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On Susan Howe and History

Bruce Campbell

Susan Howe is a kind of post-structuralist visionary. This means that, while attuned to a transcendental possibility, she is fully aware of how mediated both language and consciousness are. This awareness leads her to acknowledge and investigate history, but, recognizing, as she does, the "infinite miscalculation of history," she can not accept history as truth, Yet, truth be told, neither can she ignore history. Given the "corruptible first figure" -- which can be taken to refer to rhetoric, myth, history, or a number of other disciplines -- no one discipline can be the founding discipline of truth: each possesses some truth, but always with a mixture of falsity. As she writes in "Thorow," "So many true things // which are not truth itself." And yet, too often, "language was spoken against an ideal of lost perfection." Against this measure, language must always be judged inadequate, for it is itself far from perfect and its access to perfection, though haunted, is undiscoverable. Such an insight may well call for an interminable writing, for a writing which continuously tests its own limits of truth and expression.

Susan Howe

My poems always seem to be concerned with history. No matter what I thought my original intentions were that's where they go. The past is present when I write.

Recently I spent several months at Lake George where I wrote Thorow. If there is a Spirit of Place that Spirit had me in thrall. Day after day I watched the lake and how weather and light changed it. I think I was trying to paint a landscape in that poem but my vision of the lake was not so much in space as in time. I was very much aware of the commercialization and near ruin at the edge of the water, in the town itself, all around --but I felt outside of time or in an earlier time and that was what I had to get on paper. For some reason this beautiful body of water has attracted violence and greed ever since the Europeans first saw it. I thought I could feel it when it was pure, enchanted, nameless. There never was such a pure place. In all nature there is violence. Still it must have been wonderful at first sight. Uninterrupted nature usually is a dream enjoyed by the spoilers and looters -- my ancestors. It’s a first dream of wildness that most of us need in order to breathe; and yet to inhabit a wilderness is to destroy it. An eternal contradiction. Olson's wonderful sentence "I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America." I am a woman born in America. I can't take central facts for granted. But then Olson really doesn't either.

Sometimes I think my poetry is only a search by an investigator for the point where the crime began. What is the unforgivable crime? Will I ever capture it in words?

I can't get away from New England. It's in my heart and practice. The older I get the more Calvinist I grow. Inspite of all the pettiness and dour formalism of the Puritans, as we have learned to think of them, and it is all certainly there, and more -- I am at home with them.

Hidden under the rigid exterior of a Cotton Mather, under the anger of Mary Rowlandson, under the austerity of Jonathan Edwards, is an idea of grace as part of an infinite mystery in us but beyond us. What we try to do in life is a calling. Carpentry, teaching, mothering, farming, writing, is never an end in itself but is in the service of something out of the world -- God or the Word, a supreme Fiction. This central mystery -- this huge imagination of one form is both a lyric thing and a great "secresie," on an unbeaten way; the only unbeaten way left. A poet tries to sound every part.

Sound is part of the mystery. But sounds are only the echoes of a place of first love. The Puritans or Calvinists knew that what we see is as nothing to the unseen. I know that if something in a word, or in a line in a poem or in any piece of writing doesn't sound true then I must change it. I am part of one Imagination and the justice of Its ways may seem arbitrary but I have to follow Its voice. Sound is a key to the untranslatable hidden cause. It is the cause. Othello said that. "Othello is uneasy, but then Othellos always are, they hold such mighty stakes," wrote Dickinson. In the same letter she added "The brow is that of Deity -- the eyes, those of the lost, but the power lies in the throat -- pleading, sovereign, savage -- the panther and the dove!"

Peter Nicholls

The work of Susan Howe is perhaps most eloquent testimony to the continuing role of the poet-as-historian, though her texts also argue the need for a fundamental reformulation of Poundian principle. Howe clearly believes with Pound that the poetic medium offers a means by which to reactivate a "history" long since atrophied under the dead hand of the academy. Yet, for her, poetry offers not a medium for dealing with historical "facts," but rather a kind of "counter-memory," as she calls it, which will resist successful assimilation to the order of discourse. Howe's history, in contrast to Pound's, is always uncertain: it will not quite become what Jean-François Lyotard has called "memorial history," it will not allow us to forget the original traumatic event by the psychic defense of a normalizing narrative. "One forgets," says Lyotard, "as soon as one believes, draws conclusions, and holds for certain."

The thrust of Howe's poetics is thus firmly against cognitive and narrative modes of historical understanding, against any secure position of knowledge from which we might view the past. History is grasped instead as a force which invades the poet, and, as in Freud, there is always a tension in Howe's writing between this memory of a past which, as she puts it in Pytbagorean Silence, "never stops hurting" and its belated in a language somehow disfigured by it. "This tradition that I am pasrt of," she explains, "has involved a breaking of boundaries of all sorts. It a fracturing of discourse, a stammering even. Interruption and hesitation used as a force. A recognition that there is another voice, an attempt to hear and speak it. It is this brokenness that interests me.

Much is contained for Howe in that idea of hesitation, a word, as she notes, "from the Latin, meaning to stick. Stammer. Hold back in doubt, have difficulty in speaking." The failure to speak fluently thus becomes a sort of strength as it sets up a resistance to conceptuality and dialectic, embedding a kind of violence at the heart of poetic language. Stammering keeps us on the verge of intelligibility, and in her own work Howe's emphasis on sound is coupled with an habitual shattering of language into bits and pieces. "The other of meaning," she tells us, "is indecipherable variation," thus gesturing toward a writing which constantly courts the non-cognitive in its preoccupation with graphic and phonic elements.

This type of opacity far exceeds the particular unreadabilities of The Cantos. For Howe, the blasting of a segment of the past out of the continuum of history produces a condition of language which is in a particular sense anti-metaphorical: words do not become figures for things but remain stubbornly themselves. If poetic language thus becomes cryptic, it is perhaps because "history," if not felt as literally traumatic, appears partly unreadable in the wake of modernism. Where Pound could find the key to past iniquities in, say, the manipulation of Byzantine interest rates, "history" for Howe is registered less as a phalanx of facts than as an indeterminate force which produces opacities and distortions within our means of expression. History, in this sense, is what she calls a kind of "ghost writing" which perpetually refuses to become transparent, a writing of gaps and traces which keeps us poised between opacity and readability.

From The Cambridge Companion to Ezra Pound. Ed. Ira B. Nadel. Copyright © 1999 by Cambridge University Press.

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