In Poetry On & Off the Page (1998), Marjorie Perloff argues
that the era of free verse may be drawing to a close. She examines
recent work by a number of avant-garde poets--among them Caroline
Bergvall, Karen Mac Cormack, Susan Howe, Maggie O'Sullivan, Joan
Retallack, and Rosmarie Waldrop--and concludes that, whereas classic free
verse depends on lineation to distinguish itself from prose, today's
"postlinear" poetry considers "the line" to be "a boundary, a confining
border, a form of packaging" (157). This new species of verse freely
violates longstanding literary conventions governing such aspects of page
design as white space, punctuation, capitalization, font type, font size,
margins, word spacing, and word placement. These experiments typically
result in unusual "visual constructs" that impede, deflect, and otherwise
coax readers' eyes out of their habitual, left-to-right, top-to-bottom
progress through a text (160). The predictable "flow" of the old free
verse line thereby gives way to a "multi-dimensional" field of unexpected
movements, arrests, connections, and disjunctions (160-63).
Perloff hesitates over how to define this emergent poetic sensibility.
"I have no name for this new form," she confesses. The "new exploratory
poetry [...] does not want to be labelized or categorized" (166). The
individual works that Perloff examines vary so greatly in page
layout--some resembling shaped prose, some Futurist words-in-freedom,
some advertising copy--that it would be hard indeed to find shared
identifying traits such as the left-justified and right-ragged margins
that typify most twentieth-century free verse.
This formal diversity signals more than the breakdown of the old
paradigm for verse-writing. Postlinear poets have begun inquiring into
what W.J.T. Mitchell calls the "image-text," that is, the "whole ensemble
of relations" between the visual and verbal (89). Moreover, as Mitchell
alerts us, the "study of image-text relations" is far from a
straightforward endeavor. Rarely do "image" and "text" work together in
perfectly coordinated fashion. On the contrary, "difference is just as
important as similarity, antagonism as crucial as collaboration, dissonance
and division of labor as interesting as harmony and blending of function"
(89-90). Postlinear poets revel in this ambiguity. They have recast
their writing as a "composite art" that hybridizes "sensory and cognitive
modes" while also "deconstructing the possibility of a pure image or pure
If some poets have thereby discovered liberating possibilities
for self-expression, literary critics, in contrast, have been presented
with a new challenge. Postlinear poetry presents in miniature a dilemma
that Mitchell considers inherent to the problem of "the image-text." He
argues that there is no "metalanguage" available or possible that could
enable critics to speak confidently, synoptically, and transhistorically
about the interface between the verbal and the visual (83). Almost every
artistic exploration of that interzone proceeds differently toward
noncoincident ends. In response, critics have had to insist on
"literalness and materiality" in their analyses instead of resorting to
too-abstract or falsely generalizing statements (90). They have had to
"approach language as a medium rather than a system, a heterogeneous
field of discursive modes requiring pragmatic, dialectical description
rather than a univocally coded scheme open to scientific description"
Developing a satisfactory account of postlinear poetics will
almost certainly require a series of disparate but complementary forays
into the concrete writerly practices of particular, relevant authors. As
Mitchell warns us, induction and deduction would misconstrue the
phenomenon, insofar as they seek to replace the messiness of individual
cases with the cleanliness of "scientific description." Only by amassing
enough specifics, in all their idiosyncrasy and waywardness, will we gain
a sufficiently detailed, trustworthy mapping of contemporary poetic
involvement in "the image-text."
This scholarly task is complicated by the fact that many poets
embarked on their postlinear experiments within the context of ambitious
pre-existing projects. Most of the poets that Perloff identifies as
postlinear have careers that stretch over decades, and several are also
known for their work in other media and genres (Bergvall as a performance
artist, O'Sullivan as a visual artist, Waldrop as a novelist). In each
case, we may discover that there is a prodigious amount of prehistory and
background to establish before one can speak meaningfully about a poet's
This article seeks to demonstrate both the rewards and drawbacks
of the quest for an adequate understanding of the emergent postlinear
poetries. It concentrates on explaining the origins, functions, and value
of a single visual device--the "word square"--in Susan Howe's poetry.
Though this might seem a narrowly focused topic, it quickly
ramifies. One has to examine not only Howe's verse but also her early
work as an installation artist, her debts to the painters Ad Reinhardt
and Agnes Martin, her apprenticeship to the Scottish writer Ian Hamilton
Finlay, her qualified faith in the divine, and her recurrent fascination
with the ocean. Howe's visual experiments only attain their fullest
significance when read against the backdrop of her career in its
entirety. Perloff has warned that the end of free verse means
we can no longer rely on the tried-and-true vocabulary of line breaks,
stanzas, and enjambment to orient ourselves when analyzing verse; we will
have to master "other principles" that await names, let alone workable
definitions (Poetry On & Off the Page 166). The quest to
understand Susan Howe's word squares reveals just how arduous the road to
such mastery will be.
I. Introducing Word Squares
Susan Howe first came to prominence as a writer affiliated with
Language Poetry, an avant-garde literary movement that originated in New
York, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Washington, D.C., in the 1970s. In the 1980s, her literary-critical
study My Emily Dickinson and her long poems
Defenestration of Prague, Pythagorean Silence,
The Liberties, and Articulation of Sound Forms in
Time attracted such academic partisans as Jerome McGann, Linda
Reinfeld, and Marjorie Perloff. In the 1990s, further publications
such as The Nonconformist's Memorial, Pierce-Arrow,
and The Birth-mark solidified her fame as one of the most
original, erudite, and challenging of postmodern U.S. poets. The secondary
literature on her writing is growing quickly--a search of the MLA
Bibliography turns up more than forty articles--and the first
monograph on Howe, Rachel Tzvia Back's Led by Language,
appeared in 2002.
Since the 1970s, Howe has been known for her bold experiments
with the look of her poetry. Unlike such other postlinear poets as Bob Cobbing and
Steve McCaffery, however, Howe has not invented new forms with almost every new volume. Instead,
she has tended to repeat, with variations and refinements, a small set of
characteristic layouts. Hannelore Möckel-Rieke has identified four
principle page designs: (1) "more or less compromised regions of text"
with assorted indentations and outtakes; (2) a form resembling that of
ballads, often consisting of two-line stanzas; (3) a radicalized,
"exploded" style with obliquely positioned, intersecting fragments of
text; and (4) sections consisting of words, partial words, nonce words,
numbers, punctuation marks and/or letters arranged into more-or-less
rectangular shapes (291).
Of these four kinds of layout, the fourth one has proved the
most baffling. The other three are either conventional enough to escape
comment (as with the second) or reassuringly similar to modernist precursors. Howe's "more or less compromised regions of text,"
for instance, recall such Joycean episodes as the Aeolus chapter in
Ulysses and the night lessons chapter in Finnegans
Wake. These passages generally emphasize the author's role as a
redactor and manipulator of material originally written by others. And the "exploded" pages occur at the
points of maximum violence in Howe's work, such as the execution of King
Charles I in A Bibliography of the King's Book or, Eikon
Basilike (EB 56-57). These episodes hark back to F.T. Marinetti's wild
typographical intimations of the clash and noise of modern warfare.
