FEBRUARY 22, 2016
A critic’s dialogue with the thinking of writing should be a clarification and understanding that an author’s major meanings are often unspoken. At the threshold of academicism and poetry ¾ sympathy is passionate morality.
— Susan Howe, “Where Should The Commander Be?”
IN SUSAN HOWE’S WORK, poetry and prose are often impossible to disentangle. Her books stitch together the musical language of poetry, the rigor of scholarship, and the visual and spatial movements of painting, sculpture, dance, and theater. Howe’s art is concerned with what she calls “factual telepathy” — apprehensions of the past through slighted voices and anonymous histories. The essays collected in her latest publications, The Quarry, and the reissue of her seminal work The Birth-mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History, prove that her achievements as a poet go hand-in-hand with her clear and profound work as an essayist.
Born in Boston in 1937, Howe began her creative life following in her mother Mary Manning’s footsteps. Manning, an Irish actor, was also a playwright, novelist, critic, and (as recently discovered) filmmaking pioneer. She performed in the Gate and Abbey Theatres and knew W. B. Yeats and Samuel Beckett. After high school, Howe moved to Dublin and worked in various roles in the Gate, from actor to set designer, before returning to the United States to study painting at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts. I have written more extensively on Howe’s Irish background in this Review and elsewhere, but it is important to understand the foundations of her creative life in order to trace her trajectory from there to the present day.
Counterweight to her mother’s Irish background was her father’s American lineage. Mark De Wolfe Howe was a Harvard Law professor, one-time clerk to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and later the Justice’s biographer; his family stretches back to the formation of the United States. In her essay, “Frame Structures,” collected in The Quarry, Howe writes,
Lustful and manifest in action, men in the early d’Wolf and Howe families were generally sea captains, privateers, slave traders; some involved in the China trade, others in whaling; most sailed out of Bristol, Rhode Island. Balthasar d’Wolf first shows up on this side of the Atlantic (no one knows where he came from) when he is hauled into court in Lyme, Connecticut, for smoking in public. Edward d’Wolf fought in King Philip’s War […] Even if Captain John d’Wolf isn’t the fictional Captain Robert Walton in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, he married Mary Melvill [sic], Herman Melville’s aunt, and so made his way into the “The Affidavit” chapter of Moby-Dick.
All this illustrates Howe’s fascinating family history, but it also points to her primary preoccupation as an essayist: the search for the root cause. As she put it to me in conversation last summer in Dublin, this overarching project is invested in “The Hunt and not the Capture.” Her writings on both US and Irish cultural history open up personal realms for the poet to dive into. Whether that writing is properly poetic or expository, verse or prose, her scholarship is the work of an artist.
The Birth-mark is a welcome republication of Howe’s work on pre-20th-century American writing and an important extension of her poetics into the world of literary scholarship, to which she has contributed a great deal. As she writes in her introduction, “I have 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.” Any reader interested in the foundations of literature in this country, from the captivity narrative of Mary Rowlandson to the poetry of Emily Dickinson, will find this book indispensible. More still, it demonstrates the active and ranging nature of Howe’s craft.
Yet it is The Quarry that provides an overall context for Howe as a critical writer. The collection is cleverly organized in reverse-chronological order. Moving from her most recently published essay, “Vagrancy in the Park” (The Nation, 2015), to the final selection, “The End of Art” (American Art Journal, 1974), the effect is a deconstruction — an un-layering — of one of the sharpest interpreters of our American present and past.
“Vagrancy in the Park” is a long-gestating piece on the late poems of Wallace Stevens. Appropriately, it begins with an invocation tying the American poet and his Irish-American interpreter to ancient Irish history: “Singeth spells.” Howe is quoting from “The Song of Amergin,” an expurgated translation into colloquial Irish by Christian historians out of the Druidic Ogham speech in The Secret Languages of Ireland, by R.A. Stewart Macalister (Armagh: Craobh Rua Books, 1997), originally published in 1937, the year of her birth. This opening phrase reminds me of Robert Creeley, a close friend and colleague of Howe’s for decades, who recalls the time he realized the connection between the word spell as it pertains to magic, and spell as in the spelling of words. Howe’s essays wield that kind of magic. As with her poetry, a single phrase can be unpacked and found to contain layer upon layer of historical allusion. Carefully chosen words are spells — they transform before our eyes into woven patterns of intellectual and artistic apprehension.
