Susan Howe Howe, Susan (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

George F. Butterick (essay date 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 “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...

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David Baker (review date February 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


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Gillian Conoley (essay date Spring 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Peter Quartermain (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Linda Reinfeld (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ming-Qian Ma (essay date Winter 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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


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Bin Ramke (review date Winter 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Judith Kitchen (review date Spring 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Taggart (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Susan Howe with Lynn Keller (interview date Spring 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Eric Murphy Selinger (review date Spring–Fall 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Dana D. Nelson (review date Fall 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Peter Nicholls (essay date Winter 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Devine Johnston (review date Spring 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Megan Williams (essay date Spring 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Times Literary Supplement (review date 30 May 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lydia A. Schultz (review date June 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Peck (review date Summer 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Nicky Marsh (essay date October 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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”...

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Publishers Weekly (review date 26 April 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Paul Naylor (essay date 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

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