In contrast, Howe's ragged arrays of words, part words, and
symbols--which, following Rachel Blau DuPlessis, I will be calling "word
squares" (138)--have few or no obvious literary precedents. One cannot rely on intertextuality or
allusion to explain their meaning. Yet they recur mysteriously from poem
to poem (see, for example, Figures 1-3).
Moreover, they always appear at charged junctures, when the writing
confronts the limits of cognition and representation. Examining a
particularly striking instance in its original context will demonstrate
the enigmatic centrality of this technique in Howe's work.
1: Word Square.
Susan Howe, The Liberties (204).
2: Word Square.
Susan Howe, "Heliopathy" (42).
3: Word Square.
Susan Howe, Secret History of the Dividing
Howe's celebrated long poem Articulation of Sound Forms in Time
opens with a section titled "The Falls Fight," a detailed, three-page
report of a historical event: a 1676 raid into Indian territory that
ends in a rout. Hope Atherton, a
Protestant minister, is separated from his fellow raiders and spends an
unspecified period of time wandering in the wilderness before returning to
colonial lands and his congregation. He dies soon afterwards. Despite
the general lucidity of "The Falls Fight," on occasion Howe breaks into a
more stumbling, repetitive, and speculative mode: "Putative author,
premodern condition, presently present what future clamors for release?"
The poem's second section, "Hope Atherton's Wanderings," accelerates the
breakdown of conventional discourse. The section's strangely sedimented,
misleading half-statements tend to confirm, rather than disprove, the
charge of "being beside himself" that supposedly "occasioned" Atherton's
written tale (5). Amidst this confusion, we discover several of Howe's
disorienting word squares:
chaotic architect repudiate line Q confine lie link realm
circle a euclidean curtail theme theme toll function coda
severity whey crayon so distant grain scalp gnat carol
omen Cur cornice zed primitive shad sac stone fur bray
tub epoch too fum alter rude recess emblem sixty key (13)
Howe the "chaotic architect" presents us word-rubble so pulverized
that if it operates as an "omen" or an "emblem" its significance is
deeply obscured. She gives us language so stripped down, so denuded of
syntax that a reader could essay it in any direction--horizontally,
vertically, diagonally, or at random--without finding a path capable of
arranging the word-nuggets into a coherent picture or narrative. The
word-sequence "severity, whey, crayon," for instance, makes as much (or
as little) logical sense as "severity, omen, tub." One cannot, though,
dismiss Howe's word-array as arbitrary. She has limited her choices of
words to a few isolable categories. One can discern traces of the
Classical world: its mathematics ("circle a euclidean," "line Q"),
architecture ("cornice"), and language ("Cur" means "why" in Latin).
Another set of words impressionistically sketches a rural scene ("whey,"
"grain," "gnat," "shad," "fur," "bray," "tub"), a further set suggests
stern value judgments ("repudiate," "severity," "primitive," "rude"), and
yet another set enjoins particular kinds of artistic expression ("confine
lie," "curtail theme," "toll function," "crayon so distant grain").
Moreover, a scheme, however perverse, evidently dictates the placement of
these words: individual clusters possess strong consonance ("line, lie,
link") or assonance ("scalp, gnat, carol"); one can detect a numerical
ordering principle (the first three lines each contain nine elements, the
last two lines ten); and the passage ends on something of a slant rhyme
("key" recalling "bray"). Nonetheless, these lineaments of order do not
reduce but heighten the strangeness of the passage, since they provide
little purchase for a reader intent upon deciphering it.
Critics have, nonetheless, persevered, striving to discover some
manner of commentary on Atherton's plight encrypted in the word
squares. They have tried to pin down
these "most open apparitions":
is notion most open apparition past Halo view border redden
possess remote so abstract life are lost spatio-temporal hum
Maoris empirical Kantian a little lesson concatenation up
tree fifty shower see step shot Immanence force to Mohegan (14)
If we imagine the word squares to be text "by," "about," or "from the
point of view" of Atherton, the collapse of syntax inevitably leaves a
reader with a multitude of questions. Fifty what? Trees,
troops, or Indians? How does one "shoot Immanence"? With a camera?
There are also perplexing anachronisms. Immanuel Kant was born five
decades after the events that Howe recounts, and the Maori people were
unknown to Europeans until after James Cook visited New Zealand in 1769.
A persistent reader, though, can find residual traces of
Atherton's story. Howe provides the barest sketches of the
"spatio-temporal" coordinates within which historical narratives such as
the clergyman's typically unfold. We have hints of a landscape ("tree,"
"remote") and perhaps a time of day ("view border redden"--sunset?
dawn?). She gives us monosyllabic, vector-like indications of movement
("up," "step"). She indicates, too, the means by which those who have
been "lost" try to find their bearings in new, foreign surroundings: by
quantification ("fifty"), by induction ("empirical"), by deduction
("concatenation"), by schematization ("abstract"), and by observation
("see"). The more unusual words in the passage ("Kantian," "Mohegan,"
"Maoris," "Immanence," and "Halo") do not seem to represent agents so
much as potential agents, or, better yet, word-nuggets around
which sentences can or will take shape. One could easily project
appropriately erudite asides concerning Hope's "excursion" (4) within
which these words might appear: an anthropological comment on the place
of immanence in Mohegan cosmology, perhaps, or an apt citation from Kant
on the universal applicability of the categorical imperative even among
the wild Maoris of New Zealand. This impression of
growth-toward-discourse is reinforced by the moments in this odd passage
where words begin to behave in a somewhat orderly syntactical fashion ("a
little lesson," "most open apparition"). Such clusters suggest that
these words are not only capable of generating conventional sentences but
might already be in the process of doing so. Howe's word-grid seems to present a primordial matrix somehow just
prior to historical
narrative, a condition in which, although the "past" is still no more than
a heterogeneous collection of words, it is nonetheless poised to
emerge from gross quiddity into intelligibility.
Alternatively--but, curiously, without contradicting the above
interpretation--Howe's word-array might be intended to depict language in
a state of decomposition. Howe
could be presenting us with a scattering of language that we are supposed
to interpret as the barest tracery of long-ago accounts of Hope
Atherton's time in the wilderness. We are perhaps to intuit that these
accounts are now a "story so / Gone" (6), that is, that they have
subsequently been damaged, circulated in faulty copies, or lost
altogether, known only through repute or hearsay. The peculiar spacing
of the words in the passage beginning "is notion most open"
would then be seeking to render visible the historical, entropic erasure
that has afflicted what once might have been a set of reliable, detailed
documents upon which to base a more conventional historical fiction.
Howe, in other words, could be compensating for her inability to
represent what has disappeared from the historical record by calling
attention to the very fact of its vanishing.
Like a Necker cube, then, Howe's array beginning "is notion most
open" plots an arrangement of nodes in two dimensions that can
ambivalently suggest both protension and recession--that is, on the one
hand, a process of maturation into rational discourse or, on the other
hand, the decay away from it (see Figure 4). Not coincidentally, these
impersonal, recalcitrant word-grids also appear just before Atherton
concludes with a platitude-rich homily ("Loving Friends and Kindred:-- /
When I look back / So short in charity and good works [...] . " ).
