Feminist Avant-Garde Poetry : Extracts

English 660:001 / Spring 2007 / Tues 4:30-7:10 / Krug Hall 253 / George Mason University

Susan Tichy / stichy@gmu.edu / Robinson A-455A / 703/993-1191

Main Page Updates

Monique Wittig  /  Marianne De Koven applying Chomsky to Stein  /  Rachel Blau DuPlessis on Howe  /  Rachel Black on Howe  / 

Monique Wittig:
from "One Is Not Born a Woman."
The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992. 9-20.

A materialist feminist approach to women's oppression destroys the idea that women are a "natural group": "a racial group of a special kind, a group perceived as natural, a group of men considered as materially specific in their bodies. What the analysis accomplishes on the level of ideas, practice makes actual at the level of facts: by its very existence, lesbian society destroys the artificial (social) fact constituting women as a "natural group." A lesbian society pragmatically reveals that the division from men of which women have been the object is a political one and shows that we have been ideologically rebuilt into a "natural group." In the case of women, ideology goes far since our bodies as well as our minds are the product of this manipulation. We have been compelled in our bodies and in our minds to correspond, feature by feature, with the idea of nature that has been established for us. Distorted to such an extent that our deformed body is what they call "natural," what is supposed to exist as such before oppression. Distorted to such an extent that in the end oppression seems to be a consequence of this "nature" within ourselves (a nature which is only an idea). (9-10)

A materialist feminist approach shows that what we take for the cause or origin of oppression is in fact only the mark imposed by the oppressor: the "myth of woman," plus its material effects and manifestations in the appropriated consciousness and bodies of women. Thus, the mark does not predate oppression: Colette Guillaumin has shown that before the socioeconomic reality of black slavery, the concept of race did not exist, at least not in its modern meaning, since it was applied to the lineage of families. However, now, race, exactly like sex, is taken as an "immediate given," a "sensible given," "physical features" belonging to a natural order. But what we believe to be a physical and direct perception is only a sophisticated and mythic construction, an "imaginary formation," which reinterprets physical features (in themselves as neutral as any others but marked by the social system) through the network of relationships in which they are perceived. (They are seen as black, therefore they are black; they are seen as women, therefore they are women. But before being seen that way, they first had to made that way.) (10-11)

It is we who historically must undertake the task of defining the individual subject in materialist terms. This certainly seems to be an impossibility since materialism and subjectivity have always been mutually exclusive. nevertheless, and rather than despairing of ever understanding, we must recognize the need to reach subjectivity in the abandonment by many of us of the myth "woman" (the myth of woman being only a snare that holds us up). This real necessity for everyone to exist as an individual, as well as member of a class, is perhaps the first condition for the accomplishment of a revolution, without which there can be no real fight or transformation. But the opposite is also true; without class and class consciousness there are no real subjects, only alienated individuals. For women to answer the question of the individual subject in materialist terms is first to show, as the lesbians and feminists did, that supposedly "subjective," "individual," "private" problems are in fact social problems, class problems; that sexuality is not for women an individual and subjective expression, but a social institution of violence. But once we have shown that all so-called personal problems are in fact class problems, we will still be left with the question of the subject of each singular woman--not the myth, but each one of us. At this point, let us say that a new personal and subjective definition for all humankind can only be found beyond the categories of sex (woman and man) and that the advent of individual subject demands first destroying the categories of sex, ending the use of them, and rejecting all sciences which still use these categories as their fundamentals (practically all social sciences).

To destroy "woman" does not mean that we aim, short of physical destruction, to destroy lesbianism simultaneously with the categories of sex, because lesbianism provides for the moment the only social form in which we an live freely. Lesbian is the only concept I know of which is beyond the categories of sex (woman and man), because the designated subject (lesbian) is not a woman, either economically, or politically, or ideologically. For what makes a woman is a specific social relation to a man, a relation that we have previously called servitude, a relation which implies personal and physical obligation as well as economic obligation ("forced residence," domestic corvée, conjugal duties, unlimited production of children, etc.), a relation which lesbians escape by refusing to become to to stay heterosexual. We are escapees from our class in the same way as the American runaway slaves were when escaping slavery and becoming free. For us this is an absolute necessity; our survival demands that we contribute all our strength to the destruction of the class of women within which men appropriate women. This can be accomplished only by the destruction of heterosexuality as a social system which is based on the oppression of women by men and which produces the doctrine of the difference between the sexes to justify this oppression. (19-20)

Marianne De Koven

from "Gertrude Stein and Modern Painting: Beyond Literary Criticism." Critical Essays on Gertrude Stein, ed. Michael J. Hoffman. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co, 1986. 171-182.

