Susan Howe Howe, Susan (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Susan Howe 1937-

American poet and critic.

The following entry provides information on Howe's life and career from 1990 through 2002. For more information on Howe's writing, please see Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 72, 152.

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 is also recognized for conveying seemingly unrelated or oppositional ideas using phonetically similar diction, as well as for exploring the dual meanings of a single word. 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. Her A Bibliography of the King's Book, or, Eikon Basilike (1989) revolves around Howe's fascination with the Eikon Basilike, which is thought to be a manuscript of the English regent Charles I, whose reign spurred a seventeenth-century civil war in England. The Eikon Basilke was later determined to be a fake. Her recent collection of poetry, Pierce-Arrow (1999), focuses on the relationship between American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce and his wife, Juliette. Howe utilizes manuscripts, documents, and marginalia to explore various aspects of Peirce's life and work, the role of women in male-dominated society, and the tragic myth of Tristram and Isolde.

Critical Reception

Howe's work often combines several genres within a 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

(Poetry Criticism)

Hinge Picture 1974

Chanting at the Crystal Sea 1975

Western Borders 1976

Secret History of the Dividing Line 1978

Cabbage Gardens 1979

Deep in a Forest of Herods 1979

The Liberties 1980

Pythagorean Silence 1982

Defenestration of Prague 1983

Articulation of Sound Forms in Time 1987

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

The Europe of Trusts: Selected Poems 1990

Singularities 1990

The Nonconformist's Memorial 1993

Frame Structures: Early Poems, 1974-1979 1996

Pierce-Arrow 1999

Bed Hangings 2001

The Midnight (poetry and prose) 2003

My Emily Dickinson (criticism) 1985

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

Rachel Blau DuPlessis (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. “Whowe.” In The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice, pp. 123-39. New York: Routledge, 1990.

[In the following essay, DuPlessis provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of Howe's verse and views her as a feminist poet.]

A Drawing

The meaning of this is entirely and best to say the mark, best to say it best to shown sudden places, best to make bitter, best to make the length tall and nothing broader, anything between the half.

Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons

Susan Howe takes the experimentalist desire for interrogation of the mark and combines it with the populist mysteries of such oblique and marginalized materials as folk tales and early American autobiography, and fuses these under the complex and resonant sign of human femaleness. Her work with its minimalist elegance and economy of gesture is also charged with social density, in her critical allusions to our common culture (Swift, Yeats, Shakespeare), and in her austere judgments of the shared political and ethical destructions of our experience: the liquidation of Native Americans, of Jews in the Holocaust, the rack of Ireland. She has felt the inflection of victor by loser, of other by winner, and these subtle dialectics of power create her subtle political diction. Her words, sometimes broken even into a magical “zaum” tactic, can draw upon lost words or non-dominant languages (Gaelic, Native American languages): her poems are repositories of the language shards left in a battlefield over cultural power.1

Like much of Susan Howe's poetry, the early Secret History of the Dividing Line (1979) is set at an intersection, as the title suggests, of time and space in a particular emotional territory. It is formed by probing uses of the meaning of Mark. Both N. and vb.

Mark—a written or printed symbol
                    —a sign or visible trace
                    —an inscription signifying ownership or origin
                    —a sign of depth
                    —a brand imposed
                    —a grade
                    —an aim or target
                    —a boundary
                    —a tract of land held in common
                    —a kind of money
                    —to notice
                    —to make visible impressions
                    —to set off or separate
                    —to consider, study, observe

Howe chooses to have her making a mark bounded by two Marks to whom this book is dedicated: her father and her son. Inscriptions and depths. Perhaps the secret history of the dividing line is its situational quality, a boundary explored between groups whose differences seem marked, but whose fusions and mutual yearnings the poetry seems to enact: tribe to tribe; generation to generation (adult to child, father to daughter); male to female; dead to living.