The weirdly geometrical word-arrays mark, as it were, the furthest that
Atherton ventures into the wilderness. Like Samuel Beckett in The
Unnamable and Texts for Nothing, Howe situates us on
the threshold where meaning abuts the incomprehensibility of the
4: Necker Cube
II. "All Things Double"
A close reading of Articulation of Sound Forms in Time can
help us appreciate how word squares function--at least on one
occasion. We learn little, though, about why Howe has chosen to figure an
encounter with the non- or superhuman by mechanically arranging
stubbornly particulate words into near-grids. If we are to understand
when, how, and why her verse turns "postlinear" in the form of word
squares, we will have to cast our net both more broadly and more deeply.
Geoffrey O'Brien's remarkable series of reviews of Howe's
work can serve as a useful point from which to begin fishing for
answers. He struggles to articulate why he finds her verse both
ineffable and oddly superficial. Her "haunting tunes," he asserts,
seduce us by hinting that Truth, if not present here-and-now,
nevertheless still exists: "Howe's words give the impression of echoing
another, hidden poetry of which we catch only fragments, like an opera
sung in another room [...] . The words are like magnetic filings that
adhere uncertainly to a receding body of meaning" ("Meaningless" 11).
These ghostly traces of a higher order of Being and Meaning seem
sufficient to justify her use of resonant phrases that might otherwise
seem laughable or irresponsible, such as "truth and glory" and "ideal
city of immaculate beauty" ("Notes" 110). Howe's poetry can free a
reader to enter into the terrain of the Ideal. She opens up "a world
([is] it ours?) in constant metamorphosis, a swirl of depths and tides, a
series of transient landscapes (woods, seas, marshes) dissolving even as
they [are] named."
But O'Brien remarks that at other times, however, a reader can find access
to these grand vistas impossible. The poetry then seems "hard, dry [...] spare, fragmented, analytical." What had seemed sublime insights
couched in "Miltonic words" instead rather "brutally" turn out to be
conjectures that "exist only in the mind" of the reader. "The interior
spaces I'd glimpsed were not in the words but in their unstated
connections: in the decisiveness and freedom with which the words were
laid side by side, and the abysses which were permitted to open up
between them." Howe's genius, O'Brien argues, lies in being able to
write a fragmented poetry that is able to fulfill a desire for
transcendence while also registering a cynical disbelief in it. In this
ambivalent aesthetic, the "same word might be both opening and closure,
reality and disguise, truth and a lie" ("The Way" 27).
Again we encounter a dual movement, as with the Necker cube-like
movement into and out of the discourse of history exhibited by the word
squares in Articulation of Sound Forms in Time. O'Brien,
however, helps us see that this doubling is fundamental to Howe's writing
more generally. A concrete--and visually conventional--example can help
clarify Howe's habitual practice of making two readings equally available
("All things double"--ASFT 28), as well as demonstrate what
she gains by writing in such a manner. Stephen-Paul Martin, in his essay
"Endless Protean Linkages," comments upon Howe's terse précis of
the Tristram and Iseult myth in Defenestration of Prague:
Martin chooses to read Howe's invocation of Iseult as if the poet were a
feminist theorist bent on dismantling patriarchal ideology:
Iseult of Ireland
Iseult of the snow-white hand
Iseult seaward gazing
(pale secret fair)
his knights are at war
Sleet whips the page (DP 100)
We are not given the opportunity to lose ourselves in the glamor of "one
of the world's greatest love stories." We are instead asked to see the
"play of forces" that underscores it. Iseult is the conventional female
"seaward gazing," pining for her lost lover. She is "(pale secret
fair)," a mere feminine signifier who has all the qualities normally
assigned to women in medieval legends or romances. Tristram is the
masculine signifier, the "allegorical" warrior. In the original romance
(and in the countless versions of it that have come down to us through
the centuries) we are encouraged to think of Tristram and Iseult as
"real" flesh-and-blood human beings. But Howe shows us what they
actually are: patriarchal conventions, stick figures used to convey an
ideological message under the guise of storytelling. When Howe tells us
that "Sleet whips the page," she reminds us that the climate Tristram and
Iseult inhabit is a fictive space whose purposes can and should be
Martin's interpretation has a great deal of merit. Iseult and Tristram
appear only once in Defenestration of Prague, in this brief
vignette, and they can indeed seem rather like "stick figures" trotted
out and dismissed in a satiric pageant. Howe's perpetual insistence on
the fictive character of poetry ("a true world / fictively
constructed"--PS 54) and on the materiality of the text do lay
bare the workings of her verse to such an extent that it is hard to
ignore the writerly artifice that culminates in what we see on the page.
What Martin finds true of Defenestration of Prague's Iseult
is even more evident in the opening lines of Howe's 1999 work
Iseult stands at Tintagel
Howe, in her brevity, seems to mock the elaborate atmospherics that often
cue the introduction of a heroine in a novel or a romance. Here we
discover no white dress, no ivory skin, no deep shadows nor silent, dark
night--just a telegraphic indication of "light and dark symbolism."
Readers are coyly instructed to fill in the blanks with appropriate
tropes. They thereby become complicitous in the mechanics and the
production of the poem. And, if we are to believe Brecht and Benjamin,
this kind of theatricalization of the artistic process operates in
service of ideological critique by jolting an audience out of its
customary passivity. From this
point of view, then, one can say that these schematic, cursory
invocations of the Tristram story illustrate the "brutality" of Howe's
analytic mind as she probes the unsightly innards of literary tradition.
on the mid stairs between
light and dark symbolism (129)
But is Howe's Iseult just a stick figure? "Iseult
stands at Tintagel": although it may sound brisk or even martial, for an
informed reader the opening line of "Rückenfigur" can nonetheless
strike a powerful chord. It evokes "Iseult at Tintagel," the fifth book
of Algernon Charles Swinburne's Tristram of Lyonesse. "Iseult at Tintagel" is one of the
most extravagant of lovers' plaints in English. The disconsolate Iseult,
aria-like, recounts her grief, passion, and pain. She begs God to damn
her if that sacrifice might spare her lover the same fate. She praises
and abuses the absent Tristram to the accompaniment of a storm at sea.
"Iseult stands at Tintagel / on the mid stairs between / light and dark
symbolism." In Swinburne's Tristram, Iseult's dramatic
monologue revolves obsessively around tropes of light and dark and their
horrifying failure to remain distinct: "dawn was as dawn of night / And
noon as night's noon" (94). Good and evil, heaven and hell, morn and
eve--to the suffering soul, all such divisions are meaningless
("soul-sick till day be done, and weary till day rises" ). For a
reader familiar with Tristram of Lyonesse, Howe's statement
that "Iseult stands [...] between light and dark symbolism" is not
satirical. It recalls a precursor poet writing magnificent verse at the
height of his career. "Rückenfigur" could hardly begin on a more
Full or empty? Iseult and Tristram as names wonderfully redolent
of myth and literary tradition, or as stick figures acting out
tradition's desiccation? Howe seems deliberately to make multiple, if
contradictory, readings available to her audience. In this respect, her verse resembles the
optical illusions made famous by Gestalt psychologists--the rabbit-duck
drawing, the young-old woman, the profiles-goblet puzzle. In each of
these instances, a viewer can readily see one or the other option (rabbit
or duck, young or old woman) but cannot easily see both
simultaneously. The only place where both options coexist harmoniously
is in the design of the artwork itself. Similarly, Howe's Iseult is just a stick
figure. Sometimes. Other times she comes trailing clouds of glory. It
depends on one's point of view.