To clarify this notion of incoherence, we might look at Noam Chomsky's idea of "degrees of grammaticalness." Chomsky establishes three "degrees of grammaticalness" by differentiating among utterances which are strictly or conventionally grammatical (first degree), "semi-grammatical" (second degree), and totally ungrammatical (third degree). Chomsky's explanation of his distinctions is relevant to the argument here: "In short, it seems to e no more justifiable to ignore the distinctions of subcategory that give the series "John plays golf," "golf plays John," "John plays and," than to ignore the rather similar distinctions between seeing a man in the flesh, in an abstract painting, and in an inkblot" (p. 385).

Chomsky makes his most powerful case for these degrees of grammaticalness by listing examples.:

First Degree: a year ago; perform the task; John plays golf; revolutionary new ideas appear infrequently; John loves company; sincerity frightens John; what did you do to the book, bite it?

Second Degree: a grief ago; perform leisure; golf plays John; colorless green ideas sleep furiously; misery loves company; John frightens sincerity; what did you do to the book, understand it?

Third Degree: a the ago; perform compel; golf plays aggressive; furiously sleep ideas green colorless; abundant loves company; John sincerity frightens; what did you do to the book, justice it? (p. 386)

Phrases of the second degree such as "a grief ago," "colorless green ideas," and "John frightens sincerity" are strikingly similar to Stein's successful experimental writing, particularly in the 1911-1914 style of Tender Buttons,  "Susie Asado," "Preciosilla," and "Portrait of Mabel Dodge at the Villa Curonia." Moreover, phrases of the third degree such as "a the ago," "perform compel," and "golf plays aggressive" are very similar to the unsuccessful writing that resulted from Stein's experiments in the late twenties and early thirties with unrelated successions of single words (see particularly How to Write). As Chomsky shows, the difference between the second and third degrees is precisely their relative accessibility... (73)

Rachel Blau DuPlessis on Susan Howe

From "'Whowe': On Susan Howe." The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice. New York & London: Routledge, 1990.  123-139. Reprinted at The Electronic Poetry Center.  http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/authors/howe/howe_duplessis.html  

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, 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 0

(SHDL, p. 32)   (DuPlessis 123-124)

An important, underutilized essay of Gertrude Stein argues implicitly that experimentalist writing occurs in opposition to "forensics," and in temptation by it. The mastery and the power. (7) That loaded word is also the title of her essay; it alludes to discourses of dominance. Forensics (defined conventionally as public argumentation, formal debate, presentations of law courts) is understood as the dialect, ideolect, or rhetorical mode of a specific group which holds and practices power ("they made all walk"), social replication ("forensics is a taught paragraph") and definition. For Stein, forensics is a system of normative definition, which, in the imposition of authoritative norms, trains one to patterns of assumptions (including those of gender). "Forensics establishes which is that they will rather than linger and so they establish" (p. 391). The writer of "Forensics," the she seems to be debating the value, if any, of forensics to her—forensics as disputation, as power, as definition, as "eloquence and reduction" (p. 386). Among other functions, this essay, therefore, is a debate between authority and the anti-authoritarian. (8) It is clear enough that complicity, obedience, agreement, and renunciation of one's own bent are part of the system of forensics. The question is "how to write" (to borrow the title of the whole book which this essay completes) when the writing space is colonized by forensics. How to gather authority without authoritarian power; how to indicate clarities without the limitation of certainties; how to give and receive pleasure without rhetorical or generic proscriptions; how to indicate one's volume without squatting hibernations of mass. How to Write. This, Gertrude Stein indicates, is her problem; this, Virginia Woolf indicates, is her problem; this, Marianne Moore indicates, is her problem; this, Susan Howe indicates, is her problem. (DuPlessis 133)