Howe plays on a basic myth of the hero, or the father—something from which the searching daughter feels alien, something for which the searching daughter feels desire. Thus the air-grasping syllables, encoding the word hero in anguished slow motion:

where ere
he He A
ere I were
father father

(SHDL [Secret History of the Dividing Line,] p. 6)

Later, Howe proposes the debate between the woman as hero (subject) and as heroine (that O or object).

whitewashed epoch
her hand
knocking her O

(SHDL, p. 32)

These experiments with the ruptured vocables of experimentalist diction are often set in/against an elegant intellectual poetry, one of whose forebears is Wallace Stevens, while another is Emily Dickinson.

Intellect idea and (Real) being
Perpetual swipe of glaciers dividing
pearl (empyrean ocean)
Text of traces crossing orient
and occident Penelope
who is the image of philosophy

(PS [Pythagorean Silence,] Part II)

Howe makes works which seem to distill the quintessence of traditional lyric poetry, its luminous greeny white sap-filled songs. This essence she tests and recreates by projecting the lyric into the hardly populated vastness and silence of modern page space. She works in issues of transcendence—as possibility, but also as impossible political privilege. Of “feigning” and the sincerities of artifice. She works between abstract thought and precisions of image. She maintains a Woolfean admiration for the odd and quirky, the resistant and wayward.2 And makes fruitful a subtle play between determinate meaning and indeterminacy: a woman—a person mainly gendered female—writing “feminine” discourses, knowing and rewriting “masculine” discourses, in the name of a feminist and critical cultural project which wants to transcend gender. This project colossal in its hybris. In its unsettling. Howe has pointed to the ambition in an interview. She reads a quotation from Aquinas: “‘Pythagoras said that all things were divisible into two genera, good and evil; in the genus of good things he classified all perfect things such as light, males, repose, and so forth, whereas in the genus of evil he classed darkness, females and so forth.’ In reaction to that, I wrote ‘Promethean aspiration: To be a Pythagorean and a woman.’”3

With “Pearl Harbor” (Part I of Pythagorean Silence) the reader receives simultaneously the historical reference of violence of disasters of war—of attacks and provocations, and an imagistic sense of billowy, nacreous, sheltering space and sound. Here, too, contradictions in the luminous vulnerability of the emotional terrain: a He and She whose perspectives differ as vastly as does judgment from mourning. The poet replays shadowy scenes, for “Only / what never stops hurting remains / in memory.” She tries (in a maneuver reminiscent of many quest plots of many women writers) to come to terms with a “pure and severe” and absent male quester, later seen as “Possession my father,” and a time when “midday or morrow / move motherless” (i.e., “Poverty my mother”). Can one construct “parents” adequate to female ambition from these raw materials? This is done in the plangent voice of the child, daughter or soul, working into voice until “biography blows away” and she has simply distilled the pure essence of some story (say: quest, knife, ivy; the hunt, the dream, the shadow, the spindle).

Building upon this psychological and familial work, all of Howe's writing also does spiritual and metaphysical work yet without the authoritarian or prophetic claims that often accompany this practice. For instance, Howe will produce a text which draws on the reading of deeply felt markings, signs seen under pressure, signs in the typological sense. With her interest in the anti-authoritarian mark, Howe's work can be seen as a fruitful juncture between H. D. and Oppen. That practice of H. D. which centers most noticeably in Tribute to Freud rests upon the uncloseable reading of signs; word, gesture, memory and dream are all glyphs for an infiniating practice of decoding. That practice of Oppen which speaks of the lengthy preliminary work done to find one word creating the small space to “stand on”; such poetic practice makes islands of clarity or necessity thrown, like the Whitmanic “filament, filament,” into the surrounding mystery. As in Oppen, Howe's work can show little interest in the connectedness of syntax, and more in the spaces of silence, the electricities of awe. The syntactic mode Howe favors? “Paper anacoluthon and naked chalk”—anacoluthon being a lack of grammatical sequence or coherence. (ASFT [Articulation of Sound Forms in Time], p. [50])

