scored, in a wavy penciled underline, the first sentence of verse 35: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not! / Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.” The prophets Howe has in mind are a group of American figures, mostly but not only writers, whose “antinomianism” has been erased in accounts of American culture. Some are traditional fare: Anne Hutchinson, Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson (a curiously muted and marginal figure, but who shows up now and then). Others would have rejected the charge quite violently, like Thomas Shepard and Mary Rowlandson, but their texts betray them. As he struggled to impose order and discipline on the Bay Colony, for example, Shepard wrote an autobiography whose title Howe reproduces as “T (My Birth & Life:) S;,” and whose structure, with its “improvisational commentary” and eighty-six empty pages in the middle, she describes as if it were a deliberate Duchampian or Dada artifact. As Shepard discovered in an anagram Howe quotes, even his name encoded disruption: “O, a map's threshed.”

Howe's antinomianism lies far from the sexual license and “Communitie of Weomen” Governor Winthrop accused Anne Hutchinson of promoting, and which, in trial transcripts, she promptly retorts she abhors. Nor is it the dizzying revelation announced by Ranter preacher Abiezer Coppe: “Thus saith the Lord, ‘I inform you, that I overturn, overturn, overturn.’” Rather, the antinomian is a freedom from laws of language: a mixing of genres, a spontaneous, sound-driven composition which dodges Ginsbergian “first thought best thought” dullness through its ever-failing, ever-shattered attempt to capture the movements of Spirit. As Patricia Caldwell observes (in an essay Howe graciously cites in her Acknowledgments), the American antinomian controversy was above all “a crisis of language.” “If human language is imprecise and uninformed before grace and swept away in a tidal wave of spirit after grace,” Caldwell explains, “then words cannot consistently be relied upon to fulfill their basic denotative function.” They might give their best evidence of grace through their failure as works, whether those be works of literature or of human will.

“The moment of true poetry,” declared the Situationists, “brings all the unsettled debts of history back into play.” When Howe speaks of Dickinson's manuscripts as “a Reformation” and their misrepresentation as “a blasphemy” she opens old accounts indeed, grounding her Romantic love of imperfection and her postmodern notebook aesthetic in a religious quarrel nearly four centuries old. Listen how the poet's voice lifts into confidence, released into prophetic anger. “The excommunication and banishment of the early American female preacher and prophet Anne Hutchinson, and the comparison of her opinions to monstrous births, is not unrelated to the editorial apprehension and domestication of Emily Dickinson,” she writes, spitting the understatement of her double-negation. Even now “canonical social power” has as its “predominant purpose” the effort to “render isolate voices devoted to writing as a physical event of immediate revelation,” revising their texts according to a “covenant of works” and drowning out the stammered, scribbled covenant of grace.

At moments like these The Birth-mark echoes the grand rhetoric of My Emily Dickinson, and I prick up my ears at the sound. Once again Howe's prose voice is confident—and even, in its own way, comforting. Lately the notion of a Puritan origin for American writing has begun to seem, in William Spengemann's witty metaphor, “a kind of verbal shell game, in which the prestidigitator places his thematic pea under one shell labeled ‘Puritan,’ makes a lot of rapid movements on his typewriter, and then produces the pea from under another shell marked ‘American literature.’” Diversity and discontinuity are the terms to conjure with. Howe sets these new developments aside to tell one story and one story only: a twice-told tale that lets her use an unquestioned and historically oppressive binary opposition (works and grace) while still claiming the high if shifty ground of multiplicity. I am again pharisaic, perverse. I get a great deal of pleasure, after all, from Howe's work in this vein; it calls forth some of her finest detective work and Poundian subject-rhymes.4 It also helps to fill in the figure of the Poet I have already outlined from My Emily Dickinson and “There Are Not Leaves Enough. …” For like Hawthorne's and Robert Lowell's meditations on Puritan themes, Howe's is a family affair, marked by her birth and focused on her father, Harvard Law School professor and legal historian Mark de Wolfe Howe.

Near the start of The Birth-mark Howe includes a rare personal story. “During the 1950s,” she writes, “although I was only a high school student, I was already a library cormorant. I needed out-of-the-way volumes from Widener Library. My father said it would be trespassing if I went into the stacks to find them. I could come with him only as far as the second-floor entrance. There I waited while he entered the guarded territory to hunt for books.” This is a consciously emblematic moment, and after noting that because of it “the stacks of Widener Library and of all great libraries in the world are still the wild to me,” Howe lets it fade into memory until you reach the volume's close. Here, tough, in the interview she reprints from Talisman magazine, Howe discusses her background once more. “My father also was fascinated by the Puritans,” she recalls.

I remember him in his study late in the evening with his light-shade on because his eyes must have been tired from so much reading for the Holmes book and students' papers, etc., but he would be bent over some old Mather or Sewell diary for relaxation! [Mark DeWolfe Howe, Oliver Wendell Holmes.] They said of Increase Mather that he loved his study to a kind of excess. In the 1950s, there was my father, who felt the same way, and all I could think of was acting and boys and whatever else I thought of then. And now I have taken this long journey back through Puritan history, although I entered another way. I find myself reading about the Mathers for relaxation, and I love my study to a kind of excess. I would dearly love to sit down and show my father what I know now. We would talk about the garden and the wilderness together, and all would be well. All manner of things would be well. Yet this place I want to come home to was false to women in an intellectual sense. It was false.

From a dream of reconciliation, lulled to sleep by words from Dame Julian of Norwich (“all shall be well”), Howe wakes up into feminist homelessness. And when she talks about her compositional method, with its rhythms of capture and freedom, this mix of nostalgia and dislocation returns. “I think a lot of my work is about breaking free,” she says, “starting free and being captured and breaking free again and being captured again.” The interviewer tries to shift topics: “The texts that you use seem …” Howe breaks in to finish her thought. “It just seems that I end up with this place that I wish I could belong to and wish I could describe. But I am outside looking in.”

I don't want to unmask Howe's interest in Puritans or history or antinomian composition as a matter of familial determinism, a mere reworking of what simply was. But think of what this autobiographical material adds to The Birth-mark and, more broadly, to the figure of the Poet “Susan Howe.” By introducing it in the reprinted interview Howe adds a satisfying complication to the earlier essays. The bond with the dead enjoyed by Sara Coleridge, Elizabeth Shaw Melville, and Elizabeth Hawthorne suddenly anticipates the poet's revelations, while the limited personal interest of biography opens out onto unanticipated historical vistas. The mysterious “you” Howe addresses early on—“you. Fate flies home to the mark. Can any words restore to me how you felt?”—takes on at least one plausible object, reinforced by the latent put in flying “home to the mark”; the later Mark, in turn, becomes one more lost “you” in a series that stretches back past one life's losses into that “loss of something” that a Dickinson poem calls the mirror image of our hope for the kingdom of heaven. The tensions and complications of Howe's project take on just that element of retrospective inevitability I admired in My Emily Dickinson; they loop strangely through time and hierarchical levels of meaning, rather than simply disrupting them. Even Howe's prosodic experimentation surges and ebbs in response. When she speaks of her poetry washing ashore at a place she wishes she could belong to and describe, but can't, interviewer Edward Forster offers an insightful gloss. “So it begins in fragments and ends in prose,” he proposes, “and prose is a kind of convention with an expected syntax and order and shape.” “I hope that my prose hasn't got an expected syntax,” Howe ripostes, but Forster's proposition strikes home. Precisely because of its association with convention, with expected syntax, with the garden from which Howe has been expelled into (political) self-consciousness and the pain of mortal loss, prose becomes the false home longed for and the one to be, regenerate, remade.


In her prose, then, Howe braves the aesthetic shames her poetry resists: conventional syntax, and embrace of sovereignty, a unity and (often) fluency of voice. If she risks resembling the caricature of Dickinson where this essay began—a devoted, sentimentalized women “with big emotions and strange words to express them in”—the risk pays off, not least because of what it adds to her portrait of a Poet struggling to make her work, in Eliot's words, “an expression of significant emotion, emotion which has its life in the poem [the realm of sign-making, of signification] and not in the history of the poet.” Her Dickinson did no less.

Even more than My Emily Dickinson,The Birth-mark sparks my curiosity and gives me an appetite for Howe's other writing. Reading it I want to see what this Poet will do, what her quest to “enfold tenderness” will look like, not just unfolded in the fallen medium of prose, but caught up in rapt and visionary gestures of antinomian composition. Ready to listen for traces of “the heart” and human presence, I also want to see what “writing as a physical act of immediate revelation” looks like—whether it really convinces me to abandon my love of literary works and trust instead in a justifying, all-or-nothing “covenant of grace.”

Opening The Nonconformist's Memorial, then, I face four sequences. Two of these have prose introductions, overtures in which Howe introduces phrases and thematic material from her essays as leitmotifs that you can trace through the difficult music to come. (The order of composition may be the opposite, of course.) Thus in “Melville's Marginalia” Howe describes Wilson Walker Cowen's “loving” transcription of Melville's marginal annotations in a way that recapitulates the central theme of editing that runs through The Birth-mark. She strikes the chord of tenderness as well: “I thought one way to write about a loved author,” she explains, “would be to follow what trails he follows through words of others: what if these penciled single double and triple scorings arrows short phrases angry outbursts crosses cryptic ciphers sudden enthusiasms mysterious erasures have come to find you too, here again, now.” (Who, you? I scrawl in my margin, suddenly conscious of my own act of annotation. James Clarence Mangan, the nineteenth-century Irish poet who turns out to be, for her, the model of Bartelby? The mysterious “you” from the Introduction to The Birth-mark?)

In the introduction to A Bibliography of the King's Book, or, Eikon Basilike Howe counterpoints her interest in matters of editing with her love of English history and the antinomian impulse. She describes the execution of King Charles I and the same-day publication of The Eikon Basilike, the Pourtracture of His Sacred Majestie in his Solitude and Sufferings, a collection of “essays, explanations, prayers, debates, emblems and justifications of the Royalist cause.” The book gives as Charles's words what is in fact a pagan shepherdess's prayer from Sidney's Arcadia, thereby lending ammunition to Milton for his disdainful response-tract, the Eikonoklastes. The Howe you know from The Birth-mark could hardly resist a text like this, at once Royalist and subversive, mixing up genres, and probably a forgery to boot. She could resist Edward Almack's Bibliography (1896) still less: a work meant to “describe each material edition” of the Eikon and prove its Royal authorship, yet which Howe's son found in a library sale of “useless books.” Kings appall; their ghosts appeal; the books that served their cause, now discarded (thus “marginalized”), address themselves by chance to poets, who find in them “The Sovereign stile / in another stile / Left scattered in disguise.”

Scattered through the later pages of A Bibliography of the King's Book are a number of threads and strings: the “remains of light blue silk / strings” that figured in some edition of the Eikon; allusions to Ariadne and Arachne; a kite-string with which Charles Dickens's Mr. Dick will fly a kite “covered with manuscript” that includes “some allusion to King Charles the First's head.” “There's plenty of string,” says Mr. Dick, “and when it flies high, it takes the facts a long way. That's my manner of diffusing 'em.” Here and in “Melville's Marginalia” Howe takes facts from her prose and sends them soaring above discursive logic and predicative syntax. They fly “according to circumstances, and the wind, and so forth,” as the Spirit moves her, but she's careful to leave a string back to the kite-maker, too. A Bibliography thus has a Royalist “I” who asks us to “Tell you my author / knew his hand / The book was his,” and an implied “I” who cuts and rearranges these prior texts, ostensibly leaving “IN / HIS / SOLITUDE / To The / Reader the work” but lingering as the ghost in its shattered machine. “Melville's Marginalia” even more explicitly asks to be read as a “trail” back to its author. “If there are things Melville went looking for in books so too there were things I looked for in Melville's looking,” the poet explains. What follows isn't quite a mystery or dramatic monologue, with clues you add up to recover those missing “things.” That would be conventional, workaday: A. S. Byatt's Possession without the satire and romance. But if we're invited to turn pages with the musing irregularity of Mangan (“Instead of classifying / be browsed and dreamed / he didn't even browse / regularly”), other, more insistent voices remind us of how much is at stake. Above the phrase “the things that are written,” printed upside down, another line appears: “All my soul,” it whispers, “is in the book.”

If prose introductions and echoes of The Birth-mark help decode these sequences (the second pair in the book), the two poems that open it, lacking an explicit context, are bleak, demanding, comfortless—yet powerful. The poet makes and marks her way through deep mourning, refusing the consolations of religious orthodoxy as she reads and comments on a scholarly edition of the New Testament (we pore over the tags and scraps she's underlined or copied in a notebook) and denying herself the satisfaction of elegy (a winning of aesthetic gain through betrayal of what's lost). This half of the book, called “Turning,” bears an epigraph from Mary Shelley's journal marked by Melville in his copy of Shelley Memorials: “The enthusiast suppresses her tears, crushes her opening thoughts, and—all is changed.” On the page that follows, as the epigraph for “The Nonconformist's Memorial,” runs John 20:15–18, the moment when weeping Mary Magdalene meets the risen Jesus, has her tears stopped (crushed?), is told “Touch me not” and instructed to convey a message to the disciples: “I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.”

Mary Magdalene, Mary Shelley, Susan Howe: All are, in this sequence, figures for the female enthusiast or antinomian who “fled from consolation,” tasting none in a “Master” who belongs to his Father more than to her. Tags of text link poem to poem: “The act of Uniformity / ejected her” and “Citations [to her?] remain abbreviated”; although “She was coming to anoint him,” “In Peter she is nameless” with her “headstrong anarchy thoughts.” Fishers of men did not catch her; thus while “The nets were not torn // The Gospel did not grasp.” Lines begin to cross one another at sharp angles, some perhaps drawn from a Bible commentary. “Whether the words be a command / words be a command issuing from authority or counsel” crosses “his hiding is understood” (upside down), at “authority” it crosses the “drift” of “night drift shreds earth knowledge”; “Dissenters gathered in the place” crosses “Wind blowing and veering.” Clearly the dissenters, those nonconformists to the Act of Uniformity, are the ones in touch with the gusts of Spirit, and the page seconds their dissent. Later pages grow clearer, but continue to register their nonconformity. They interweave neutral scholarly observations and hushed protests against any merely “intellectual grasp” of the noli me tangere scene:

The motif of fear is missing
The motif of searching
Historicity of the scene
Confused narrative complex
Two women with names
followed by two without names
Distance original disobedience
Against the coldness of force
Intellectual grasp
Scene for what follows
Do not touch me
It is by chance that she weeps
Her weeping is not a lament
She has a voice to cry out
No community can accompany her
No imagination can dream
Improbable disciple passages
Exegetes explain the conflict
Some manuscripts and versions
Her sadness

The enthusiast's sadness remains an ineluctable fact, despite the efforts of “exegetes” primarily concerned with whether Mary did or did not enter the tomb (a conflict between versions of the story). Against the coldness of such scholarship, which masks her “voice to cry out” in talk of motifs and historicity, denying that her weeping is a lament, Howe poses fear and trembling. She longs to “go back / recollectedly into biblical / fierce grace,” but she refuses to submit to the Christ who lies in wait for her return: the lost, now found, now risen Master who tells her (could he?) “Do not touch me.”

As in the other poems here—as everywhere in Howe—“The Nonconformist's Memorial” refuses to tell the story I have made from it. The refusal of narrative, or even of shapely resolution, all the shards placeable into some mosaic at last, mirrors Howe's refusal to be reconciled with loss, to call her fall from “biblical / fierce grace” into de profundis sadness fortunate. There are, however, Howe's usual discursive and lyrical moments as well: a voice that tells you “These are thoughts / This is not intention / as to the sense of it / To be a man of Sorrows / the Person speaking”; or an address whose simplicity of syntax is as surprising and intimate as its confession: “Reader I do not wish to hide / in you to hide from you / It is the Word to whom she turns / True submission and subjection.” These bring the poem well within the range of voice, the range of pathos—in whispering range, that is to say, of the “Person speaking” in The Birth-mark, the figure these poems implicitly ask you to trace, and to embrace.

When I think of The Nonconformist's Memorial, I twist it a little. The first poem that comes to mind is the third, “A Bibliography,” with its enthusiastic shatterings of the Book-as-Icon, remembered mostly for its gestures on a page, its quotes from David Copperfield, and its curious, guilty hauntings by prose and “the ghost of a king.” The second is the title poem, particularly the passage I have already quoted at length. Then comes “Melville's Marginalia,” the closing poem and the one which Howe calls “the essential poem in the collection.” Perhaps: For me it remains elusive, in part because of its length (sixty-five pages), in part because it overlaps in theme with so much of The Birth-mark, which in some sense drowns it out. Indeed, all three of these poems are bound up in memories of Howe's prose, where her resistance to “comfort and confidence” relaxes and her voice begins to rise. I am always surprised by how successfully they resist glosses and narrative recasting when reread. As Howe says of Dickinson's manuscripts, they “preserve their insubordination.”

I tend to forget, at least at first, the “Silence Wager Stories.” Yet the close of this sequence, the shortest in the collection, haunts me: one of three passages from Howe I have, without trying, by heart. In a poem shadowed by “loveDeath” and a “Theme theme” of “heart fury,” and which echoes the words brought to a dying Tristan as he waits in vain for Isolde's sail to appear on the horizon—Oed' und leer das meer, “wide and empty the sea”—these lines underscore the loss that links these two new books, and they undermine Howe's hope that text (the manuscript, the mark, marked Scripture, something—just not “works”) can bring about an end to loss, social or mortal, so that all manner of things shall be well. In The Birth-mark Howe quotes Thomas Shepard's promise to the sinner worried about Christ's absense, off in heaven. Take and read, Shepard advises, for “here, he that was dead, but now is alive, writes, sends to thee; O, receive his love here in his word; this is receiving ‘him by faith.’” Against which consoling covenant of grace I read the rest of The Birth-mark's frontispiece from Melville:

35 Behold, your house is left
unto you desolate. And verily, I
say unto you, Ye shall not see
me, until the time come when ye
shall say, Blessed is he that
cometh in the name of the

and the last five gently rocking lines of “Silence Wager Stories”:

Half thought thought otherwise
loveless and sleepless the sea
Where you are where I would be
half thought thought otherwise
Loveless and sleepless the sea

Audacity and stammer I admire. In lines like these, sung “otherwise,” I hear my Susan Howe.


  1. Adrienne Rich, in her essay “Vesuvius at Home” (first published in Parnassus 1976), was the first to insist on the poet's experimentalism, and propose it as a form of “nonconformity.” Howe finishes the job.

  2. The first of these proto-modernist moves is actually attributed to Jonathan Edwards, but Howe sees much of Edwards, except for his “humorlessness and the dead weight of doctrinaire Calvinism,” resurgent in Dickinson's work.

  3. An example of this retrospective revelation: When Howe quotes Dickinson's last letter at the start of the book—“Little Cousins, / Called back. / Emily.”—after a quote from Keats's “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again,” the reason for that start is left unclear. Looking back from the end, after this voice has led you through readings of Dickinson, Shakespeare, and so many others, it's evident the calling back was here a summoning up, a gift (in Keats's terms) of phoenix wings, a chance for two poets, both in some sense unknown, to fly at the latter's desire.

  4. In Johnson's Wonder Working Providence she spots a line: “surely had this sect [the antinomians] gone on awhile, they would have made a new Bible.” Holmes to our Watson, she does not deign to add that writing a new Bible became the ambition of Emerson, Whitman, and other American Romantics. Score one for the shell game.

Works Cited

Susan Howe. The Europe of Trusts (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1990).

———. My Emily Dickinson (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1985).

———. Singularities (Wesleyan University Press, 1990).

Rachel Blau du Plessis, “Whowe.” In The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice (New York: Routledge, 1990), pp. 123–139.

Peter Quartermain, “And the Without: An Interpretive Essay on Susan Howe.” In Disjunctive Poetics: From Gertrude Stein and Louis Zukofsky to Susan Howe (Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 182–194.

Marjorie Perloff, “Collision or Collusion with History: Susan Howe's Articulation of Sound Forms in Time.” In Poetic License: Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric (Northwestern University Press, 1990), pp. 297–310.

Dana D. Nelson (review date Fall 1995)

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SOURCE: A review of The Birth-mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History, in ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews, Vol. 8, No. 4, Fall, 1995, pp. 59–61.

[In the following review, Nelson offers a positive assessment of The Birth-mark, praising it as a “poetically rendered critical effort.”]

Susan Howe is a well-published poet and occasional critic. Here in her Birth-mark, she forays into textual research, bringing to that project lyrical speculativeness and feminist awareness. This study of American colonial and U.S. literature, an inquiry into marginalia, antinomianism, editorial control, and the poetics of written form is as unsettling of present disciplinary boundaries as the texts she takes up to study.

Howe discerns a pattern in the editorial (read: cultural and textual) management of women's voices from Anne Hutchinson to Emily Dickinson. As she argues,

the manuscripts of Emily Dickinson represent a contradiction to canonical social power, whose predominant purpose seems to have been to render isolate voices devoted to writing as a physical event of immediate revelation. The excommunication and banishment of the early American female preacher and prophet Anne Hutchinson, and the comparison of her opinions to monstrous births, is not unrelated to the editorial apprehension and domestication of Emily Dickinson.


Howe undertakes to trace the parameters of the struggle between the Law (figured as restrictive patriarchy) and lawlessness, real liberty or truth (figured as the banished/defiant/wild feminine) in New England literary history. Howe sees her own work as precisely such an intervention in the Law of editorial and critical propriety, noting her “trespass” here “into the disciplines of American Studies and Textual Criticism through my need to fathom what wildness and absolute freedom is the nature of expression” (2). The form of the book itself reminds us of its trespass. Defying the “logical” argumentative development of standard criticism, the book forwards its argument suggestively, through thematically organized ruminations entitled “Submarginalia,” “Encloser,” “Captivity and Restoration,” and “Flames and Generosities.” Also included is a Talisman interview with Howe, perhaps for those who prefer a more straightforward rendition of Howe's literary and textual investments.

The cormorant becomes a recurrent figure for Howe's conception of scholarly inquiry. Diving into textual, etymological, critical, and cultural history, Howe fishes for information traditionally considered marginal or unrelated to the context of New England literature. For instance, in her comparison of Coleridge's notebook entries to Mather's Marginalia Christi Americana, Howe observes that

Coleridge, a cormorant of libraries, dives deep into books as if they were a sea. When Thoreau compares readers who devour the sentimental novels in Concord's circulating library to cormorants who will digest anything, he means women (novelists and readers), though he doesn't say that or use the speculative pronoun. The chapter in Walden is called “Reading.” Look Homeward, Angel is a sentimental novel. Walden is only a pond. Ponds can't have strands.


The last line is an allusion to her elucidation of Mather's Marginalia subtitle, “to the American Strand.” Howe reflects on several definitions of “strand”—“part of the shore lying between tidemarks,” or “to drift, or be driven ashore” (27). Thus is the eclecticism of her critical method.

Howe ranges through Anne Hutchinson's trial and banishment, Thomas Shepard's sermons, anagrams, and records of women parishioners' spiritual conversion narratives, and Mary Rowlandson's captivity narrative, interweaving those sections with analyses of and excerpts from works by historical, literary, and critical personages such as John Winthrop, Anne Bradstreet, James Savage, John Adams, Crispus Attucks, Noah Webster, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Kenneth Burke, F. O. Mathiessen, and Michel Foucault.

It is in her chapter on Dickinson's poetry “and the illogic of sumptuary values” (131) that the intentions of Howe's own critical form become perhaps most clear. This chapter traces her ongoing argument with Ralph Franklin, “the busy director of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University,” who is currently editing the new Poems of Emily Dickinson: Including variant readings critically compared with all known manuscripts. Concerned because prior editions had “cleaned up” Dickinson's “stray” marks and idiosyncratic line breaks, Howe wants Franklin to consider the artistic structure of poetry as Dickinson presented it on the written page rather than to regularize it according to editorial standards. Reexamining from facsimile manuscripts the ways in which Dickinson's form, with its dashes, idiosyncratic spellings, x's, and word variants, defies the restraints of publication and canonical form, Howe argues that “this visible handwritten sequence establishes an enunciative clearing outside intention while obeying intuition's agonistic necessity” (136). The wildness of Dickinson's “truth” defies the commodification of use value, and Howe concludes that “when [Dickinson] created herself author, editor, and publisher, she situated her production in a field of free transgressive prediscovery” (147). Howe herself apparently hopes for some value in communicating to a larger audience in the printed form of this book; her message is certainly a provocative one for “straight” literary critics and textual editors.

The Talisman interview is an interesting, though jarringly pedestrian, conclusion to Howe's poetically rendered critical effort. It does clarify the significance of her title, in her riff on Perry Miller (whom she knew in childhood as her father's colleague) and his landmark work, Errand into the Wilderness. It also works to unsettle the quality of Howe's feminist understandings: within a page, she first complains about feminist who “strident[ly]” reverse gendered formulations of power, producing “only another bias,” which is “in a strange sense … still a male bias,” only to note shortly afterward that “it takes a woman to see clearly the condescending tone of these male editors” (169–70). But it is also true that her ability to conceptualize the non-Anglo players in colonial America becomes clearer here than in the main body of the text, as she elaborates on her attraction to the textual studies that formed the basis of this project: “Where did the poison of racial hatred in America begin? Will it ever end? Why are we such a violent nation? Why do we have such contempt for powerlessness? I feel compelled in my work to go back … to the invasion or settling, or whatever current practice calls it, of this place” (164).

The best conclusion to her project, however, comes prior to the interview. It is clear that Howe wishes to carry the legacy of Emily Dickinson as “Wayward Puritan. Charged with enthusiasm.” It is certainly true that, as she concludes, “enthusiasm is antinomian” (149), but it is exactly in that silent wild(er)ness that the cormorant, lawless, poet/critic Howe finds herself.

Peter Nicholls (essay date Winter 1996)

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SOURCE: “Unsettling the Wilderness: Susan Howe and American History,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 37, No. 4, Winter, 1996, pp. 586–601.

[In the following essay, Nicholls explores Howe's critiques of American history as well as the treatment of women in historical narratives.]

The growing critical interest in Susan Howe's poetry and prose may be one indication of a turn against a now familiar postmodern aesthetics of surface and pure “style.”1 For Howe's development of an exploratory poetics has been closely bound up with her passionate rereadings of American history in works like My Emily Dickinson (1985) and The Birth-mark (1993).2 It is that relation which I want to pursue here: what might connect a radical approach to American history with an innovative poetics?

Howe regards herself as first and foremost a poet, but she is also a freelance historian in a long and distinguished line which includes writers such as Ezra Pound and Charles Olson, each of whom shared a keen sense of American history as a carefully policed regime of knowledge. For Howe, as for those predecessors, academic study is hedged about with prejudices and covert investments of power and privilege. For the poet to enter this enclosure is to be branded immediately as a kind of interloper. In her preface to The Birth-mark, for example, Howe says that she has trespassed into the disciplines of American Studies and Textual Criticism through my need to fathom what wildness and absolute freedom is the nature of expression” (2).

This sense of “trespass” has rather complex personal roots for Howe. Her father—Mark De Wolfe Howe—taught at Harvard, wrote a book about American law called The Garden and the Wilderness, and edited the letters of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Close friends of the family in Boston included American studies luminaries such as E. O. Matthiessen and Perry Miller, but Howe's memories of their visits are linked to a sense of her own marginalization rather than of enlightenment. Of Miller she recalls:

He was one of my parents, best friends and was always around. But how did I know him? Only as a lecherous character who drank too much. He is supposed to have been an inspiring teacher. To us daughters of professors, he was the object of great scorn because we knew that if he was at one of our houses, he would quickly get red-faced and then his hands would start wandering. His wife, Betty, who I believe did half of his research for him, was silent and shadowy.