"Whowe." Sometimes the characters seem to be whole, but their integrated knowledge, unstable, alternates with explosive silences, blackouts staged by Howe. They panic. They are self-possessed. The dangerous dialectic of claiming made from mad/e is a brilliant dramatic and intellectually compelling site in this work. "Surely [says Beverly Dahlen] she cannot simply enter the tradition, identifying with it as if she were male; she is, I think, in grave risk to do so. But what other identity is there? Surely, to ask that is to bring us to the heart of the matter: woman as absence and the consequent risks involved in the invention of our own traditions." (15) A female writer. A female writer faced with a complex (the tradition) more often inimical than welcoming, and filled to brim, with multiplex inscriptions of women and the female and the feminine. A female writer looking for a way to write. How, indeed, to write. Whowe to write. The path Howe chooses here, this examination of a fictional character, and a semi-fictionally available historically attested person, bridges a way to the definition of "our own traditions" to treat the palimpsested absence, filling it with our (with whower) annotations and firm marks. Yet they are already filled with what they establish; filled with taught paragraphs. Who we? Who? How? Who howe (who is any of us) to attempt this? And whooo-wee— the cheer, the whoop, the enormous, outrageous pleasure, the pride, of making this attempt. The pride in Howe occurs not so much in overt exclamations of joy, but in gestures towards election.

Left upon the stage at the end are versions of a community of seekers, versions of the whowe: a sojourner, a lonely bastard, and a fool. It is this kind of combination of marginals, fused into one, who becomes the center of Articulation of Sound Forms in Time. For that work can be read as an allegory of how the center, how major man—white, colonist, Protestant, male, minister, armed with God's word and courage and rectitude—how that man, entering almost accidentally some marginal space, goes from the straight and narrow to sheer errancy, sheer wanderings. Mr. Hope Atherton, militant new American, wanders on the margins of the colony at which he was a center. His oblique vision and experience of the Other ("Indian") and himself as Other is forever defining. Following from Howe's study of the margins as marginal (in The Liberties), Articulation of Sound Forms in Time offers a vision of the center as marginal, marginalized, prone to a hopeless— yet potentially saving—breakup of its most cherished paradigms.

The deepest effect of this experience of otherness is the dissolution of language. This work again fervently enacts Howe's language strategies. The isolation of letter. Of syllable. Phrasal constructions. Word squares mingling Native American words and word parts with phonemes from "our" language ("amonoosuck" and "ythian"), these macronics making an "uncannunc" set of nonce formations [ASFT, [p. 16]). Words are situational, meteoric, unrepeatable, impacting the whole history of language in one gesture. There is word "play"—the pun as the intersection of personal revelation (condensation, distortion) and linguistic possibility. And all these (words as if graffiti puns, macronics, words scattered like a handful of jacks) (words effaced; words without space, as in Roman inscriptions) the critical appropriation of all burlesque or archaic language habits for high critical ends. The taxing struggle to assemble and maintain a self-questioning (who? how?) cultural position: anti-authoritarian, yet authoritatively provoked by one's female identity: Howe. We. WHOWE.

I have taken my pun on Howe's name from herself, to point up the rich sense of self and of community (who we?) that must be sustained to sustain this kind of feminist critique. (16) The end of The Liberties set a proof to herself. It consists of a series of word squares alternating S and C (for Stella and Cordelia, but also to herself: Susan, SEE!), followed by a series of riddles whose answer becomes How: a question, a salutation, a hold, a hole, a depression. Offering thereby an astonishing self-portrait of an artist, a woman, trying to inherit herself, to work herself into her own—"patrimony"? "anarchy"? No, into her own "liberty."

Taking liberties.

Hence a work of "howness: both concavity and depth" from a "howdie: a midwife, origin obscure" who gave it life from the concavity and the depth at once. "Across the Atlantic, I / inherit myself." During the masque at the very end, a Sentry comes on stage to say "I am afraid," as who would not be, having written, seen, undertaken, dared and proposed such a work. A work which pursues Shakespeare (the drama like a mix of heath scene and Beckett), Swift, Yeats, and must do so, a compulsion (deference deranged, damaged, exploded by feminist questions, by whowe) undertaken in fear and desire ("dare / / tangle"). To take such liberties. To take them at their word. To take their word. How to write. Whowe to write.