As O'Brien's reviews show, this dynamic is especially
disconcerting in Howe's poetry because she puts transcendence itself up
for grabs. At almost every point in her work she can be read as
critiquing and or offering access to Truth. In other words,
the existence of a transcendental referent is perpetually put into doubt
even as, paradoxically, that same existence is celebrated. The markedly
undialectical character of this worldview is not unusual in the broader
context of late twentieth-century literature. Linda Hutcheon contends
that postmodern literature is, properly speaking, "neither 'unificatory'
nor 'contradictionist' in a Marxist dialectical sense":
the visible paradoxes of the postmodern do not mask any hidden unity
which analysis can reveal. Its irreconcilable incompatibilities are the
very bases upon which the problematized discourses of postmodernism
emerge [...] The differences that these contradictions foreground
should not be dissipated. While unresolved paradoxes may be unsatisfying
to those in need of absolute and final answers, to postmodernist thinkers
and artists they have been the source of intellectual energy that has
provoked new articulations of the postmodern condition. (21)
In making this argument, Hutcheon has in mind the unresolved/irresolvable tension between fiction and history common in the
contemporary novels that are her proximate subject. Although Howe's
poetry likewise mixes history and fiction, the un-dialectical
"irreconcilable incompatibilities" in her work are so pervasive, in form
as well as content, that its bipolarity seems to represent a sharp intensification of Hutcheon's dynamic. From the
microlevel of the line to the macrolevel of the long poem, Howe continually offers repleteness
and/or emptiness, the skeptical and/or the visionary, Eden and/or
Gethsemane. Moreover, the duality in Howe's poetry is born neither of
paranoia nor of paralyzing doubt. She does not plunge us into a
regio dissimilitudinis in which we cannot distinguish true and
false. Rather, we have the option of apprehending the true and/or the
false while still wandering in the Dantean dark wood--a surprisingly
optimistic prospect, all things told. In contrast to Hutcheon's account, the "unresolved paradoxes" at the
heart of her poetics do not inevitably and always frustrate "those in need of absolute and final
answers." Howe grants them the right to choose to read her
words as revelation. Skeptics and believers can agree that Howe pierces
the Veil of the Temple. The question is whether one decides to see
nothing, or something, on the Veil's other side.
III. Howe's Installation Art
A duck-rabbit combination of skepticism and transcendentalism is
such a foundational part of Howe's worldview that one can trace it back
to her earliest works. In her case, though, such a recounting takes us
back into the years before she chose poetry as a vocation. Howe was in
her forties before her first chapbook appeared. A graduate of the Boston
Museum of Fine Arts School, she spent the late 1960s and early 1970s
actively involved in the New York art world. By examining this early,
under-studied phase in her career, one gains insight into the origins of
her visual poetics and into the intense, ambivalent spirituality that
The Susan Howe Archive at the University of California, San Diego preserves written instructions, ephemera, photographs,
and other materials relating to Howe's installations of 1969-1971, which possessed
such evocative names as Long Away Lightly, On the
Highest Hill, and Wind Shift / Frost Smoke / Malachite Green
/ Rushlight. These
installations contained a heterogeneous mix of word and image: original
verse; extracts from ecological and geological texts; extracts from
historical sources; illustrations excised from books and journals;
photographs; and Xerox copies. Howe mounted or pinned these diverse objects
to paper, wood, or cloth supports according to precisely determined
measurements. She also typically
added a few lines or rectangles with tape or pigment and, occasionally, blots of thinned paint.
Howe's installations were harshly rectilinear. The constituent polygons,
cut-outs, and text blocks were uniformly rectangular, and the assorted
elements in each installation were distributed as if they occupied
coordinates on a Cartesian grid as well as aligned perfectly with implied
horizontal and vertical axes. The often flimsy, always unframed supports
were attached directly to blank expanses of wall. Finally, Howe left the
vast majority of her supports untouched and uncovered. From any distance
greater than arm's length, one would have experienced these installations
as fields of whiteness, interrupted by images too small to identify and
short pieces of writing too distant to read.
Significantly, as seen in the few photographs that document Howe's actual
exhibitions, the installations looked like her later word
squares. One particularly suggestive (alas unidentified) photograph
depicts a wall upon which Howe has hung nine rectangular pieces of what
seems to be paper in the pattern of a tic-tac-toe board. Each piece of
paper features images, texts, or a combination of the two, positioned, of
course, on an implied grid. The rightmost piece of paper in the middle
row has nine, very short statements or passages of verse arrayed, again,
in a tic-tac-toe-like pattern, this time spread out across a veritable
sea of white space.
Howe's 1969-71 installations are very much of their time and
place. Their understatement, relentless geometry, reliance on the
written word, and recycling of banal, mass-produced images speak to her
loose ties to Conceptual Art, more specifically to her then-fascination
with the work of Robert Smithson.
Like Smithson, she mixes the creative and the documentary, intersperses
poetic and scientific language, and makes use of deceptively "boring"
images, mostly monochrome or sepia-tone reproductions cut haphazardly out
of journals or books. She does, however, diverge from Smithson (and
other contemporary conceptual artists) in several respects. First, she
incorporates fiercely romantic verse into her installations, such as the
on the highest hill of the heart
The moral here is conventional: that one's interior life is like a
landscape and that, moreover, this landscape is an archetypal one,
buffeted by "ancient" forces and offering no solace as one peers into the
"west" and sees the "strand" of one's future trailing into the "slaty
gray" emptiness and twilight that portend death. The play throughout the
lyric on the letters "s" and "t," though, is effective, and, in such a
short poem, the three parallel phrases "keen winds cut," "long strand
glints," and "heart's sea shivers" offer a marvelously heavy, decisive
rebuttal to the Swinburnian lilt of the opening, anapestic line. Howe's
versecraft, even at this early stage, is incomparably superior to
Smithson's, whose pale imitations of Allen Ginsberg he rightly never
published. Moreover, Howe does
not satirize romantic longings in the manner of Smithson, whose
contemporary piece "Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan" (1969)
verges on the carnivalesque in its Beat-like, half-parodic celebration of
Mayan cosmology. Instead, Howe subtly ironizes her poetry by submerging
it in an oceanic "swash" of space. Blankness overwhelms expression; the
indifferent white reduces a speaker's emotions, whether melancholy or
ecstatic, to minor, arabesque-like details on an otherwise uniform
the keen wind cuts
west through the slaty gray of space swash
the long strand glints
stars stars stars stars
the heart's sea shivers
To explain Howe's plentiful use of white space, one has to look beyond
her overt debts to conceptualism. It speaks to a powerfully quietist
strain in her aesthetics that aligns her also with another canon of
avant-garde artists, as a 1995 interview makes clear:
Q. [An earlier interview] ends with your statement that if you had to
paint your writing, "It would be blank. It would be a white canvas.