(“Interview” [Foster] 160)

This is only an anecdote, of course, but it compresses many of Howe's feelings about the place of women in relation to academic institutions and to a historical consciousness which, she observes simply, “is still male” (168). Another early memory of a visit to the Widener Library with her father sticks in her mind: “My father said it would be trespassing if I went into the stacks to find [books]. I could come with him only as far as the second-floor entrance. There I waited while he entered the guarded territory to hunt for books” (Birth-mark 18). That sense of exclusion from her father's historical studies was partly responsible for Howe's decision to opt for a career as a painter, though by the mid-seventies her experiments with words and images had led her back to writing. Howe now began to dig deep into the Puritan history which had so preoccupied her father, but only to discover what she had really suspected all along, that “this place I want to come home to was false to women in an intellectual sense. It was false” (“Interview” [Foster] 161).

Perhaps for this reason, Howe's early poems made only tentative forays into this “place,” and it was her mother's Irish background that first offered Howe clues to what she calls a “wildness” somewhere outside history. Almost from the start, though, her work proposed an association between “history” and an idea of narrative as a form premised on exclusion and erasure. History, as she puts it in Defenestration of Prague (1983), is “the true story that comes to I nothing,” and the poem invites us instead to “Leap chronicle / come into unintelligible” (88, 135). The resulting opacity of the style may recall the tactics of diminished reference in language poetry, though Howe's writing remains keenly aware of the historical contexts which lie obscurely beyond the poem's edge. Such contexts can never be made fully present-the recurring figures of these texts are those of the dark night, of the “confusion” of the past, of forests and wilderness—but it is that impossibility which redefines the hermeneutic drive as a search for what Howe calls “trace-stories” rather than for origins.

In her work before 1985, Howe tended to take her materials primarily from literary sources, but her research for the book on Dickinson began to draw her deep into American history. In fact, the next decade would find her writing poems centering on Indian Wars, on Thoreau, and, most recently, on Melville's marginalia (a poem which, incidentally, proposes the Irish poet James Clarence Mangan as prototype for Bartleby). This was the heyday of the New Historicism, an invigorating context for Howe's rereadings but one whose particular radicalism often differed from her own. For while Howe shared the new interest in recovering lost and marginalized voices, her own research was already motivated by a passionate commitment to forms of unintelligibility and disruption which ran counter to the totalizing concern with hegemony and consensus that characterized some leading examples of the New Historicism (Nicholls 423–34). In acknowledging the work of Sacvan Bercovitch, for example, Howe has noted tactfully that her reading of American literary expression is “bleaker” than his (Birth-mark xi).

Howe's intensive reading of Emily Dickinson had begun to make these nineteenth-century poems resonate with much earlier texts, disclosing “a continuous peculiar and particular voice in American literature” which could be heard even before the captivity narrative of Mary Rowlandson, back in the days of the Great Migration. What was this voice? Certainly it was not a simply self-expressive one (Howe calls her book My Emily Dickinson to distinguish her poet from the one who appears in Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic). “Voice,” for Howe, is polyphonic rather than original, an elaborate weave of quotation and pastiche which is artful rather than “sincere” (Howe argues revealingly for a play of “camouflage and cunning” even in Dickinson's famous “Master Letters” [My Emily 105–6]. Her Dickinson, then, is above all an experimenter with language, and “voice.” far from being some ingenuous supplement to self, locates the poem in what Howe calls “a wilderness of language formed from old legends, precursor poems, archaic words, industrial and literary detritus” (My Emily 70).

Language is by this account a wilderness, then, but a wilderness which—paradoxically—must now be unsettled if we are to avoid the Puritan trap of (as Howe puts it) “a dialectical construction of the American land as a virgin garden preestablished for them by the Author and Finisher of creation” (Birth-mark 49).3 Wilderness, we conclude, is not an antithetical term to culture, nor, from another point of view, is it simply a recognizable place; for, rather like Jacques Lacan's concept of the unconscious, Howe's wilderness is a text composed of gaps and traces. It is also like the archive, from which knowledge of a historical wilderness can now be drawn, for (as Howe puts it) “If you are a woman, archives hold perpetual ironies. Because the gaps and silences are where you find yourself” (“Interview” [Foster] 158). No punctual authentic self awaits discovery here; or rather that alien self is discernible only in the marks that testify to the violence of erasure. Howe's wilderness thus contains no neatly dialectical “other” to community but evokes instead a process which is internal to signification and disruptive of it.

It is in just such a wilderness that Mary Rowlandson found herself, or that we now find her. In the narrative of her captivity, dictated to and written up by her husband, Rowlandson has an obvious ideological role to play. Howe observes that although Rowlandson has often been blamed for her stereotypical images of her captors as savages. “These critics skirt the presence in this same genre of an equally insulting stereotype, that of a white woman as passive cipher in a controlled and circulated idea of Progress at whose zenith rides the hero-hunter (Indian or white) who will always rescue her” (Birth-mark 96). In short, Rowlandson “must shelter the masculine covenant as lost lady and lofty idol” (97). Rowlandson's narrative will only be “safe” says Howe, “if she asserts the permanence of corporate Soveraignty.” So, she continues, “[e]ach time an errant perception skids loose, she controls her lapse by vehemently invoking biblical authority” (100). Narrative, we might add, purports to remember, though in one sense its therapeutic promise is another kind of amnesia. “One forgets,” says Jean-Francois Lyotard, “as soon as one believes, draws conclusions, and holds for certain” (10).

What fascinates Howe, though, is a certain failure of control that she detects in Rowlandson's narrative: for no matter how often God and Providence are invoked, the “wild” memories remain: “I can remember the time, when I used to sleep quietly without workings in my thoughts, whole nights together, but now it is other ways with me” (Slotkin and Folsom 365). The indelible memory of “a wild place” (Birth-mark 124) and her terrifying exposure to another world beyond the borders of known civilization produce “oscillations of sense” (125) in her narrative, says Howe, a kind of “counter-memory” which prevents the smooth translation of Rowlandson's personal suffering and deliverance into” a metaphor for the process of Conversion” (89). Instead, the level of contradiction and resistance in the narrative perpetuates a memory of something that doesn't fit; and while the story seems to conform to Puritan models of prayer and autobiography as (in historian Ann Kibbey's words) “the means of creating a subjectivity that confirms the existence of the deity” (12), here, as Howe remarks, the narrative seems to work against itself to reveal “Mary Rowlandson guarding God” (My Emily 129).

We can now begin to see what connects Howe's interest in these early American histories to her own experiments with poetic language. For this resistance to the larger narrative of “federal eschatology” is construed by Howe as somehow homologous with a fundamental disjunction between “writing” and “meaning” (Birth-mark 90). This aspect of her thought draws much from Jacques Derrida's account of writing, focusing particularly on the material character of signification which constantly threatens to undermine the pure ideality of “meaning.” The literal topography of “borders” and “margins” through which Howe maps early New England history is now elided with an equally literal topography of writing-the actual page, with its “Cancelations, variants, insertions, erasures, marginal notes, stray marks and blanks” (Birth-mark 9). “Maybe they are memories in disguise,” Howe suggests (9), forms of “ghost writing” (15) which haunt inscription much as Rowlandson's untoward memories apparently haunted her later years. But such traces play havoc with the regulation of our culture, and the pursuit of historical veracity is one with the desire for editorial accuracy, since both seek to extirpate what seems arbitrary, unrelated, directionless. Not for nothing does Howe choose Nathaniel Hawthorne's story “The Birth-mark” to preside over a volume that is centrally concerned with the editorial erasure of the marginal mark, for the scholarly exercise of choice and decision is, in her view, always complicit with a kind of violence, a political denial of those “memories in disguise” which the unimpeachable authority of print represses. “Culture representing form and order will always demand sacrifice and subjugation of one group by another,” she claims (My Emily 93), and, again: “The issue of editorial control is directly connected to the attempted erasure of antinomianism in our culture. Lawlessness seen as negligence is at first feminized and then restricted or banished” (Birth-mark 1).

Now we can get a clearer idea of that “continuous peculiar and particular voice” which Howe discerns running through American writing, for it somehow speaks for “antinomianism,” a word that carries us back to the trial and conviction of Anne Hutchinson in the 1630s. “An antinomian,” Howe reminds us, “is a religious enthusiast,” and she goes on to quote Webster's dictionary, which defines an enthusiast as, among other things,” One whose imagination is warmed, one whose mind is highly excited with the love or in the pursuit of an object; a person of ardent zeal; as, an enthusiast in poetry or music,” (Birth-mark 11). Enthusiasm, then, is the force of desire which unsettles the “wilderness” of language, ungrounding legalism and its eschatology. It is also something that exceeds the authority of print—“Print,” remarks Howe, “is a phobic response to negligence” (Birth-mark 38)—and Hutchinson, s trial stands as an inaugural moment of a tradition which disputes the power of unitary meaning as law by a refusal to participate in the regulated forms of language. Hutchinson, of course, cited Corinthians at her trial—“the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life,” thus distinguishing not between literal and figurative, but between the law and the gospel4—and for Howe the public silence of Emily Dickinson and the “I prefer not to” of Melville's Bartleby are each in their ways “antinomian” in their refusal to relinquish “spirit” to a language complicit with authority.

Dickinson remains Howe's constant touchstone in this respect, since the structuring of Dickinson's poems in manuscript has arguably been ignored or suppressed by editors keen to regularize her work. According to Howe, Thomas Johnson's Harvard edition of the poems has both effaced the experimental character of the poet's work and denied her a political voice. “For me,” Howe explains, “the manuscripts of Emily Dickinson represent a contradiction to canonical social power, [a power] whose predominant purpose seems to have been to render isolate voices devoted to writing as a physical event of immediate revelation” (Birth-mark 1). The mix of elements here is highly characteristic of Howe's thought, unexpectedly fusing an emphatic sense of linguistic materiality with a desire for writing as “immediate revelation.” What she has in mind, I think, is once again related to her conception of a language which is radically antimetaphorical: in the poetry of “spirit” or enthusiasm, words do not become figures for things but remain stubbornly themselves, marks and letters which now block any displacement from an original (lost) object. This is one version of what Derrida means when he says, “This concept of writing designates the place of unease, of the regulated incoherence within conceptuality” (Of Grammatology 237–38).

Howe's most recent piece on Dickinson discovers that “incoherence” in the very form of the poet's manuscripts, attending not only to the controversial question of line breaks and the disposition of the words on the page, but also to the implications of her calligraphy (Birth-mark 131–54). The marginal here becomes the space of the imaginary (Howe relishes the partial anagram), the field of something akin to a textual unconscious. “This space,” says Howe, “is the poem's space. Letters are sounds we see. Sounds leap to the eye. Word lists, crosses, blanks, and ruptured stanzas are points of contact and displacement. Line breaks and visual contrapuntal stresses represent an athematic compositional intention” (Birth-mark 139). Howe is intrigued by the groups of unrelated words that appear at the bottom of so many of Dickinson's poems. Thomas Johnson took them to be merely variants and cross-referenced them as tightly as he could to the words of the actual poem. For Howe, though, these strings of words constitute texts in themselves. At the end of the poem beginning “A Man may make I a Remark,” for example, Dickinson lists the following words: “drop tranquil ignition / deport disclose / Elements sulphurets / express.” One can almost hear Howe's own prosody in the background.5

The brokenness of such writing-Dickinson's almost as much as Howe's—seems to defy syntactical regulation. In its pursuit of “immediacy,” says Howe, “Codes are confounded and converted” (Birth-mark 139). This is Dickinson's way of choosing a certain discursive “silence” rather than having it thrust upon her, of rejecting the facility of current poetic convention in favor, says Howe, of a language of “stuttering” and “stammering” (My Emily 21). Like Gertrude Stein, Dickinson “broke the codes that negated her” (My Emily 12), and she did so (rather like Anne Hutchinson, thinks Howe) by rejecting the “fluent language of fanaticism” (Articulation 31) for one that enlisted the alleged inchoateness of women's speech as precisely a strength rather than a weakness. What that refusal of “fluency” might entail for a reading of American history can be deduced from the opening stanzas of section 2 of Howe's long poem Articulation of Sound Forms in Time. The section is entitled “Hope Atherton's Wanderings”:

Prest try to set after grandmother
revived by and laid down left ly
little distant each other and fro
Saw digression hobbling driftwood
forage two rotted beans & etc.
Redy to faint slaughter story so
Gone and signal through deep water
Mr. Atherton's story Hope Atherton
                    Clog nutmeg abt noon
                    scraping cano muzzell
                    foot path sand and so
                    gravel rubbish vandal
                    horse flesh ryal tabl
                    Danielle Warnare Servt
                    Turner Falls Fight us
                    Next wearer April One(6)

Howe gives the poem a context in a preliminary note. The episode to which it refers is taken from a battle known as the Falls Fight of 1676 in which a small colonial force destroyed an Indian encampment. The colonists were then pursued, and, after substantial losses, most of them managed to make it home. A small group of soldiers, and with them the Reverend Hope Atherton, were lost in the course of the withdrawal. After several days the soldiers gave themselves up to the Indians, who burned most of them alive. Atherton seems to have been one of the few to have been spared, and according to a contemporary report this was because when “a little man with a black coat and without any hat, came toward them … they were afraid and ran from him, thinking it was the Englishman's God” (Articulation 5). As Howe says in her preliminary note, this was “Hope's baptism of fire.” The community, however, refused to believe his story, and he died shortly afterward. Atherton, we conclude, has no place on either side of the boundary, and his “wanderings” in the wilderness are taken as a figure for what lies outside. Like Dickinson and Rowlandson, Hope (a woman's name, notes Howe) falls out of the safe discursive space of a “prophetic and corporate” identity-though his wanderings remain “untraceable,” not directly narratable. As Howe has said in discussion, Of course I can't really bring back a particular time. That's true. Or it's true if you think of time as moving in a particular direction-forward you say. But what if then is now” (“Encloser” 194).

The question is arch on the face of it, but less so when we look at the texture of the poem, which is concerned to reduce an narrative elements to residual traces (note the characteristic preponderance of nouns over verbs). Given what Howe has said in her preliminary account of the Falls Fight, though, we gamely struggle to make some sense of it. Majorie Perloff, for example, begins her reading by suggesting that The first word, Prest, may refer to Atherton's condition. he was pressed by the Indians to ‘try to set after, his own people, perhaps after he was revived by a grandmother and left to lie (‘ly’) in the forest. But the absence of the subject or object of ‘Prest, brings other meanings into play: ‘oppressed,’ ‘impressed” ‘presto'” (303). Linda Reinfeld, in another helpful discussion of Howe, deduces a similar hidden and fragmented narrative of Atherton's wanderings (139–40).

Howe's source for the story, she says in an interview, was a history of the town of Hadley, though she seems to have sent Perloff an excerpt from a history of Hatfield (“Interview” [Foster] 27; Perloff 303). Either way, the documents from which the first six stanzas of Articulation are drawn can also be found in another text that Howe must have used, George Sheldon's A History of Deerfield, Massachusetts, first published in 1895–96 (she must have used this work, because Articulation takes items not only from the relevant manuscripts but also from Sheldon's commentary on them). When we refer to this source we are in for a surprise, for the main passage used by Howe for her first six stanzas is headed “Escape of Jonathan Wells”; it has nothing at all to do with Hope Atherton! In fact, Howe takes only a couple of words from “Mr. Atherton's Story,” and these are separated by more than a page of text: “A particular relation of extreme sufferings that I have undergone, & signal escapes that the Lord hath made way for” (Sheldon 1: 166). What we find in the penultimate line of Howe's first stanza is “Gone and signal through deep water.” In the printed version of the manuscript, undergone” is hyphenated across a line, so looking down the margin we do indeed find “gone, & signal escapes.” A page later Howe picks up the phrase “I passed through deep waters,” and the splice yields the line we have. Gone and signal through deep water.”

All this detail may seem trivial; after all, it is quite clear that, unlike a writer such as Pound, Howe has no desire to send us back to her sources, or, indeed, to encourage us to read them in tandem as I have started to do here. Perhaps, then, the source is irrelevant, though when we do have it before us we gain a particular insight into Howe's mode of composition. To begin with, it is very visually conditioned, producing constellations of words which combine in a way that forces prosody against syntax. This move carries us beyond the more familiar, modernist forms of fragmentation which tend to break discourse into phrases to recombine their elements into new wholes. In contrast, Howe attends to sound and to individual words, recombining these in an order that defies syntactical logic. Take the example commented on by Perloff and Reinfeld. Here is part of the source passage for Howe's opening lines.

J. W. was glad to leave him, lest he shd be a clog or hindrance to him. Mr.
W. grew faint, & once when ye indians prest him, he was near fainting
away, but by eating a nutmeg, (which his grandmother gave him as he was
going out) he was revivd.

(1:162; emphases added)

Howe's selection of items actually tends to block the sort of emergent narrative that both Perloff and Reinfeld try to deduce from the text. Howe is more interested, for example, in the word “prest” than she is in its subject or object, and while we can just about see that the wandering hero (who isn't actually Hope) is “revived” by his grandmother, s gift, the narrative potential of the saving nutmeg is never developed, Howe suspending reference to it until the first line of the second stanza: “Clog nutmeg abt noon.” The rhythmic effect of this is striking, its strong demarcation of elements working to throw up obstacles in the path of thought. Elements remain opaque—even with this “source” I can do nothing with the mysterious “M” and “R” of stanzas 3 and 4, except to suggest (without any real support from the text) that the letters signal a general allusion to Mary Rowlandson's narrative.

This failure of “fluency,” then, this substitution of a sort of molecular opacity for the integrative movements of narration, now becomes the means by which Howe situates her work in relation to a radical or “antinomian” tradition. “This tradition that I hope I am part of,” she writes, “has involved a breaking of boundaries of all sorts. It involves a fracturing of discourse, a stammering even. Interruption and hesitation used as a force. A recognition that there is an other voice, an attempt to hear and speak it. It's this brokenness that interests me” (“Encloser” 192.) Much is contained for Howe in that idea of hesitation, a word, as she notes, from the Latin, meaning to stick. Stammer. To hold back in doubt, have difficulty in speaking” (My Emily 21). The failure to speak fluently becomes a strength as it sets up a resistance to conceptuality and dialectic, embedding a kind of violence at the heart of poetic language. Stammering keeps us on the verge of intelligibility, and in her own work Howe's emphasis on sound is coupled with a habitual shattering of language into bits and pieces. “The other of meaning,” she tells us, “is indecipherable variation” (Birth-mark 148), thus gesturing toward a writing that constantly courts the noncognitive in its preoccupation with graphic and phonic elements.

To write in this way is to jettison historical narrative at the same time that it is somehow a refusal to let go of the past, to give it up to “discourse.” The figures that fascinate Howe—Rowlandson, Hutchinson, Dickinson—are those who seem to speak the language of enthusiasm, a language intermittently stripped to its untranslatability” (“Difficulties Interview” 19), in which “truth” appears less as the product of moral judgment than as a force by which the past possesses the subject.(6) Such a conception of language has something in common with Freud's account of the process of mourning and with the distinction he draws between introjection and incorporation. the first, says Freud, allows a successful displacement from the lost object, while the second refuses to let go, with the result that something of the lost object is lodged within the person who grieves. It is this clear distinction between the two forms that Derrida has recently challenged, arguing that there is no introjection without incorporation, that something of the Other is always left behind, clinging to language. So in Glas he talks of “a bit-effect (a death-effect)” (235b) which is, as in the gl sound of “glas,” “the clinging, sticky work of the tongue that at once makes possible and resists absolutely all idealization and conceptualization” (Lukacher 12). The tongue, we might say, gets caught in the throat, and in clinging on to what is outside language and in the past impedes the conceptual/metaphorical shift that would open the order of discourse f or elegy) by which we can then “forget.”

It is particularly fitting (and, of course, quite deliberate) that Howe should write a long poem whose key word is “Remember” using a method based on collage—for collage is, arguably, the obvious form that such incorporation might take in writing (see Ulmer 61). The poem, called A Bibliography of the King's Book, or, Eikon Basilike (1989), makes inventive use of collage, often overprinting excerpted lines of type, rotating them around different axes, and using their collision to produce Howe's characteristically “broken” forms. The poem's title refers to the book that Charles I was alleged to have written shortly before his execution, but it does so in a designedly circuitous way, since Howe's primary source is actually a bibliographical study by Edward Almack of the various versions of the Eikon Basilike published at the end of the nineteenth century. This cross-weaving of texts triggers a series of questions about authorship and forgery. Can we discover the original text? Did Charles really write the book, or was it ghostwritten? As Howe observes, “The ghost of a king certainly haunted the Puritans and the years of the Protectorate” (Bibliography 48), and the controversy about the book's authorship has rumbled on into our own century. Milton, of course, had set out to smash the reputation of the book, aiming to prove it a forgery in his Eikonoklastes. It is this act of attempted erasure and censorship that occupies the center of Howe's poem, representing the intolerance of revolutionary Puritanism. For while the book quickly became a propaganda tool for Royalists after the King's death, it was also, notes Howe, read and cherished as a sort of sacred relic by the common people. And Milton,” she adds, who is supposed to be part of the rising of the people, wrote Eikonoklastes in an attempt to destroy its credibility” (“Interview” [Foster] 175).

But the smashing of images leaves a rubble of bits and pieces in its wake, and it is these fragmentary traces that supply the primary materials of Howe's poem. To prove the book a forgery, Milton seized on the prayer Charles was supposed to have delivered on the scaffold. This, he argued, was but a plagiarized version of the prayer of Pamela in Sidney'sArcadia, a heathen, work, of course. (It was sometimes alleged, incidentally, that Milton “planted” the poem himself.) Again it is heterogeneity which troubles the rationalistic mind, the “bits” seeming like discordant memories of another time, another culture. Howe isn't mounting a Royalist crusade here, but she does see Milton's rationalistic attack on the Eikon as also an attack on art—on the very tradition of masque and theater to which his own Comus belonged—and, indeed, on poetry itself. For in this context, she says, A poem is an icon” (“Interview” [Foster] 177); and, we might add, it is also a kind of forgery, having no claims to full originality. So in contrast to Milton's polemic, Howe's poem sticks to its fragmentary materials, refusing to erase the “heathen” figure of Pamela at the same time that its collaging of words keeps it just at the threshold of systematic “meaning.”

Where does this leave Howe in relation to American history? For her, the act of regicide and Milton's defense confirm that shift from idealism to extremism which had already expressed itself in the conviction of Anne Hutchinson and which continues to reverberate in our own time: “a prophecy of our contemporary repudiation of alterity, anonymity, darkness,” she says (Birth-mark 89). Howe's refusal in her poem fully to displace loss into words—her reluctance, as Charles Bernstein puts it, to deal with history as we know, it” (75)—just leave her at odds with any academic discipline that founds its “history” on the finality of definitive editions. Howe is quite serious when she says that Behind the facade of Harvard University is a scaffold and a regicide. Under the ivy and civility there is the instinct for murder, erasure, and authoritarianism” (“Interview” [Foster] 176–77). The element of hyperbole is carefully judged. Howe likes to cite Thoreau's remark that “exaggerated history is poetry” (Birth-mark 96) to support her own view that the violence which “history” interminably narrates can be fully grasped only by a poetry which forces dialectical and discursive structures to implode (“Interview” [Foster] 173–74). “If history is a record of survivors,” she contends, “Poetry shelters other voices,” voices which speak at the junction of “sense” and “nonsense” (Birth-mark 47).7 Howe's version of American history thus issues its challenge to the discipline, enjoining an attention not only to these myriad other voices” but also to the hegemonic forms of language in which, customarily, we invite them to speak.


  1. Recent work on Howe includes essays by Ming-Qian Ma, John Palattella, and Lew Daly. See also Lynn Keller's 1995 interview with Howe. The postmodern displacement of “history,” into “style” has been most strongly alleged by Fredric Jameson—see the title essay of Postmodernism.

  2. For a reasonably complete bibliography of Howe's work, see Talisman 119–22. Howe's recent volumes of poetry include A Bibliography of the King's Book, or, Eikon Basilike (1989), The Europe of Trusts (1990), Singularities (1990), and The Nonconformist's Memorial (1993). Most of Howe's literary criticism is contained in My Emily Dickinson and The Birth-mark.

  3. Cf. Howe, “Encloser” 194: “There were cultures here, this was not a wilderness, cultures were thriving here, before the Europeans arrived. “See also Howe's comment in the Foster interview on the title of her fathers book: “it wasn't wilderness to Native Americans” (161).

  4. See Greenblatt 100. Howe records in Birth-mark (x) her debt to the chapter of Stephen Greenblatt's book referred to here.

  5. As, for example, in Articulation of Sound Forms in Time: “rest chondriacal lunacy / velc cello viable toil” (Singularities 10).

  6. Howe is thus quite ambivalent about the concept of “truth.” While critics tend to emphasize her skepticism and her refusal to demarcate “truth from untruth” (Ma, “Poetry” 717), Howe observes, quite characteristically, “I think there is a truth, even if it's not fashionable to say so anymore. … I believe there are stories that need to be told again differently” (“Interview” [Keller] 30–31). Lew Daly presents the case more extremely: “There is strong irony in the fact that critics and poets have been quick to rally around Howe's critique of knowledge without facing the demands of the possessing spirit for which those victims that she has ‘lifted tenderly’ from history were themselves condemned in the name of reason” (53–54).

  7. Cf. Howe, “P. Inman, Platin” 555: “Meaning self-destructs. Nonsense. The work teeters at the edge, remains rooted in the shape of time, stops short of gibberish.”

Works Cited

Almack, Edward. A Bibliography of the King's Book, or, Eikon Basilike. London: Blades, East & Blades, 1896.

Bernstein, Charles. A Poetics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1992.

Daly, Lew. Swallowing the Scroll: Late in a Prophetic Tradition with the Poetry of Susan Howe and John Taggart. Buffalo, NY: M, 1994.

Derrida, Jacques. Glas. 1974. Trans. John P Leavey Jr. and Richard Rand. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1990.

———. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984.

Howe, Susan. Articulation of Sound Forms in Time. 1987. Singularities. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan UP and UP of New England, 1990. 1–38.

———. A Bibliography of the King's Book, or, Eikon Basilike. 1989. The Nonconformist's Memorial. New York: New Directions, 1993. 45–82.

———. The Birth-mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan UP, 1993.

———. Defenestration of Prague. 1983. The Europe of Trusts. Sunk Moon Classics 7. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1990. 85–146.

———. “The Difficulties Interview.” Susan Howe issue. The Difficulties 3.2 (1989): 17–27.

———. “Encloser.” The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy. Ed. Charles Bernstein. New York: Roof, 1990. 175–96.

———. The Europe of Trusts. Sun & Moon Classics 7. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1990.

———. An Interview with Susan Howe.” With Edward Foster. Talisman.

Devine Johnston (review date Spring 1996)

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SOURCE: A review of Frame Structures: Early Poems, 1974–1979, in Chicago Review, Vol. 42, No. 2, Spring, 1996, pp. 103–05.

[In the following review, Johnson offers a positive assessment of Frame Structures, complimenting Howe's mature poetic sensibility and technique.]

This volume Frame Structures gathers together four out of five of Susan Howe's first books, including Hinge Picture,Chanting at the Crystal Sea,Cabbage Gardens, and Secret History of the Dividing Line. Although these four received critical acclaim upon publication, they were all issued by small presses, and have not been readily available for some time. Given that Frame Structures presents Howe's first publications, one might expect to find the poet stumbling towards her present originality. Or those readers familiar with Howe's previous career as a visual artist might anticipate a turning point in “her movement from the visual arts into the iconography of the written word,” as the dust jacket promises. Perhaps because Howe began writing poetry relatively late in life, none of the poetry in Frame Structures has the feel of such a poetic apprenticeship. Rather, one discovers here a full-blown poetic imagination, suggesting a remarkable coherence to Howe's oeuvre.

