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About Susan Howe's Poetry

Susan Howe

Language is a wild interioriy. I am lost in the refuge of its dark life.

Poets are always beginning again. They sail away to a place they hope they can name. Linguistic nature is always foreign. Grammar bales the darkness open. Only a few strike home. They remember and acknowledge each other.

. . . .

When I write, words or phrases come to me. I don’t go to them or start with a plan. I start with scraps and pieces and something comes. I never know. I never sit down intentionally to say something. It comes to me. But as I work more on a poem a meaning is established and then I must continue until I feel it's done or undone. To an almost alarming extent -- alarming for me -- sound creates meaning. Sound is the core. If a line doesn't sound right, and I do always have single lines or single words in mind, if a line doesn't have some sort of rhythm to it, if my ear tells me it's wrong, I have to get rid of it, or change it, and a new meaning may come then.

From The Difficulties (1989).

Ming-Qian Ma

Howe's poetry, written in "matted palimpsests," embodies a three-layered linguistic deposit, or a three-dimensional language experience: (1) the source text, often excerpted or duplicated in prose and other genred language, or indicated by a footnote; (2) Howe's text as an act of writing through the source text; and (3) what this writing-through gestures toward. Resembling what Lyn Hejinian calls "field work," such a textual formation becomes "an activity." The dynamics of the interweaving of all three invites or, indeed, demands a simultaneous, tripartite reading. . . . [S]uch textual formation suggests what Howe calls "a field of free transgressive prediscovery" (Birth-Mark 147). The clashes between words and the collisions among lines demilitarize language by creating points of "capture breaking" which, in turn, become locales for "the chance meeting of words."

From Contemporary Literature (1995).

Stephen Paul Martin

This dance of syllables -- leading to a heightened awareness of words as musical energies -- is the primary means by which Howe and her readers reconstitute themselves outside the stranglehold of patriarchal meaning. By asking us to focus on the tangible presence of language itself -- on the morphemes, phonemes and graphemes that words are made of -- Howe moves us away from our tendency to think in abstractions, easing us into the motion and fabric of a verbal space that has not been reduced to a mere zone of representation. We are asked to see and hear the shapes and sounds of the words instead of reading through them to what they supposedly refer to. Our sense of discursive or narrative continuity shatters, replaced with the endless Protean linkages that give language its living power.

Paul Metcalf

In a letter to me some months ago, Susan Howe writes:

"It strikes me as odd that your address is Quarry Road and mine is New Quarry Road -- because that's what we both do; quarry."

She then goes on to claim that wherever she digs, I have preceded her; which, for all its commendable modesty, is an error. Susan Howe has quarried large areas of human geography that would be altogether difficult for me. In fact, if she and I form a mutual admiration society -- which I think we do -- it is unfairly tilted towards her. She seems to understand the books of mine that she has read; and I'm not sure I have a comparable grasp on all of hers.

The challenge to the reader, it seems to me, is to locate Susan Howe. The real Susan Howe. And the task is made difficult by the multiplicity of roles she plays. At once, I wince at that word "role." "Role," "persona," "voice," guise," "mask" -- all are cliche, or suggestive of something overly theatrical or meretricious, which is not what I intend. Nevertheless:

Is she a poet of history? ("Often I hear Romans murmuring / I think of them lying dead in their graves.")

Is she a Yankee eccentric?

An Irish free spirit?

A Language Poet? ("For we are language Lost / in language"). That is, are the poems non-referential? or simply oblique?

Is she a vocabulary poet? (Robert Duncan once warned a friend that that's what I am).

A feminist militant?

An alien immigrant? ("Across the Atlantic, I / inherit myself / semblance / of Irish susans / dispersed / and narrowed to home").

Well, I think she is at least several if not all of these. And it is not role-playing: these are Susan Howe. To try to fit her into one or two categories is like trying to body-English a pinball machine, psyching the ball into a slot it has no intention of entering.

She is uneasy in any single slot. And I gather that the tenants of the various slots on which she touches tend to be uneasy with her. This is not surprising.

Lynn Keller

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

From Contemporary Literature (1995).

Janet Rodney

Susan is concerned with the passionate act of writing, with Language. A voice that is voices portrays a mind's movement. Tone and mood of the dark side of American, specifically American, History. Subversion. Identity and memory of place. Language is the medium through which Her revelation of the nature of meaning/s evolve/s. Her ways of generating meaning require a change in reading habits. I can no longer expect to be told something. I have to discover it, that something, in the telling. I have to work my way through a system of relationships between words, push back their branches in order to discover their interpenetration, then allow them to bend again toward each other, or to swing away. As I look at each word anew, I think these are the parts, now what is the greater whole? -- A living text with a life of its own, ever transforming in the mind of each reader. This is my response as Reader to Susan. OUR text as it evolves through a series of readings of her work.

. . . .

Words/Sounds are arranged/rearranged in space, to affect meaning/tone/mood. A constant shifting of perspectives so that each word, like sculpture in the round, can be viewed from all sides. To give each one space that it may be viewed at various distances. To give or take away light from it (energy from other words) (otherwords in relationship)

From The Difficulties (1989).

Maureen Owen

Listening to her read is like staring into a lake    enchanted     mesmerized    drawn closer and closer until the tip of the nose touches water    & then swiftly one senses danger     danger    a warning    a voice saying No, no wrong way    not the lake not the lake    over here     & yes she's over there now    & the magnetic pull begins again.

Having the power to cause to rivet    the power to be shadow     power to appear perfectly t   he power to say something unintelligible that everyone wants to figure out    power to utter gibberish as in Articulation of Sound Forms in Time    gibberish - the signal of madness    the historic figure pushed too far     lost in between the cracks of defined groups    lost where there is no room for error    no hesitating on the bridge     no time for indecision    Women lost like that in historic cracks    gone mad    gibbering     talking a blue streak    desperate gibberish of madness     forerunner of another explanation    a language left to women    women abandoned    fallen through the angles of     patriarchy's rhetoric    Speaking in a New Voice

. . . .

To be swept up and carried off in a cyclone calm where moments spent in a sacred time reclaim you. Where you are not the reader of a text, or the receiver of a production, or the recipient of a theory. Where there is neither discourse nor criticism. Where there is only the air of the poem. And you    breathe it in.

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