White." I wondered if you could explain what you meant to suggest with
that wonderfully evocative remark.
Howe's choice of "minimalist" heroes provides a context for her swerve
away from Smithson's aesthetic by underscoring the fact that she never
really shared his passion for the muck, mess, and fracture of the natural
world. Ad Reinhardt is best known for his "black paintings," which are
three-by-three grids of black squares that differ ever so slightly in
luster and hue. Agnes Martin is
best known for her six-foot-by-six-foot canvases covered with tiny
rectangles. Robert Ryman is best known for restricting his palette to
the color white. As her comments
illustrate, Howe admires this particular set of painters for a specific
reason: their art posits that the unsaid, the unpainted, can "suggest"
the infinite more effectively than any attempt to represent it directly.
Martin, Reinhardt, and Ryman reduce their painterly subject matter to a
degree zero, a mere grid or a single pigment, in order to redirect a
viewer's attention to the vertiginous freedom that precedes any artistic
gesture. Howe makes an analogy between her poetry and their art, seeing
in the two kinds of material support--the page and the canvas--an
intimation of an Absolute, pure and virginal, that precedes human
endeavor and activity. The task of the poet and the painter alike is to
let that primal "whiteness" shine out.
A. Well, that statement springs from my love for minimalist painting and
sculpture. Going all the way back to Malevich writing on suprematism.
Then to Ad Reinhardt's writing about art and to his painting. To the
work of Agnes Martin, of Robert Ryman [...] I can't express how
important Agnes Martin was to me at the point when I was shifting from
painting to poetry. The combination in Martin's work, say, of being
spare and infinitely suggestive at the same time characterizes the art I
respond to. And in poetry I am concerned with the space of the page
apart from the words on it. I would say that the most beautiful thing of
all is a page before the word interrupts it. A Robert Ryman white
painting is there [...] Infinitely open and anything possible.
(Howe, Interview with Keller 7)
Recognizing this principle can help one appreciate Howe's
later liberal use of white space in her poetry. She has a habit of
including pages in her long poems that consist of no more than a handful
of words isolated in the center of a page. These words often look paltry or whispered,
certainly chastened. In the small-press edition of Articulation of
Sound Forms in Time, for instance, the phrases so treated are
"Otherworld light into fable / Best plays are secret plays." The "Otherworld light" refers, at
least in part, to the primal whiteness of the page that Howe has rendered
so noticeable. This whiteness thereby enters "into fable," in other
words, into Hope Atherton's story. It does so, however, as a "secret,"
since in its pure potentiality it cannot be directly
articulated--attempting to do so would grant it determinate form, hence
violating the very open-endedness that made it valuable in the first
place. "Best plays are secret plays."
Howe's love for white space alone does not, however, explain her
persistent preference for the rectilinear: squares, arrays, grids.
Howe's favored "minimalists," though, all share her infatuation with
grids, and by turning to an art critic who has famously written on this
topic--Rosalind Krauss--we can begin to appreciate why rectilinearity
proved essential to Howe's developing aesthetic and spiritual
IV. The Appeal of Grids, Clouds, and the Sea
- In her classic essay "Grids"--in which Reinhardt, Martin, and
Ryman all make appearances--Rosalind Krauss takes up the problem of the
insistent recurrence of grid-like patterns in modern and postmodern
visual art. She claims for it a covert ideological role. As she sees
it, artist after artist, from Piet Mondrian to Frank Stella to Andy
Warhol to Sol LeWitt, discovers in the grid's geometry a way of
circumventing the age-old, ever-vexatious split between spirit and
matter. That is, grids look scientific, like a return to the
mathematical rigor that typified such Renaissance breakthroughs as
vanishing-point perspective, but they also represent pure abstraction, an
escape to the realm of universals. "The grid's mythic power," she
writes, "is that it makes us able to think we are dealing with
materialism (or sometimes science, or logic) while at the same time it
provides us with a release into belief (illusion, or fiction)"
Krauss would probably diagnose Susan Howe as another
victim of the grid's insidious appeal--as well as object strenuously to
Howe's use of the word "minimalist" to refer to artists who likewise fall
prey to the grid's magic. An art historian who has written on 1960s and
70s minimalism as a phenomenological revolution in the arts, Krauss would
likely contend that Howe fixates on the most backward, "modernist"
aspects of the movement. In fact,
although Reinhardt and Martin are frequently labeled minimalists because
of their limited, geometrical subject matter, a critic such as Krauss is
liable to argue that they are better understood within the context of
Abstract Expressionism. Reinhardt, after all, belongs to the same
generation as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, and Martin
explicitly styles herself as Barnett Newman's heir. Their grid-paintings are legible as acts of spiritual, aesthetic askesis, and they convey a
foreign to the post-Pop, cool sensibility of most late-1960s avant-garde
art. In terms of affect, Reinhardt's and Martin's best paintings belong
in the same class as Newman's Stations of the Cross and the
Accordingly, Krauss has written an essay, "The /Cloud/,"
which presents Agnes Martin's grids as an endgame in a senescent
modernist tradition, not as a postmodern breakthrough. Whereas
early-century grids by masters such as Piet Mondrian were able to resolve
(that is, repress) the spirit/matter split through the creation of a
single image, later artists discovered that grid-paintings no longer
possessed that same "magical" potency. Over the years, grids gradually
lost their original, spiritual force as a consequence of having become
too closely associated--by critics and viewers alike--with the
materiality of the canvas (164-65). Agnes Martin, according to Krauss,
is unique in having found a way to revitalize an increasingly moribund device.
To illustrate this fact, Krauss dwells on a curious feature of Martin's
paintings. Up close, one concentrates chiefly on the "tactile" qualities
of her work: the tracery of the lines and the weave of the canvas. As
one moves back, however, something odd happens. The canvas seems to
dissolve into a haze or a mist, observable from any vantage, as with
clouds, seas, or fields. One also has an experience of radiance, or
directionless illumination. This middle distance is characterized by
"illusion" and "atmosphere." As one moves further away, though, the
illusion collapses. The "painting closes down entirely," and in its
"opacity" it resembles a "wall-like stele" (158-59). Krauss marvels at
the "closed system" that Martin thereby creates. The two "materialist
extremes"--the fabric of the grid, as seen up close, and the impassive panel, as seen from a distance--frame the transcendent
the middle distance. Whereas modernist grids, such as Mondrian's, seek
to express transcendence and materiality simultaneously, Martin renders
those two qualities a function of a viewer's position
vis-á-vis the canvas (164-65).