This sense of Howe's work as all of one piece is increased by the preface to this volume, itself entitled “Frame Structures.” As in My Emily Dickinson, Howe deftly gathers together in this essay strands of biography, textual and literary history, and geography. “Frame Structures” provides a record of how relational contingency informs identity and a sense of place, with a particular focus on Buffalo and Boston. When the Howes moved from Buffalo to Cambridge in 1942, they occupied an apartment on Craigie Circle. As Howe explains, the street was named for a nineteenth-century family who ran a boarding house, renting rooms to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, among others. In the Harvard climate in which Howe grew up, Longfellow's accomplishments “had been relegated to minor (even laughingstock) status by contemporary critical theorists of both Cambridges” (8). The fact that Howe's father admired Longfellow and had a dog named “Waddy,” or that Howe remembers hearing as a child the story of Fanny Appleton Longfellow's death by fire, does not begin to exhaust the marvelous ramifications of Craigie Circle. And this summary does not touch on the multiple narrative of the cross street, Berkeley Street, not to mention the flow of capital through Buffalo, or the lexical proximity of Niagara to Nigeria.

In such a dense network of associations, Howe eschews a narrowly ideological approach to history, and embraces an open-ended juxtaposition of facts which might allow “the real” to seep through their interstices. As Howe writes, “Historical imagination gathers in the missing” (3). This approach to history is perhaps more available to the amateur than the traditional scholar because it opens a space for personal memory. While resisting closure, and holding to no single linear narrative, Howe recognizes the ways in which history holds us:

Telepsychology. We have always been in contact with one another, keeping on never letting go, no distance as to time, nothing such as liberty because we are in the field of history.


What makes Howe's method particularly compelling, beyond her genius for particulars, is her sense of the play of history across geographical space. “Space is a frame we map ourselves in” (9), Howe observes, emphasizing the manner in which humans shape their environment, and are in turn shaped by it. She presents relations which are not merely eccentric, though overlooked in more traditional narratives. If one conceives of “Frame Structures” as a map, it might resemble the cartography described in Antoine de Saint-Exupery's Wind, Sand and Stars, through which not only legal boundaries and roads are registered, but also a brook, sheep in a field, or the trace of someone's passing.

Howe invokes this experiential (and experimental) sense of geography through the “last first people” in opposition to the colonial exploration of New England:

MARK border bulwark, an object set up to indicate a boundary or position hence a sign or token impression or trace


This passage is enriched when we arrive at Howe's dedication at the bottom of the next page: “for Mark my father, and Mark my son” (91). This “secret” or hermetic valence for “MARK” demonstrates a way in which personal experience is inscribed in geographical formation. As we learn in Chanting at the Crystal Sea (and elsewhere in Howe's work), her family has deep roots in New England's history, and thus both father and son are implicated in its settlement. In this manner, Howe deconstructs any sense of impersonality and objectivity to the process of forming boundaries. Central to Howe's deconstructive project is an effort to “unsettle” the celebratory myths of settlers:

O where ere he He A
ere I were wher
father father
O it is the old old myth


One can find a fragmented “hero” voiced in this passage, though interrupted by a loss of direction (“where”) and temporality (“ere”).

The difficulty, and challenge, of Howe's poetry does not so much lie in uncovering its sources and references, however esoteric they may seem to be. It is, more generally, what sort of reading strategy one should take towards these poems. How far can one (or should one) press a hermeneutic reading of a poem such as Secret History of the Dividing Line, or even more so, Hinge Picture? Hinge Picture, Howe's first published volume, would seem to be composed of loosely related, luminous fragments such as the following:

Antiphon Versicle & Prayer foretell the Virg ins roll in the s cheme of Things


This passage probably refers to the ten virgins with the lamps who “went forth to meet the bridegroom” (Mat. 25:1). The enjambed words (“Virg / ins”) and non-standard spelling (“roll”), arranged in narrow center-justified lines, suggest a historical document—perhaps a strip of paper or an engraved stele. In this sense, Howe's historical interests converge with a carefully balanced typographical arrangement which recalls the formal concerns of concrete poets such as Ian Hamilton Finlay. Yet this line of interpretation does not account for the disruptive impact of Howe's typography, which bears no relation to the way in which it might be read out loud. Through her layout on the page, Howe overturns normative expectations for poetry, and draws attention to the poem's material form in an avantgardist fashion. As Howe points out in a 1989 interview for Talisman, avant-garde techniques have remained viable in contemporary poetry:

I think that one reason there is so much ugly antipathy to writers who are breaking form in any way is because people know that language taps an unpredictable power source in all of us. It's not the same in the visual arts, where there are many abstract or form-breaking visual artists who enjoy wide popularity, are embraced by a critical establishment, and sell their work for a tremendous amount of money. You will see their work in museums and books about the work on large glass coffee tables. Try the same thing with language, certainly in this culture, and you may find your writing lost.


The tension between fragmentation and historical narrative, surface and depth, is never resolved in Howe's poetry, and generates much of its ongoing challenge and pleasure. That her earliest work has lost little of its edge after twenty years, without getting “lost,” is a great accomplishment. While some innovative writing from the 1970s has become predictable through repetition, the poetry in Frame Structures would seem to have become richer in the context of Howe's more recent work.

Megan Williams (essay date Spring 1997)

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SOURCE: “Howe Not to Erase (her): A Poetics of Posterity in Susan Howe's ‘Melville's Marginalia,’” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 38, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 106–33.

[In the following essay, Williams analyzes Howe's treatment of literary history in her poem “Melville's Marginalia.”]

Susan Howe's most recent work, The Birth-mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History, overflows with a series of questions that beg to be turned back on Howe's own poetry. At the beginning of this text, Howe questions the reader and the figure of Anne Hutchinson whom she has reinhabited:

you. Fate flies home to the mark. Can any words restore to me how you felt?

you are straying, seeking, scattering. Was it you or is it me? Where is the stumbling block? Thoughts delivered by love are predestined to distortion by words. If experience forges conception, can quick particularities of calligraphic expression ever be converted to type? Are words children? What is the exchange value? Where does spirit go? Double yourself stammer stammer. Is there any way to proof it? Who or what survives the work? Where is the patron of the stamp?


This passage asks the reader to discover the ways that Howe's analysis of “who or what survives” in the work of past authors theorizes her own place in literary history. Two general questions emerge from this passage and provide the contextual framework for this essay: How does Susan Howe's use of Melville in “Melville's Marginalia” reveal literary history and history itself to be a series of choices that must be rethought and rewritten? What are these choices, and where do they leave Howe's work for posterity? After a brief overview of Howe's approach to history and literary posterity, I shall examine the formal characteristics and implications of her poetics of cultural intervention, her reading of “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street,” and the larger ideological questions provoked by her poetics of recovery. Howe's “discovery” in “Melville's Marginalia” of James Clarence Mangan as the historical figure who purportedly was the source for Melville's Bartleby reveals a poetics of cultural intervention that desires to change the ways the present perceives and creates history, literature, and “lost” authors. Ultimately, I would like to suggest that Howe's poetics seeks to determine Howe's place in posterity by finding and writing Howe, the female poet, into the past and by removing the threat of historical erasure from that past.

Howe's work, in its adherence to margins and lost texts, reveals a central concern with canon formation and cultural currency. As a whole, the recuperation of lost voices in her poetry combats the notion of a fixed canon or of any canon at all. In her interview with Edward Foster, Howe remarks: “I am suspicious of the idea of a canon in the first place. Because to enter this canon a violation has usually been done to your work no matter what your gender may be. And besides, the more you go into something the more you see that the canon is only the surface, only the ghost's helmet. Not the face underneath the helmet” (28–29). In this statement, Howe clearly reveals her belief that canon formation occurs in the service of a cultural and personal ideology. For Howe there is always a figure behind the canon who wears a “helmet” and who is at war with the work itself. According to Howe, academic institutions require that an author's voice be violated and stolen, that her intentions be erased and repossessed by a figure desiring to establish its own authority.1 Howe's conviction that canon formation forecasts the inevitable erasure of a poet's voice is thematized in “Melville's Marginalia,” appearing most forcefully in lines headed “The Laughters”:

La Bruyère Works
La Bruyère, Jean de. The Works
of M. De la Bruyère. In Two
Volumes. The Which is Added
the Characters of Theophrastus.
Also the Manner of Living with
          he costs nobody


As this poem describes the “hardening” and reduction of La Bruyère's oeuvre into a line from a card catalog, Howe suggests that erasure will occur even if an author finds a place in history and in the canon. The underwriting and splicing of “La Bruyère, Jean de. The Works / of M. De la Bruyère” by “ridicule” points to the ways in which the idea of a canon demeans an author's words. It is, however, unclear in this poem who is laughing at whom. The vague, unauthored title “The Laughters” intimates that it may, in fact, be the poets who are laughing at the critics from an autonomous space unconfined by cultural definition. “The Laughters” poses one of the central problems that Howe examines in “Melville's Marginalia”: how the poet can inscribe herself into history, into the canon, and preserve an individual and autonomous voice, a laughter and a possession of language that refuses to allow culture to “harden” and overwrite her words.

“The Laughters” reveals a paradoxical doubleness in Howe's relationship to literary history. At the same time that Howe deprecates the erasures inherent in canonization, she desires to find a place for her work in history. She wishes both to have the assurance of posterity promised by a place in the canon and to revise the loss of voice and the marginalization that are inherent in the idea of the canon itself. In “The Laughters” and in her oeuvre as a whole, Howe invokes an ideal world where the plural intentions and voices of an author, not a reductive blanket line from a library catalog, are remembered by history. Howe displays her problematic relationship to the issue of her own posterity in her response to Janet Falon's question, “Do you want people to know your work?”:

I did when I started. Sure I did. In fact, the desire for recognition is what screwed me up in the first place. I wanted to be in the theatre and to me that meant getting the best parts. I didn't become an actress for the right reasons to say the very least. That's why I wasn't any good and very soon fell by the wayside. Then I wanted my paintings to be shown. When I gave up painting I started at square one and I was thirty-three. I was older and wiser and although of course I sent out some poems most of them were rejected and I soon stopped thinking about writing in terms of acceptance. But it would be dishonest to claim that audience doesn't matter at all. These days poets have almost no audience but if you have even six people who really look at your work, that's a help. Now I have a couple of books in print; they are hard to find, but they are in print. They exist. What if I had no book? I wonder.

(“Speaking” 32–33)

Howe's digression about her aspirations to become an actress curiously skirts the question of her place in history. In this passage, Howe states that she was unable to become an actress because she lacked the “right reasons” and the sense of a calling that would make her “good.” If this logic is transferred to the idea of a literary career, Howe envisions a world where an author's conviction of her own literary merit and her refusal to search for an audience will result in “recognition.” While this passage centers on Howe's relative anonymity, her adherence to internal standards of “goodness” distances the possibility that her work will be forgotten. The reader is returned, in this passage as in “Melville's Marginalia” as a whole, to the fact that Howe's words “are in print. They exist.” They have achieved a foothold in history because we have looked at them and witnessed their very existence. Howe's concentration on an internally determined “goodness” increases the artist's control of the afterlife of her work and distances the random uncertainty of cultural transmission. Ultimately, when Howe raises the moot question, “What if I had no book? I wonder,” she tells the reader that while a fear of erasure and an awareness of the larger social dynamics of canon formation underlie her work, her poetry works through solutions to this fear. By focusing on individual negotiations between authors and readers, it creates erasure as a past possibility that the poet can contain by having her reader accept her own version of literary history.

The title page of “Melville's Marginalia” announces the text's primary concern with eradicating the possibility of historical erasure. The title of the work is followed by an unattributed note:

March 20, 1639–40—
buried Philip Massinger
a stranger.

This opening page contains an implicit statement of the poetics of “Melville's Marginalia.” The reader is faced, in the blankness that surrounds Howe's title and this note, with the threat that words and literary stature can be reduced and written out of history. The placement of this note beneath Howe's own title implies that Howe's work is literally underwritten by the possibility that it, too, will become a “stranger” in history. The dialogue established between these two texts broaches the topic of Howe's own posterity. It suggests that “Melville's Marginalia” can be read as the poet's search through literary history to avert the potential of her own destruction. The anonymity surrounding this note, the absent citation of authorship, the question of who indeed Philip Massinger was, acts as an initial invocation to the reader. Howe refuses to assign agency to the hand that has written and underlined “a stranger,” and in this omission she implicates both the reader and herself in a collusion over the “burial” of authors. This absence also works as a tease to draw the reader into Howe's text. It asks the reader to contradict Howe and, in the act of proving that Massinger is not a “stranger” to her, to rediscover dead authors and to remove the names that time has written as “dead.”

According to Howe, a hand that could write an author into historical oblivion always exists. Somewhere, an author occupy the reader's attention. In her preface, Howe responds to Wilson Walker Cowen's theory that Elizabeth Shaw Melville erased many of her husband's marginal annotations:

Margins speak of fringes of consciousness or marginal associations. What is the shadow reflex of art I am in the margins of doubt.


In the act of titling her work “Melville's Marginalia.” Howe attempts to inscribe the “fringes of consciousness” at work on “Bartleby, the Scrivener” at the same time that she tries to preserve the freedom of “marginal associations” and the absence of definition that are inherent in margins. That this is a cultural project there can be no doubt. Margins speak of a space that has remained unwritten, new, and uncolonized. Contradictorily, they also speak of a space that fixes and immobilizes words, authors, and meaning on a page. A margin cannot exist if there is no writing on the page. If, as Howe's attention to sub-subtexts suggests, margins are the text we must read, her attention to this blank space makes cultural definition and textual dissemination the centerpiece of her own work. As a writer in the margins of the margins of the margins of Melville, Howe proposes her ability to inhabit a new poetic space. She wishes to change the definitions and the negative space surrounding the texts that have and have not achieved cultural currency. Howe's statement “What is the shadow reflex of art I am in the margins of doubt” can ultimately be seen as a recognition of the pitfalls inherent in this type of cultural poetics. First and foremost is the possibility that art and poetry will be unable to achieve posterity, to enact a “reflex” and an involuntary response in the individual reader that stays long enough to create a cultural “shadow.” Second is the possibility that the lyric “I” of the poet cannot be removed, that its movement into the margins inevitably colonizes and brings a central authoritative voice into the blank space that it wanted to remain plural and free.

While a fear that her work may be erased pervades Howe's texts, an inherent irony and assertion of the “shadow reflex” of her art lie behind her use of Massinger on the title page. The paradox of this first page is that Philip Massinger achieved renown during his lifetime and today is included in seventeenth-century studies. When Howe presents an author who has achieved literary posterity as a “stranger,” she calls attention to the construction of literary history as process. She asks that readers reexamine who we think Massinger is and the place we have given him in history. The title page raises the possibility of an author's disappearance, yet this historical removal is a surface threat that Howe easily contains. By placing a note on the death of an author beneath her own title, Howe formally broaches questions of erasure at the same time that she enacts strategies that prevent historical obsolescence and allow her own work to inhabit a place in history. The epitaph on Massinger may mask itself as a historical gap, yet beneath this potential absence Howe tells her reader that her words and her rewriting of Melville's Marginalia will stand on the pages of literary history as Massinger himself has done.

“Melville's Marginalia” ends with an evocation of Massinger that supports the argument that Howe uses the image of “a stranger” to frame her own ability to survive in history. The concluding image of Massinger gives the text a formal closure and a solidity that the surface instability of its collage strategies belies:

I put down my thoughts
Vulturism trimmed for binding
who will be interpreter
Spoke of the hearts of the poor
Light in which we were rushing
Life is so the merchant either
gains the shore both hands full
of dollars or else one day waves
wash him up on that sandbar so
what and Massinger smiled and he
said you know print settles it
Out of view of the rushing light
print is sentinel so sages say
Dollars he said and hoped they'd
have made a bed for him then he
would call whatever gaol a goal
Obedience we are subjects Susan
Scared millions and on he rushed

Here, Massinger changes from a “stranger” into a man who “smiled” and continues to live in the present literary world. Set apart from the “merchant,” from the commodity that washes up on “that sandbar,” Massinger emerges as an author whom Howe has breathed life into and transformed from a “stranger.” Howe writes at one point in the text, “my next attempt will be a Life” (142). This creation of a life is paradoxically the cultural project that “Melville's Marginalia” brings about. In this work, Howe puts herself into numerous characters who can be read as analogues for herself. By recovering the dead voices of figures like Massinger, Mangan, and Hutchinson, she narrows the questions of literary posterity to negotiations between individual authors and readers. If Massinger, as the title page argues, was once a lost author, Howe's rescue of him beneath her own title fights against the cultural forces that could make an author a “stranger” to history. The coupling of Howe's title with Massinger's recuperation suggests that the reader of “Melville's Marginalia” can “find” Susan Howe without her ever being lost to history. Implicit in this rehabitation of dead authors is the idea that Howe's poetics of recuperation can write death out of her work and “settle” her poetry in “print” for posterity. Like a “sentinel,” Howe breathes life into past voices and guards her work against death and erasure. She gives the poet's voice a plurality and a timelessness that cannot be commodified and “hardened” by critical interpretations. In this passage's absence of punctuation, Howe tells her reader that no “gaol” or confining critical structure can stop the flow and proliferation of an author's words in time because a poet has the ability to change something negative into something positive. Like Susan Howe herself, Massinger, in his final act of calling “whatever gaol a goal,” is able to transform a vague oppressive structure into a comfort. As an actor in the drama of historical erasure that Howe has created, Massinger rescues Howe from obsolescence. He speaks her wish to transform historical gaps into places where her words disseminate themselves in the external world and “rush” on unstopped by final periods and historically confining limits.3 As Howe's words and readers remain obedient “subjects” to the frame of literary endurance she has created, she envisions a cultural environment where she can achieve a historical currency that will “scare” and impress “millions” with the lasting power of her words.

The role that Massinger performs in this work suggests that Howe searches in Melville for a frame that will testify to an author's ability to elude historical erasure. In her interview with Edward Foster, Howe explains her use of past authors: “As well as translation or transmission, there is a mystery of change and assimilation in time. I always have to back into the past for some reason. Where and how the English seventeenth-century voice becomes the seventeenth-century, the nineteenth-century and even twentieth-century American voice” (15). Howe reveals here that writing backward, both in the nonlinear form of her collage strategies and in her resurrection of forgotten authors, is a pursuit of origins. This search attempts to find a home and a lineage in the past from which her personal voice can develop. Howe writes, “If there are things Melville went looking for in books so too there were things I looked for in Melville's looking” (“Melville's Marginalia” 105). Howe directly connects the Bartleby figure of James Clarence Mangan to herself:

Why was I drawn to Mangan?

Only that I remembered the song called “Roisin Dubh” from childhood and my great-aunt's garden one summer years ago beside Killiney Bay near Dublin.


In this comment, Howe tells her reader that she is “looking” in the past and in Melville's work for herself, for a history that will establish her birthright to a place in the present. At one point in the work, Howe speaks to the reader and to Mangan in the letter-into-the-past form that she uses to evoke Anne Hutchinson in The Birth-mark: “I have traced what books I can find by or about you in America. I hope to return to Ireland someday but will always be a foreigner with the illusions of a tourist” (108). In the direct address into the past employed here, history unfolds as a one-sided conversation in the present between Susan Howe and the individual voices she rediscovers. Howe's rehabitation of past figures impresses upon the reader the presence and power of the first person “I.” While Howe's family lived in Massachusetts, where her father Mark was a Harvard University professor, Howe's mother Molly was Irish, and Howe spent a large part of her childhood in Ireland. Seen from the critical perspective of personal biography that Howe's text and method deliberately evoke, Howe's choice of Mangan as the Bartleby figure reveals a personal need to return to historical origins and to write out the part of herself that feels permanently excluded, marginalized, and exiled from a country and from a culture.4

Howe's vision of Mangan as the Bartleby figure is a type of cultural intervention that refuses, both from a personal perspective and from the more general viewpoint of literary history, to allow any aspect of an author to become extinct. From the first pages of “Melville's Marginalia,” Howe depicts her discovery of Mangan in terms of a predetermined Puritan calling:

During the spring of 1991 I was teaching Billy Budd for a graduate seminar in Philadelphia. One day while searching through Melville criticism at the Temple University Library I noticed two maroon dictionary-size volumes, lying haphazardly, out of reach, almost out of sight on the topmost shelf. That's how I found Melville's Marginalia or Melville's Marginalia found me.


Howe, in her poetic project, takes ideas that are “out of reach, almost out of sight.” She transforms obsolescence into an enduring frame. This passage describes the return of lost texts in the present with a sense of predestined inevitability. A poetics of (re)discovery will simply “find” and entrench itself in the present in a manner similar to the way Melville's Marginalia “found” Howe. As the speaker for this poetics of rescue, Howe achieves a kind of election. She has been “found” by history to speak for Melville's Marginalia, and her position as the translator and commentator on this work suggests that she, too, will be “found” by the reader and placed firmly in time.

In the section that follows the title page, “Parenthesis/Brief Chronology of James Clarence Mangan,” Howe rewrites the critic's proven ability to create figures which could be “included in a sentence, but which might be omitted from the sentence without injury to the meaning of the sentence” (93). Ironically, it is Mangan himself, the man forgotten by history, who authors these words that can be read both on a grammatical level and as a statement about the construction of the line and “sentence” of literary history. Ireland joins Mangan and Howe from the beginning of the text. The two poets are marked by the fact that they both foretell and author their own erasures. Howe predicts her potential erasure in moments like that of the title page when she places her words in the context of lost texts, and in statements like “You can't do writing that is a challenge to authority and have the authorities welcome you into their ranks” (“Speaking” 39). While Howe's portrayal of Mangan begins with a chronology that places him firmly in the past between the inclusive dates of 1803 and 1849, his character and work entrench themselves in the twentieth century because they are described in the present tense. The immediacy with which Mangan approaches the reader is revealed in the first parallel drawn between him and Bartleby:

1849 Dies in the Meath Hospital, Dublin, June 20, probably from starvation.

1853 At sunrise on November 8, 1853, there appears, suddenly as Manco Capac at the lake Titicaca, a figure, pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn, in Putnam's Monthly Magazine in New York City. It is Bartleby.


The final sentence of this quotation reaches out from 1853 into the reader's present and articulates the rebirth out of death that characterizes much of Howe's poetics. The use of the present tense in this chronology emphasizes Howe's ability to breathe life into death, Mangan, Bartleby, and Melville; it places her work within the context of new beginnings.5 The framework of a sunrise maintains a connection with the past at the same time that it highlights the ability of Howe's poetry to appear “suddenly,” to invade and change the present with the inevitability of election and of a higher calling.

Howe conveys the strong sense of newness behind her poetic project as she describes the moment when she realized that Mangan was Bartleby:

On a January morning, in the hushed privacy of the Anglo-European-American Houghton Library, I opened Poems by James Clarence Mangan, with Biographical Introduction by John Mitchel (New York: Haverty, 1859). I saw the pencilled trace of Herman Melville's passage through John Mitchel's introduction and knew by shock of poetry telepathy the real James Clarence Mangan is the progenitor of the fictional Bartleby. The problem was chronology. Melville wrote “Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” during the summer of 1853.

Quite an Original


The final, unpunctuated “Quite an Original” of this passage reads both as a response to Mangan's and Melville's originality and as a statement of the newness of Howe's poetics. With this final phrase Howe writes the reader's response into her text. She further eliminates the possibility that she could be forgotten in time by creating her own reader and by telling us that we will see Howe in the open-ended and expansive terms of “Quite and Original.”

Howe's frequent use of an experimental collage strategy where words cover other words enacts a drama of destruction that cements the poet's new and “Original” project more fully in time. In the collage on page 104, the title “Melville's Marginalia” is underwritten and partly obscured by the phrase “Secret footsteps cannot bring him.” In this juxtaposition, as in the one on the title page, the poet creates a potential frame of destruction that, because it is her own creation, distances the possibility that her words will disappear. In this collage and in Howe's poetics as a whole, the poet usurps from the anonymous hand that wrote “stranger” and from the reader herself the right to determine literary endurance. In her text, Howe, and Howe alone, controls the possibility that her work could be forgotten. Erasure is an internal poetic structure that Howe adopts and, as the engineer of this frame, she can limit the potential of her own obsolescence. The statement “secret footsteps cannot bring him” is built on an ironic play on literary paralysis that mirrors that seen in the epitaph for Massinger. The suggestion that “secret footsteps” cannot bring James Clarence Mangan and Melville himself initially reads as the poet's testimony of her ineffectual attempts to bring forth a new and visible version of these authors. This apparent self-effacement, however, occurs against the reader's acknowledgment that Howe's tracings of Mangan and Melville are not “secret.” They have been written boldly and openly on the page. They “exist,” and they have thus effectively “brought him” and Susan Howe into history.

The form of Howe's poetry attests constantly to its newness. It breathes new life into hitherto neglected voices and allows them to speak their own words. The collage strategies that structure her work create a poetry that is infinitely regenerative. This writing, with its difficult layers and retracings, requires the reader to recognize erasures and to transform them into physical presences. Howe's collages create an ideal reader who is prevented from “reducing” and “hardening” her words. Her frequent use of words written upside down demands that the reader turn the text and acknowledge physically its ability to live in different spaces. As in the collages on pages 95 and 96, Howe's poems often appear to be mirror reversals of one another. Upon close comparison, however, the reader is led to enact her own discovery of what has been changed, erased, and recovered in the temporal progression from page to page. The reader is asked to recognize formally the possibilities of historical and temporal erasure that Howe's poetics raises. Often, as in “THE MANNER OF LIVING / WITH / GREAT MEN,” Howe's collages rewrite themselves (95). In the first collage from this series, the line “Those who have been wronged” partially obscures the final word of the phrase “now in literature” (95). This elision suggests that a new conception of literature is transforming itself out of the collisions between words in Howe's texts. “Those who have been wronged” and omitted from literature are no longer, in Howe's poetics, separable from the concept of literature itself. The “x” that stands in the middle of both of these collages testifies to an unmarked and uncolonized space that Howe wishes to keep open for herself and for the many as yet unsounded voices. The new definition of “literature” promised by the first collage is completed in the second as the “GREAT MEN” no longer occupy the topmost linear position in the hierarchy. In this second collage, “literature” and “the wronged” have successfully merged, and the first-person voice of “and birthright to insult me” is given a central and visible position. Here, the blindness evoked by the lyric voice's “Led I used not to see” is turned upside down and subordinated. The poet has now successfully “led” her readers to “see” a new version of literary history. In this history, the “GREAT MEN” lie with the dead “bark of parchment” at the bottom of the collage. They occupy the position furthermost removed from the freedom and the multiplicity of interpretations that are inherent in the “x.”

Howe's poetry enacts strategies that reflect a desire to prevent historical anonymity by resurrecting hitherto unheard voices and by making the reader play an active role in this process of recovery. In the preface, Howe explains her approach to both Melville and her reader:

Names who are strangers out of bounds of the bound margin: I thought one way to write about a loved author would be to follow what trails he follows through words of others: what if these penciled single double and triple scorings arrows short phrases angry outbursts crosses cryptic ciphers sudden enthusiasms mysterious erasures have come to find you too, here again, now.