Here in this opening essay, from that first, complex patterning she turns informal, almost matter of fact; “The poetry of Wallace Stevens makes me happy,” she continues.
This is the simple truth. Pleasure springs from the sense of fluid sound patterns phonetic utterance excites in us. Beauty, harmony, and order are represented by the arrangement, and repetition, of particular words on paper.
She could be describing her own work as well as his. “Vagrancy” is an essay in which the argument is built by accumulated fragments. Spirit words of sound and sense echo Stevens, and the light of life extinguishing — her meditation on late poetry and later life — is bright still for the force of its insistent spell. Stevens wakes to Howe’s incantation. The poetic field is no longer empty. She writes,
As a North American poet writing in the early twenty-first century, I owe [Stevens] an incalculable debt, for ways in which, through word frequencies and zero zones, his writing locates, rescues, and delivers what is various and vagrant in the near at hand. As Emily Dickinson put it: “The Zeroes ¾ taught us ¾ Phosphorus ¾ / We learned to like the Fire.”
In fact, in the critical realm, Howe’s best-known work remains My Emily Dickinson, published in 1985. A deeply felt and hugely influential book, it announced Howe as an arbiter of what Stevens himself calls “the scholar’s art” — that is, poetry, but poetry shot through with scholastic authority. In this pursuit, Howe is ever against the grain. Up to the point of writing My Emily Dickinson, she had no institutional affiliation or academic credentials. That changed with her appointment to the faculty of the State University of New York at Buffalo, in a program headed by none other than Creeley. Finally admitted to the exclusive halls of academia proper, Howe wrote the essays that comprise the first collection, The Birth-mark, in which her critical spirit remained confrontational. In her introduction, she explains,
These essays were written after My Emily Dickinson. They are the direct and indirect results of my encounter with The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson […] and with The Master Letters of Emily Dickinson [both edited by R.W. Franklin.] […] There I learned, examining the facsimiles, that Emily Dickinson, in her carefully handwritten manuscripts ¾ some sewn into fascicles, some gathered into sets¾may have been demonstrating her conscious and unconscious separation from a mainstream literary orthodoxy in letters […] 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 and banished. For me, 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.
I reference this passage at length because it again defines Howe’s work as much as the poetry of her ostensible subject. The physical conditions of writing — writing as an event akin to the visual and plastic arts — occupy Howe’s poetry as well as her essays and criticism. The revelations contained in the physical nature of composing and organizing words cut across centuries. Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, and Susan Howe meet at the intersection of language as pure spiritual communion, and this communion has its own set of rituals.
As an essayist working in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Howe is indebted to fellow poets who wrote watershed critical works against the dominant literary trends of their time: D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain, and Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael. The last of these titles is treated at some length in Howe’s, “Where Should the Commander Be?,” the penultimate essay in The Quarry. As a poet making her way into language through tactile and visual modes, Howe takes Olson’s writing — particularly in The Maximus Poems — as a primary example. Olson’s use of blank space, the page as a canvas for word-pigments, opened new worlds of possibility: “This feeling for seeing in a poem, is Olson’s innovation,” she insists. But it was Olson’s Ishmael that pointed to a new, open form of literary scholarship, matching the rigor of assiduous study with the poetic open field of the mid-20th century. A self-described “library cormorant,” Howe haunts archives. In this commitment, Olson helped pave the way. Before summoning the confidence to declare himself a poet, his scholarship was based on unprecedented access to Herman Melville’s personal library. With these materials, he made significant contributions to Melville studies, while at the same time lambasting the official, academic field built up around the author of Moby-Dick. His Ishmael could be no common critical book. As Howe writes,
It took thirty-five Augusts for this passionate, ambitious, conflicted man [Olson] to draw the hero-poet out of himself. Then Olson-Ishmael-Maximus subjugated while yielding to subjugation, and captured while freeing, the protean splendour of Herman Melville’s restless, hieroglyphical nature. Life opens onto work. Through long study and great love for another author, Olson reached his own ¾ “I am.”