Krauss's "The /Cloud/" may have been conceived as an unflattering
critique of Martin's outmoded high modernist aesthetic, but, as with
Krauss's essay "Grids," "The /Cloud/" is nonetheless most illuminating in
the present, literary context. Howe, like Martin, separates out the
spiritual and material aspects of her art. Howe, like Martin, makes her
audience's choice between the two a function of point of view, not a
question of authorial intent. Thus, insofar as they are modeled on Agnes
Martin's paintings, one begins to see how Howe's own "grids," her word
squares, might function as an extension of her duck-rabbit aesthetic.
They prove ambivalently materialist and/or idealist.
Howe's comments on Martin can further refine this comparison.
Not only does Howe credit Martin with being instrumental in her
transition from painting to poetry, she verges on calling Martin herself
a poet: "I remember a show Agnes Martin had at the Greene Gallery--small
minimalist paintings, but each one had a title; it fascinated me how the
title affected my reading of the lines and colors. I guess to me they
were poems even then" (4). How, though, can a Martin painting be a
"poem," by any but the loosest definition? There are no words in a work
by Martin, only rectangles. Can a title alone qualify a painting as a
poem? As we have already seen, Howe pinpoints Martin's ability to be
"spare yet suggestive" as her defining characteristic. If a single word
can completely alter the experience of a painting, then ought it qualify
as a "minimalist" poem? Howe has argued something of the sort about a
scrap of paper upon which Emily Dickinson wrote a single word:
"Augustly" (BM 143). The contention that an isolated word
can be a poem dovetails with Howe's duck-rabbit outlook. "Augustly"
could either be an infinitely evocative word--or a word reduced to its
What, one then wonders, were the poem-words that rendered Agnes
Martin's canvases so memorable? In her anecdote about the Greene
Gallery, Howe does not mention specific titles, but one can make a
reasonable guess. Howe's transition from painting to poetry occurred in
the early 1970s. Agnes Martin's career happens to contain a long hiatus,
from 1967 to 1974, during which time she either was traveling or living
as a hermit in New Mexico, although her works continued to be exhibited
and her fame continued to grow. In the years leading up to the
publication of Howe's first book, Hinge Picture, the poet would
have known Martin primarily through her paintings of 1960-67, the ones
most frequently seen in galleries at the time. These early works are
notable for the recurrent use of two kinds of titles. A first set has marine monikers, such as Islands No. 1,
Ocean Water, The Wave, and Night Sea. A
second set of paintings has linguistic labels, such as
Words and Song. These two classes of names
enshrine Martin's response upon completing her first grid drawing:
"First I thought it was just like the sea [...] then I thought it was
like singing!" (Chave 144). In the catalog for her 1973 Philadelphia
retrospective, the painter further comments,
The ocean is deathless
Martin, it seems, hopes that her grid paintings give access to a
timeless, spiritual realm that resembles an ocean, or silent speech. One
can see why this aspect of Martin's art might so forcefully capture
Howe's imagination. A single word or a phrase transforms a flat canvas
into a doorway into a limitless wonderland of silent singing or washing
The islands rise and die
Quietly come, quietly go
A silent swaying breath
I wish the idea of time would drain out of my cells and leave me quiet
even on this shore. ("Selected" 26)
Agnes Martin, as understood first through Krauss's "The
/Cloud/" and second through the clues that Howe gives us, can be read
as offering Howe a poetics in germ. Martin's bipolar paintings represent
a combination of vision and/or Vision, words and/or Silence,
faktura and/or ecstasy. Which of these two paired terms is in
the dominant depends, not on the artwork, but upon the viewer's position
in regards to it. Furthermore, Martin's paintings suggest that poetic
grids can grant an entrée to a sublime landscape, the "deathless"
ocean, which is somehow interchangeable with "words" and "song."
Questions remain, though. Can one really transpose a painterly technique
into another medium--language--without losing something essential?
Also: Howe may think of a single word as a mini-poem, but she
nonetheless characteristically writes long poems, and her word
squares contain many heterogeneous elements. To explain how Martin's
painterly sensibility relates to Howe's mature visual poetics, we need a
better understanding of the route by which Howe made the transition from
painter to poet.
V. Language Is Aural and Visual
- During the early 1970s, finding her work more and more occupying
the borderlands between the visual and literary arts, Howe sensibly began
corresponding regularly with one of that region's few
éminences grises: Ian Hamilton Finlay, a Scottish poet,
sculptor, and publisher who did much to popularize Concrete Poetry in the
English-speaking world. Finlay happily played Chiron to her Jason. This period of literary
apprenticeship culminated in a 1974 article, "The End of Art," which John
Palatella has characterized as a veiled manifesto "mapping a genealogy of
[Howe's] aesthetic" (74). In "The End of Art" Howe proposes fundamental
connections between Finlay's poetry and the art of one of her minimalist
heroes, Ad Reinhardt. Both, she claims, teach the same lesson: "to
search for infinity inside simplicity will be to find simplicity alive
with messages" (7).
Given Howe's enthusiastic endorsement of Finlay in the same breath with
one of her favorite painters, it is plausible to conclude that Finlay's
work might provide the missing link between Martin's painterly grids and
Howe's poetic equivalent, her word squares. But as John Palatella warns,
it is not immediately apparent whether the man who made such famous works
as Wave-Rock influenced Howe's poetry in any measurable way,
beyond, perhaps, reinforcing her interest in the materiality of the word
and her distaste for conventional syntax (76). Some of Finlay's poems,
"Acrobats" for instance, could be called word squares, but they are
ultimately closer to a stand-up comedian's one-liners than the mysterious
arrays of shattered words that one finds in Howe (see Figure 5).
Ian Hamilton Finlay, "Acrobats."
I would argue that the crucial lesson Howe learned from
Finlay was in the first instance thematic and only
secondarily formal--the inverse of what one might expect, given Concrete
Poetry's reputation for sacrificing complexity of content in order to
cultivate instantaneous perceptual effects. In the case of Finlay, that
reputation is wholly unmerited. Among much else, he is a poet with an
enduring passion for the ocean. Fishing boat names and registrations,
for example, supply the words used in his "Sea Poppy" series, and
references to boats and nets abound in his work down to the present
day. In addition, his love for
the sea has influenced not only his choice of subject matter but also his
poetry's look. Again and again, Finlay recycles an implicit equation
between page and sea that he borrows from a foundational text for much
twentieth-century visual poetry, Stéphane Mallarmé's
Un Coup de dés. Un Coup de dés
repeatedly compares its own lines, scattered across wide expanses of
white space, to a plume of foam on the sea, or to the wreckage of a ship
breaking apart in a storm.
Variations on Mallarmé's conceit occur in such Finlay works as
"drifter," in which names for kinds of ships are positioned rather
arbitrarily in "oceanic" white space, and in the octagonal
poem-sculpture, Fisherman's Cross (see Figure 6).
6: Ian Hamilton Finlay, Fisherman's Cross
Concrete Poetry 205).
- Howe's "The End of Art" contains a passage of superb
After praising Finlay for having bettered Mallarmé, she writes,
The two words, seas and ease, are as close in value as two slightly
different blacks are close. Here the words are close visually and
rhythmically. The ea combination in the middle is in my memory as the ea
in eat, ear, hear, cease, release, death, and east, where the sun rises.