Howe chooses to treat Melville through his relationship to other authors, through his personal act of writing in their margins. Her text intersects with Melville's at the moment when both she and he try to position themselves on the pages of a literary tradition. A central optimism and certainty about the success of her poetic project appears in this paragraph. There is no question mark after “what if … mysterious erasures have come to find you too, here again, now.” In Howe's poetry, the erasures with which she allies herself will always “find” the reader with an imperative that entrenches itself firmly in the “now.” The anti-interrogative tone of this sentence demands that the reader see and unmake erasure. In the act of turning Howe's pages, the reader will find hidden and obscured words. She will be forced to consider the endless and imperative “what if s” of the cultural realignments that accompany Howe's new mode of seeing.6

The description in this passage of Melville's “penciled single double and triple scorings arrows short phrases angry outbursts crosses cryptic ciphers sudden enthusiasms mysterious erasures” reads both as a depiction of Melville's marginal comments and of Howe's own collage strategies. In Howe's poetry, lines cross and recross each other like arrows. Lines point upwards, sideways, and upside down against the confines of the written page. They press against any preconceived notion of a concrete and definable center. The frequent pairing of one line written from left to right with another written upside down reveals Howe's conviction that the past can be returned to and rewritten to change the present. In the collage on page 95, the reader is given the canonical trajectory of literary history with “THE MANNER OF LIVING / WITH / GREAT MEN” written left to right. The splicing of these lines with the backward and upside down line “and birthright to insult me” suggests that a poet can fracture the authority and canonization of “GREAT MEN.” She can write backward into the past and fill the empty space after “THE MANNER OF LIVING / WITH” with her own and other voices. The revision of this collage on the following page physically manifests the poet's ability to change the present by returning to the past. In the first collage, Howe writes backward against “GREAT MEN.” In the second, this backward movement has created a place in the present where the “me” stands prominently and the poet's voice is heard.

The clearly identifiable “me” in Howe's poetry and her discovery of Mangan by “poetry telepathy” calls the critical act into question and asks that the reader see any construction of literary history as a series of choices determined by a cultural and personal “I.” The statement that “the problem was chronology” openly discloses the shaky theoretical ground upon which Howe bases her Bartleby figure. Melville did not possess a copy of Mangan's poetry until 1862, and there is no empirical evidence that he knew of Mangan's work in 1853 when he was writing “Bartleby” (106). Howe's foregrounding of “the problem” inherent in her theory undermines any belief in objective academic certainty. According to Howe, the “problem” in any discourse about literary history is larger than the lack of a direct correlation seen in her specific example of Mangan and Melville. The “problem,” as Melville's Marginalia presents it, is that literary history has refused to admit the personal politics and cultural choices that are inherent in its “chronology.” Literary history in general has not examined and taken as its subject the way it harnesses “chronology” and manipulates history and individual authors to create an ordered present that is a coherent continuation and conflation of our personal past.7

In her honest unmasking of her poetical project, Howe leads the reader to recognize that her search for origins is an open disclosure of the move that every critic makes. Howe writes:

does not relate
2. For then
she would clash
with the histo-
by a verbal
in a strange
and stammer out difficulty


In the differentiation between a “poet” and a “historian,” Howe casts doubt on the “objective” critical project of the historian. As this poem presents it, the historian makes connections between the past and present without consciousness. The historian does not start at the beginning, at the number 1. The poet precedes him in her recognition of the beginning assumptions that lie behind any attempt to write a discourse about history. She refuses to assign the number 1 to the place where her voice begins because she does not believe that history and “real events” have a single beginning and a clearly discernible trajectory. She thinks instead that history is plural, that it begins in the place where one voice attempts to find a path for itself among many voices and beginnings.8 The poet, unlike the historian, does not physically obscure the fact that a “connecting” between past and present is being made. She realizes that any return to history can only be “a verbal association in a strange order.” She “clash[es]” with the historian because her project sees the force that the need to reconfigure the present exerts over the past from which it borrows and takes “Loans.” Ultimately, the poet's “verbal association in a strange order” articulates both the past and the “difficulty” inherent in any approach to history. Her poetic project “Crumple[s]” the unheard voices and stammers of history together in a new noncanon that endlessly proliferates itself. At the same time, the complexity of her work forces the contemporary reader to acknowledge the innumerable new voices and the overwhelming choices that lie before our future acts of interpretation.

Howe's rewriting of “Bartleby” from the perspective of Mangan transforms Melville's story into a text that is centrally concerned with addressing an author's refusal to participate in the single and dominant discourses of history. Howe's interpretation of Bartleby as a “real” author makes Melville's story into a commentary on the same issues of narrative history that frame her own poetry. Bartleby, as Howe's author, refuses collusion with the narrator's attempts to interpret him and fix him in time. The narrator searches for a category and a single interpretation of Bartleby when he asks the clerks, “‘Turkey,’ said I, ‘what do you think of this? Am I not right?’” and “‘Ginger Nut,’ said I, willing to enlist the smallest suffrage in my behalf, ‘what do you think of it?’” (Melville 49).

From the perspective that Howe's interpretation opens, Bartleby's most memorable statement becomes his unwillingness to tell “who he was, or whence he came, or whether he had any relatives in the world” (Melville 56). Bartleby, as an author, is a partial reflection of Howe. He adheres to the margins, absences, and gaps of her own poetry, and he mirrors back to the reader her desire to control her own history. The narrator in “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is confronted with Bartleby's refusal to act in accordance with his definition of history. The one thing Bartleby will not do is speak the words that will give the narrator the ability to define and remove him, through reduction, from the present. Confronted with a figure whom he cannot interpret, the narrator creates his own narrative about Bartleby's work in the Dead Letter Office. The narrator thus becomes, in effect, the real victim of the story. While Bartleby lasts in his uninterpretability and in his adherence to margins, the narrator remains unconscious of the universal narrativizing of past and present that Howe wishes her reader to recognize. Deprived of a history to ascribe to Bartleby, the narrator loses his own connection to the present. He can no longer define himself through the interpretation of another person's place in history. As he wanders aimlessly and “almost lived in my rockaway for the time” (Melville 70), he becomes a living example of the imperative behind Howe's call for her reader to become conscious of the personal and cultural choices that lie behind narrative history and our desire for an ordered present.

While the unmarked deaths of Bartleby and Mangan initially seem to reassert the threat of an author's historical erasure, a closer reading of Melville's text through “Melville's Marginalia” reveals Howe's manipulation of this story to distance the threat of historical oblivion. Howe's creation of Bartleby as an Irish poet curiously subordinates Bartleby's work in the Dead Letter Office. Howe's Mangan never worked with these letters. By removing Melville's locus from the United States to Ireland. Howe physically distances and contains the possibility that letters and words could be sent, but never received, in America. As Howe deletes the Dead Letter Office from “Bartleby” and uses the form of a letter into the past to address Mangan, she breathes new life into the Office of Dead Letters. She tells her reader that the death of American authorship that is implicit in the Dead Letter Office no longer exists because she is the recoverer of the secret traces of history and of all the letters and words that have been burned by “the cart-load” (Melville 73).

If Melville immortalizes Bartleby in his story, Howe eternalizes Mangan and the possibilities of historical recuperation in her rewriting of Melville's frame. Bartleby himself provides a perfect model to forecast the endurance of Howe's own poetry because his language disseminates itself in a manner that belies the possibility of his ever being forgotten. The narrator describes Bartleby as “this intolerable incubus” (Melville 66), and Bartleby's language contaminates the voices of the other clerks, as their repetition of his “I would prefer not to” causes the narrator to remark, “so you have got the word, too” (Melville 58). Howe's proposal that Bartleby is Melville's representation of a lost author works to contain erasure in a manner similar to her use of Massinger because Bartleby's words are not, in fact, lost within his story. Although Mangan visibly disappeared from history, Melville gives him a lasting voice. Bartleby's words entrench themselves in his physical environment and in the “sunrise” of the twentieth-century reader. Howe's poetic project gains support from Melville because both are joined in their desire to forecast the inevitability of an author's words gaining cultural and historical currency. If Melville intended “Bartleby” to recover Mangan and to testify to the fact that an author can never be lost to history, Howe rescues Melville's intentions from “Bartleby.” She combats the “hardening” and “violation” of canonization and affirms the ability of Melville and herself to stand in history and to possess their “original” intentions and voices.

The immediacy of Bartleby's return to the present suggests that a poetics, like Howe's, which structures itself around the containment of erasure will invade the vision of its audience and disseminate itself. The poem on page 123 reveals the positive assertion of historical endurance that “Melville's Marginalia” is built upon. Howe writes:

Coffin the sea
Coffin th se a
Coffin th s woorD
r e wr t ebly quell
in pencil s c atte
but poetry
Coffin th se aw
Coffin th se w
Coffin th se woorD

In this poem, “coffin” operates as both a noun and a verb. As a noun, it suggests that “th se woorD” or “these words” of Howe's are dead. As a verb, however, it suggests that death, the death of the voices of lost authors, is being packaged and carted off in “Melville's Marginalia.” The lines “r e wr t ebly quell / in pencil s c atte / but poetry” at the center of the wordplay in this poem intimate that Howe, in her unauthoritarian lower case i, writes both “Bartleby” and “ably.” Her poetry is able to preserve Bartleby's gaps and his refusal to be fixed, placed, and killed by the narrator's single interpretation. Her writing is formed by layers, collisions, and multiple word possibilities. Here, the poet's “i” is a bridge. It is an i.e. that links her both to Bartleby and to an “ire” that challenges confining limits and death. As Howe presents it, her words create a space characterized by the freedom and limitlessness of personal choice and preference. At the same time, they are able to “quell” erasure and death in the saving, unauthoritarian medium of “but poetry.”

Howe's description of her transcendent and elect calling embodies her poetics with a subtle claim to the creation of an “original” second American Renaissance that revises both the 1850s and the literary criticism of the 1940s. In her introduction to The Birth-mark, Howe places F. O. Matthiessen within her frame of forgotten authors and reveals one of the cultural moments she reinhabits. Howe's Matthiessen becomes a man who channeled his passion into letters to his male lover and who was ultimately driven to take his own life:

The public, critical Matthiessen divorced himself from the immediacy of Whitman the maternal enthusiast. Scholarship should be applied for good, not for pampering. Love in an earlier beginning is here consigned to the immature margins: feminized—with mothers. Matthiessen's rebukes and defenses of Whitman may be the expression of a war in himself between a covenant of faith and a covenant of works. We will not read it here. “It is blank here, for reasons.” … An ocean of inaudible expression. An American educator. A careful citizen. A mind so terribly aware.


In this passage, Howe exposes the difference between the personal and “immediate” Matthiessen and the distanced objective critic. This division is exactly the separation she refuses to allow in her own poetry when she foregrounds the importance of her personal background. When Howe depicts Matthiessen as a man at “war in himself,” she authors a type of second American Renaissance that will attempt to reconcile the critic with the “immediacy” and antinomian enthusiasm of her own personal meetings with past authors.

Howe's work attempts to revitalize poetry in America by suggesting that poetry has the ability to remake culture, history, and literary criticism. Howe says, “If History is a record of survivors, Poetry shelters other voices” (“Difficulties Interview” 25), and her poetry tries to inscribe a plural and unauthoritarian “i” in history. Howe's collages present the reader with a layering of choices. Her strategies of erasure question whether the reader can maintain the freedom and plurality inherent in the “x” or whether any critical act must acknowledge the possibility that it is complicitous with the destructive hand that wrote “stranger.” Both Matthiessen and Perry Miller were friends of her father. Howe describes Miller in her interview with Foster:

But how did I know him? Only as a lecherous character who drank too much. He is supposed to have been an inspiring teacher. To us daughters of professors, he was the object of great scorn, because we knew that if he was at one of our houses, he would quickly get red-faced and then his hands would start wandering. His wife, Betty, who I believe did half of his research for him, was silent and shadowy. What she must have endured.


Whether Howe's comments on Miller are deserved or not, they reveal the flip side of the margins she professes to resurrect and the absences she tells. The rewriting of erasure frames Howe's poetry, yet this frame also promises a destruction of authority that is founded in its own assumption of an authoritarian voice and silencing. Howe tells Foster, “Behind the facade of Harvard University is a scaffold and a regicide. Under the ivy and civility there is the instinct for murder, erasure, and authoritarianism,” and “I mean that's why I am concerned that so much of my work carries violence in it. I don't want to be of Ahab's party. I want to find peace. Anyway you balance on the edge in poetry. I did say in My Emily Dickinson that poetry is dangerous” (34).9

The “edge” Howe speaks of in this interview parallels the “Vulturism trimmed for binding” she articulates in the closing pages of “Melville's Marginalia” (149). In this “vulturism” and “edge,” Howe acknowledges one of the inherent dangers of her poetics and of any act of literary interpretation. While the poet's words are moved by a desire to make herself and her literary creations live in the present, the idea that this project can be accomplished without unconsciously implementing its own authoritarian methods of destruction remains on the “margins of doubt” for both reader and poet. A poetics of margins forces the poet to walk a fine line of “authoritarianism.” Howe wants to impress her “I” on history. She wishes to eradicate the reduction and exclusion that are inherent in the academic canonization Miller represents, yet she must also claim some authority of her own, or else her poetry is in danger of becoming so dispersed that history will never see the Susan Howe who “scared millions” and “rushed” on (150).

Howe's description of Miller effectively dissipates the image of the “inspired teacher” and problematizes the afterlife of his texts. The poet here is not the poet who evokes a lyrical landscape of New England in “Thorow”: “I moved into the weather's fluctuation. Let myself drift in the rise and fall of light and snow, re-reading retracing once-upon” (Singularities 41). This Susan Howe undermines Miller's authority as a canon-making critic by criticizing him personally. She concentrates on his personal character in a manner that bears similarities to the ways nineteenth- and twentieth-century critics have used the private lives of women authors to invalidate their work. I do not question here Howe's right to revise Miller's views and “research” but the personal form in which she has chosen to couch this criticism. Regardless of the varied versions of Susan Howe the poet that her sketch of Miller provides, one issue remains clear. This poetry curiously resists and prevents the reader from criticizing Howe for her potential “vulturism.” If the reader perceives Howe's personal criticism of Miller as one of the contradictions of her poetics of recovery, she becomes the “vulture” pointing the finger at Howe, and the focus shifts to her own conscious act of destruction. At the same time that Howe's work raises questions about the destruction inherent in any act of interpretation, her frame of erasure defends her project. Her focus on the intimate meeting of author and reader, on the biographical rehabitation of lost voices, prohibits the reader from achieving any critical distance on Howe's project. Readers who condemn Howe for her portrait of Miller because it looks as if she attacks the academic canon through the personal and succumbs to the same destruction she wishes to challenge are left trapped in a place where they assume the very responsibility for erasure that Howe's poetics desires to provoke. In this position, they are faced not with a poet who cannot make her words and project cohere, but with a poet who will always possess intentionality and control her poetic frame. This poet, this Susan Howe, has the ability to make her poetics forever disseminate themselves. She has the power to elude me and to maneuver critics into a place where we must confront the choices and personal shortcomings that lie behind any desire to taint Howe's poetical project with failure and to remove it from history.10

In her response to Miller, Howe chooses to concentrate on Miller's personal misuses of power. This personally and ideologically determined series of choices returns the reader to the “figure” of Susan Howe and to the place in history that the contemporary female poet desires to possess. Howe's rewriting of her childhood enables her to find a voice in a personal past where she was previously silent. It allows her to entrench women firmly in American studies. Formerly, Howe's criticism of Miller had been the whispered “scorn” of daughters spoken in the shadows of professors. When she returns to this moment, she eradicates Betty Miller's silence and her own. She refuses collusion with the double frame of institutional and familial authority that Perry Miller and Mark and Molly Howe represent. When Howe raises the question of what Betty Miller “must have endured,” she writes a place into the American Renaissance for a woman's voice to be heard. If, as Howe suggests, Betty Miller did “half” of Perry Miller's research, American studies has a long history of female voices. Women like Betty Miller “endured” to give the contemporary female poet a birthright and a tradition. They have legitimated the place in American studies where Susan Howe now stands, and their work justifies a poetry that now subverts the notion of a single, patriarchal version of history.

Given the magnitude of the cultural undertaking that lies behind Howe's inscription of herself in history, I wonder if my questioning of Howe's own methods of destruction is in fact a larger part of this cultural project. In the course of “Melville's Marginalia,” Howe leads the reader to assume consciousness of the erasures and choices that are inherent in any attempt to narrativize history. Perhaps the ultimate mark of the endurance of Howe's poetics lies in my final ability to read Howe's project backward into her words in a reflection of her own collage strategies. As I “find” the moments of potential “vulturism” in “Melville's Marginalia,” I continue the active search for erasure and recovery that Howe's collage strategies advocate. I leave Howe's work conscious of the voices that Howe has recovered and removed, and I become a living testimony to the endurance of her poetics. In the course of this work, I have been “found” by “mysterious erasures” and “secret footsteps.” I have acknowledged the innumerable new voices and choices that must be recovered in the search for a female poetics and a critical language that will someday no longer need to raise questions of destruction to forecast its own authority and endurance.


  1. The conjunction of ghostly figures and canonical texts in Howe's comment to Foster is reminiscent of the merging of literature and history that Howe evokes in “Eikon Basilike”: “King Charles I was a devoted patron of the arts. He particularly admired Shakespeare. His own performance on the scaffold was worthy of that author-actor who played the part of the Ghost in Hamlet. The real King's last word “Remember” recalls the fictive Ghost-king's admonition to his son. The ghost of a king certainly haunted the Puritans and the years of the Protectorate. Charles I became the ghost of Hamlet's father, Caesar's ghost, Banquo's ghost, the ghost of King Richard II” (48). While this essay quotes extensively from The Birth-mark and from other works by Howe, I am wary of making overarching pronouncements about the development of Howe's oeuvre. Howe's refutation of a single, authoritative history seems to preclude this type of metacriticism. As Howe herself does in so many of her texts, I have chosen instead to put forth an interpretation of a single work. I hope that my interpretation of “Melville's Marginalia” will provoke agreement, thought, and dissent, and most of all that it will lead the reader back to Howe's other texts in an attempt to understand and locate the larger themes of her work.

  2. Quoting from Howe poses a problem in that her work cannot be easily divided into excerpted passages without the risk of lines being taken out of context. The very form of Howe's poetry makes it difficult for the critic to disembody and “harden” her words. When writing of Howe, the critic is forced to be aware of the choices and splices that have made her own interpretation possible. It is thus that she is endlessly driven back to Howe's original words.

  3. As I previously noted, the metaphor of drama is peculiarly fitted to Howe's own life in view of her earlier certainty that she would become an actress. For another moment when Howe describes her desire to become an actress, see Howe, “Speaking” 37.

  4. The post-exilic tone surfaces at other places in Howe's work. In her interview with Janet Falon, Howe speaks of her torn and double allegiance to Ireland and the United States: “I've spent a lot of my life in Ireland. One of the problems I have always had has been the pull between countries. A civil war in the soul. I can't express how much I adored Ireland, especially when I was young. But at the same time at that very moment of loving it I felt an outsider and knew there was no way I could ever really be let in. If you can't decide where your allegiance lies you feel permanently out. I had to feel at home somewhere and I think that was another reason it was so urgent for me to write the Dickinson book” (“Speaking” 37).

  5. In Beneath the American Renaissance, David S. Reynolds proposes one alternative to Howe's interpretation of the historical origins of the Bartleby figure: “Much of the imagery in ‘Bartleby’ is directly related to popular sensational literature. In particular, a series of sensational exposes about New York life by George Foster, a popular novelist in Melville's circle, are especially pertinent to ‘Bartleby.’ In Nero York in Slices (1849) Foster had portrayed Wall Street as a totally dehumanizing environment producing puppetlike people and universal misery cloaked by gentility” (294–95).

  6. In her interview with Lynn Keller, Howe illuminates the movement behind her collage strategies when she discusses the way she reads her poems (15) and explains their physicality: “You impose a direction by beginning. But where Marcia [Hafif] was using gestural marks, I used words. It was another way of making word lists but now in a horizontal rather than vertical direction, so there was a wall of words. In this weird way I moved into writing physically because this was concerned with gesture, the mark of the hand and the pen or pencil, the connection between eye and hand”(6).

  7. While Howe's work argues that literary history has historically denied its own constructedness, the recent work on canonicity that has been performed by texts such as The Heath Anthology and Cary Nelson's Repression and Recovery provides a current counterexample to the trajectory of literary history that Howe notes.

  8. Peter Quartermain's Disjunctive Poetics offers one important historical context within which to place Howe's adherence to plural voices and beginnings. Quartermain suggests that one of the major influences on the twentieth-century American writer has been the influx of immigrants. The pluralization of American culture has challenged notions of a monolithic culture, language, and history (12). The authors Quartermain examines share a historical context characterized by “[t]he increasingly uncomfortable misalignment, which relegated certain writers to submerged, eruptive, and insurrectional activity within and beside accredited modes.” This position “was exacerbated in America by the linguistic disruption and even demolition of empowered cultural patterns through the agency of foreign immigration” (9).

  9. Linda Reinfeld is one of the only critics of Howe to approach this element of “violence” in Howe's work. Reinfeld evokes both the implicit feminism in Howe's poetics and the dangerous “edge” she balances upon in this project: “Howe's art, in ‘Thorow,’ may well be read as an act of complicity and violence-or as the liberation of woman's voice in a literature dominated by men. Or as both: ‘complicity battling redemption.’ I greatly admire Howe's accomplishment, her ‘talent of composition,’ but hesitate to take it for my own. I do not know whose scalps are in her boat” (103).

  10. Howe's poetry continually asks the reader to employ the critically precarious analysis of an author's intentionality and personal biography. Howe reacts against Miller, yet her attack on him is complicated by the similarities between their projects and methods. Howe describes “finding” “Melville's Marginalia” in a cycle of electron, recovery, and nostalgia that is strikingly similar to Miller's description of his own critical project in Errand into the Wilderness—the book he dedicates to Howe's parents, Mark and Molly Howe. Like Howe, Miller describes his scholarship in terms of a personal and emotional calling: “It was given to me, equally disconsolate on the edge of a jungle of central Africa, to have thrust upon me the mission of expounding what I took to be the innermost propulsion of the United States, while supervising, in that barbaric tropic, the unloading of drums of case oil flowing out of the inexhaustible wilderness of America. … I have difficulty imagining that anyone can be a historian without realizing that history itself is part of the life of the mind; hence I have been compelled to insist that the mind of man is the basic factor in human history” (viii–ix). Just as “Melville's Marginalia” finds Howe in the library at Temple University, history “finds” Miller to speak and recover “the inexhaustible wilderness of America” and its potentially “barbaric” and violent components.

    Howe's merging of the roles of poet and critic can, in some sense, be seen as a continuation of Miller's challenge to an objective historical certainty. While Miller uses the traditional polar opposition of two wildernesses, a barbaric Africa and an inexhaustible America, to define the United States, he complicates the stance of the “historian” who conceives of history as a single trajectory and makes connections between the past and present without consciousness. Like Howe, Miller conceives of history as plural. He may use traditionally racist Western iconography to define America, yet he also locates this construction of history not in Africa but in the subjective and personal experience of “the mind of man.” Miller's use of the first-person voice asks the reader to understand that his work and his depictions of the past have been formed by his personal choices, by his desire to find definition and a place for his “mind” as he stands, “disconsolate” and lost, on the “edge” of a modern “jungle.” The similarities between Miller and Howe were suggested to me by Michael Kaufman and the distinction between Miller's two wildernesses by Rachel Blau DuPlessis.

Works Cited

The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Gen. ed. Paul Lauter. Lexington, MA: Heath, 1990.

Howe, Susan. A Bibliography of the King's Book, or, Eikon Basilike.The Nonconformist's Memorial 45–82.

———. The Birth-mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan UP, 1993.

———. “The Difficulties Interview.” With Tom Beckett. Susan Howe Issue. Ed. Tom Beckett. The Difficulties 3.2 (1989): 17–27.

———. “An Interview with Susan Howe.” With Edward Foster. Talisman: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics 4 (1990): 14–38.

———. “An Interview with Susan Howe.” With Lynn Keller. Contemporary Literature 36 (1995): 1–34.

———. “Melville's Marginalia.” The Nonconformist's Memorial 83–150.

———. The Nonconformist's Memorial: Poems by Susan Howe. New York: New Directions, 1989.

———. Singularities. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan UP, 1990.

———. “Speaking with Susan Howe.” Interview. With Janet Ruth Falon. Susan Howe Issue. Ed. Tom Beckett. The Difficulties 3.2 (1989): 28–42.

Melville, Herman. “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street.” Great Short Works of Herman Melville. Ed. Warner Berthoff. New York: Harper, 1969. 39–74.

Miller, Perry. Errand into the Wilderness. Cambridge, MA: Belknap-Harvard UP, 1956.

Nelson, Cary. Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910–1945. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1989.

Quartermain, Peter. Disjunctive Poetics: From Gertrude Stein and Louis Zutofsky to Susan Howe. Cambridge Studies in American Literature and Culture. New York: Cambridge UP, 1992.

Reinfeld, Linda. “On Henry David (Susan Howe) ‘Thorow.’” Susan Howe Issue. Ed. Tom Beckett. The Difficulties 3.2 (1989): 97–104.

Reynolds, David S. Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Times Literary Supplement (review date 30 May 1997)

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SOURCE: A review of Frame Structures: Early Poems, 1974–1979, in Times Literary Supplement, May 30, 1997, p. 25.

[In the following review, the critic offers a favorable assessment of Frame Structures.]

On a visit to the zoo in December 1941, Susan Howe, then aged four, noticed that the polar bears were restless. “Animals sense something about ruin,” her father explained; returning home, they heard the news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. This anecdote, which opens Howe's introduction to Frame Structures, presages her poetic: personal history is set against the backdrop of large-scale upheaval, and apparent coincidences acquire the gravity of casual relations.

The four small-press works collected in Frame Structures “cross … from one field of force to another field of force,” with Marcel Duchamp, Shakespeare, and the eighteenth-century surveyor William Byrd among diverse motive impulses. The poems also trace Howe's dual inheritance: Cabbage Gardens pays homage to her mother's Ireland, and Secret History of the Dividing Line borrows from the writing of her father, a Harvard historian whose friends called him “the Last Puritan.” Secret History is the best representation of Howe's playful energies. Internally dedicated to her father and her son, both named Mark, with Howe the dividing line between generations, the poem plays on the “marks” that frame her, grafting “lexical drifts” into an extraordinary elegy:

Numerous singularities
slight stutter
a short letter
embrace at departure
body backward
in a tremendous forward direction
house and host

The vacancy left by Howe's father—his departure for war in 1941 and his death in 1967—pulls against her son's trajectory. This taut lineage and its impeded articulation foreshadow Howe's absorption in Emily Dickinson and in Melville's stammering Billy Budd.

The growing body of admirers of Howe's work, especially of such series poems as Pythagorean Silence (1982) and the scholarly hybrid The Birth-mark (1993) will find it put in new contexts by Frame Structures. The resurfacing of these superb early poems means that all the major works of a poet who stages “the theater of the family” on “the field of history” are now, happily, in print.

Lydia A. Schultz (review date June 1997)

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SOURCE: A review of The Birth-mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History, in College Literature, Vol. 24, No. 2, June, 1997, pp. 215–18.

[In the following review, Schultz offers a positive assessment of The Birth-mark, noting that although the work requires considerable reader involvement, that the “effort is more than compensated by the insights that Howe reveals or makes possible for us to glean.”]

In The Birth-mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History, Susan Howe inspires readers to react and respond both to the texts about which she writes and to the text which she herself is writing in the same way she does—passionately and enthusiastically. This book does not attempt to give readers a coherent, logically progressive assessment of early American literature. What The Birth-mark does provide, however, is much more. Her text requires more involvement and participation than a standard critical text, but that effort is more than compensated by the insights that Howe reveals or makes possible for us to glean.