And one of many favorite genres (all Howe's genres exist in transparently matted palimpsests) is something like the ode which lifts things to limitlessness, whose main debate is between overwhelming boundlessness (like the sea of death in Lawrence's “Ship of Death”) (like the “more happy love, more happy, happy love” with the verbal excess in Keats' “Ode on a Grecian Urn”) and some vulnerable boundary which may compromise ultimates of song, of bliss, of void. In Howe one feels the loft, the heft, the debate of the ode, the apostrophes of power, of self-questioning. The persistent ground of “alterity, anonymity, darkness.”4 All concepts coded feminine. As the ode, as genre, may be—the ode, as the genre which symbolizes poetry in its ecstasy, its poetic diction, its excessive, overblown, portentious, mellifluous scale. The ode's appeal to the sublime, its sense of boundariless dissolutions, its febrile outcries are also coded feminine: hysteria, emotionalism, exaggeration, the sense of an ecstatic dance on the boundaries of the sensible. If there is a female practice of the ode (different from male writers) it may lie in the indirection needed to examine the site of female ecstasy from the peculiar perspective of the seeker and the sought—the desirous, orgasmic, ambitious mother and the “incestuous,” ambitious writer who appropriates those visceral ambitions. And while much of Howe is ode-like, perhaps the most startling ode is her prose critical study My Emily Dickinson—her passionate and vital exploration of the history of literature and the political context of Dickinson as American woman writer. But all genres are plumbed by the scrupulous lead of Howe's mark. The protocols of genre fermented by her mapping, weeping eye.

A lyric “I” a “mind's eye” “walk[s] through valleys stray / imagining myself free” (PS, Part III). What impedes her? and who is she? She is the female speck in the history of texts. And she is the scout of its presence. The roaming vagrant one, the errancy, the “Thorow”—thrown like a die into the game of culture's chances, thrown out, but thorough and pertinacious. Evoked, claimed is Thoreau, the watcher, the condenser of phrases, the one who knows the mystery of what he sees. Stubborn—o she/o he is stubborn. She is as stubborn as quarry is stubborn, before the end, and she is stubborn for quarries disappeared. The knife may slay, one voice be quelled. But Howe is driven to hear the condensed and impacted operas of the Others, the ones about whom few orators speak, the ones few encyclopaedists commemorate, the ones massacred, the ones of smoke. Iphegenia. Ophelia. Flora. Psyche. Little “humanchild.” Operas of rage could be made. What genre is adequate to this discovery—that there are holocausts of the destroyed? Should the page be black? How then is one “a writer”?

O lightfoot
No spread of your name
no fabulous birth stories
no nations taken by storm
Moving in solitary symbols through shadowy


From an interview: “Q: If you had to paint your writing, if you had one canvas on which to paint your writing, what might it look like?” Howe's answer: “Blank. It would be blank. It would be a white canvas. White.”5 To write: to be caught in hopeless joy between black and white, said and unsaid, between the overwritten and underwritten, between desire and obliteration. Divided in language, but speaking the language. How to draw these signs on whiteness, how to incise words formed in imbeddings, words with the fused detritus of all their imbeddings. Reading up and reading down, reading back and forth across.

The ground can never be cleared of the prior. It saturates us—political powers, social places, duties, infusions of norms, irruptions of protest. Thus the sign is never empty, it is never EMPTY; it is full, fused and jostling, an active “stage for struggle” (as Bakhtin says, somewhere). Howe's innovations on the page, her sculptural sketches of signs, make a poetics of her responsibility to and in this multiple struggle.

This “I” in the text is a wraith seeking the wraith sought; she is, Howe says, the “Scholiast.” The Scholiast! strange word, which means annotator. Writer of notes on margins of canonized texts. An ancient commentator on an ancient author. “Some clue.” A textual hunt uses the metaphors of fox and hound, victim and pursuer. The annotator flees through a forest of texts, filled with beautiful allusions to transfiguration, to lyric, to folk tale—“cherubim golden swallow” and “snow chastity berry-blood (secrecy)”—trying to find, to track, to catch, for an instant, the little ghosty-geist of otherness.

through a forest glade
                                                                      she fled
hazel wand
                                                                      a deer again
no mother
                                                                      but a gentle doe
chased by white hands
                                                                      across summer sands

(PS, part III)

Bits of the choros behind the choros. Hounded. Some monologue never before spoken, some attenuated distant voice that speaks to us in fragments. Bits of phrases. Half-gasps. Make a primal doubt of patriarchal relations, of “that ‘happy king’” (PS, Part III). Treating a figure unrecorded, barely able to be brought into text, fleet of foot, running through the margins; no wonder the talk is of “clues,” of “surmises,” of evanescence. The text—all written history—is a wood. The gentle doe is fleeing; the gentle, ferocious writer is tracking through that tricky landscape, trying to

take them in their wood.
take them at their word.

