ENGLISH 685:002 / SUSAN TICHY / FALL 2005
WEEK 10: NOV 3: WORLD WAR II & POSTMODERNISM: SUSAN HOWE
Susan Howe: from The Europe of Trusts:
There Are Not Leaves Enough to Crown to Cover to Crown, pp. 9-14Notes from Rachel Back's Led By Language
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 (Kellr 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" (Perloff1981: 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)
From "Brushing History Against the Grain: A Reading of The Liberties and Pythagorean Silence"
According to traditional practice, the spoils [of history] are carried along in [a] procession. They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist views them with curious detachment. For without exception the cultural treasures have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it is transmitted ... A historical materialist therefore I dissociates himself from it as far as possible. He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.
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.In the spring of 1940, in the space of three months, the armies of Nazi Germany invaded and occupied Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Luxumburg, and France. The German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin, then a refugee in Paris, was completing in this period what was to be his final work -- "Theses on the Philosophy of History" an essay on the misperceptions and I deceptions of traditional historicism and the illuminations and (partial) human redemption possible through a historical materialist approach to the past and the present. The historical materialist, argues Benjamin, means to provide a past "citable in all its moments," without distinction between minor or major events, wresting from the "oppressors" their monopoly on the telling of the tale (Benjamin 1968: 2S4).The essay it itself wanders around its theme(s), approaching it from different and seemingly random avenues the figure of the aimless city stroller, the flaneur to whom Benjamin is so often compared. indeed, "[t]he title of Benjamin's last work," argues Roll Tiedemann, "promises a discussion of the concept of history." However, Tiedemann continues, "[l]ittle could be more characteristic of the author and less typical of the time ... than the fact that there is no discursive explication at the center of the text but an image instead. History itself seems to do away with philosophy's old conceptual games, and transform concept into images which spoil the promises offered by logic: identity and the absence of contradiction" (1989: 176). Not only is there no "discursive explication" at the center of Benjamin's essay, but there seems to be no identifiable center to the text at all, as the essay is composed of twenty separate sections., each its own entity, proffering diverse images, quoting from different sources,, and approaching the theme of history from changing vantage points. This is not to imply that Benjamin does not have a coherent and comprehensive idea as to how history must now be read, recorded, and transmitted, or that this idea is not, finally, conveyed through the "piling up" of the range of images, voices, and commentaries of the complete work. However, the style of this essay - juxtaposing separate units with seemingly disparate approaches to the theme (or themes) at hand - insists that just as history must be read as the jagged discontinuum it has always been, so must the individual's intellectual and artistic activities emanate from and reflect that discontinuum.
In this chapter I intend to offer an analysis of two of Howe's most significant European works: The Liberties (1980) and Pythagorean Silence (1982).Why then open this analysis with the ideas and words of Walter Benjamin? The reasons are multiple and extend from questions of content, style and particular motifs utilized by both Benjamin and Howe, to the two writers' individual positionings in time and place - which produce, I believe, analagous "historical consciousness" (Europe of Trusts 13). The passionate interest in history, the insistence that the past must be read and written differently, must be "brush[ed] against the grain"-- the understanding of one's world through its figurative and literal topography, and the refusal to conform to I genre limits and genre norms are a few of the traits shared by Benjamin and Howe. In an interview with Lynn Keller, Howe maintains that some of Benjamin's essays should actually be called poems, naming also his "interest in very short essays, his interest in the fragment, the material object, and the entrance of the messianic into the material object" as significant to her own work (1995: 29). As a European forefather, one who is preoccupied with history and is also profoundly affected by World War II – as Howe herself was – Benjamin serves a s useful entry point into the historically contextualized rewritings of The Liberties and the historically contextualized self-explorations of Pythagorean Silence. These works European identity… is foregrounded by Howe’s return to first and primal places, as represented by her mother’s Ireland, the early myths and fairy tales of her own disrupted childhood, and the enduring absence of a father pulled away by history. (59-61)