Susan Howe's style greatly shapes how we respond to her text. She writes in a highly allusive, personal way, using fragments and disrupting these early texts to render them full of meaning. She “reads” a variety of works in these essays—works by Thomas Shepard, Mary Rowlandson, and Emily Dickinson. Yet she filters these readings through other voices, those heard and those silenced by gender, religion, and history: F. O. Matthiessen and Noah Webster, Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Anne Bradstreet and her sister Sarah Dudley Keayne, and most especially Anne Hutchinson.

Her basic premise—and perhaps the concept that most likely unifies these essays into a book—is that the antinomian conflict that resulted in Keayne's excommunication and Hutchinson's banishment lies at the heart of early American literature. She asserts quite persuasively that the winners of this controversy—the white, male, canonical—are still trying to tame, modify, control, or silence those voices which question their author-ity and their vision of America. As a result, Howe turns to the margins, to the subtexts, to the silences and omissions to understand the ways in which these voices can be salvaged and reclaimed.

In her Introduction, Howe emphasizes the relevance of the antinomian controversy to American literature by showing how deeply these issues, even 200 years later, affected writers who have entered the canon. One such writer, Hawthorne, refers specifically to Anne Hutchinson in his description of the rose bush at the prison door in The Scarlet Letter, a reference which seems both apropos and ironic given Hester Prynne's “crime.” Howe borrows this image and makes it central to her discussion, claiming, “Anne Hutchinson is the rose at the threshold of The Birth-mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History. In this dark allegory—the world—wild roses are veils before trespass” (21).

These “veils before trespass” become somewhat clearer in the second section of the introduction entitled “Submarginalia.” Here Howe indicates just how lost or ignored the voices of women could be in this period. She observes that while “women have troublesome, baffling, potentially transgressive natures” for Cotton Mather, “at least they exist” (28). Others have not been so willing to “see” women. Howe notes that Matthiessen completely ignores Emily Dickinson in American Renaissance (28). Samuel Taylor Coleridge doesn't even note his daughter's birth in the family Bible as he does his sons' births; instead, her birth was tucked away in a separate list, an “Annex,” and, as Howe explains, “All entries in the Annex are in women's hands” (34). Even the marginal notations made by Melville's wife in Billy Budd are referred to by critics as “marks made by an ‘alien hand’” (36). Part of Howe's style is to provide us these details, these fragments, and to encourage us to piece them together to find her point—that gender enters and “veils” the voice for these women and that our job as critics is to lift these veils for all to see what lies beneath.

Her next section, “Encloser,” focuses on Thomas Shepard as a collector of conversion narratives, an evangelical minister, and a persecutor of Anne Hutchinson. Howe realizes that the idea of enclosure is a constant process, a gleaning or sifting, as she says:

The selection of particular examples from a large group is always a social act. By choosing to install certain narratives somewhere between history, mystic speech, and poetry, I have enclosed them in an organization, although I know there are places no classificatory procedure can reach, where connections between words and things we thought existed break off. For me, paradoxes and ironies of fragmentation are particularly compelling.


So too are these fragments compelling to her readers. Howe illustrates by her choices that this “social act” of selection holds true not just for texts, but for people as well. Voices, particularly of women, disappear or are subsumed: “A woman, afraid of not speaking well, tells her story to a man [Thomas Shepard] who writes it down. The participant reporters follow and fly out of Scripture and each other. All testimonies are bereft, brief, hungry, pious, authorized” (50). Such narratives are thus enclosed and controlled, with the intent that nothing be left for future readers to misinterpret.

Even the archetypal figure Anne Hutchinson loses her power of expression, because her trial records are lost (74), with only references in other texts remaining. And those potentially biased texts—such as Shepard's manuscript diary—are further subjected to the vagaries of textual editing. Howe explains that editors of Shepard's manuscript did not see “fit to point out the fact that Shepard left two manuscripts in one book separated by many pages and positioned so that to read one you must turn the other upside down” (60). As she later remarks, “by correcting, deleting, translating, or interpreting the odd symbols and abbreviated signals, later well-meaning editors have effaced the disorderly velocity of Mr. Shepard's evangelical enthusiasm. For readability” (69).

Howe tries to repair these misrepresentations or non-representations for her readers. Her textual criticism describing Shepard's manuscript and its form can yield valuable insights. She recreates Anne Hutchinson's voice within the context of her trial by piecing together quotations of the various actors and writing a fictionalized drama. Howe reminds us that the losers of controversies were there, speaking for themselves. These creative elements—interspersed with passages from conversion narratives and other analyses—give us a sense of that historical time and place as it more truly was: polyphonic, chaotic.

Similar techniques shape Howe's discussion of Mary Rowlandson's captivity narrative. She provides some relevant and fairly recent factual material about Rowlandson's revised date of death. (The two anthologies that I checked still referred to the earlier, apparently inaccurate date, even though they were published after this new information was uncovered.) Rowlandson has a difficult relationship to develop in her narrative, one which is necessarily tenuous and mediated: she must bemoan her captivity without overtly questioning God's purpose, assert the savagery of her captors while revealing their personal kindnesses, describe her survival without appearing to succumb to savagery herself, and finally reintegrate herself into her own culture after her release. The seriousness of this task becomes apparent in Howe's other examples—Anne Bradstreet and her sister Sarah Dudley Keayne. Bradstreet manages to control herself, according to Howe, by “wear[ing] a mask of civility, domesticity, and perfect submission to contemporary dogmatism” (113). Her sister was less adept at this mediation: she ends up divorced, excommunicated, and disinherited, disappearing from the annals of history. Other women are marginalized and silenced in different ways: Anne Hutchinson by banishment and ultimate death and Mary Dyer by execution. Mary Rowlandson thus faced a potential for great personal danger in her narrative, but avoids it because, as Howe notes, “The trick is in its mix” (127).

The final essay is on more familiar ground for Howe; here she discusses Emily Dickinson's poetry and how “the subject-creator and her art in its potential gesture were domesticated and occluded by an assumptive privileged Imperative” (131). Howe challenges how Dickinson's poetry has been edited, focusing on the assumptions the editors have made and on the tight control that the various institutions have kept over her manuscripts. Howe wants readers to have access to the way that Dickinson wrote these poems because “This space is the poet's space. Its demand is her method” (139).

The book concludes with an interview which Howe did in 1989 with Edward Foster. The decision to include this interview seems somewhat puzzling, although it does shed a little light on which issues or concerns motivate Howe as a critic. But the personal background, while interesting, adds little to our understanding of the critical work that she has done here.

Except for this very minor reservation. I found this book has provided me with a much fuller understanding of the complexities of this era in American literary history. Howe's highly poetic style is a refreshing and welcome change from the usual academic criticism. Her challenging approach fascinates and engages, even for readers like me who do not specialize in this particular period. This book has done what good critical works can do: it has piqued my curiosity to the point that I want to revisit these texts, to see them in this new light.

John Peck (review date Summer 1997)

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SOURCE: “Two at the Gap: Jorie Graham and Susan Howe,” in Partisan Review, Vol. 64, No. 3, Summer, 1997, pp. 497–503.

[In the following review, Peck explores the major themes and poetic techniques of Howe's poetry.]

A dramatic poetics, which holds back from statement and assessment to explore mood and its makings, may grow expansive. With Jorie Graham's pursuit of just such expansiveness over two decades, which appreciative readers call “metaphysical,” we may follow something in transit between opposites in recent literary taste. These opposites are an organic, unified natural object—which optimistic Romanticism has long since nurtured, but which Modernism curiously favored also—and the disruptive object of postmodern Romanticism, say in Heidegger and de Man. From the Aeolian harp and the plum in the icebox to the Ding an sich with a depth charge. Graham's route between these enlarges on Eliot's, tracing a sensibility that would close the gap of presumed dissociation, while also embracing gestures from Hopkins to Beckett. The poetry that results grows expansive yet also remains sceptical, in harmony with a broadly shared anxiety about interpretive connection now common in the educated class. She is anxious about meaning and disaffected from narrative that moves along a line and submits to perspective; it is the mood more than the argument of scepticism that she renders. While Graham's subjects, sensuous feeling for the mind's turnings, range, and her gift for the striking phrase are very impressive, I am most struck by her frustration, which raises what I take to be tough questions, and by her barely veiled despair.

Of that despair, at moments, her poems speak candidly. She seems to tell us: do not look to me for a sense of reality, but only for that sense which achingly stands in its place, the feeling that reality is seeping away with explicit clickings and tickings, in a torture of “the minutes,” “the days.” The negative wonder of nihilistic time pulls at her; she invokes Beckett as her ally in agony. But as if to compensate for that feeling, she accelerates history in fast-forward rushes (notably in “What is Called Thinking,” with its title from Heidegger). I believe that neither she nor her audience notices the paradox in which this involves her. The thrill gained by speeding up time is close cousin to the delirium of stasis; a swift stream may also seem to stand still. For all its strenuous trackings of awareness, and its tone of heroic perseverance against long odds, Graham's art is one of submission, bound to a Bergsonian raft in the flood of duration.

The warm reception accorded to Graham suggests that the educated mind now sees its own stance mirrored in this poetry's large motions, suspended in gap and delay (the terms are Graham's own). Frequently she punctuates her work with manneristic cracks at conventions for framing meanings. Yet these cracks alternate with elegies for those same conventions, because she can equip her longing for substance with no new kit. The neat clicking-shut is Graham's usual caricature of older practice, but constantly she tips the wink about other conventions. She inserts schematic blanks into her phrases. She resorts to phenomenological style and tone, “tugging the wanting-to-finish out.” An arch coyness flowers: “(can you understand this?) / (what will you do next?) (—feel it beginning?).” Trust attaches only to the stage before utterance and to the probe just after launch. In only three of the poems chosen here does Graham push through consentingly to the limited. Whether as metaphysical reservation or strenuous sentiment, Graham's main theme becomes hanging-back, and romantic phenomenology its style.

All this seems honest to her audience. For them, as sophisticated readers, hierarchy and finality have long since passed away. Her style shows Graham self-aware that her own conventions mix loveliness with longueurs of emotion and phrasal tics. Pause button, slow-motion lever, and echoes from current discourses guide the mix, which suggests that she prefers being confirmed in a spiritual impasse towards which it is easier to gesture than to walk. It is not out of place to remember by way of contrast Eugenio Montale's gap or enigmatic varco. It was over in a flash; in its fulgurous light a certain degree of reality reared up and vanished. Not so here.

Her best writing makes the best, sensuously and thoughtfully, of common motives for swerving from threadbare procedures. In that vein, “Self-Portrait as Hurry and Delay [Penelope]” and “Self-Portrait as the Gesture Between Them [Adam and Eve]” stand out. But if one studies delay one risks adhering to the primal opposites of early feeling. “The Age of Reason,” argued through Werner Herzog's version of Woyzeck, arrives at an insatiable appetite for devouring the sensory world. The later “Fission,” in response to JFK's murder, resists initiation into political tragedy by rhyming that tragedy with sexual violation. That resistance leads to carefully rendered shock, but not to what lies beyond the darkness. Far more than Graham's sensuousness suggests, these primordial emotions in her work, insatiability and immobility, are at odds with themselves, setting up an impasse. The poems that stand free of it—such as the recent “The Visible World”—are exceptional.

Graham has found language for a complex mood that many people recognize and are tempted to celebrate—a mood both primordial and shuttling, at times melodramatic, at times langorous. Thus her “howling and biting gap” versus “the opening trembling, the nothing, the nothing with use in it trembling.” While voids can be generative, the shuttle flights through them may simply stay on schedule.

Beyond delay and gap, through what I call the gaping analogy, Graham has arranged a rhetoric for her impasse. Its long loops are meant not to snare. A trick lasso designed to keep the eye traveling across the wide contours of a similitude, it slides off its target in devout near-miss practice. It frames whole poems: “Imperialism,” “From the New World,” “Holy Shroud,” “Noli Me Tangere,” “Breakdancing,” and “What the End Is For.” This gaping analogy, and a frequent diction of rips and tears, express unease, for Graham dreads the very delays that she courts because they accumulate a charge of spiritual violence. In “What Is Called Thinking” she sees this, ending with a self-corrective turn; she lets imagined violence rebound on herself, and so accepts the history and fated identity she elsewhere resists. Yet later in “Relativity: A Quartet,” in whose last section a maniac shoots up a subway car, violence erupts through sheer impedence of the desire for meaning dwelt on in earlier sections during the prolonged dead stop of a passenger train. Graham's arrested scannings of natural fact, social decay, and metaphysical opacity, as if condensed from her entire oeuvre, reach the stasis that her delays elsewhere approximate. And once fully balked they explode. One poem's Hopkinsian phrase gets it: “stillness reveals / an appall of pure form.”

The title poem movingly stages a reflection focussed on mother, daughter, and dance that ventures a subtle answer to her chief themes. And the first part of “Chaos [Eve]” parallels this feminine drama; fantasy unveils the created world by submitting it to a flaying, alluding to Michelangelo's self-portrait in his Last Judgment (the face of the flayed St. Bartholomew). What she peels back here, mythically, is the male artist's heroism. This leads me to account for the rips and tears of Graham's diction, again, in primordial terms; they aim at a specifically feminine world-separation. That aim not only shapes single poems but also her work as a whole which fights shy of rigid inscription. But the aim will seem effective only if one also identifies with that drama.

Not that Susan Howe leaves inscription in place: far from it. While she must be included among the breakers of language (and I mean that as no fashionable compliment), she stands out among them for sensing how much the fractio panis costs, with an awareness nearly as large as that for her themes. Authority, whether in language or social order, is her abiding theme; its corrosions, therefore, however fascinating and experimental, her own experimentalism always resists in the end. The veiled reality of inarticulate experience is one of these, not only among those whose reports have suffered blackout or intricate self-erasure, but also in American history at large. Her early awareness during the cataclysm of World War II shaped her sense of recent history as verging on the unspeakable. She looks at the supernova not directly, but to one side of it, as a way of apprehending the blast. Thus, her gleaning of things from the archives. Charles Bernstein in A Poetics addresses the effects of the Second World War on several poetic styles, accounting for them as delayed reactions to collective trauma. Howe's poetry, however narrow and tensile its range, amplifies those reactions. Her work excites interest among those who know that recent hermeneutic talk is a graveyard euphemism—that phrases such as “the play of the signifier” shroud cold crimes, one of which is an inadequate relation of feeling to collective trauma. Though she is as smart as the hermeneuts, Howe is also no stranger to stammers and ghostly visitations, working with them from the outset and recovering their tremors in one great antecedent, Dickinson with her “words grown odd” (in Winters' phrase). While I often do not follow Howe, always I sense her aim and her blends of civic with feminine feeling, and of strength with fragility.

“Frame Structures,” the memoir-essay that introduces Howe's collected early poems (Hinge Picture,Chanting at the Crystal Sea,Cabbage Gardens, and Secret History of the Dividing Line), weaves together family histories, earlier national and northeastern regional histories, gritty economic practices, and literary affiliations. Cannily constructed, and associative in method, it touches on collective destiny, as in the linked treatments of fire throughout the piece, climaxed by her description of Fanny Longfellow's death. But the sections also allude to Duchamp's sense of design (“Delay in Glass,” “Mirror Axis”). Howe came to poetry through the visual arts, and her construction is both architectonic and associative. In this respect “Frame Structures” distills her poetics. It also stands out as one of those few memoirs that quicken one's sense of historical mystery (much as do Marguerite Yourcenar's).

As preface to the early books this piece has a shorter antecedent in “There Are Not Leaves Enough to Crown to Cover to Crown to Cover,” which prefaces The Europe of Trusts (1990), a collection of three books (The Liberties,Pythagorean Silence, and Defenestration of Prague). Both essays acknowledge the indirect effects of World War II on her poetry. In 1990 Howe wrote: “fright is formed by what we see not by what they say.” She guesses that this omitted but witnessable realm “dictates,” in her own work, “the sound of what is thought.” This claim is her most important one. Even her resonant epigrams only point to what whole poems or books sound out. From a later volume: “Voracious coinage at the confines // political acres of prey and chirrup / Confusion // of lines bisecting shred / after shred of feeling.”

The gaps in that epigram function as stutter (Howe's own term in an interview). I suspect that Howe's intensity and her non-doctrinaire feminism are only two motives for gapping. A deeper motive is her complex relation to authority, and therefore to linguistic stability. Her art moves between being captured and breaking free (her own terms again); such an oscillation equips her to hear the sound of the unspoken, not only among the captives but also among the victors. She has consistently addressed that relation to authority which brands American traditions: “ambulant vagrant bastardy comes looming through assurance and sanctification.” In the early poems style often registers aftershock, sometimes across a span of pages, sometimes in bits. “Dragooned / I dined with destroyers,” or, “knocking her O / hero // in the castle, doors opened like beggars.” These books reorchestrate prose from Holmes's Civil War diary and letters, and Edward Gibbon; the Old and New Testaments rustle through them, and narratives of captivity, but the touches are fresh: “At Cape Difficulty / science swims in miracles.” “Warriors wait / hidden in the fierce hearts of children.” “With a snowshoe for shovel / I opened the clock // and we searched for peace in its deep and private present. // Outside, the world swarmed with sorcerers.” She ends the prefatory essay, “Close by [the family story] lies a great forest approaching Modernism my early poems project aggression.” But that projection remains useful.

Gaps in Howe's poetry are routine, continuous, productive. Typical poems run from nine to thirteen or twenty-three to twenty-seven short lines, through brief clauses and suspended phrases, laddering theme while suspending closure all along the chain. Often, spaces widen between lines to enforce the same effect. Some poems shift into word grids, that is, five or so words to a line broadly spaced, the lines again spaced widely, as if imitating a Chinese lyric set out in literal translation. The result is meant to be walked around in and bounced upon. “The Liberties” includes a Nohlike spirit play about Swift's Stella and Lear's Cordelia in which these word grids also enter. While all these stylistic decisions aim at preserving suggestion while drawing intelligence into its service, the risk is that her texture can seem as veiled and indulgent as it can seem rigorous. Nonetheless, her gaps are not melodramas of deferred meaning, but pryings-open of predication. I see them as her way of deriving from statement, simultaneously, the ranges of both history and sous histoire.

Published well after these four books, Defenestration of Prague supplies justification for this attitude and practice. “For we are language Lost / in language,” and then, “near and far a fugue of fear / crisp aphorisms die out.” Section 12 of this book argues that history can be heard through Sabine ears, that is, behind the name-clatter of a triumphal record: “Nomenclator / anointed Latin memory of plunder // mass migration of women // hid knowledge.” Howe's stutter is meant to foster hearing. And the early books under review here do that with both event and “vocables / of shape or sound,” for example through a remarkable collage from Holme's Civil War letters to his parents, in Secret History of the Dividing Line. The form of feeling in her collage from Holmes is actually post-Hiroshima; its sous histoire becomes our own history while the earlier war closes off any nostalgic retreat—and all of this one hears coming between the lines.

One can infer from Howe's work a traumatic submersion by history that calls forth a myth of audition. Americans typically deny the weight of history, and therefore pretend that they are still above water. To them Howe's myth of audition may seem a fairy tale. But the American wave compounds the submersion: the Puritan model of reinvented authority, moralistic practicality projected fiercely against the night, and innovation, has mounted the global epic of modernization. So its violences, Howe's subject, are no antiquarian's hobby. They are more like volatile octanes, so that Howe's dry archival materials turn out to be fuses. A decade ago in My Emily Dickinson, Howe traced her exemplar's moves “backward through history into aboriginal anagogy” to a “new grammar grounded in humility and hesitation. … What voice when we hesitate and are silent is moving to meet us?” That is not Gertrude Stein's sort of question. It shapes Howe's books into witching wands. Where have the bridges really gone down, and the trails grown over? Who is that waving on the other side? Howe is convinced that in words lurks an instrument, or an instrument lost in an instrument, that might serve.

Nicky Marsh (essay date October 1997)

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SOURCE: “‘Out of My Texts I Am Not What I Play’: Politics and Self in the Poetry of Susan Howe,” in College Literature, Vol. 24, No. 3, October, 1997, pp. 124–38.

[In the following essay, Marsh examines Howe's concept of self and subjectivity as evidenced in her body of work.]

The recent publication by New Directions of Susan Howe's previously uncollected early work, Frame Structures: Early Poems, 1974–1979, appears to mark a significant shift in Howe's writing career. Most obviously such a publication, which “brings together those of her earliest poems she wishes to remain in print, and in the forms in which she cares to have them last” demonstrates the authorial control of the established artist, the privileges and rights which Susan Howe has certainly not always been able to command (Frame Structures, jacket cover). The publication represents the contradictions emerging from Howe's role as a mainstream and yet experimental poet. This apparent contradiction undermines neither the significance of Howe's growing popularity nor her importance as a textually-experimental writer: the fascination of Howe's work actually appears rooted in the wider implications of this ability to extol equivocation.

The introductory essay to Frame Structures appears to embrace Howe's newly canonized status. An air of the established distinguishes it: the narrative moves from reminiscence to metaphysics with a daunting certainty: “Daddy held on tightly to my hand … Animal sense something about the ruin I think he said our human spirits being partly immaterial at that prefigured time though we didn't know then how free will carries us past to be distance waiting for another meeting a true relation (3).” The indeterminacy of the punctuation here paradoxically emphasizes Howe's possession of the poem at its opening: the reader is left scrambling to disentangle the words of the father from the poet, the past from the present, and simply meaning from this swift philosophical flight. The paragraph ends on an epigram that indicates how we might understand our confusion: “Historical Imagination gathers in the missing.” We are, one grasps as the poem moves to “Primitive Notions I,” being led into “the missing.”

What is so striking about this journey, which is in other ways quite typical of the historical narratives that figure largely in the poetry of Howe, is that we are travelling across the historical imagination of an authorial “I.” Within Frame Structures Susan Howe appears to construct an authorial persona whose absenteeism was one of the confounding characteristics of much of her earlier work. Frame Structures is built around personal anecdotes, relationships, a family lineage. In short it appears to provide Howe's rapidly expanding critical audience with an apparent antidote to her previous authorial liminality. Thus what is so contradictory about this text is that the journey into an historical imagination is self-evidently not into “the missing,” but into the “autobiographical, familial, literary and historical motifs” of the writer who creates the willful indeterminacy of the text (jacket cover).

Such personal intimacy is not totally unprecedented in Howe's work. “There Are Not Leaves Enough to Crown to Cover to Crown to Cover,” the introduction to the anthology The Europe of Trusts, shares some of the allusions made to childhood memories in Frame Structures. Central to both texts is the concern to narrate the disruption of family life precipitated by the Second World War. The central feature of this event is the betrayal associated with the father's departure: “Our law professor father, a man of pure principles, quickly included violence in his principles, put on a soldier suit and disappeared (Europe of Trusts 10).” “A parent figure scattered among others in favor of disobedience. ‘Well goodbye and don't forget me’” (Frame Structures 3).” The sharp pain associated with this separation from the father is inextricable from the adult's knowledge of the father's reasons for leaving—which are read in turn through the gendered, social, and international implications of war itself—“American fathers marched off into the Hot chronicle of global struggle but mothers were left” (Europe of Trusts 10). The childish indignation that inflects both narratives suggests an implicit challenge to the foundational role that war—the impersonal and barbarous—plays in constructing identity.

This bewildering recollection of the child's experience of war traces the violence that history wreaks upon the personal, upon what Howe elsewhere refers to as the Singular. Within Howe's account the violence of historical or narrative unity is placed against the confusion of individual fragmentation—“Substance broke loose from the domain of time and obedient intention. I became part of the ruin” (Europe of Trusts 12). The potency of this acutely subjective memory is thus not in its ability to delimit our readings of the text but in its very existence as an oppositional energy, an energy recovered from the way “women and children experience war and its nightmare … blown sand seaward foam in which disappearance fields expression” (Frame Structures 7). Howe's construction of these histories, of her history, is political precisely because it rescues the Singular from the homogenizing “malice [that] dominates the history of Power and Progress. History is the record of winners” (Europe of Trusts 11). Howe's use of her subjective memory is vital: it is only this, her ability to articulate the “fright formed by what we see not by what they say,” that can disrupt the possession of power by the “masters” of history.1

Yet this use of the autobiographical “I” is not typical of Howe's work. Howe's textual experimentalism more often leads her to disrupt the conventions controlling the expressive self of a more mainstream American poetic. Her writing often seems to operate from within what she describes in her essay “Submarginalia” as an “intervening absence”—a subjective or personal voice is rarely overtly present in the challenges that Howe's poetry issues to authority (Birth-mark 27). Howe has thus been represented as participating within what Clair Wills describes as the limiting and “familiar division between formally conservative poetic practices that do not question the drive towards romantic modes of self-expression, the poetic voice, or the center of the poem as a speaking ‘I’ … [and] radical experimental artifice which deconstructs the possibility of the formation of a coherent or consistent lyric voice” (34).2

Howe's apparently contradictory ability to employ both an autobiographical persona and to construct an “intervening absence,” emptied of self, resonates throughout her work. It seemingly amplifies Wills's questioning of the usefulness of the apparent dichotomy between mainstream poets who are reliant on the expressive “I” and experimental poets who eschew the ideologies of selfhood and individuality that it seems so dependant upon. As Michael Greer suggests, reading the deconstructed self in the experimental text solely as a reaction to the mainstream and expressive poetic constructs a dichotomy from which we are unable to contextualize the specific historical and social impetus behind experimental writing.3 What emerges is the need for a critique capable of examining the political implications of the multiple ways in which self is signified—represented and made meaningful—in a specific poetic text.4

As I have already suggested, Howe's dominant representation of self is characterized by a transgressive absence. This authorial liminality is constructed as political in its subversions of hegemonic structures of language—this is a formulation that can be found in Martin Heidegger's Poetry, Language, Thought. That poetical language has an efficacy beyond narratives of subjectivity or history is central to his thesis in this text. The notion that language conceals meaning, that the poet can bring into the “open” alternative readings, is fundamental to Howe's poetry and her foundational aim, to “tenderly lift from the dark side of history voices that are anonymous, slighted—inarticulate” (Europe of Trusts 14).

Heidegger's use of language appears predicated upon the belief that language has primordial meanings that are denied to us in our everyday life through the act of self assertion. He understands assertion of self, the act of modern subjectivity, to be a form of Nietzsche's will to power. The desire to organize the world and to control the conditions of representation must be overcome, according to Heidegger, if we are to gain notions of subjectivity based not on mutually destructive self-assertion but on a comprehension of the meanings and forces that construct our lives. Hence he posits a system in which we understand the world and the individual's place within it, rather than understanding the world through the individuals placed within it. The assertion of self is contrary to the truth for Heidegger because it prevents the subject from attaining the openness of being of the “temporal context.” Freedom within the temporal context comes through replacing one's assertion against the “universal imposition” with a yielding to the “propriative act” of existence.

Poetic language is crucial to Heidegger because it allows the subject to relinquish the assertion of self, which allows the merely representational. It allows the subject to overcome the objectification of language in which subjects are fundamentally alienated. Going beyond the mere equipmentality of language in the technologized world, so he argues, can allow the individual to be opened up into his or her context, into the realm of his or her true meanings. Heidegger argues that it is not a metaphysical insight that art allows us, but the truth that has been concealed: “This surpassing, this transcending does not go up and over into something else; it comes up to its own self and back into the nature of truth” (132). Thus this operation of unconcealedness unleashes an energy that allows history and truth to emerge. “Genuinely poetic projection is the opening up or disclosure of that into which human being as historical is already cast” (132).