As in a ballad, something has happened. Some fatedness that cannot be explained or stopped, no motives, no causes. Just the effects, an intense spotlight on details, the shadow on others. And like ballads, filled with murder, infanticide, rape, revenge, final entrapments, betrayals, violent love, violent death. In this scene, we know where we are, the beauties of the image phrases (“white hands”; “gentle doe”) heighten the interplay of the powerful and powerless. The implacability of what (we imagine, we construct, we, culturally, know) can happen.

Hunting the wren.

(Once I ate pâté de griève. The bones were very small. I would not do that again.)

What does it mean to disperse these ballad materials around the page space, and evoke, also, word by word, epics, histories, orations, encyclopaedias, meditations, psalms, philosophies, elegies, masques? (Why is Howe at once subtle and prolix with genres?) In terms of the social territories evoked, ballads are the obverse of at least encyclopedias, epics, histories, orations. Possibly philosophies. And all texts have had strong bonds with power which means also with powerlessness: “Battles … fought … on paper.” (PS, Part III) “pearl harbor” “white foolscap.” To begin with, we are evoking the genre of the powerless and the genres of the educated—folk genres and literate genres. Intermingled, tangled, disentangled, claimed as a female textual ground. So to reanimate the genres, to claim major intertextual ties with classic works, and to watch, to follow the wraithe on the margins into her centers that are dispersed and profound, taken together as strategies show the depth and power of Howe's ambition, her omnivorous, intelligent allusiveness.

The song, the psalm, the fairy tale. Hamlet, Ophelia, Cordelia, Lear. What is female about this? Certainly some relational vulnerability, otherness proposed, the other side of stories. Ballad, “peerless poesy,” meditation. The 23rd Psalm. Pilgrim's Progress. Arthurian legend. Spenser. Swift. Tristan and Iseult. A refusal to play the game of belatedness, a turning of loss to privilege. She is claiming both margin and page. Every textual space. Spine. Title. Dedication. Entitlement and dedication. The fox, the hounds, the doe. The father and mother. The foundling. The struggle against female erasure. Self-erasure and self-affirmation. A theatrical. A masque. A ritual for naming. For naming loss. For naming that one is what one is, in the manner of tragedy. For naming Liberty. Stepping outside of the gates of the city into the whispering woods. And stepping back...

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Marjorie Perloff (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

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

[In the following essay, Perloff perceives Howe's verse as a combination of three elements—the historical, the mythic, the linguistic—and informed by “an urgent, if highly individual, feminist perspective.”]

Flocks roost before dark
Coveys nestle and settle
Meditation of a world's vast Memory
Predominance pitched across history
Collision or collusion with history

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Kornelia Freitag (essay date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Freitag, Kornelia. “Writing Language Poetry as a Woman: Susan Howe's Feminist Project in A Bibliography of the King's Book, or, Eikon Basilike.” Amerikastudien: American Studies 40, no. 1 (1995): 45-57.

[In the following essay, Freitag discusses the lack of attention from feminist literary critics to Howe's verse and underscores the feminist themes in A Bibliography of the King's Book, or Eikon Basilike.]

Yes, gender difference does affect our use of language, and we constantly confront issues of difference, distance, and absence, when we write. That doesn't mean I can relegate women to what we “should” or “must” be doing....

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Ming-Qian Ma (essay date fall 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Ma, Ming-Qian. “Articulating the Inarticulate: Singularities and the Counter-method in Susan Howe.” Contemporary Literature 36, no. 3 (fall 1995): 477-89.

[In the following essay, Ma contends that Howe's poetry is influenced by the logician Michel Serres' analysis of knowledge acquisition and discusses the way that Howe has developed meaning in her work.]

Outside the central disciplines of Economy, Anthropology, and Historiography is a gap in causal sequence. A knowing excluded from knowing.

—Susan Howe, “The Difficulties Interview”

A task of poetry is to make...