If one asks, writes Benjamin in the seventh section of "Theses on the Philosophy of History," "with whom the adherents of historicism actually empathize …[t]he answer is inevitable: with the victor. And all the rulers are the heirs of those who conquered before them" (25 6). He continues: "Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if [the victor] wins” (255). Developing ideas first articulated by Marx and Engels in The German Ideology, Benjamin sees the victor as the dominant class whose interests are consistently served and upheld by society's economic structure. Because economic structure is the foundation of society, and because it is structured to secure the needs of the ruling class, the present and future are held hostage to the past as victor begets victor and change seems impossible. Utilizing a formulation strikingly similar to Benjamin's, Howe writes in her prose introduction to The Europe of Trusts that "[h]istory is the record of winners. Documents were written by the Masters" (11). For Howe, too, the question is who is forgotten in historical documentation; however, Howe's focus is more often - though not exclusively - on issues of gender rather than class. "Masters” signals here first the privileges of maleness and only then the privileges of a higher economic status. (61)
The sixth century B.C. philosopher Pythagoras is noted as having observed that "he who is called the wisest of all (i.e., Hermes) ... was the inventor of names" (Fideler 1987:69). While Pythagoras avoids wholly committing him to this conclusion by utilizing the more evasive passive form in his recorded observation, his own attention to the importance of names is evident in his being the first to describe himself as a "lover of wisdom" (philosopher) in place of "wise man," the traditional and accepted Greek epithet for scholars. Pythagoras's use of the term philosopher not only insists upon the greatest accuracy possible in the naming of persons and things but also passionately embraces the unending process of acquiring wisdom (Fideler 1987). Indeed, the embracing of process and the rejection of stasis are apparent in Pythagoras's approach to language as well as to knowledge, two realms inextricably linked - as indicated by Pythagoras's insistence on the exclusively oral transmission of his teachings (Heninger 1974: 23). This refusal to engrave his thoughts and theories in the proverbial stone seems designed to ensure that the process of negotiating his philosophies not be halted by the (illusory) authority of a written text with its seeming evocation of the author's voice, that any attempt at mastery through language be frustrated and foiled at the outset. As he and his disciples left no writings behind, Pythagoras’s teachings, as mediated and transmitted by others, revolve around a core absence that transforms the texts of his teachings into an ever changing context.
Pythagorean philosophy maintains that there exists not only order but "a dimension of meaning" in the cosmos (Fideler 1987: 67), and that that must go in search of this meaning. Language in general, and the tension between speech and silence in particular, inform this ongoing search for meaning, as partially indicated by the five year vow of silence that was demanded of disciples in the Pythagorean School. Susan Howe’s three-part poem entitled Pythagorean Silence considers this “[l]ong Pythagorean lustrum” and situates itself along this same fault line between speech and silence, between language and loss; in fact, Pythagorean Silence perches precariously on this fault line that is the language of loss. Hose negotiates this perilous place in her own search for meaning, what she terms “[t]he stress of meaning” – referring to both the crucial importance of finding meaning in the world and the inordinate difficulty and emotionally and mentally disquieting impact of the search. Denoting also the phonetic emphasis placed on a sound or syllable, the word stress evokes the central role that language plays in the search – particularly for the poet who understands herself and is understood through this medium; particularly in this postmodern quest narrative wherein the nature of language itself is uncertain. Across the two planes of childhood and cultural perspectives where identity and meaning may be sought, the poem carries its speaker and its reader, speaking around – and within – an ever-encroaching silence. (106-107)
From: "Poetry and Politics: A Conversation with George and Mary Oppen." George Oppen: Man and Poet, ed. Burton Hatlen. Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine, 1981. pp. 23-50.
[This excerpt begins more than 10 pages into the interview with George Oppen and his wife Mary, conducted in 1980 when the poet was 72.]
BH: I'm curious about your sense of syntax. In many of your poems you seem to be engaged in a deliberate disruption of syntax, breaking sentences down into detached phrases or even isolated words. I wonder how conscious you are of syntax in your poetry. Are these disruptions of syntax the result of a consciously thought-out set of poetic principles?
[Burton Hatlen then explains that when he gives an Oppen poem to his students they aren't particularly bothered by the fragmentation--]
TM--In a funny way people of their generation have the advantage and the disadvantage of never knowing any grammar or syntax... they have no expectations because they have no...
Rachel DuPlessis: "Objectivist Poetics and Political Vision:
A Study of Oppen and Pound," George Oppen: Man and Poet. Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation,
of Maine, 1981. pp. 123-148.
Oppen was an important mentor to DuPlessis, a member of the
"Vietnam generation," corresponding with her for years on matters of
art and politics. Those who have not read Pound's Cantos may be
mystified by a few of her references, but don't mind that: these
selections address Oppen's syntax and method of constructing meaning at
that level, as well as the various ways this method operates on a
social or political plane.