JANUARY 20, 2015
IN THE INTRODUCTION to her book of critical essays The Birth-Mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History (1993), Susan Howe writes:
During the 1950s, although I was only a high school student, I was already a library cormorant. I needed out-of-the-way volumes from the Widener Library. My father said it would be trespassing if I went into the stacks to find them […] I waited while he entered the guarded territory to hunt for books […]
The stacks of the Widener Library and of all great libraries in the world are still the wild to me. Thoreau went to the woods because he wished to live deliberately in order to give a true account in his next excursion. I go to libraries because they are the ocean.
The phrase “library cormorant” comes from Coleridge. It evokes the greedy, insatiable appetite of the reader. “I am deep in all out of the way books,” Coleridge writes: “I am almost always reading.” We encounter the cormorant in Milton’s Paradise Lost, sitting atop the Tree of Life, embodying Satan. Howe continues, “Cormorants are strand birds; they occupy cliffs by the ocean, where they perch upright on rocks, often motionless for long periods of time, with wings extended.”
Howe introduces us to the poet’s sense of the library and manuscript archive as untouched wilderness. The researcher becomes an explorer forging through guarded, forbidden territory in search of lost treasures, cities of gold. Turning up these treasures, she discovers more than buried voices; she touches languishing objects, accessing telepathic communication with figures of the past.
Much has changed and continues to change in the way we discover such texts and objects. Howe notes in her most recent work, “As they evolve, electronic technologies are radically transforming the way we read, write, and remember. The nature of archival research is in flux […] now we often merely view the same material on a computer screen — digitally, virtually, etc.” At the fulcrum of this turning, she describes her latest book, Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives (New Directions, 2014), as “a collaged swan song to the old ways.”
Spontaneous Particulars was given as a lecture at the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard University, in that secured bastion she approached as a teenager, only to be left in the foyer, forbidden from trespassing further. Her work to this point in the 21st century has made particular use of libraries and archives. Her groundbreaking My Emily Dickinson (1985), recently described to me by Eavan Boland as the greatest book ever written about the 19th-century poet, revealed the importance of going to Dickinson’s hand-written manuscripts in order to understand her unique practice as a writer. These manuscripts were themselves kept under heavy guard for decades, and Howe has done more than perhaps any other writer in bringing them to light.
In her characteristic, collage-text style, Spontaneous Particulars synthesizes Howe’s efforts and affinities over the last 50 years. It proves, once again, that she is among the most articulate and inventive writers we have, and cements her eminent position in a lineage of pedagogical poets of the United States.
The Telepathy of Archives begins with a section from Book III of William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, which includes the lines
A cool of books
will sometimes lead the mind to libraries
of a hot afternoon, if books can be found
cool to the sense to lead the mind away.
For there is a wind or ghost of a wind
in all books echoing the life
there, a high wind that fills the tubes
of the ear until we think we hear a wind,
to lead the mind away.
Here is the cormorant perched on its rock, waiting for the “ghost of a wind” to call it into motion. In Howe’s readings, however, the mind is not led away, but rather led through, deeper — the cormorant diving into the water for its prey. In all these associative wanderings, the reader finds, in Williams’s words, “something / [that] has brought him back to his own / mind.” Williams’s bird is not a cormorant, but a “Beautiful thing, / my dove, unable and all who are windblown, / touched by the fire.” Elements — water, wind, and fire — are kindled by the “cool of books.” Howe finds that “this visionary spirit, a deposit from a future yet to come, is gathered and guarded in the domain of research libraries and special collections.” Echoes of life arrive telepathically from past to present at the instant of discovery.
The sometimes haphazard, chance-driven nature of work in the archives suits the style Howe has maintained from the beginning:
Often by chance, via out-of-the-way card catalogues, or through previous web surfing, a particular “deep” text, or a simple object (bobbin, sampler, scrap of lace) reveals itself here at the surface of the visible, by mystic documentary telepathy. Quickly — precariously — coming as it does from an opposite direction.
If you are lucky, you may experience a moment before.
The fragmentary relations of words and objects, without conventional narrative, reveal in her poems just how mediated language, history, and knowledge actually are. Her direct, concise sentences and crystal-clear thinking mitigate some of these surface difficulties; her books are often made up of alternating sections in verse and prose. Howe’s visual imagination is always central, with reproductions and collage appearing frequently. She told The Paris Review in 2012, “From start to finish in my work, I’ve been involved with images. The porous border between visual and verbal is always there.” This tendency is on display in Spontaneous Particulars with reproductions from the various collections she mines and the collaged, cut-up texts performed — when spoken — as sound poems. In the New Directions text, readers will be pleased at the high quality of the reproductions, sometimes missing from standard paperback editions.