These are open words and the things they name are open. There are no
vertical letters, just as there are no sharp sounds to pull the ear or
eye up or down. Life (seas) rhymes with Death (ease). The cross made by
the words has been placed inside a hexagonal form which blurs the edges.
The eye wanders off toward the borders until ease (almost seas backward),
in the center, draws it back as does sleep, or death, or the sea. (6)
Words emerging from the deep. People sinking into the sea, as into
death. Finlay is one of a long line of poets--including Walt Whitman,
Hart Crane, and Wallace Stevens--who feel compelled to meditate on the
mystery of the sea, genetrix and destroyer.
- Howe is fully in sympathy with this point of view. The ocean is
one of her favorite images. It appears in virtually all of her poems to
date. She has gone so far as to
say, "the sea and poetry [...] for me they are one and the same"
(Howe, Interview with Keller 29). Her prose, too, is full of references to the
ocean, and she frequently weaves into her argument other writers'
statements on the subject. There
are biographical reasons for Howe's abiding interest in the sea--chiefly
her Transatlantic upbringing and her late husband's life-long
involvement with ships and ship-building--but the ocean usually enters her poetry as an
impersonal archetype. Among the
many guises that the sea adopts in her work, the following are the most
- Chaos. The sea is a place of storms and pirates. It represents
the blind violence that governs the course of history.
Genesis. The sea is a place of origin. It is the First Cause
that gives rise to sound, to soul, to language and poetry.
Pax. The sea is a place of silence and unutterable peace.
Peregrinatio. The sea is a place of exile, transit, drift, and
pilgrimage, much as in Anglo-Saxon elegy.
Thanatos. The sea is a place of death. It is where one dies,
and it is either the avenue to, or the abode of, the dead.
Howe undoubtedly derives her mythology of the sea from a wide variety of
literary sources, from the Bible to Moby Dick to Olson's
Maximus Poems, but she learns two invaluable lessons from
Finlay's particular inflection of this tradition. First is an
association between the page and the ocean, and, further, the sense that
words float upon, or emerge from, the ocean-page. Although
two-dimensional, the page is, like the surface of the sea, a thin,
variegated skin concealing depths upon "seacret" depths (EB
75). A written work is no more than a "Text of traces crossing
orient // and occident" the "empyrean ocean" of white space
(PS 56). As we have already seen, Howe considers the blank
page expressive of an infinity comparable to that intimated by Agnes
Martin and Ad Reinhardt. For Howe, the ocean is a figure that allows her
to conceptualize, to discuss, and to gesture toward that primal and final
The second lesson that Howe learns from Finlay is an appreciation
for the gap between poetry and painting. In "The End of Art" she writes
that "silence" is the only adequate response to a Reinhardt black
painting (2). In contrast, Fisherman's Cross may resemble a
Reinhardt work on account of its use of the cross as a structuring
principle and its symmetry and simplicity, but Finlay's
poem-sculpture uses words as its building blocks and hence introduces the
problem of sound. Hence, in her interpretation of Fisherman's
Cross, she lingers over the vowel combination "ea" and over the
"rhyme" that the poem proposes between "Life (seas)" and "Death (ease)."
In her 1995 interview with Lynn Keller--the same interview in which she
discusses her debts to Finlay, Martin, and Reinhardt --Howe again singles
out the distinction between the absence and presence of sound as the
crucial dividing line between the visual and written arts. She asserts
that she forever crossed over from "drawing" into "writing"
once she began to think about the aural impact of the words she had
been using in her painting.
I moved into writing physically because this was concerned with
gesture, the mark of the hand and pen or pencil, the connection between
eye and hand [...] There is another, more unconscious element here, of
course: the mark as an acoustic signal or charge. I think you go one
way or another--towards drawing or towards having words sound the
meaning. Somehow I went the second way and began writing. (6)
From the 1970s to the 1990s, Howe has emphasized the role that sound
plays in her work. At almost every opportunity, she asserts that it
determines the shape and character of each line she writes, both in verse
and prose. When at the
"cross"-roads between Reinhardt's silence and Finlay's sound, she
decisively opted to pursue the latter path.
The two lessons that Howe learns from Finlay--about the look of
the page and about its intrinsically aural character--govern her use of
the open ocean as a figure for the creation, or emergence, of art from
the matrix of infinity. Although writers since Antiquity have used
encounters with the ocean as a myth of origins, traditionally, as in
Swinburne's "Thalassian" and Whitman's "Out of the Cradle Endlessly
Rocking," the roar of the waves at seaside is the proximate
cause for a poet's desire to write. Howe, too, writes about seashores, but for her the wide expanses of the
ocean-wilderness--the terrain of Fisherman's Cross--hold the
ultimate allure. The "Unconfined [...] ocean" (MM 146) is
her personal symbol of sublimity, and to plunge into it entails great
risk but can also yield revelation. "Out of deep drowning," she writes,
comes "prophetical / knowledge" (DP 88). But she also
contends that gaining "prophetical knowledge" does not, in itself, make
one a prophet. That knowledge must first be brought ashore. One has to
give up the "ease" of the sea's deathly quiet and re-enter the
babble-roar of the human world. She hints at this transition from
silence into speech in "Sorting Facts":
In English mole can mean, aside from a burrowing mammal, a mound
or massive work formed of masonry and large stones or earth laid in the
sea as a pier or breakwater. Thoreau calls a pier a "noble mole" because
the sea is silent but as waves wash against and around it they sound and
sound is language.
If one does not return from sea to land--if the obdurate concreteness of
the earth does not force Language-Ocean to yield up the "thud" of
language (PS 53)--the result, as Howe tells Edward Foster in
her Talisman interview, is tantamount to death:
If you follow the lure of the silence beyond the waves washing, you may
enter the sea and drown. It's like Christ saying if you follow me, you
give up your family, you have no family [...] If you follow the words
to a certain extent, you may never come back. (BM 178)
Finlay's poetry, especially Fisherman's Cross, instructs
Howe how she might go about integrating these concepts into the very
manner in which she wrote a poem. "Disciples are fishermen / Go to them
for direction" (SWS 35). While writing and arranging her
words on the page-sea, she can think of them as ones cast up from the
deeps, written by a "foam pen" (L 204). This "brine
testimony" (R 131), or "water-mark" (EB 63), is
like a "raft in the drift" (DP 117) on the white of the
page. Moreover, it may only be an "ebbing and nether / veiled Venus"
(DP 128), more "wrack" (MM 145) and "broken oar
or spar" (L 168) than epiphany on the half shell, but Howe,
having "rowed as never woman rowed / rowed as never woman rowed"
(L 168), is able to offer up at least "the echoing
valediction / of [...] gods crossing / and re-crossing" (H
VI. Spacing-Out the Ocean-Page
- Crosses, echoes, waves--the building blocks are now in place to
answer the remaining questions posed by Susan Howe's word squares.