(DuPlessis 137-139)

15. Beverly Dahlen. "[Response to Rasula]," HOW(ever)  1,4 (May 1984): 14 The '"she" is not Howe but contains a generalized portrait of the struggle of the female cultural worker. Return

Rachel Back

from Led by Language: The Poetry and Poetics of Susan Howe. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002.

From the Introduction: On the ‘Difficulty’ of Howe’s Poetry

The difficulty of the poetry of avant garde American poet Susan Howe and the demands it makes of its readers has led more than one critic to question the purpose of these language intricacies/conundrums, and of the (seemingly willful) concealment of meaning behind radical linguistic and visual experimentation, labeling her techniques "arch" or "elitist." Asked her opinion regarding the objection to experimental writing such as hers on the grounds that it reaches only "a very narrow, highly educated" audience composed of readers who have to have "tremendous intellectual confidence even to grapple with these texts," Howe names this objection a manifestation of "a really frightening anti-intellectualism in our culture." She continues: "Why should things please a large audience? And isn't claiming that the work is too intellectually demanding also saying a majority of people are stupid? Different poets will have different audiences Howe ends this exchange by emphasizing that what has been termed the difficulty of her work is not a chosen attribute but rather where she is led by language, where the process of poetry writing takes her (Keller 1995: 23 24). In an earlier interview, Howe's response to the charge that her poetry is "inaccessible" is that "it's accessible to whoever really wants access to it" (Falon 1989: 4 1), rerouting attention from the difficulty of her work to the reader and his or her efforts and desires vis à vis her work. (4-5)

The insistence on multiple possibilities intrinsic to Howe's work does not translate into a poetic field open to random and wholly individual associations on the part of the reader. In terms borrowed from psychoanalytic literary criticism, Howe's work, "like the analytic patient, provides the terms of its interpretation and the reader has to learn to wrestle with this idiom rather than replace it with prepacked theories"; indeed, the reader must cultivate “the art of listening [in place of] the seizure of meaning" (Hellmann 1994: 10-11 my italics)." The linguistic and visual choices that Howe makes are not arbitrary, just as their meaning(s) is not open ended: her poetry is propelled by an inner logic that is determined, first and foremost, by sound associations, and then by the visual form of the unfolding text, its emotional dynamic and thematic concerns. The sometimes elusive and elliptical nature Howe's work may also be read as resulting from its poetic and political     commitment to sustaining and incorporating "rival possibilities" (Perloff 1981: 137), from its attention to and emphasis on language as itself dynamic, volatile, and protean, and from the very real difficulty -- experienced in the texts by writer and reader both of tracking (forgotten voices, lost footsteps) through overgrown and obliterating literary and historical landscapes.

The difficulty of Howe's poetry is also intricately connected to her vision of the role of the reader in the writer reader complex. "Reader I do not wish to hide / in you to hide from you," states Howe in The Nonconformist's Memorial (30), and in her most recent collection Pierce Arrow she writes: "Please indifferent reader you / into whose hands this book / may fall" (119), leaving the appeal open ended. These addresses to the reader foreground the centrality of the reader in the making of meaning -  a centrality of which Howe is not only aware but also wholly embraces. Rather than a poetry of elitism, as some have maintained, I read Howe's work as a type of democratization of poetry, with the reader a full citizen of the textual terrain, with equal rights and obligations in the making of meaning. In fact, rather than intending to block entry and leave the reader without, Howe's work is at all times engaged in bringing the reader more deeply into the text, toward effectuating greater participation on the part of the reader in the process of making meaning from a poetic text. "I wouldn't want the reader to be just a passive consumer," states Howe in the Keller interview. "I would want my readers to play, to enter the mystery of language, and to follow words where they lead, to let language lead them" (1995: 3 1). Howe's imagery here suggests that the reader's role is a paradoxical one that involves both active engagement ("To follow words where they lead") and a type of surrender ("to let language lead them"); what unifies these two positions is their close and intimate relationship with the text. (5-6)