There are contents of this most recent work that reach to even more elemental aspects of Howe’s writing. For example, definition. In other books, Howe has made remarkable use of Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828, which was crucial to the reading and work of our 19th-century masters, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Whitman, Dickinson, and so on. We learn that Dickinson used Webster’s 1844 reprint, in which, Howe claims, definitions read like blank verse. Howe points to the patchwork of her own book by sending us back to definitions:
Webster’s dictionary describes skein this way:
Skein (skane), n. [Fr. Escaigne] A knot or number of knots of thread, silk or yarn. A loosely coiled length of yarn or thread, wound in a reel suitable for a manufacturing process (as dying) or for sale as knitting wool or embroidery.
Something suggesting the twistings and contradictions of a skein (‘unraveled the tangled skein of evidence’). A trimmed strip of osier made from splits for basketwork. A metal thimble on an axletree arm.
A flock of wild fowl in flight.
Howe prods meaning from this dictionary quotation succinctly with, “Words are skeins — meteors, mimetic spirit-sparks.” What is so direct at face value permits endless readings and reconsiderations when set against other found materials: “Quotations are skeins or collected knots […] Quotations are lines or passages taken at hazard from piled up cultural treasures.” Consequently, to set definitions and quotations side-by-side, to arrange and rearrange their particular order, complicates what we may have otherwise assumed to be quite ordinary. As Howe states flatly in My Emily Dickinson: “Define definition.”
I am reminded of Ezra Pound’s scientific invocation for the study of verse in his ABC of Reading (1934):
The proper METHOD for studying poetry and good letters is the method of contemporary biologists, that is careful first-hand examination of the matter, and continual COMPARISON of one “slide” or specimen with another.
And Charles Olson, whose Maximus Poems taught Howe the possibilities of blank space on the page, the ragged margins that surround words and create the canvas across which they dance like moving images. Olson too looked toward scientific method for a more exacting study of poetry and history:
Old science was valuable because all nature was the subject, and laid itself out for vivisection […] But man is his own subject […] therefore he has to have an analogical method the equal of his quandary, that he is inside and down under his own eye as microscope or probe. He can’t get himself out on a glass-slide. Therefore he has to assume he is a glass-slide. Which he is. […] He is a glass-slide until he is a soul.
Howe’s work puts both herself and her studies of literary history under the microscope. Rather than to explain, her writing often seeks to demonstrate by this method the connections between texts, historical figures, and periods. These connectives are woven like textiles. She explains: “the English word ‘text’ comes from Medieval Latin textus […] literally ‘thing woven’ […] ‘to weave, to join, fit together, construct.’” She points to a perfect definition of “sentence,” made by Gertrude Stein — “A sentence is partly.” Work in archives weaves these disparate threads naturally.
In research libraries and collections, we may capture the portrait of history in so-called insignificant visual and verbal textualities and textiles. In material details. In twill fabrics, bead-work pieces, pricked patters, four-ringed knots, tiny spangles, sharp-toothed stencil wheels; in quotations, thought-fragments, rhymes, syllables, anagrams, graphemes, endangered phonemes, in soils and cross-outs.
This describes not only the found objects and materials in research libraries, but also the practice of Howe’s own poetry and poetics. They are fragmentary and associative — in her word, telepathic. The shock of some archived object sends thought-waves out across generations and spatial barriers. Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, and Susan Howe become contemporaries, alive in certain moments of realization. Texts allow travel through time.
Also elemental to Howe’s writing is her sense of location. It is no accident that she ends her near-scientific description of the cormorant by situating its habitat: it is a strand bird, one native to Long Island Sound in Connecticut where Howe has made her home for the last 30 years. The vast, forbidding ocean of the library is also a literal sea of expansive possibility:
Reading Paterson reminds me of walking barefoot across a small strip of common land near my house that’s littered with beach glass, broken oyster shells, razor clams and kelp. It’s called a beach, but no one swims there because even at high tide what is euphemistically referred to as “sand” quickly becomes marl, mud, and marsh grass. I feel the past vividly here — my own memories and the deeper past I like to explore in poems. As I look across Long Island Sound I can imagine it as open ocean.
As with Paterson, or Olson’s Maximus, Howe walks through history as if it were contemporary topography. Imaginative associations take shape as “spontaneous sound particulars.” So much of New England’s history is unutterable, violent, and remote. But Howe makes this history her own, moving back through manuscripts to discover latent truths in texts such as Jonathan Edwards’s fiery sermons. She identifies Williams’s drive to present Paterson as the objective, outward correlation to the inner life of a man: “Once he had fixed on the city he needed to gather and collect facts in relation to the place […] from libraries, local and otherwise.” So much of Howe’s writing aims at the objective treatment of facts in their relationships, through the handling of material objects. A sense of place marks out the once-forbidden territory into which she trespasses. In The Birth-Mark, she writes:
I am a poet writing near the close of the twentieth century […]
New England is the place I am. Listening to the clock and the sun whirl dry leaves along. Distinguishing first age from set hour. The eternal and spirit in them.
A poem can prevent onrushing light going out.