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John Palattella (essay date winter 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Palattella, John. “An End of Abstraction: An Essay on Susan Howe's Historicism.” Denver Quarterly 29, no. 3 (winter 1995): 74-97.

[In the following essay, Palattella provides an analysis of Howe's poetics, focusing on her utilization of historical, cultural, and literary elements in her verse.]

What is the end
to insects
that suck gummed

—William Carlos Williams, Spring and All, poem XII

Shortly after her first collection of poems Hinge Picture appeared in 1974, Susan Howe published “The End of Art,” a short essay on correspondences and collaborations between Ad Reinhardt, the American color field...

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Kathleen Crown (essay date 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Crown, Kathleen. “‘This Unstable I-Witnessing’: Susan Howe's Lyric Iconoclasm and the Articulating Ghost.” Women's Studies 27, no. 5 (1998): 483-505.

[In the following essay, Crown underscores Howe's “iconoclastic approach to lyric convention and traditional historiography” and asserts that her “serial lyrics testify not to the solitary speaker's inward eye but to a painfully public, dissociated and multiple sensibility.”]

We ask for history, and that means that we ask for the simple record of unadulterated facts; we look, and nowhere do we find the object of our search, but in its stead we see the divergent accounts of a host...

(The entire section is 7260 words.)

W. Scott Howard (essay date summer 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Howard, W. Scott. “Teaching How/e?: not per se.Denver Quarterly 35, no. 2 (summer 2000): 81-93.

[In the following essay, Howard maintains that Pierce-Arrow “reveals as much-perhaps more-about Susan Howe's poetics as about the life and work of the book's quasi-biographical subject.”]

I will print you a syllabus
Continuity probability even
the predictability of drift

—Susan Howe

The earliest occupation of
man is poetizing, is Feeling
and delighting in feeling.

—C. S. Peirce

When our discussions in the contemporary literary theory course turned (as they often did) to the...

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Megan Simpson (essay date 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: 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. 163-206. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Simpson reveals a central paradox in Howe's verse-empiricism and textuality, and views that paradox as one of the major strengths in her work.]

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it really was” (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. … In every era...

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Fiona Green (essay date spring 2001)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Green, Fiona. “‘Plainly on the Other Side’: Susan Howe's Recover.” Contemporary Literature 42, no. 1 (spring 2001): 78-101.

[In the following essay, Green investigates the influence of Howe's father, Mark De Wolfe Howe, on her poetry.]

Let us consider letters,” proposes Virginia Woolf (79). A mishearing of this invitation would aptly encapsulate a general truth about epistolarity: that in their responses to one another, “letters” do, indeed, “consider letters.” Thus forming a closed circuit which comes between their senders and recipients, letters reinforce the distance that they may also seem to bridge. Woolf goes on: “when the post knocks...

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Peter Nicholls (essay date fall 2002)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Nicholls, Peter. “‘The Pastness of Landscape’: Susan Howe's Pierce-Arrow.Contemporary Literature 43, no. 3 (fall 2002): 441-60.

[In the following essay, Nicholls discusses the wide-ranging references and connections that occur in Howe's Pierce-Arrow and provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of the poem.]

It is appropriate that the first word of this “profound memory poem,” as Marjorie Perloff calls it, should be “constellations,” since the word's astrological connotations combine ideas of divination and destiny, of knowledge and inscrutability, which are deep-moving forces in Susan Howe's Pierce-Arrow.1 As...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Clippinger, David. “Between the Gaps, the Silence and the Rubble: Susan Howe, Rosmarie Waldrop, and (Another) Pound Era.” Denver Quarterly 36, nos. 1-2 (spring-summer 2001): 189-205.

Judges the influence of Ezra Pound on Howe and Rosmarie Waldrop.

Hogue, Cynthia. “Infectious Ecstasy: Toward a Poetics of Performative Transformation.” In Women Poets of the Americas: Toward a Pan-American Gathering, edited by Jacqueline Vaught Brogan and Cordelia Chávez Candelaria, pp. 51-67. Notre Dame Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999.

Applies J. L. Austin's discussion of performative transformation to the...

(The entire section is 486 words.)