Howe's radical linguistic and visual strategies invite the reader to employ a "reading" process that is multifaceted and more varied than what is conventionally thought of as reading functions. The reader, first of all, listens to words and their musical patterns, which may, in fact, have no ready translation or interpretation. The reader then looks at the page's design, as one would I look at a painting, foregoing – momentarily -  entanglement in the semantic level of a word in order to consider its visual features, its placement, and its function on the white canvas. Thirdly, the reader sometimes becomes tactually engaged with the physicality of the book  - turning it upside down and around -  as the conventions of top-to-bottom or left margin to right margin line arrangements are abandoned, replaced by the sense of the page as a three dimensional entity whose depth has yet to be understood and of words as semiphysical (mythical) creatures liberated from the stagnancy and strictures of standard poetic usage. Finally, the reader engages the semantics and the narrative(s) (often in nonnarrative form) of the work, though always with  the recognition that interpretive opportunities are multiple… (7)

From the Introduction: Howe’s Historical Project

Howe's poetic recuperation "from the dark side of history. .. [of] voices that are anonymous, slighted inarticulate" (Europe of Trusts 14) differs from that of many other mainstream contemporary poets committed to giving voice to the silenced. A formal distinction of great import is that in Howe's poetry -  like that of other avant garde writers -  the investigation into history's erased figures and the resulting critique of contemporary culture "takes places as and in language," through "various transgressions of form" (Naylor 1999: 9 11). Avant garde writer Nathaniel Mackey's incisive critique of other marginalized writers who place "far too much emphasis on accessibility" is relevant here (qtd. in Naylor 1999: 13). Like Mackey, Howe refuses to simplify the complex issues involved in history's silencing tactics or to obliterate or undervalue the great effort of retrieving lost voices. Thus, Howe's poetry  - dense, difficult, resistant to easy penetration  - formally enacts the arduous process of tracking back through thick and overgrown landscapes in search of history's missing. In addition, the radical language experiments of Howe's work present "a formal as well as thematic challenge to the structure of authority under which history has been written" (Naylor 1999: 14).

A second factor that sets Howe's revisionist historiography apart – this time from other avant garde writers engaged in historical retellings  - is … the highly autobiographical nature of her work. The charting of her own childhood and, ancestral geographies, the uncovering of the points of convergence between biography and history, and the frank foregrounding of the intensely personal are foundational to Howe's poetry and poetics. The uncovering of each historical tale is propelled also by the wholly individual and idiosyncratic historical details of the poet's own life… And yet, Howe's poetry is fundamentally different from the personally charged work of mainstream contemporary poets whose lyric "I" dominates the poems' focus, obliterating all else. The speaking voice in Howe's work -- particular, personal, self revealing -  is not authoritative or unified: as Parrott frames it, the perspective "is always shifting and ... the subject, far from being at the center of the discourse ... is located at its interstices" (1999: 432 2).

Finally, history as Howe reads and renders it is often characterized by scenes of violence, portrayed through visual and aural violence on the page: battles, beheadings, scalpings, banishment, abandonment to starvation, cold,     and madness, crucifixions, and conquering forces are all abundantly present in her poetry. The violence, of course, is perpetrated in the justifying name of a god, a ruling ideology, or a religious framework, and Howe's poetry is committed not only to uncovering lost voices and tales but also, through     those lost voices and tales, to investigating the roots of that violence in her society.  Behind the most decorous and civil facades, she argues, lies "an in for murder, erasure and authoritarianism" (Talisman 1994:64). Howe's poetics     of historical revision is propelled by a desire and a need to know “Why are we such a violent nation? Why do we have such contempt for powerlessness? I feel compelled in my work to go back, not to the Hittites, but to the invasion or settling ... of this place. I am trying to understand what went wrong” (Talisman 1994: 55) (13)

From the Introduction: Howe and Her Contemporaries

The violence that permeates Howe's work may be read as a consequence of the specific historical consciousness formed, in part, by her being born into the destruction and chaos of World War II and coming into first cognition with pictures of the Holocaust and the war's devastation imprinting violence on her mind and in her heart . Similarly, her father's sudden disappearance in 1941 into that war and his five year absence (in addition to her mother's consequent going off to work at that time [Falon 1989: 31]) certainly established radical instability, the insecurity of structures, and the ever-present threat of loss as constitutive elements in Howe's emotional and, hence, poetic identity. I begin this brief consideration of Howe's position among her contemporaries in experimental American writing with this biographical information as it is, in part, Howe’s year of birth and her resulting preoccupation with issues of history and violence that set her apart from many of the language-centered poets with whom she has traditionally been grouped. (13-14)