Other locations besides New England haunt her poetry, particularly her mother’s native Ireland. In The Midnight (2003), a sequence of poetry and prose centered on her mother — Dublin-born actor, playwright, and novelist Mary Manning — Howe relates her Irish roots through fragmentary sections that hinge on historical objects. In the opening poetic sequence, “Bed Hangings I,” she writes of
Revisionist work in
Historic interiors spread
From House to Museum
Other documentary evidence
Friends who wish to
Haunting voices of the past break through into the present. Vivid in her poetic imagination, Ireland stands as the ancestral homeland. In that 2012 Paris Review interview, Howe claims, “I’ve always felt a tremendous pull between Ireland and America, because of my parents — my mother being Irish, and my father being a New Englander from Boston. I felt torn between them — in the sense of allegiance to the word.”
Her sense of the word is never limited to one way of reading. Words are material objects, like those found in archives; they are sounds and music; they are dancers on a plane, images on canvas, and performers in theatrical space. Howe’s unique background and upbringing charge these various word forms with singular authority. Her training as a visual artist at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts is often invoked to explain the insistently visual works she calls poems. But readers must also consider her early acting and stagecraft apprenticeships in Dublin’s famous Gate Theatre, her radio broadcasts — “Poetry Today” — for legendary WBAI in New York, her academic positions from SUNY Buffalo to Stanford. To paraphrase Olson, a poet is a complex of occasions.
In the creative surge Howe seems to be experiencing today, all of these strands weave together into a marvelous, if enigmatic, tapestry that constantly challenges and expands our assumed definitions of the poem. She accomplishes this through a visionary apprehension of what is to come, which emerges from her telepathic communication with past poetries, histories, lives, material and spiritual realities.
In perhaps her most direct poetic statement, “There Are Not Leaves Enough to Crown to Cover to Crown to Cover,” Howe writes of her own past:
This is my historical consciousness. I have no choice in it. In my poetry, time and again, questions of assigning the cause of history dictate the sound of what is thought.
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.
Included in Spontaneous Particulars are voices from the past that will be familiar to readers of Howe’s other works: Williams, Dickinson, Stein, Hart Crane, Charles Sanders Peirce, Henry James, Jonathan Edwards, and Wallace Stevens among them. While these are not necessarily the most “slighted” or “anonymous” voices she has handled, they constitute the unique constellation Howe has illuminated over the decades in her poetry and essays.
Stevens in particular resonates through her prose, in lines such as, “Each collected object or manuscript is a pre-articulate empty theater where a thought may surprise itself at the instant of seeing. Where a thought may hear itself see.” In her treatment of history, personal inheritance, the telepathic powers of word, place, and object, I am constantly reminded of Stevens’s late poem “The Irish Cliffs of Moher”:
Who is my father in this world, in this house,
At the spirit’s base?
My father’s father, his father’s father, his —
Shadows like winds
Go back to a parent before thought, before speech,
At the head of the past.
They go to the cliffs of Moher rising out of the mist,
Above the real,
Rising out of present time and place, above
The wet, green grass.
This is not landscape, full of the somnambulations
And the sea. This is my father or, maybe,
It is as he was,
A likeness, one of the race of fathers: earth
And sea and air.
In a 1950 letter to Howe’s late colleague and friend Robert Creeley, Olson proclaimed, “poets are the only pedagogues.” If Spontaneous Particulars was originally conceived as a lecture, then what does it teach? Pound argued that “all teaching of literature should be performed by the presentation and juxtaposition of specimens of writing and not by discussion of some other discusser’s opinion about the general standing of a poet or author.” By assiduous work in archives, Howe gains access to primary sources. Her book is a collage of such specimens. Weaving them together in particular (and, yes, spontaneous) patterns, the text is less a work of academic criticism and more akin to, say, John Cage’s lecture poems: teaching by means of intuition and creation rather than exposition. Poets have the greatest powers in this area, thus Olson’s pronouncement. Pound, Williams, Olson — all Howe’s celebrated precursors — attempted long poems as means, at least partly, to achieve pedagogical ends. As New Directions founder and publisher James Laughlin wrote of The Cantos: “Ut doceat, ut moveat, ut delectet. They move us, they delight us, but above all they teach us.”
The spirit of Wallace Stevens’s “scholar’s art” lives in Howe’s extraordinary accomplishments. Slighted voices, whispered through archived manuscripts, emancipate our contemporary thinking by demonstrating we are not — and never have been — alone. In a passage from My Emily Dickinson, Howe announces:
Orders suggest hierarchy and category. Categories and hierarchies suggest property. 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 worldly chronology.
By her own handling of worldly chronology, Howe constructs a version of our contemporary world where the voices of the past remain vital. This is, in her words, “the point where meaning stops and the unreality of what seems most real floods over us.” I can think of no greater teacher than the Susan Howe of Spontaneous Particulars. She instructs by intuitive connectives between disparate strands. Her books continue to reveal possibilities in the most out-of-the-way texts. This library cormorant and her daring trespasses remain as shocking and singular as ever.