Heidegger constructs a relationship between the poet and historical meaning that appears to allow the poet an access to historical truth without having to negotiate the complicated politics of identity. However, as Richard Rorty argues, this is a poetic formulation that we must also be wary of. Rorty suggests that the concern of the Heidegger of Being and Time with the “sociohistorical situation of Dasein” gave way in his later work to a philosopher who rendered “‘Thought’ a substitute for what he called metaphysics. This led him to speak of language as a quasi-divinity in which we live and move and have our being” (340). The primordial energy that Heidegger attributed to language appeared, by Poetry, Language, Thought at least, to have gained a potency for which the subject, by its very nature, cannot be accountable. Unable to articulate a subjective agency, the individual can only “dwell” within the space that language allows.

Amongst the critical approaches to examining Howe's construction of a poetic self have emerged two dominant readings. I want to outline these, before pointing to what I hope may constitute a third. Howe's initial critical reception, in magazines such as The Difficulties and Talisman, celebrated her Heideggerian ability to perform historical analysis in a poetic style that denied authority. Such readings often appeared to value Howe's opacity over an examination of the political implications of such innovation. Paul Metcalf's 1989 essay “The Real Susan Howe,” searched for the artist of plenitude without embodiment: “Her technique is almost absence of technique. Inventive and innovative as she is, she is not artful. … And this brings us back to Objectivism, the mistrust of metaphor, the shedding of herself from her lines. Here we do not have roles, voices, personae, etc.” (55). This insistence on Howe's absence, of self and of technique, self-consciously recalls George Butterick's early claim that the “astringency” of Howe's poetry emerges from “the host ego absenting itself” (148).

What is neglected by this criticism is an analysis of the politics of such authorial distance. Howe's subjective absence is valued without any analysis of its cost. David Landrey, for example, unproblematically places Howe alongside the “spider self” of Emily Dickinson, suggesting that if “poets are going ‘to keep love safe from the enemy’ … it must be by abandoning the self as some limited ‘identity’: it must be by projecting the self into an idea of grace as part of an infinite mystery in us but beyond us” (107). Landrey's apparently easy dismissal of Dickinson's lengthy marginalization and appropriation by the academy is indicative, I think, of the dangers in allowing a faith in an “infinite mystery” to replace an analysis of the political context from which the poetic text has emerged.

Howe appears to be well versed in the hazards of the infinite mystery. In an interview with Ruth Falon, published in the same journal as Paul Metcalf's essay, Howe speaks of the fear she feels in writing a verse that demands a moving beyond the subjective boundaries of the self. She describes how reading Woolf and Dickinson inspired her venture into language, yet links this questioning of the construction of subjectivity with her sanity: “I remember being afraid that if I worked too hard with words I might start hearing voices. I had this lesson of these two writers whose language was exemplary but whose mastery told the other story that a woman could go too far. When you reach that point where no concessions are possible, you face true power, alone” (33). Howe is acutely aware of the political risks of experimental writing. She connects her inability to jeopardize herself with her gender and its responsibilities: “Writing still seems more threatening to me than painting because it becomes so self-absorbing. I saw my desire as a threat to my children. … I kept myself in one piece because I had to for Becky and Mark. I had to accept that because I was also a mother it might take more time” (34). In this interview Howe appears to be candidly acknowledging that she does not perceive the waiving of the construction of the subjective self as an empowering abandonment of the politics of self. Indeed, Howe appears to perceive her prioritizing of language over narrative as actually dangerous in the risk it incurs. These risks are greater for a woman writer, Howe seems to suggest, because she is “alone”—what is lost, perhaps, is the security of a political, and potentially collective, identity.

The nineties have brought about theoretical readings of Howe sensitive to the political implications of her textual practices. Her use of an indeterminate poetic language, her emphasis on the ways in which the ambiguity and uncertainty of historical texts have been silenced, was seen to be inherently critical of the ways in which racial and gendered marginalizations are maintained and produced in homogenized readings of cultural artefacts. In her essay on Howe in The Pink Guitar Rachel Blau Du Plessis demonstrated how the poem “The Liberties,” for example, was able to question the derided status of the feminine within literary history while attempting to free women from such essentialist notions of gender: “[Howe is] a woman—a person mainly gendered feminine—writing “feminine” discourses, knowing and rewriting “masculine” discourses in the name of a critical feminist project that wants to transcend gender” (125).

The importance of Howe's sweeps along the marginalizations of white American culture and history has also been recognized. James Clifford's The Predicament of Culture cites Howe's relatively early My Emily Dickinson as an example of a text capable of disrupting the “narrative continuity of history and identity” in its attempts to “find a different way through capitalist America” (343).

These readings of Howe's “different way” did not simply celebrate her absences but sought to politicize her construction of self. Marjorie Perloff suggests that Howe's critique of the politics of historical narratives is part of her striving for an identity that can acknowledge its necessary historical specificity without being limited by the powers that evoke these constructs:

Ostensibly absent and calling no attention to the problems and desires of the “real” Susan Howe, the poet's self is nevertheless inscribed in the linguistic interstices of her poetic text. … Howe is suggesting that the personal is always already political, specifically, that the contemporary Irish-American New England woman who is Susan Howe cannot be understood apart from her history.


In this reading Howe avoids the lyric “I” not because she is content to allow her poetry to participate in the “larger context” of an objective imaginary, but because the self-identification that such constructs require is reliant on the totalizing propositions that her poetry ultimately questions.

This reading persuasively constructs a political significance for Howe's questioning of the authorial role. The approach chimes neatly with the response by some feminists to Roland Barthes' ecstatic proclamation of the death of the author, which so fundamentally challenged the politics of authorial subjectivity and historical context. Nancy K. Miller infamously responds to Barthes' “foreclosing of the question of identity,” by advocating:

A critical positioning which reads against the weave of indifferentation to discover the embodiment in writing of a gendered subjectivity: … Not only to retrieve those texts from the indifference of the aesthetic universal, but to identify the act of reading as the act of subjectivity of another poetics, a poetics attached to gendered bodies that may have lived in history.

(272, 288)

Miller's reading of the politics of the subject parallels Perloff's reading of Howe. In both the formative relationship between subjectivity and language is acknowledged. The reader is empowered in the act of reading the significance of the self of the poet, which “cannot be understood apart from her history.”

Howe's critical essay “The Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson,” a re-reading of an early captivity narrative, explicitly demonstrates the political rewards of Howe's reworking of historical narrative. Her re-reading of the text takes the form of a meta-narrative: its concern with imagining the stories that Rowlandson's captivity narrative conceals becomes an enquiry into the cultural appropriation of discourse itself. Howe describes the original narrative as a “microcosm of colonial imperialist history and a prophecy of our contemporary repudiation of alterity, anonymity, darkness” (89). She aims to challenge the mythologization of America's constructed history in order to demonstrate its continued influence in the present: she is keenly aware of the potent instability of such constructions. Her critique of the ways in which such apparently bald domination presented itself concentrates on demonstrating the linguistic and historical rifts that form such seminal narratives. Howe does not re-write a text to subvert history but to realize the subversion that the instability of such texts inherently reveals.

The accuracy of her poetical confrontation with what she describes as a “definitive version” of New England's history has recently been supported by growing scholarship seeking to examine the foundational role captivity narratives played in the construction of an American hegemony. Gary Ebersole's Captured by Texts: Puritan to Postmodern Images of Indian Captivity attempts to reconstruct the contemporary consumption of Mary Rowlandson's contested text:

In general, then, the events of Mary Rowlandson's captivity were not in dispute in the late seventeenth century: at issue and of much greater import was the meaning of these and related events. Rowlandson's captivity came to have great communal significance for the Puritans. … The particulars of the captivity were properly to be understood by subordinating the specific instance and personal narrative impetus to a larger covenantal account or metanarrative of God's intervention in New England history.


Although Howe shares these basic premises, what the fluidity of her text seems capable of, where the orthodoxy of Ebersole's research falters, is a more thorough explication of the political and cultural significance of the linguistic structure of these “particulars” within the text. As Christopher Castiglia acknowledges, Howe's reading of Mary Rowlandson's text was “one of the earliest and most eloquent assessments of the deployment of the figure of the captive white woman to uphold patriarchal and imperialist ideology” (200). It is the suggestive plasticity of this “eloquence” that I think renders Howe's text so potent in revealing in such detail the cultural uses to which Rowlandson's text was—and is—put.

Captivity narratives were most crudely used to erect the necessarily reassuring boundaries between the Native American and the colonizer. Such narratives worked to contrast the demonic threat that the wilderness held with the secure purity of the settled communities. The Puritan community saw peril everywhere. The first nations, the land, and women were felt to threaten the white masculine sanctity of the “new world.” The safe reinstatement of women to the colonizer's communities confirmed not only the secure possession of women and thus of paternity but, by implication, of the land itself. This idealization of the land and of the feminine was maintained by the ruthless treatment meted out to those who challenged its boundaries. Hence, for Howe, women became not only the “commodities” passed “between two hostile armies” but actually the scapegoats for their failures.

In a time when discourse itself was unstable, religion provided the zealous authority needed to contain this fear of uncertainty. Biblical rhetoric was the vehicle that enforced this binarization of cultural difference. Howe is acutely aware of the specific implications of a female appropriation of such religious discourse. The use of religious rhetoric within captivity narratives authenticated female articulation by bypassing it. Women proved that they remained culturally and sexually chaste through demonstrating a piety that negated them. The narrators “enveloped themselves within God's Plot to survive the threat of openness.” The act of narration thus became a sign of submission rather than of authority. Even the actual telling was “increasingly structured and written down by men” (89).

Howe's text challenges this retrospective illustration of conversion narratives as discourses of possession by synthesizing it with readings that highlight the subversions of this authority. She suggests that religious rhetoric, invoked to protect the female narrator from suspicion by circumventing her mortality, actually conceals the narrator's voice: “each time an errant perception skids loose she controls her lapse by vehemently invoking biblical authority” (100). The Bible is “counter-point, shelter, threat” (124). Rowlandson controls the “slide into Reason's ruin” that would result, for example, from her “list of specific criticisms of colonial policies” with an appeal to the “imperatives of wonder working Providence” (101). This equivocal use of theological certainty reaches its apex in the citation that Howe attributes to Rowlandson after the death of her infant daughter, Sarah. Rowlandson appears to be attempting to make sense through the Bible of the overwhelming senselessness of her child's death. What she writes actually seems full of a terse and angry awareness of the calamitous absurdity of her narrative: “The Lord brought me some Scriptures, which did a little revive me, as that Isiai. 55.8. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your wayes my wayes saithe the Lord. And also that Psalm 37.5 commit thy way unto the Lord, trust also in him, and he shal bring it to pass” (99).

The death of Sarah seems to mark a turning point in Rowlandson's writing: “After the war whoop terror and the death of her little daughter, a new management of the truth speaks to oppose itself.” This new truth emerges from the need to disrupt, with reality, the ideology behind New England's history. Rowlandson became “an author who cannot let some definitive version of New England's destiny pull her” (125, 126).

Yet however thorough Howe's reworking of the cultural potency of these captivity narratives may be, it is never clear that she wholly manages to “repudiate” the Western reliance on the construction of alterity. Although her reading is based on acknowledging the racial basis of captivity narratives, a curious act of prioritizing still occurs within them:

Mary Rowlandson has been condemned for her lack of curiosity about the customs of her captors (she was starving, wounded, weary), and her narrative has been blamed for stereotypes of native Americans as “savages.” … These critics skirt the presence in this same genre of an equally insulting stereotype, that of a white woman as passive cipher in a controlled and circulated idea of Progress.


Howe renders narratives of race and narratives of gender subtly incompatible in this comparison: the critic must, she implies, choose between who is represented in the text. Moreover, her defense of Rowlandson's racism actually undercuts, contradicts even, what I have earlier suggested she herself has read into Rowlandson's texts. Most obviously Howe is casting Rowlandson as a starving victim. Later in the text Howe details both the compassion of her captors and Rowlandson's ingenuity in bartering for food:

In return for a piece of beef she made a shirt for a squaw's sannup. For a quart of peas she knit another pair of stockings. Someone asked her to sew a shirt for a papoose in exchange for a “mess of broth, thickened with meal made from the bark of a tree.” … None of her captors harmed her. Many shared what little they had with her. … she never saw a single Native American die from hunger.


This apparent reversal is reinforced by Howe's terming Rowlandson as a “passive cipher,” when she is subsequently described as a woman who “saw what she did not see and said what she did not say” (128). What is so problematic about these differences is that Howe is overlooking the significance of self-representation: both her own and Rowlandson's. Her argument that Rowlandson's subversion of narrative allowed her a voice fails to take into account the silencing of the Native American that such articulation may actually be complicit with.

I am, of course, not suggesting that these two different trajectories in Howe's text are literally incompatible, but I am arguing that the historical specifity that she is intent on constructing against the discursive homogeneity of Rowlandson's texts is not extended within her work to the experiences of the Native Americans: the decimation of these first peoples by American colonization is given only the meaning that colonization gave it. This can be seen again in Howe's complicity, ironical as it may present itself as being, with the absence of narrative for Native Americans: “Wootonokanuske, Philip's wife, had been captured earlier that year with their nine-year-old son. They were both sold into slavery and so vanish from history” (127). The retention of such absences jars against the ostensible purpose of much of Howe's poetical agenda to discover presences within the scission of American identity. This omission also appears to be at work in Howe's use of Native American names and words: they are given no etymological specifity—for a poet otherwise so concerned with the historical power concealed in sounds this omission is rather stark.

Such omissions can be understood, in part at least, from the way in which Howe constructs her own relationship to poetry. “The Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson” is in many ways similar to her earlier “critical” work My Emily Dickinson. In both texts Howe re-reads the writing of a canonized woman writer to reveal meanings that their very canonization has been predicated upon suppressing: she locates these disruptions within the concealed meanings of an indeterminate language. But the processes by which she unearths these political revisions are themselves loaded with contradictory meanings. In My Emily Dickinson, for example, she appears to suggest two quite opposing things. She recognizes that Dickinson's historical context is fundamental to understanding the specific subversions she attributes to her work, “givens of Dickinson's life: her sex, class, education, inherited character traits … all carry the condition for work in their wake.” Yet Howe also suggests that these things are irrelevant, not because they are suggestive of intentionalism, but because “the conditions for poetry rest outside each life at a miraculous reach, indifferent to worldly chronology.” (13).

Howe's reading of Dickinson is concerned to empower the ambiguity of this enigmatic and eclectic verse.5 She searches for the meanings that she imagines Dickinson salted away into the “slants” of her poetry. Her project is thus in some ways similar to other feminist acts of historical “re-vision.” Indeed Adrienne Rich, whose term this originally was, had performed just such a reading of the politics of Dickinson's covert subversions some ten years earlier. What is so interesting about Howe's reading of Dickinson is that she resists the straightforward connections between the political context of Dickinson's marginality and her employment of clandestine meaning. At the beginning of My Emily Dickinson she directly attacks Sandra Gilbert, Susan Gubar, and Hélène Cixous for their attempts to understand the complexities of feminine writing through the constraints of a patriarchal society:

“The Laugh of the Medusa” by the French feminist Hélène Cixous is an often eloquent plan for what women's writing will do. The problem is that will too quickly becomes must. … Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar are perceptive about the problems and achievements of nineteenth century British novelists who were women. Sadly their book The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination, fails to discuss the implications of a nineteenth century American penchant for linguistic decreation ushered in … by Emily Dickinson. For these two feminist scholars a writer may conceal or confess all if she does it in a logical syntax. Emily Dickinson suggests that the language of the heart has quite another grammar.


Howe objects not to the consideration of gender by these three writers—she concedes that “gender difference does affect our use of language”—but to what she perceives as the formulaic aspects of feminist theory that reduce everything to the constructed nature of gender. Gilbert and Gubar and Cixous fail Howe's Emily Dickinson because they cannot allow for “possibility.”

Howe diverges from the accepted, although widely varied, feminist theorizing of Gilbert and Gubar and Cixous because she is unwilling to allow the connections between experimental writing and historical marginality to be framed only through context. Howe cannot accept this reading because of her controversial contention that there is a “mystical separation between poetic vision and ordinary living” (My Emily Dickinson 13).

Howe's implicit presence in her politicized use of language—her weaving herself into the “interstices” of her text in Perloff's words—is problematized by this assertion. Not only does Howe analyze history from a place beyond self, but she issues this challenge from a place beyond time. Her ability to disrupt history thus often appears to be predicated upon what is constructed as an inevitable breach between language and context. In an interview given to Edward Foster in 1990 Howe says: “I think that when you write a poem you use sounds and words outside time. You use timeless articulations. I mean the ineluctable mystery of language is something … it's just …” (“Interview” 172). This lacuna—this ineluctable mystery of language outside of time—is associated in Howe's poetry with an emancipation from authority. This space allows her “possibility”; it is here that the silenced voices of history find articulation.

Howe links her definition of “possibility” to the contradictions and ambiguities implicit in her construction of an authorial self: “my voice formed from my life belongs to no-one else. What I put into words is no longer my possession. Possibility has opened” (My Emily Dickinson 13). Hence Howe's acceptance of alterity, her openness to the voices of history, seems founded upon her ability to write a language that can transcend the limitations of a single subject position. Her subjective absence is deeply implicated in this, as if the theoretical restraint placed upon the author as originator of meaning is taken to allow, instead, for the transcendence of cultural context by the meanings in a text.

The apparently emancipatory quality of Howe's textual revision fails to challenge the authority of the written word. Indeed, it actually works to preserve it. Her challenges to the marginalization of historical narrative are less concerned to consider the cultural politics of the prohibited access to written documentation than to valorize the indeterminacy inherent in the written word: these two things are not the same. Howe fails to consider that the status of poetry as a vehicle for the elite, the educated, actually reproduces the dynamics that silenced the ghostly protagonists who people poems such as “The Liberties” and “Articulation of Sound Forms in Time.” The fundamental assumption of Howe, and Heidegger, that the “frontier zones” of language and of history are simultaneous, that the voices that have been written out of history can be found in the truth concealed by an ambivalent language, requires more scrutiny than is presently given.

The crucial relinquishment of self into textual narrative, for example, does not necessarily trigger a liberation of the narrative. In the case of “Mary Rowlandson,” the opposite is actually true. Howe's placing of herself into the historical narrative meant that her own inevitable and relative position of authority and cultural positioning went unchallenged. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's analysis of the politics of ethnography demonstrates that “the clearing of a subjective space from which to speak is unavoidable.” Spivak, examining Rudyard Kipling's use of indigenous names and words as simply markers of difference, suggests that a reluctance to acknowledge one's own subjective relationship to the context of signification results in an invasive translation: “Thus the incantation of names, far from being a composition of place, is precisely the combination of effacement and specifity and appropriation that one might call violation” (233). Howe's frequent evasion of actual historical specifity, in texts such as “Mary Rowlandson,” combined with her refusal to challenge her own subject position, problematizes our ability to simply discover liberation, the articulation of alterity, in her textualized exploration of historical texts.

It is not that Native Americans are denied historical specifity in Howe's texts simply because of her articulation of a gendered standpoint. Judith Butler's critique of Cixous and Luce Irigaray for assuming a binarized gendered position that is inevitably oppressive to alternative articulations of alterity cannot wholly explain Howe's racialized text. For although Butler's argument obviously does bear on Howe, it does not totally explain what is happening in Howe's re-reading of the captivity narrative.

In Howe's reading of texts it is not gender, but the meanings beyond gender that are constructed as essentially pre-discursive. Howe's unacknowledged whiteness is not a result of her acknowledged gender but a result of her desire, at times, to dismiss her own subjective presence. This desire to unleash the indeterminacy of language, to relinquish herself into her text, prevents her, at times, from acknowledging the full implications of her own cultural positioning.

What goes unexamined, therefore, are the limits that one's own subject position places on a concurrence of textual and cultural suppression. Howe's positioning within the dominant culture affects the marginalization of the Native American in her text because she is not even aware of it. The cultural decimation of the first peoples of America cannot be found in the interstices of Howe's reading precisely because it was not a textual event: it was written out of the histories which Howe reads. What Howe consistently fails to acknowledge are these fundamental differences between historical acts and textual silences—her refusal to recognize her own place within the text is part of this blindness. Howe's attempts to integrate her subjective self—her political agency—into the web of historical narrative are problematized when they render her incapable of acknowledging her own influence on the production of these narratives.


  1. Recent Howe criticism has focused upon the importance of Howe's textually innovative historicism in challenging the hegemony of historical narrative. See Ma, Nicholls, Palatella.

  2. Attempts to define the avant-garde practices of “Language” poetry, especially, have concentrated on the political implications of opposing constructions of self by the poetic text. See, amongst others, Altieri, Bartlett, Greer, and Hartley. For work that has included Howe within an analysis of these divisions see Reinfield, Perloff, and Quartermain.

  3. Greer suggests Marjorie Perloff's definition of language poetry enacts these problems as it leads her to “dismantle the discourse of language poetry [to] separate the aesthetic component of the writing from its political contexts and impulses, and isolates its forms from its history” (338–39).

  4. For a discussion by language poets of the varied ways in which political significance is attributed to these challenges to the construction of the expressive self see Bernstein, Perleman, Silliman and Watten.

  5. Howe primarily reads Dickinson's poetry in order to uncover the violence that the academy continues to perpetuate against Dickinson's work in its misreadings and mispresentations of her original manuscripts. This project of Howe's—to have access to and eventually publish the original and unchanged version of Dickinson's manuscripts—has recently come to fruition with the publication, by a student of Howe's, of Dickinson's manuscripts. See Werner.

Works Cited

Altieri, Charles. Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984.

———. “Some Problems of Agency in the Theories of Radical Poetries.” Contemporary Literature 372 (1986): 207–37.

Bartlett, Lee. “What is Language Poetry?” Critical Inquiry 12 (1986): 741–52.

Bernstein, Charles. Politics and Public Policy. New York: Roof, 1990.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London: Routledge, 1990.

Butterick, George. “Endless Protean Linkage.” Hambone 3 (1983): 148–53.

Castiglia, Christopher. Bound and Determined: Captivity, Culture-Crossing and White Womanhood from Mary Rowlandson to Patty Hearst. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996.

Clifford, James. The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth Century Literature and Art. London, Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988.

Du Plessis, Rachel Blau. The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice. London, New York: Routledge, 1990.

Ebersole, Gary. Captured by Texts: Puritan to Postmodern Images of Indian Captivity. Charlottesville, London: UP of Virginia, 1995.

Greer, Michael. “Ideology and Theory in Recent Experimental Writing or, The Naming of Language Poetry.” Boundary 2 6.2/3 (1989): 335–55.

Hartley, George. Textual Politics and the Language Poets. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.

Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.

Howe, Susan. “The Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.” In The Birth-mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History. Wesleyan: UP of New England, 1993.

———. My Emily Dickinson. New York: North Atlantic, 1985.

———. The Europe of Trusts. New York: Sun and Moon, 1990.

———. Frame Structures: Early Poems, 1974–1979. New York: New Directions, 1996.

———. Interview. “Speaking with Susan Howe.” With Janet Ruth Falon. The Difficulties 3.2 (1989): 33–42.

———. “An Interview with Susan Howe.” With Edward Foster. Talisman: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics 4(1990): 14–38. Rpt. in Howe, Birth-mark 155–81.

Landrey, David. “The Spider Self of Emily Dickinson and Susan Howe.” Talisman: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, 4 (1990): 107–09.

Ma, Ming-Qian. “Poetry as History Revised: Susan Howe's ‘Scattering As Behavior Toward Risk.’” American Literary History 6 (1994): 716–37.

Metcalf, Paul. “The Real Susan Howe.” The Difficulties 3.2 (1989): 52–56.

Miller, Nancy K. 1986. “Arachnologies: The Woman, the Text and the Critic.” In The Poetics of Gender. Ed. N. Miller, New York: Columbia UP, 1986.

Nicholls, Peter. “Unsettling the West: Susan Howe's Historicism.” Contemporary Literature 37.4 (1996): 586–601.

Palatella, John. “An End of Abstraction: An Essay on Susan Howe's Historicism.” Denver Quarterly 29.3 (1995): 74–97.

Perelman, Bob. Writing/Talks. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1985.

Perloff, Marjorie. “Collusion or Collision with History: The Narrative Lyric of Susan Howe.” Contemporary Literature 30.4 (1989): 518–33.

———. Poetic License; Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1990.

Quartermain, Peter. Disjunctive Poetics: From Gertrude Stein and Louis Zukofsky to Susan Howe. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992.

Reinfield, Linda. Language Poetry: Writing as Rescue. Baton Rouge: Louisiana SUP, 1992.

Rich, Adrienne. “Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson.” Adrienne Rich's Poetry and Prose. 1975. Ed. B. C. Gelpi and A. Gelpi New York: Norton, 1993.

Rorty, Richard. “Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and the Reification of Language.” The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger. Ed C. B. Guignon. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993.

Silliman, Ron. In the American Tree. Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 1986.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Imperialism and Sexual Difference.” Oxford Literary Review 8.1–2 (1986): 225–40.

Watten, Barrett. Aerial 8: Contemporary Poetics as Critical Theory. Washington Edge, 1995.

Werner, Marta L., ed. Emily Dickinson's Open Folio: Scenes of Reading, Surfaces of Writing. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1995.

Wills, Clair. “Contemporary Women's Poetry: Experimentalism and the Expressive Voice.” Critical Quarterly 36.3 (1994): 34–52.

Publishers Weekly (review date 26 April 1999)

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SOURCE: A review of Pierce-Arrow, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 246, April 26, 1999, p. 76.

[In the following review, the critic provides a positive assessment of Pierce-Arrow.]

With her first book of new poems in six years, Howe further solidifies her reputation as one of North America's foremost experimental writers. Pierce-Arrow engages many of the elements and themes that have consistently appeared in both her poetry (The Europe of Trusts, etc.) and prose (My Emily Dickinson and The Birth-mark). Here, as in previous work, the manuscripts and marginalia of marginal and anti-institutional authors (with an emphasis on women writers) are seamlessly brought together with historiography and lyric—and the results continue to be arresting. The focal points of this book are the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce and his wife Juliette, whose full birth name and ancestry remain to this day somewhat of a mystery. For Howe, this mystery becomes a subtle metaphor for the frequently secondary quality the lives of women can take on in male-dominated milieux, literary or otherwise. The book's first section, “Arisbe,” consists of a biographical essay and poems that touch on various aspec ts of Peirce's life and work. The second, “The Leisure of the Theory Class,” is a long series of poems that tightly interweave references to Peirce, Juliette, George Meredith, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Charles Dickens, Edmund Husserl's manuscripts, Alexander Pope's translation of the Iliad and George Santayana, to name only the most prominent and explicit references. Reading and writing between the lines of history, Howe blurs the boundaries between individuals, texts and historical events. Though some of these relations may not appear obvious at first, they strengthen—while continuing to proliferate—as the poems unfold. The concluding “Ruckenfigur,” a series of ghostly love poems, centers around the tragic myth of Tristram and Isolde. More overtly lyrical than the poems in the rest of the book, they provide a strong conclusion to one of Howe's most significant works.

Paul Naylor (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: “Susan Howe: Where Are We Now in Poetry?,” in Poetic Investigations: Singing the Holes in History, Northwestern University Press, 1999, pp. 43–70.

[In the following essay, Naylor traces the development of “pure” poetry through the works of Wallace Stevens, Jack Spicer, and Susan Howe.]

“My poems always seem to be concerned with history,” says Susan Howe.1 “No matter what I thought my original intentions were that's where they go. The past is present when I write” (Beckett, 20). Her poetry ranges across vast tracts of English, Irish, and American history in the service of a resolute investigation of the “dark side” of colonialism and imperialism. Clearly, Howe sees her poetic investigations as ways of writing history poetically. Yet, as we saw with the brief excerpt from her poetry in the introduction, her work is highly paratactic, which makes it difficult for a reader to find his or her way in her poetry. I suspect that many readers, when first confronted with Howe's poetry, as well as with most contemporary investigative poetry, ask a simple yet important question: Where are we? Where is it that the author of the poem intends us to be? What “imaginative space” or landscape does he or she want us to occupy?