She claims that “external information” in Call Me Ishmael “underscores the potent influence of a subject on its compositional structure.” (As Creeley himself oft-repeated, form is never more than an extension of content. Or, as Denise Levertov extrapolated, form is a revelation of content. This is true of the essay as well as the poem.) The form Howe perceives in Olson’s Ishmael is akin to film montage, and she intercuts “Commander” with notes on Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, another frequent subject of her critical gaze: “‘montage is conflict’ […] Real events that are Facts, are interconnected by ties and links to a deep inner theme of composition as conflict.”
Film is a primary visual (and sonic) preoccupation for Howe, playing out this conflict of fact and speculation, form and content, poetics and academics. “Life opens onto work.” Her essay, “Sorting Facts; Or, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Marker,” meditates on poetic documentary, perhaps her signature form, in which she draws from Olson and Eisenstein, Dickinson and Stevens, Melville and Manning. (“Sorting Facts” was reviewed in LARB when it first appeared as a New Directions Poetry Pamphlet.) Here again, Howe offers a poet’s take on her subjects. Her fragments are a form of montage, and accumulated facts are her materials. She sends them dancing across the page in a mix of personal narrative, image, quotation, definition, and document. As she quotes from Dziga Vertov, “Filming facts. Sorting Facts. Disseminating facts. Agitating with facts. Propaganda with Facts. Fists made of facts.”
On its face, “Sorting Facts” is a study of the work of the radically inventive French documentarian Chris Marker, but it also accesses another definitive characteristic of Howe the essayist: her use of the essay (or documentary) as elegy. “Sorting Facts” begins,
I was originally asked to contribute an essay for a collection called Beyond Document: Essays on Nonfiction Film, edited by Charles Warren, with an Introduction by Stanley Cavell, because of a book I once wrote about Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Although this seemed a strange reason to assume I could write about nonfiction film I was drawn to the project because of the fact of my husband’s death and my wish to find a way to document his life and work.
She continues with a brief biography of her late husband, the sculptor David von Schlegell. The biographical section ends,
Sorting word-facts I only know an apparition. Scribble grammar has no neighbor. In the name of reason I need to record something because I am a survivor in this ocean.
That’s why I agreed to meddle in a foreign discipline.
To me, this strategy is a revelation. Why else do we read and write but to deal in the depths of our own experience? Poetry is never impersonal and neither is scholarship. What Howe calls her “trespass” into other genres not only opens up new avenues of critical inquiry; it also expands the very personal territory on which her poetry and prose are predicated.
The most heartfelt essay in The Quarry is another elegy, this one for the philosopher Peter Hare, whom Howe married years after von Schlegell’s death. In “The Disappearance Approach,” she again uses fragments, building short sections of prose poetry into an architecture referencing historical figures from Charles Sanders Peirce, W. H. Auden, and Jonathan Edwards (all familiar inhabitants of Howe’s critical universe), as well as her work in the archives of the Beinecke Rare Books Library, to frame and illuminate profound personal loss.
Fallible and faithful ¾ what makes loyalty so righteous in measurable space? Forever following a river to the ramparts where they form a single plume in the center we are together in our awareness of the great past founded by Daphne and David. Everything appears in a deliberately constructed manner as if the setting of our story was always architectural.
History intersects with unanswered questions while life possesses us, so we never realize to the full one loyal one ¾ only an elegiac ideal.
Figures of the past, both known and forgotten, invite Howe the poet, the essayist, the antiquarian, the antinomian, to a critical space in which art itself is grace and savior. A painting “in its solid wood frame beckoned [her] into an environment where ancestors figured as tender grass springing out of the earth. There they were, saying ‘Susan, child of our history, come home, come on in.’”
Howe’s essays are remarkable for their persistent curiosity about a past often erased from critical record. She deals with literature, painting, film, and philosophy with a poet’s sense of music and economy. The Birth-mark is an extension of the pre-20th-century American literary wilderness that informs her poetics, while The Quarry mines her critical wisdom for precious and personal insight. Celebrating Howe’s genius (yes) is the duty of generations of writers and critics to come. We are fortunate to have in these two volumes a representative collection of her undeniable powers, published in time for Howe to enjoy the praise she deserves.
Jonathan Creasy is an author, editor, and musician living in Ireland. He is founder and publisher at New Dublin Press. His book of poems and essays, The Black Mountain Letters, is being published by Dalkey Archive Press in September 2016.