In the case of many poems, the answer is relatively simple. In book 6 of Wordsworth's Prelude, for instance, it is clear that where we are is in the Alps with the young Wordsworth, or that in Pound's third Canto we are in Venice, sometime in 1908. Even in the poetry of an experimental writer like William Carlos Williams, the answer is generally straightforward: where we are in a Williams poem is usually next to a refrigerator or beside some white chickens. These poems all occupy what I call “real world” landscapes: none of them asks us to stray too far from a “naturalistic” perspective in order to participate in the world of the poem. In short, the shared landscape of the real world is presupposed by both the writer and reader of such a poem.

But what about poems that make different kinds of claims on a reader's imagination? Where are we supposed to be when we read a poem by, say, Edgar Allan Poe or Emily Dickinson? With poets such as these, we enter the ethereal world of what is often called “pure” poetry. There are, of course, many different definitions of pure poetry, and many of these definitions are in direct conflict with one another. And it is also clear that pure poetry is more of an ideal toward which, or away from which, poets strive rather than something achieved. Nevertheless, pure poetry is most often linked with an “art for art's sake” aestheticism. Definitions arising from Poe's “The Poetic Principle” usually denote a poetry purified of the semantic and referential dimensions of language—a poetry stripped of “ideas,” a poetry of a purely sensuous, sonorous type, which has more in common with music than with prose. Other definitions, often associated with Stéphane Mallarmé and the symbolists, emphasize the autonomous, self-referential world of the pure poem—a world cleansed of the claims of mimetic representation in which the poem mostly has itself in sight. Despite the various and contradictory definitions of pure poetry, two characteristics do stand out. First, pure poetry seeks to separate and differentiate itself from what I have called the real world landscape; second, pure poetry seeks to separate and differentiate itself from prose. Rather than presuppose the landscape of the real world, pure poetry seeks to supplant the real world with a world of its own: an autonomous world of words, a self-referential linguistic or propositional landscape, purged of the prosaic elements that characterize the real world.

I am not going to argue that Susan Howe or any of the other four poets I discuss in Poetic Investigations can be strictly classified as “pure poets,” but this particular tradition of poetry can provide us with one way to enter into the landscape of contemporary investigative poetry. With that caveat in mind, what I would like to do now is trace out one pathway that leads up to work such as Howe's and that helps answer the question of where we are when we read this kind of poetry. Before we tackle Howe's poetry, I would like to take a brief look at two American poets from earlier generations, Wallace Stevens and Jack Spicer, as a way of locating us in the terrain of contemporary investigative poetry. My focus here will be on the linguistic or propositional landscapes that characterize these poets in order to find out just where we are when we encounter poems of this type and to outline a shift from a pure to an impure poetry. I also will argue that this shift presents itself most clearly if we pay close attention to the kind of “poetic logic” governing the propositional landscape of each of these poems. By poetic logic I simply mean the manner in which phrases relate to each other in the poem. My claim, then, is that, as we approach the present, the “impurities” of both the real world and prose increasingly infiltrate this strain of American poetry. In other words, as we move from Stevens to Spicer to Howe, there is a move away from the kind of aestheticism that characterizes pure poetry and toward a more political and prosaic form of poetry—a form that creates new possibilities for writing history poetically.

In June of 1939, in one of the first of many letters he would write to Henry Church, Wallace Stevens states that “I am, in the long run, interested in pure poetry. No doubt from the Marxian point of view this sort of thing is incredible, but pure poetry is rather older and tougher than Marx and will remain so” (1981, 340). Stevens's statement sets up nicely the inherent opposition between pure and political poetry: if the former seeks to compose an autonomous world of words, a world detached from the strife and contingency of the real world, the latter seeks to immerse itself in that very world. “The great poem,” Stevens wrote, “is the disengaging of (a) reality” (1957, 169). For a politically engaged writer or reader of poetry, pure poetry is not only incredible but irresponsible as well since, in seeking solace in an autonomous world of words, pure poetry lures both the poet's and the reader's attention away from the injustice that dominates the real world. In short, pure poetry does more than merely overlook injustice; because it provides a palliative rather than a solution for injustice, pure poetry can find itself in collusion with injustice. It should be noted that Stevens's letter to Church was written shortly after his only real attempt at political poetry, “Owl's Clover,” was deemed a failure by friend and foe alike, so I suspect Stevens still felt the sting of criticism when he wrote to Church. Nevertheless, Stevens maintained his disdain for political poetry throughout his career. His primary objection to political poetry was that it simply would not endure time's test. As he said in a letter to Church's wife in 1952, “Nothing in the world is deader than yesterday's political (or realistic) poetry” (1981, 760). Given Stevens's attitude toward pure poetry, I now want to look at one of his later poems, “The Poem that took the place of a mountain. Although he wrote this particular poem near the end of his life, Stevens not only reaffirms the aesthetic that grounded his life's work, he attempts to “recompose” it once again.


There it was, word for word,
The poem that took the place of a mountain.
He breathed its oxygen,
Even when the book lay turned in the dust of his table.
It reminded him how he had needed
A place to go to in his own direction,
How he had recomposed the pines,
Shifted the rocks and picked his way among clouds,
For the outlook that would be right,
Where he would be complete in an unexplained completion:
The exact rock where his inexactnesses
Would discover, at last the view toward which they had edged,
Where he could lie and, gazing down at the sea,
Recognize his unique and solitary home.

(1974, 512)

Initially, I would like to point out a few of the formal qualities of this poem. First, note that Stevens's poem emanates from the voice of a single, unitary speaker; in this sense, it fits the time-honored tradition of the romantic lyric. To borrow a term from Mikhail Bakhtin, Stevens's poem is an example of monologic discourse, which is a characteristic of most of Stevens's poetry. Second, note that the poem contains three complete, declarative sentences—the first two encompass two lines each, while the third sentence constitutes the final ten lines of the poem. Note also that the poetic logic governing the relations between these three sentences is hypotactic—which means that the connections between sentences or propositions signal a hierarchical or subordinate patterning. In this case, the logic of the poem moves from a general proposition to more specifically qualified propositions to a concluding statement that resolves the tension, at least the logical tension, in the poem. A second consequence of this particular type of poetic logic is that it seals the poem off from any impure, prosaic elements. Given the tight, seamless progression of the poem, how would it be possible for anything other than pure poetry to enter the text? That helps explain the “form” of the poem, but what about its “content”? The basic narrative line of the poem seems to go something like this. A poem—perhaps a newly composed poem, perhaps a poem from his youth—reminds the writer of what I take to be his lifelong project: that of transforming the world of “reality” into the world of “imagination,” into the world of the poem. Those familiar with Stevens's poetry and poetics will recognize in my formulation the fundamental opposition that not only governs but generates most of his poetry: the opposition between the “imagination” and “reality.” Throughout his career, Stevens attempted to reconcile dialectically the claims of both imagination and reality; he consistently asserted that reality was a necessary prerequisite for the transformative acts of the imagination that produce poetry. Yet this reconciliation was never very satisfactory, for Stevens or his readers, and it became even more tenuous in his later poetry. According to one of his most acute readers, Roy Harvey Pearce, “What has happened [in the later poetry] is that the dialectical compromise, although it is still wished for, is no longer conceivable. The poet will do one thing or the other. He will celebrate mind or celebrate things themselves.” And, more often than not, Stevens chose to celebrate mind in such an intense and sustained manner that “‘reality’ … will surely turn out to be a kind of mind, the kind of mind which Stevens most often called ‘imagination’” (277, 269).

This movement in which the imagination supplants reality is evident in “The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain.” The poem, the act of the imagination, “took the place of” reality (a “mountain” in this case) because the poem “had recomposed” reality. Stevens, in other words, offers a “subjectivist” form of pure poetry: the poet transforms the real world landscape into a landscape located purely in the imagination of the poet. Yet it is a landscape divested of companionship—a “solitary home” for the singular self of the poem, or, to be more accurate, the singular self that composes the poem. The distinction is important because Stevens still views language as a medium through which the poet “recomposes” reality. Thus, where we are in this poem is in the imagination of a poet who uses language, poetic language, to “transport” the reader into the propositional landscape of that imagination. The emphasis in this poem, as in virtually all of Stevens's poetry, is on the transformative power of the poet—the power to compose a world of one's own making, a landscape of pure acts of the imagination that appear, “word for word,” in the poem.

When we turn to the poetry of Jack Spicer, however, we encounter a different kind of landscape since Spicer's primary concern is not with the transformative power of the poet but with the transformative power of language. For Spicer, language is not a medium through which a poet connects up with the world and, in the case of Stevens, moves beyond it; language is, rather, that which makes the world possible. Spicer, I suspect, would agree with Bakhtin, who argues that “language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker's intentions; it is populated—overpopulated—with the intentions of others” (294). Language is, in short, a precondition of the relation between a subject and an object, not a passive or transparent medium flowing between them.

Spicer's work, in my opinion, has not received the attention it deserves. He bears some of the responsibility for this neglect since he adamantly refused to market, promote, or even copyright his work. But I suspect the main reason his poetry has been overlooked is that it is difficult to classify. For the last ten years or so of his life—a life that unfortunately ended at age forty—Spicer composed “books” rather than “collections” of poems. For Spicer, a “book” of poems had primarily a narrative rather than lyric intent, and this narrative, as Spicer practiced it, consisted of what he called “serial poems” combined with extracts from “nonpoetic” documents—particularly extracts from letters. This technique draws into question most traditional notions of poetry and of pure poetry in particular. Furthermore, Spicer argued that the writing in such a book was “dictated” from a source “outside” rather than “inside” the poet. As Michael Davidson puts it, Spicer “regards the poem not as originating within the individual but as a foreign agent that invades the poet's language and expresses what ‘it’ wants to say. The poet must clear away the intrusive authorial will and allow entrance to an alien and ghostlike language” (151). Because of his unorthodox ideas about the composing process, it is all too easy to dismiss Spicer as either a crank or an oddball mystic. Yet I believe Davidson is correct when he claims that Spicer's notion of a dictation from the “outside” is “more dialogical and social” than metaphysical or mystical; the “outside,” Davidson contends, “has its base in human intercourse within a community and … its reception takes the form of a conversation” (155). This conversation, however, often takes place between Spicer and a “dead” poet. Yet Spicer was not claiming to be clairvoyant: the conversation takes place between the poet and the text of a previous poet. In other words, Spicer offers a rather eccentric account of how a tradition gets passed on from one writer to another.

For instance, Spicer's first such “book,” titled After Lorca (1957), purports to be a series of translations of selected poems of Federico García Lorca. The book opens with a very dismissive “Introduction” supposedly written by Lorca himself—which is troublesome, since Lorca died in 1936. On the surface, Spicer's book claims to be a series of “translations” of Lorca's poetry, but as “Lorca” himself points out in his “Introduction,”

Mr. Spicer seems to derive pleasure in inserting or substituting one or two words which completely change the mood and often the meaning of the poem as I had written it … [and] there are an almost equal number of poems that I did not write at all … and I have further complicated the problem (with malice aforethought I must admit) by sending Mr. Spicer several poems written after my death which he has also translated and included here.


The end result of Spicer's composing process in After Lorca, then, is that the authorship of any one poem is drawn into question: Whose words are those, Lorca's or Spicer's? Whose images? And since we can never know just “who” wrote these poems, our attention shifts away from the author and toward the words and poems themselves. Again, a comparison with Bakhtin's theories of language and authorship is fecund—a comparison Burton Hatlen has already worked out in detail. Spicer's After Lorca, Hatlen argues, “at once acknowledges the distance between ‘Lorca’ and ‘Spicer’ and systematically blurs that distance—just as the ‘quasi-direct discourse’ which Bakhtin sees as the distinctive idiom of modern prose narratives simultaneously acknowledges the differences between an authorial voice and the voices of his characters and breaks down these differences” (121–22). And because we are forced by Spicer's tactics to consider the possibility of coauthorship of the poems, we are in a propositional landscape that is populated with others, other voices and authors. Unlike the “unique and solitary home” that Stevens creates in his imaginative landscape, Spicer's linguistic landscape blurs the distinction between “unique” or individual compositions and moves toward a poetics of collaboration—of dialogue rather than monologue.

Spicer also included in this book letters he had written to Lorca, letters that not only create the sense of dialogue within the book but provide important clues to Spicer's own poetics. In his first letter to Lorca, Spicer gives his definition of tradition, one that seems to be cast in direct opposition to the view of tradition advanced by T. S. Eliot and the New Critics. According to Spicer, tradition does not consist of “an historical patchwork (whether made up of Elizabethan quotations, guide books of the poet's home town, or obscure hints of obscure bits of magic published by Pantheon)”; for Spicer, tradition “means generations of different poets in different countries patiently telling the same story, writing the same poem, gaining and losing something with each transformation—but, of course, never really losing anything” (15). Thus, if we keep this view of tradition in mind—along with the recognition that Spicer was, above all, a most playful poet—his comments on “dictation” from a source “outside” the poet will not seem as strange as at first glance.

More important for my purposes here, though, is the effect such ideas have on the notion of pure poetry. Not only do other voices infiltrate the supposedly autonomous world of the poem, but prosaic elements intrude as well. In other words, Spicer did not limit his definition of the poetic to verse. Spicer did not, however, interject these prosaic elements within the poems themselves; he kept the prose and the poetry in After Lorca separate. Yet a number of Spicer's letters to Lorca and many of his poems deal directly with the possibility (“impossibility” might be a more accurate word) of pure poetry. In his fifth letter to Lorca, for example, Spicer writes that “Loneliness is necessary for pure poetry. When someone intrudes into the poet's life … he loses his balance for a moment, slips into being who he is, uses his poetry as one would use money or sympathy” (48). Spicer's desire is to keep the autonomous world of the poem free from the intrusion of what he called, in the same letter, “the big lie of the personal.” As a result, his version of pure poetry has a much more “objectivist” stance than Stevens's version—a distinction that will become more apparent if we look closely at one of the poems in After Lorca.

Spicer's poem “A Diamond” will help illustrate my point.



A diamond
Is there
At the heart of the moon or the branches or my nakedness
And there is nothing in the universe like diamond
Nothing in the whole mind.
The poem is a seagull resting on a pier at the end of the ocean.
A dog howls at the moon
A dog howls at the branches
A dog howls at the nakedness
A dog howling with pure mind.
I ask for the poem to be as pure as a seagull's belly.
The universe falls apart and discloses a diamond
Two words called seagull are peacefully floating out where the waves are
The dog is dead there with the moon, with the branches, with my nakedness
And there is nothing in the universe like diamond
Nothing in the whole mind.


As I argued earlier, Stevens's typical poem follows a poetic logic of hypotaxis; Spicer's poetry, on the other hand, generally follows a more disjunctive logic. Spicer preferred to separate and disjoin propositions rather than arrange them hierarchically. His poems usually offer sets of oppositions and alternatives that, again unlike Stevens, are rarely resolved. Note in lines 4 and 5 the offhand way in which Spicer offers two alternatives for that which cannot contain a “diamond”: first the “universe,” then the “mind.” The movement is so rapid that we might conclude that the mind has usurped the universe, as in Stevens's poetry. Except that line 6 could easily stand as a manifesto for an “objectivist” rather than “subjectivist” poetics: the object—a “seagull”—takes over the poem rather than the poem taking over the object, as in Stevens's poem. But what kind of object is this poem? And what kind of a landscape surrounds such an object?

The key to these questions, as well as to the larger question of where we are in a Spicer poem, lies in line 13: “Two words called seagull are peacefully floating out where the waves are …” Here, Spicer places us in a world where objects are composed, literally, of words; as Spicer puts it in another poem, “Where one is in a temple that sometimes makes us forget that we are in it. Where we are is in a sentence” (175). Thus, the landscape of a Spicer poem is a purely linguistic construct, but it is not a construct of a “unique and solitary” writer but of the interaction, in language, of two or more writers. Since a linguistic landscape, unlike a purely imaginative landscape, is by definition a shared landscape (no private languages, as Wittgenstein argues), Spicer can offer a poetics of inclusion rather than exclusion—a poetics composed of the many voices of a narrative rather than the single voice of a lyric. In this respect, Spicer's poetry veers away from a strictly defined version of pure poetry. Nevertheless, Spicer still wanted his poems to be “as pure as a seagull's belly.”

Turning now to the work of Susan Howe, we see that she veers even further away from the kind of pure poetry exemplified by Wallace Stevens. Her books usually consist of lengthy serial poems that engage, on a very material level, various mythical and historical texts, yet it is most often an engagement with hidden or repressed texts. As the epigraph to this chapter indicates, Howe wishes she “could tenderly lift from the dark side of history, voices that are anonymous, slighted—inarticulate” (1990a, 14). Howe's 1990 Singularities contains one sequence of poems that illustrates both her peculiar way of encountering history and her relation to the tradition of pure poetry I have been tracing out. “Thorow” is a serial poem in three parts, introduced by a prose preface, the second half of which is entitled “Narrative in Non-Narrative” (1990a, 41–42). The preface helps articulate the complicity between the past and the present that animates so much of the poem. Howe composed “Thorow” during the winter and spring of 1987, which she spent at Lake George, New York—the site of William Johnson's 1755 victory in the French and Indian War—conducting a poetry workshop. She was repulsed by the crass commercialization of the area, finding “gift shops selling Indian trinkets, china jugs shaped like breasts with nipples for spouts, American flags in all shapes and sizes … a fake fort where a real one once stood, a Dairy-Mart, a Donut-land, and a four-star Ramada Inn built over an ancient Indian burial ground” (1990a, 41).

In many respects, “Thorow” seeks to uncover that burial ground lying beneath the commercial veneer of Lake George, to uncover the “Interior assembling of forces underneath earth's eye. Yes, she, the Strange, excluded from formalism” (1990a, 41). The feminine pronoun here has a dual role, referring at once to “mother” earth and to women, both of whom have been elided by the formalism of the “paternal colonial systems,” which deploy a “positivist efficiency” to appropriate “primal indeterminacy” (1990a, 41). Howe's poem, then, brings to the fore three of the “anonymous, slighted—inarticulate” voices silenced during the conquest of North America: the voices of nature, of Native Americans, and of women. Throughout the poem, the “primal indeterminacy” of these voices is juxtaposed to the “positivist efficiency” imposing the “European grid on the Forest” (1990a, 45).

Yet we should not see this “primal indeterminacy” as merely a thematic element in Howe's poem; it permeates the form of the poem as well, a form opposed to the “formalism” from which “she” is excluded. The poem's title is just such an instance. First, it can be construed as a misspelling of Henry David Thoreau's name—a writer Howe was reading at the time. Second, it can stand as an archaic spelling of the word “thorough,” meaning passing through as in thorough-fare; this possibility is reinforced by a quotation from Sir Humfrey Gilbert that Howe cites in her introduction: “To proove that the Indians aforenamed came not by the Northeast, and that there is no thorow passage navigable that way” (1990a, 42). Finally, the word can again be an archaic spelling of “throw,” which appears in the sixth poem in the sequence: “Irruptives // thorow out all / the Five Nations” (1990a, 46). Although Howe's use of archaic word forms is certainly meant to lend authenticity and historicity to her poem—as Linda Reinfeld points out, a good deal of the “language of ‘Thorow’ is drawn from old journals and accounts documenting the history of the Lake George region” (98)—it also serves to destabilize the poem's language and enhance its “primal indeterminacy.” Given these multiple possible meanings, it should be clear that Howe's approach to writing history poetically is anything but simple.

Howe's approach, however, is also anything but aimless or gratuitous. Here, in an interview with Tom Beckett, is her account of her concerns during the composition of “Thorow”:

Recently I spent several months at Lake George where I wrote “Thorow.” … I think I was trying to paint a landscape in that poem but my vision of the lake was not so much in space as in time. I was very much aware of the commercialization and near ruin at the edge of the water, in the town itself, all around—but I felt outside of time or in an earlier time and that was what I had to get on paper. For some reason this beautiful body of water has attracted violence and greed ever since the Europeans first saw it. I thought I could feel it when it was pure, enchanted, nameless. There was never such a pure place. In all nature there is violence. Still it must have been wonderful at first sight. Uninterrupted nature usually is a dream enjoyed by the spoilers and looters—my ancestors.

(Beckett, 20–21)

Howe's comments here are quite revealing. First, Howe's landscape is temporal, hence historical, hence linguistic, rather than naturalistic. In this sense, she participates in the tradition of pure poetry that seeks to create a world of words. As she told Reinfeld, “Thorow” consists of “a landscape out of bits of words” and is about “what time does in a landscape” (98). Yet the crucial difference between Howe and other pure poets such as Stevens and, to some extent, Spicer, is that she does not attempt to seal this world off from the real world of historical fact but to make visible the holes in traditional historiography. What happens to a landscape in time is, of course, history, and the history of the Lake George region in New York is a series of scenes of the appropriation of Indian territory by the European settlers. Second, note Howe's failed attempt to experience that landscape prior to the “violence and greed” that is its history; in other words, the hope of a “pure” encounter with a natural landscape, disengaged from the political realities of that landscape, is as impossible as the hope of creating an autonomous world of words, detached from the concerns of the real world, in poetry. In short, Howe has, in the course of her writing, come up against the limits of pure poetry and willingly transgressed them.

For Howe, tracking the equivocal and equivocating paths of language is one of the primary roles of the author, for “work penetrated by the edge of author, traverses multiplicities” (1990a, 42). If Benjamin, as we saw in the introduction, portrays the author as a witness, Howe portrays the author as a scout setting out to explore the “word Forest” for a path leading “back to primordial” (1990a, 49). Yet Howe's venture into the primordial is not motivated by an antiquarian's interest or a search for lost origins.2 As the poem opens, the “Scout” is dispatched in search of the “Idea of my present” and the “Etymology” of “this / present in the past now” (1990a, 43). Howe's scout is not looking for the repetition of the past in the present. Her work as a whole repudiates such an ahistorical approach, and in this respect she is much closer to Benjamin's project of presenting the transitory in history than to Pound's project of presenting “all ages [as] contemporaneous.” Thus, Howe's scout follows “The track of Desire” as a way of “Measuring mastering” (1990a, 45) as it occurs in different temporal and cultural contexts.

This act of “Measuring mastering” as a means of exposing the “European grid” imposed on the wilderness and its native inhabitants is indeed one of the primary themes in her poem, as is evident in the third poem from the second part of “Thorow.”

Thaw has washed away snow
covering the old ice
the Lake a dull crust
Force made desire wander
Jumping from one subject
to another
Besieged and besieged
in a chain of Cause
The eternal First Cause
I stretch out my arms
to the author
Oh the bare ground
My thick coat and my tent
and the black of clouds
Squadrons of clouds
No end of their numbers
Armageddon at Fort William Henry
Sunset at Independence Point
Author the real author
acting the part of a scout

(1990a, 51)

As this passage demonstrates, Howe's poetry is built on an aesthetic of parataxis that makes “primal indeterminacy” an integral element in the poem itself. It is a poetry of phrases and fragments best read as elements of a collage in which the reader supplies the connections—connections rendered even more indeterminate by the absence of punctuation. The elision of almost all hypotactic markers in this passage, furthermore, makes it virtually impossible for the reader to “master” it by applying the grid of traditional grammar. This act of hermeneutical resistance parallels the kind of cultural resistance implied in Howe's critique of the European traders who “discovered” Lake George—“Pathfinding believers in God and grammar [who] spelled the lake into place” (1990a, 41). Naming is an essential step in the capitalist process of appropriating and mastering nature in order to convert it into private property. And regulating nature's representation in language with the tools of grammar and spelling keeps the lines of ownership and mastery well defined and open to adjudication by the “European grid” of property-rights law.

In the fourth line of the poem, the conflict between “Force” and “desire” recalls the “track of Desire” the author/scout sets out on in his or her task of “Measuring mastering.” Clearly, “Force” and “desire” take on allegorical dimensions in this passage, yet the relation cannot be reduced to a single interpretation. These lines can be read as a political allegory in which “Force” is a figure for the European explorers, and “desire” is a figure for the Indians who were dispersed or “made” to “wander” by the wars of appropriation conducted by the European colonists. But if the word “subject” in line 5 is taken as a synonym for self—a reading supported by the opening poem in “Thorow,” in which the scout is sent out into the “domain of transcendental subjectivity” (1990a, 43)—then the passage can also be read as a philosophical allegory in which “Force” causes “desire” to “wander” from “one subject / to another.” Finally, the language near the end of the poem suggests a theological allegory by citing the “Armageddon at Fort William Henry,” which I assume alludes to the Indian massacre of British soldiers and their families after the British defeat and surrender to the French and Indian forces in 1757. Although these three readings cannot be reduced to a single line of interpretation, they do circle around the conflict of the “positivist efficiency” of European colonial forces as they attempt to impose their “grid” on the “primal indeterminacy” of the wilderness and its native inhabitants. The author, “acting the part of the scout,” surveys the common terrain these three readings occupy and presents them in paratactic fragments that require the reader's own connective act of authorship. As Howe tells Lynn Keller, “I wouldn't want the reader to be just a passive consumer. I would want my readers to play, to enter the mystery of language, and to follow words where they lead, to let language lead them” (1995, 31).

Thus, the conflict between cultural and natural forces that runs throughout this passage of “Thorow”—figured in the metaphor of “Squadrons of clouds” and juxtaposed in the scenes of “Armageddon” and “Sunset” in lines 17 and 18—confronts the reader in a manner that resembles Benjamin's dialectical images. In both Howe's and Benjamin's texts, the reader mediates the opposed images to such a great extent that authorship becomes a collaborative event taking place between writer and reader rather than a hierarchical event in which the writer directs the reader to the “correct” interpretation of the text. In this respect, the aphoristic style of Benjamin's “Theses” and the paratactic style of Howe's “Thorow” both work by eliding the hypotactic elements of their texts—elements that direct the reader's attention along an “authorized” path of interpretation. Although this elision takes place between sections in Benjamin's text while it takes place between phrases in Howe's text, the result is much the same: without the reader's participation, the texts seem to be a jumble of phrases and paragraphs lacking in coherence and purpose.

These similar formal strategies signal similar thematic concerns in the texts of Benjamin and Howe.3 As we have seen, Benjamin's dialectical image seeks to disrupt the continuous narrative of progress underlying the version of historicism that his poetic historiography critiques. Recall that Benjamin intends the dialectical image to “arrest” the “flow of thoughts” that compose the linear narrative of history as represented by traditional historicism, which “contents itself with establishing a causal connection between various moments in history” (1968, 263). I read a similar critique in lines 7 through 9 of the passage cited above from “Thorow.” The “subject” of line 5 is “besieged” by the logic that determines the “chain of Cause” in the mechanistic, progressive historiography that underwrites both the seventeenth-century rhetoric of the early European colonists and the nineteenth-century apologists for the doctrines of manifest destiny. Moreover, Howe's desire to represent “this / present in the past now” (1990a, 43) provides a critique of a less apparent form of progressive historicism, one that asserts that the present age has moved beyond the barbarism of past generations. Howe's preface surely stands as an indictment of the barbarism of contemporary commercial capitalism, but the most intriguing aspect of Howe's poem in this regard is the way in which she implicates the poem's “I” in her critique. “I am / Part of their encroachment,” Howe writes, adding also that “My ancestors tore off / the first leaves / picked out the best stars” (1990a, 47, 52). The temptation to identify these first person pronouns directly with the author as traditionally conceived—as Susan Howe, writer—is great and not entirely inappropriate. Read this way, Howe is acknowledging her own complicity with the past.

Yet recall that for Howe the author “traverses multiplicities,” and one of those multiplicities is the notion of the author. In “Thorow,” as we have seen, the “I” has a role as author, as does the “scout” following the “track of Desire,” but a third reference remains a possibility. In “Encloser”—an innovative poetic essay composed of a collage of quotations from Puritan writers and her commentary on them—Howe remarks that the theocratic leaders of the first settlements in New England “tied themselves and their followers to a dialectical construction of the American land as a virgin garden preestablished for them by the Author and Finisher of creation” (1993, 49). God figured as author of the world is a familiar conceit in Puritan writing, one that Howe hints at in the passage from “Thorow” cited above. In lines 9 through II, Howe invokes “The eternal First Cause” and proclaims that “I stretch out my arms / to the author.” The allusion to Aristotle's synonym for his “Unmoved Mover,” which medieval theologians appropriated as an equivalent for their conception of God, highlights the philosophical and theological allegories in the poem, and this “First Cause” may indeed be the author toward which the “I” stretches out. Thus, Howe's presentation of here notion of authorship confronts the reader once again with a volatile mix of philosophical, political, and theological language that marks most of her poetry.

Howe's project of “unsettling the wilderness in American literary history”—which is the subtitle of The Birth-mark, her collection of essays—has a great deal to do with her refusal to reconcile in one linguistic register the many voices, some acknowledged and some not, in “Thorow.” In both her poetry and prose, Howe constantly undermines the settled opinions of American history, opinions that have silenced all too often the voices she seeks to “lift from the dark side of history.” As we have seen, one of Howe's primary tactics for “unsettling” history in “Thorow” is the elision of the hypotactic elements in her writing that allow readers to chart a clear and relatively unequivocal path through a text. Howe's “scout” for-swears many of the traditional devices for keeping meaning on track in order to explore terrain in the “word Forest” that the “European grid” has either missed or covered over: “I pick my compass to pieces // Dark here in the drifting / in the spaces of drifting // Complicity battling redemption” (1990a, 55). The willful destruction of the compass stands as a figure for Howe's practice of writing history poetically. Yet Howe's subversion of normative discourse amounts to much more than a new compositional technique. On the contrary, “Thorow” investigates the “complicity” between normative discourse and the “progress” of history generating the conditions she confronted during her stay at Lake George: “Everything graft, everything grafted” (1990a, 41).

Thus, Howe's poetic investigations locate us in a linguistic landscape that is quite different from Stevens's and slightly less different from Spicer's—as the first poem in the second section of “Thorow” illustrates.

Walked on Mount Vision
New life after the Fall
So many true things
which are not truth itself
We are too finite
Barefooted and bareheaded
extended in space
sure of reaching support
Knowledge and foresight
Noah's landing at Ararat
Mind itself or life
quicker than thought
slipping back to primordial
We go through the word Forest
Trance of an encampment
not a foot of land cleared
The literature of savagism
under a spell of savagism
Nature isolates the Adirondacks
In the machinery of injustice
my whole being is Vision

(1990a, 49)

At first glance, the scene in this poem seems to resemble the scene in Stevens's “The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain.” Howe, like Stevens, does not attempt to offer a real world landscape: where we are in Howe's poem is on “Mount Vision,” which apparently is located in, according to line 14, a “word Forest” rather than the real world of the Adirondack mountains. Yet there is a marked difference between Stevens's linguistic landscape and Howe's. For Stevens, the mountain becomes a promontory within the mind of the poet; the physical world of the mountain is usurped by the mind and transformed into an act of the imagination. For Howe, this movement appears to be reversed: as she says in her introduction, “The Adirondacks occupied me” (1990a, 41). In line 1 “Mount Vision” is something on which one can walk; but in the poem's final line, the poet equates that “Vision” with her “whole being.” The word “vision,” of course, has a number of connotations, ranging from simple perception to mystical apprehension, and I suspect Howe wants the word to resonate with these multiple possibilities. Yet there is a strong sense in which that “Vision” comes from “outside” rather than “inside” the poet. Thus, Howe's understanding of inspiration and composition is much closer to that of Spicer than to that of Stevens.

Howe's poetic landscape, then, like Spicer's, is a world of signs, yet hers is a world of signs seen in a larger context. If for Spicer, “where we are is in a sentence,” then for Howe, where we are is in the “word Forest” of history. In other words, her unit of measure is neither the word nor the sentence but history. It is not, however, history presented intact; Howe's is clearly a fractured, fragmented history, both elided and effaced. Interestingly enough, one way to enter Howe's landscape of fractured history is through a comparison with Wallace Stevens. As she tells Keller, Howe finds Stevens's poetry to be “tremendously beautiful, and moving, and philosophical, and meditative, and all the things that words have the power to be, which is ultimately mysterious” (1995, 23). Her work is also a striking instance of meditative, philosophical poetry, but the differences between Howe and Stevens are just as striking. As she tells Janet Ruth Falcon, “Obviously I have a very different voice from Wallace Stevens, and he is a poet who means everything to me. I am unable to speak with as sure a voice. … Stevens has the assurance of centuries behind him. … I often think when I am overwhelmed by Stevens's achievement as a poet that my own work is doomed to be hesitant—breathy” (28). The key words here are “assurance,” which she uses to describe the voice heard in Stevens's poetry, and “hesitant,” which she uses to describe the voice heard in her own poetry. There is a “stuttering” or “stammering” quality to Howe's work that is not to be found in Stevens. As Peter Nicholls notes, Howe's “stammering keeps us on the verge of intelligibility, and in her own work Howe's emphasis on sound is coupled with a habitual shattering of language into bits and pieces” (597). As I argued earlier, the poetic logic in Stevens's poetry takes the form of complete, declarative sentences, ordered hypotactically, and there is very little, if any, shattering of language going on in his work. And it is the absence of such stammering, I believe, that gives Stevens's poetry its assurance—an assurance shared by the centuries governed by a similar logic.

Howe's poetry seeks out a different logic, a logic she believes has been repressed rather than assured by the centuries. Much of her desire for a different logic arises from her interest in history and with the voices in history “that are anonymous, slighted—inarticulate.” Thus, in place of a logic of hypotaxis, which governs Stevens's poem, Howe offers a logic of parataxis. Note the absence of any punctuation in the poem cited above. How are we to know where a sentence begins or ends? At first, we might take the capitalized words as indicating a new sentence, but Howe, much like Emily Dickinson, capitalizes words in the middle of sentences—words like “Fall,” “Forest,” and “Vision.” Which brings us back to my main question: where are we in a poem such as Howe's? What kind of a landscape is it? Given her paratactic approach to poetry, it is difficult to tell just where we are in her work since the connections between “things” in this landscape have been elided. Howe's landscape, though, resembles Spicer's landscape more than Stevens's: the landscapes in Howe and Spicer are composed of and by language.

However, the poetic landscapes of Spicer and Howe, despite this resemblance, are not identical. Although Spicer's sentences are often disjunctive, they are usually complete sentences. Such is not the case with Howe's sentences, which are better characterized as phrases rather than sentences. And since these phrases are arranged paratactically, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to find our way among them. The map of this historical, linguistic landscape, in other words, has been effaced; key information has been elided, just as it has been in history—which I take to be the most important implication of the poetic logic Howe employs. As she points out in her interview with Beckett, “There are breaks in world-historical reason where forms of wildness brought up by memory become desire and multiply” (20). These breaks create gaps or holes in our understanding of history. In short, the events in history are not, despite appearances, woven into a seamless, hypotactic narrative; information has been, intentionally and unintentionally, left out. Without that information, without the normal hypotactic connections between elements within the narrative, we become, as Howe puts it in another poem, “Lost in language,” although “we are language” (1990a, 99).

We proceed, therefore, with far less “assurance” when we are asked to negotiate a poetic landscape such as Howe's than we do when we negotiate a landscape such as Stevens's or Spicer's. This lack of assurance, this hesitancy, in Howe's work is a direct result, I believe, of the inclusion of history in the otherwise purely linguistic landscape of her poetry. After all, the landscape in the poem cited above is isolated “in the machinery of injustice,” not from it, as in most versions of pure poetry. Howe's willingness to open up the text of her poetry to the silenced voices in American history not only distinguishes her work from most traditional instances of pure poetry; it also distinguishes her work from the type of pure poetry offered by both Stevens and Spicer. If we recall Howe's comments in the Beckett interview, she understands that a pristine, apolitical experience of a landscape, whether natural or linguistic, “is a dream enjoyed by the spoilers and looters”—people she readily acknowledges as her “ancestors.” By acknowledging her own genealogical connection with the “machinery of injustice” Howe puts herself in the same situation she depicts in the final line of the second section of “Thorow”—a situation of “Complicity battling redemption” (1990a, 55), which, as she told Reined, is “what the history of America is” (100).

By opening up her work to these silenced voices, Howe also forges a poetic critique of contemporary culture that takes more than issues of class into consideration. Her poetry participates in the “major enlargement of the field of those categories which can account for social relations,” to recall Laclau and Mouffe's words (110). Clearly, issues of race are of deep concern to Howe in “Thorow,” as her poetic investigation of the appropriation of Native American lands by the “paternal colonial systems” shows. But what about issues of gender in her work? Who is “she, the Strange, excluded from formalism,” and what role does she play in writing history poetically? These questions are best answered by examining another of Howe's works that not only challenges received notions of gender but received notions of what counts as poetry as well—My Emily Dickinson.

Howe's groundbreaking study of Emily Dickinson puts forth a form of writing that willfully and skillfully transgresses the boundaries between poetry, criticism, and literary history. In an interview with Janet Ruth Falcon in 1986, she contends that her critical prose essays “are a kind of poetry. I have the same problem with meaning and sound when I write them that I do when I write a poem. I don't like separating things into categories” (32). My Emily Dickinson is, in fact, a treatise on the art of writing poetically as much as it is on one particular writer, and the book is itself a significant instance of that art. In short, the style or form of the book is very much a part of its “argument.” As John Taggart notes, “What is authorized by her style and her own working knowledge is a picture of composition. The major importance of this book lies in the originality and depth of that picture and its potential for application by other poets” (173–74). A characteristic passage from My Emily Dickinson provides a glimpse of that picture:

At the edge of unknown, the sacred inaccessible unseen—Lyric “I” is both guard and hunter. We and We prey on each other. Absence is the admired presence of each poem. Death roams the division—World's november. Two separate Questors have found nothing but noise of their own aggressive monologues echoing. Firm allegory has escaped into the heart of human cruelty, Love's unfathomable mystery. Into the desolate attraction of annihilation, dauntless they will turn and turn again telling.

(1985, 70)

This passage occurs at the beginning of Howe's comparison of Robert Browning's “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” and Dickinson's “My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun,—.” Yet, as she does throughout her book, Howe allows her argument to arise out of metaphor and association, sound and rhythm. Note how the vowel sounds carry the first sentence toward its definition of the “I” in lyric poetry as both “guard and hunter”—a definition that then, by association, takes in oppositions between presence and absence, life and death, cruelty and love. The passage also contains an implicit critique of monologic poetry by the metaphoric equation of that kind of poetry with the “noise” of aggression echoing within the enclosed space of the lyric. So Howe clearly advances here a critique of a privileged form of verse; but the form in which she advances that critique also constitutes an analogous critique of a privileged form of criticism that is governed by hierarchy, rationalism, and explanation. Thus, the “picture of composition” we are given enacts an encounter, in both its form and content, between poetry and critical prose.

Furthermore, Howe's “style” in My Emily Dickinson carries within it a critique of the gender-specific boundaries that define writing about and of women. As Rachel Blau DuPlessis contends, “While content and theme have been sites of cultural change in recent years, where the representations of women are concerned, a naturalized set of language strategies, or nice, normal presentations of material seemed to partake of the same assumptions about gender that they would claim to undermine. So it has seemed crucial for feminist writing to reexamine and claim the innovative writing strategies for which our century is noted, turning collage, heteroglossia, intergenres, and self-reflexivity (to name just some) to our uses” (viii), Although Howe has certainly made great use of the innovative writing tactics DuPlessis cites, her work has not received the attention it is due from feminists. When Falcon asks how she feels about the fact that feminists have “embraced” her, Howe retorts that feminists “haven't embraced” her because “They don't know about me. If you are not doing hardcore political writing, and you are not in the confessional school embraced by so many women's studies programs or departments in universities you are not” (39). This situation is also typical of the way other female innovative or avant-garde poets have been treated, or not treated in this case, by mainstream feminist criticism.

One reason for this neglect is that innovative women poets often refuse to encase their critiques of gender issues in traditional, easily recognizable forms of writing. Unlike the “confessional” poets that gain the attention of feminist critics in the academy, investigative women writers rarely produce monologic, lyric poetry in which the “I” recounts personal experiences of injustice based on gender inequities. As Howe bluntly puts it, “I do not like confessional poetry. These days, in America, confession is on every TV program, let alone in most poems” (1995, 33). For her, “a poet is like an ethnographer. You open your mind and textual space to many voices, to an interplay and contradiction and complexity of voices” (Beckett, 24). As we have seen, Howe achieves this “interplay” of voices in her work by deploying many of the innovative writing tactics DuPlessis cites. Howe's use of “collage, heteroglossia, intergenres, and self-reflexivity,” among other tactics, leads to forms of writing that are admittedly difficult and do not lend themselves to the kinds of feminist readings that focus primarily on the content of poetry.

Howe, like many women who compose contemporary investigative poetry, frequently questions the assumptions of some of the more prominent versions of feminism, and this questioning puts her at odds with the critical establishment. “I think that women who take a theoretical position are allowed to take a theoretical position only as long as it's a feminist theoretical position, and to me that's an isolation. I would be extremely wary of being put in the category of writing about ‘women's problems,’ because then you get, I think, shifted out” (1995, 21). In the opening pages of My Emily Dickinson, for instance, Howe sets her reading of Dickinson apart from the feminist approaches of Hélène Cixous or Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Howe is uncomfortable with Cixous's prescriptive declarations of what women's writing “must” do, and she is even more uncomfortable with Gilbert and Gubar's treatment of Dickinson. Howe's book on Dickinson, according to DuPlessis, “is mounting a critique of the tendency of The Madwoman in the Attic to a ‘victimization’ hypothesis, which underplayed the agency of women. Yet despite this attack, Howe is notably a feminist” (134). Rather than cast Dickinson as a victim of patriarchal Victorian culture, Howe's Emily Dickinson is a woman of immense strength who chooses to radically limit her participation in that culture. For Howe, Dickinson “built a new poetic form from her fractured sense of being eternally on intellectual borders, where confident masculine voices buzzed an alluring and inaccessible discourse, backward through history into aboriginal anagogy” (1985, 21). This portrait of Dickinson being on “intellectual borders,” far from the “masculine voices” of her culture, is also consonant with Howe's portrait of her own position as a poet. By taking a close look at the first few pages of My Emily Dickinson, we can see how her critique of received forms of critical prose meshes with her critique of the ways in which women writers have been treated by literary critics, a critique that I believe includes not only Dickinson but Howe and other women writers of innovative poetry.

“My book is a contradiction of its epigraph” (1985, 7). So begins Howe's introduction to My Emily Dickinson. The epigraph she refers to is from In the American Grain by William Carlos Williams. In that book he claims that “there never have been women” poets and that “Emily Dickinson, starving of passion in her father's garden, is the very nearest we have ever been—starving. Never a woman: never a poet. That's an axiom” (1985, 6). Rather than simply asserting that Williams is wrong in his judgment, Howe takes a more intriguing path: “I think he says one thing and means another. A poet is never just a woman or a man. Every poet is salted with fire. A poet is a mirror, a transcriber. Here ‘we have salt in ourselves and peace one with another’” (1985, 7). In reading Williams against his own “grain,” Howe simultaneously points at and beyond gender. Throughout My Emily Dickinson, she sustains a poetic assault against essentialist notions of gender that would reduce humans to only “men” and “women.” Instead, she posits a more inclusive category, “poets,” and list qualities that obtain in both men and women poets—being “salted with fire,” being a “mirror” or “transcriber.” As she writes in the final paragraph of her book, “poetry is the great stimulation of life. Poetry leads past possession of self to transfiguration beyond gender” (1985, 138). It would be a great mistake to see Howe's move “beyond gender” as a lack of concern with gender; there is in all of Howe's work a persistent investigation of how gender both confines humans to and releases them from assigned roles.

As we see in the opening paragraph of the first part of My Emily Dickinson, Howe is very concerned with the ways in which issues of gender affect literary history.

In the college library I use there are two writers whose work refuses to conform to the Anglo-American literary traditions these institutions perpetuate. Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein are clearly among the most innovative precursors of modernist poetry and prose, yet to this day canonical criticism from Harold Bloom to Hugh Kenner persists in dropping their names and ignoring their work. Why these two path-finders were women, why American—are questions too often lost in the penchant for biographical detail that “lovingly” muffles their voices.

(1985, II)

Howe's words here are charged with agency, with active verbs that readily assign praise or blame. She does not portray Dickinson and Stein primarily as victims of neglect; it is their work that “refuses to conform,” and that refusal contributes to their marginal place in literary history. Yet they are not the only agents responsible for this consignment; canonical critics “persist” in ignoring their work or in subordinating an assessment of that work to an account of their lives. For Howe, both of these strategies leave the important question unasked: why was this writing produced by American women? This is a complex position Howe takes up. Her point about male critics like Bloom and Kenner is as simple as it is accurate, but this passage also offers a subtle critique of those who do attend to the work of Dickinson and Stein. Assigning agency to Dickinson and Stein in the first sentence strikes me as an implicit criticism of Gilbert and Gubar's “‘victimization’ hypothesis.” And the scare quotes around “lovingly” in the last sentence warn against a sympathetic encounter that may do more harm than good. Thus, Howe's feminism is best approached with caution and care, for, as DuPlessis notes, “Howe continually proposes at least a feminism of cultural critique while declaring strong opposition whenever she suspects unitary (undialectical, uncritical) feminist enthusiasm. The only danger is that Howe's precise kind of feminism may be misread by a or anti-feminist commentators” (135).

This “precise kind of feminism” produces an account of why such strong American women writers like Dickinson and Stein are consigned to the margins of literary history that succumbs to neither a “‘victimization’ hypothesis” nor uncritical “enthusiasm.” For Howe, Dickinson and Stein are marginalized because they “conducted a skillful and ironic investigation of patriarchal authority over literary history. Who polices questions of grammar, parts of speech, connection, and connotation? Whose order is shut inside the structure of a sentence?” (1985, II) These two women writers pursue feminist projects designed to uncover the sexist foundation of literary history in their times, which is very much what Howe pursues in her work. Furthermore, Howe argues that Dickinson and Stein conduct these investigations on the field of discourse by exploring how power inheres in grammar, syntax, and semantics. Recall Laclau and Mouffe's contention that individuals and groups intervene in their cultures by “articulating” or connecting divergent language-games in order to account for the divergent social relations that occur in cultures, and that these articulations take place on the field of discourse. This line of thought allows them to understand that the poetic elements of discourse do much more than adorn reason. Thus, “Synonymy, metonymy, metaphor are not forms of thought that add a secondary sense to a primary, constitutive literality of social relations; instead, they are part of a primary terrain itself in which the social is constituted” (110). In short, Howe's version of feminism involves an investigation of poetic form as a means by which women writers intervene in culture. Thus, one of the reasons why writers such as Dickinson and Stein were and continue to be marginalized in our accounts of literary history is because they intervene in ways that women were not expected to. Their refusal “to conform” to these expectations is precisely what makes them such strong writers, but it is also what keeps them on the outskirts of “canonical criticism.”

Thus, the “investigation of patriarchal authority” in American literary history begun by Dickinson and Stein and continued by contemporary women poets such as Howe takes place in terms of the form of discourse as well as its content. The innovative and difficult forms of writing these women produce are therefore a crucial dimension of their investigations and not merely eccentric ways they “dress up” what they have to say. For Howe, Dickinson in particular serves as a precursor in this investigation: “In prose and poetry she explored the implications of breaking the law just short of breaking off communication with a reader” (1985, II). This assessment strikes me as being equally true of Howe's poetry. Both Dickinson and Howe stretch the boundaries of the laws of normative grammar and syntax to such a great extent that they are often accused of being unintelligible. Yet if we see the difficulty of their work as an integral part of their respective feminist projects, then those difficulties can rightly be seen as very significant contributions to the “investigation of patriarchal authority” that is so central in virtually all forms of contemporary feminism. As Keller succinctly puts it, “Howe's practice suggests we have been blinded by the clumping together of words into systems, into apparently cohesive images whose validity is difficult to challenge. Pondering words wrenched apart from narrative, from syntax, from speakers, we may see more clearly the ways in which words woven into language have formed a fabric perpetuating women's oppression” (232–33).

So when Howe writes that a “poet is never just a woman or a man” or that “Poetry leads past possession of self to transfiguration beyond gender,” it would be misguided to assume that she is indifferent to issues of gender. But what exactly do her remarks suggest? An answer to this question is not simple, for Howe, much like Benjamin, holds in place historicist and theological linguistic registers that may seem contradictory. Her talk of transfiguration and transcendence puts her at odds with most forms of historical materialism. But perhaps, as Keller contends, the “greatest achievement” of Howe's poetry “is in its transcendence … of the merely individual, the temporally specific, the singly gendered” (188). What Howe may be signaling in her embrace of seemingly contradictory linguistic registers is that gender is not the essential category by which humans are defined.4 It is certainly a category but not the category. In this respect, Howe's point is similar to the point made by many post-Marxists, including Laclau and Mouffe, that there is no single determinative category but a series of categories—race, class, and gender among them.

Since many versions of feminism do see gender as the essential category, one way to clarify Howe's position is to draw on the work of a feminist who does not see gender as such an essence. In Gender Trouble, Judith Butler contends that “If one ‘is’ a woman, that is surely not all one is: the term fails to be exhaustive, not because a pregendered ‘person’ transcends the specific paraphernalia of its gender, but because gender is not always constituted coherently or consistently in different historical contexts, and because gender intersects with racial, class, ethnic, sexual, and regional modalities of discursively constituted identities” (3). The important point here is that gender is not the essential category because some other “pregendered” category takes precedence; the point is that there is no “exhaustive” essential category. And because gender “intersects” with other determinative categories such as race and class, and because those intersections vary according to differing historical contexts, gender is not an invariable category, which is why it is “not always constituted coherently or consistently.” If Butler is correct, then gender is not a stable category, and “if a stable notion of gender no longer proves to be the foundational premise of feminist politics, perhaps a new sort of feminist politics is now desirable to contest the very reifications of gender and identity, one that will take the variable construction of identity as both a methodological and normative prerequisite, if not a political goal” (5).

In both her prose and poetry, Howe does indeed contest the “reifications of gender and identity” that underwrite the patriarchal, racist, and imperialist tendencies in American history in general and American literary history in particular—tendencies that deploy a “positivist efficiency” to uproot Native Americans from their land and consign women writers to the margins of recognition. And both the form and content of Howe's poetry and prose enact an instance of the “new sort of feminist politics” Butler calls for. In this respect, we can see Howe in much the same light as she sees Dickinson—as a poet who “sings the sound of the imagination as learner and founder, sings of liberation in an order beyond gender” (1985, 13). For Howe, that “order” is attained through and in the poetic use of language; it is the poetic that “leads past possession of self to transfiguration beyond gender.” I certainly do not believe that Howe would claim that only poetry can lead “beyond” the categories of gender or race or class. But for her, that is the path the “scout” takes in her work because the “poet is an intermediary hunting form, beyond form, truth beyond theme through woods of words tangled and tremendous” (1985, 79–80).

Where we are, then, in Howe's poetic investigations, is in these “woods of words tangled and tremendous”—woods filled with “voices that are anonymous, slighted.” Throughout her poetry and prose, Howe investigates various forms of writing history poetically in order to articulate those voices silenced in traditional historical accounts. Her investigation takes place on the field of discourse in enactments of poetic form that use parataxis, fractured and fragmented syntax, archaic spellings, multiple voices, and collage techniques, to name a few of the more prominent tactics in her hunting arsenal. In addition, writing history poetically in this manner unsettles our received notions of authorship. “To portray thoughts of a culture,” Howe asks, “do you suppress individual dialogue under a controlling discourse, or do you depend entirely on direct quotations?” (Beckett, 24) Walter Benjamin asked a similar question and chose the latter position, claiming that in his Arcades project he would “need say nothing. Only exhibit” (1989, 47). Although Howe's answer to this question leans in much the same direction as Benjamin's, she recognizes that the “selection of particular examples from a large group is always a social act” (1993, 45); consequently, the author always “says” something. I suspect Benjamin eventually came to a similar realization, which may be one reason he struggled to find a satisfactory form for his Arcades manuscript. We should not, however, read either Benjamin's or Howe's unsettling of received notions of history and authorship as either destructive or nihilistic moves; on the contrary, these moves make room for the silenced other of history to enter the cultural dialogue. “If history is a record of survivors,” as Howe asserts, then “Poetry shelters other voices” (1993, 47).


  1. Susan Howe's work has received a great deal of critical attention recently. See George F. Butterick, “The Mysterious Vision of Susan Howe,” North Dakota Quarterly 55 (Fall 1987); Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “‘Whowe’: On Susan Howe,” The Pink Guitar (New York and London: Routledge, 1990); Marjorie Perloff, “‘Collision or Collusion with History’: Susan Howe's “Articulation of Sound Forms in Time,” Poetic License: Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1990); Linda Reinfeld, Language Poetry: Writing as Rescue (Baton Rouge: Louisiana University Press, 1992); Peter Quartermain, “And the Without: An Interpretive Essay on Susan Howe,” Disjunctive Poetics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992); Lew Daly, Swallowing the Scroll: Late in a Prophetic Tradition with the Poetry of Susan Howe and John Taggert (Buffalo, NY: M, 1994); John Taggert, Songs of Degrees (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994); Ming-Qian Ma, “Poetry as History Revised: Susan Howe's ‘Scattering As Behavior Toward Risk,’” American Literary History 6 (1994), and “Articulating the Inarticulate: Singularities and the Counter-method in Susan Howe,” Contemporary Literature 36, no. 3 (Fall 1995); John Palatella, “An End of Abstraction: An Essay on Susan Howe's Historicism,” Denver Quarterly 29, no. 3 (1995); Peter Nicholls, “Unsettling the Wilderness: Susan Howe and American History,” Contemporary Literature 37, no. 4 (Winter 1996); Hank Lazer, Opposing Poetries, vol. 2 (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1996); Megan Williams, “Howe Not to Erase(her): A Poetics of Posterity in Susan Howe's ‘Melville's Marginalia,’” Contemporary Literature 38, no. 1 (Spring 1997); Lynn Keller, Forms of Expansion: Recent Long Poems by Women (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997); and Michael Davidson, Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material Word (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

  2. As Peter Nicholls contends, Howe knows that “such [historical] contexts can never be made fully present—the recurring figures of these texts are those of the dark night, of the ‘confusion of the past, of forests and wilderness—but it is that impossibility which redefines the hermeneutic drive as a search for what Howe calls ‘trace-stories’ rather than for origins” (588).

  3. Howe is not only familiar with Benjamin's work, but she is very taken by it. As she tells Keller, “I love his interest in very short essays, his interest in the fragment, the material object, and the entrance of the messianic into the material object” (1995, 29).

  4. Although I am reading Howe's embrace of transcendence as a sign of an antiessentialist approach to gender, that desire for transcendence can also be read as part of the religious impulse that animates much of her work. For a reading along these lines, see Law Daly, Swallowing the Scroll.




Howe, Susan (Poetry Criticism)