Krauss would have us believe that grids as a structuring device
in art are calculated to suppress history and magically harmonize urges
toward immersion in the material world and urges to escape it. Howe
certainly writes as if her own word squares, and her poetry more
generally, conflate the material presence of the word (its sound/its
appearance) and an experience of the transcendental. "A poet sees arrays
of sound in perfection," Howe has written ("Women" 84), and on other
occasions she has claimed that these perfect arrays of sound come to her
from another, timeless plane of existence.
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 the unbeaten way [...] A poet tries to sound
"Echoes of a place of first love"--Howe alludes to Robert Duncan's
signature poem, "The Opening of the Field," in which he talks of
returning to "the place of first permission" (Opening 7).
One could, therefore, read Howe as a Duncan-style poet-mystic who desires
her readers "to enter the mystery of language, and to follow words where
they lead, to let language lead them" (Howe, Interview with Keller 31).
Howe's word squares assuredly do seem designed to open out into infinite
possibility and into the unknown. With gnosis wrested from the heart of
the sea, Howe comes to us: "I messenger of Power / salt-errand /
sea-girt" (DP 96).
Sound is part of the mystery. But sounds are only the echoes of
a place of first love [...] 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.
But this is not the whole story. As we saw with Howe's use of
the Tristan myth, at every point in her work transcendental impulses
coexist with their antitheses. As Möckel-Rieke has put
it, Howe is uniformly contradictory, "teilweise strukturalistische,
teilweise sprachmystische" (281). That is, if she is part speech-mystic,
she also provides a structural anatomy of mysticism. One can witness
this dynamic at work in her word squares, which do serve a definite
analytical purpose. As we have seen in Articulation of
Sound Forms in Time, they fail to present coherent narratives, and
they fail to provide access to a stable "fictive world." Instead, Howe
seems to "spread [...] words and words we can never touch hovering
around subconscious life where enunciation is born" ("Ether" 119). She
gives us not an enoncé, a statement concerning a defined
topic, but rather a model of the process of "enunciation" itself.
Having explored the relation between Howe and Finlay, we have a means for specifying further how Howe
conceptualizes this process of "enunciation." She frequently relies on
an implicit metaphor between the page and the ocean. It is possible to
say that in her word squares we observe words birthing from an
ocean-matrix. But, as Howe's comments about oceans reveal, this womb is
a blank. An emptiness. "Loveless and sleepless the sea"
(SWS 42) she cautions us, mere
This empty sea cannot, stricto sensu, be "seen." That is, it
contains, and is, nothing, and one cannot see what does not
exist. Sight, and sound, can properly be said to belong only on
this side of the land/ocean divide, in the realm of history
and humanity. The world prior to, or beneath the level of, consciousness
is an effect of writing as if such a thing existed, a point Howe
makes at the conclusion of sequence Rückenfigur:
deep dead waves
when I wende and wake
how far I writ
see (L 164)
Following this logic, the "spars" and "echoes" in the word squares are
like "veils" that conceal nothing. They are, however, calculated to give
the impression of Someone behind them. They are attempts at
"Theomimesis," at miming an absent God.
Theomimesis divinity message
I have loved come veiling
Lyrists come veil come lure
echo remnant sentence spar (144)
When read aright, then, the "timeless place of existence" that
Howe claims as the origin of her poetry does indeed turn out to be a
"Supreme Fiction"--"fiction" understood in its original Latin sense as
"something made." Her word squares gesture toward an eternity that
cannot pre-exist the act of writing or antedate the onset of
history. "For me there was no silence before armies"
(Europe 9). Jacques Derrida's musings on the topic of
"spacing" in his essay "Différance" can help clarify this point.
Spacing, Derrida contends, is at once a spatial and a temporal process.
An artificer introduces spaces--introduces emptiness, or
"difference"--into a system in order to give it a defined spatial form.
But the act of spacing is itself a temporal process, that is, an
act. And a viewer necessarily takes in this spatial form in
time, that is, by looking from node to node and observing their
configuration (Margins 7-9). Derrida would agree with
Rosalind Krauss that an array, by organizing space, strives to render
time an extrinsic variable and thereby approximate a timeless Form. But
Derrida would also go on to say that an array's dependence on the act and
consequences of "spacing" inescapably imports temporality back into its
very structure and thus vitiates its aspiration to represent eternity
This deconstructive critique comes naturally to Howe. One of her
recurrent themes is the inseparability of space and time. "Concerning a voice through air // it takes space
to fold time in feeling," she writes in a recent essay ("Sorting" 302),
and in a review of John Taggart's work, she praises him for understanding
that true poets have "visions of how one might articulate space in an
audible way" ("Light in Darkness" 138). The wonderfully ambiguous title of her long poem
Articulation of Sound Forms in Time (is "forms" a noun or
verb? "sound" an adjective or noun? "in time" as in "just in time"?) can
be read as a concise expression of her belief that poetry, "sound forms,"
are articulated within history, "in time," and not outside of it. "Our ears enclose us," Howe reminds
us, and even if we are bent on
"the mind's absolute ideality," in daily life "stray voices / Stray
voices without bodies // Stray sense and sentences // Concerning the
historicity of history" will penetrate our contemplation of things
timeless (H 54).
Howe's word squares draw a reader's attention toward the white
space of the page in order (1) to intimate the Void out of which the
perceptible world arises and (2) to expose that primordial nothingness as
a fraud, or, more precisely, as a "fiction" arising from a certain use of
words. For her, the page's white space is the deathless ocean--the Void/the divine/Language--and the words are like the evanescent sea foam
that rides upon it. The messiness of Howe's word squares is a
consequence of her awareness that poetry comes into being in
time, that is, in the fallen world. Howe's word squares all appear
at particularly momentous points in her poetry, typically at the
beginning or end of a work, or, in the case of The
Liberties, when an author-figure is stripped of his or her social
identity and confronts the linguistic and phenomenological grounds of
selfhood. The word squares mark
the limits of the humanly knowable, and they indicate that beyond those
limits lies God--if we choose to believe that (S)he exists.
VII. Word Squares and Postlinear Poetry
- Surveying contemporary English-language verse, one will occasionally run into word squares in writings by
than Howe. Variations on the device appear, for example, in Christian Bök's
Crystallography, Kathleen Fraser's il cuore,
Jorie Graham's Swarm, Myung Mi Kim's Dura,
Darren Wershler-Henry's Nicholodeon, and C.D. Wright's
Tremble. Do these poets, too, give us sprays of
catachrestic coinages afloat on a page-ocean?
One cannot make that assumption. Take the case of Myung Mi Kim:
her long poem Dura is, among other things, a
Korean-American's meditation in seven parts on diasporic identity. The
second part, "Measure," obliquely recounts the Asian origins of paper and
moveable type as well as their gradual diffusion westward to Europe. The
declaration "A way is open(ed), a hole is made," precedes a word square:
The word-spacing here reflects the text's struggle to speak about one
place and time--medieval Korea--using an unrelated and ill-suited
language--modern English. The grid-like arrangement of words attempts a
compromise by permitting a reader to move through them both
left-to-right, top-to-bottom (English) and top-to-bottom, right-to-left
(traditional Korean). One "turns back" and "makes a turn" after each
line, whether that line is horizontal (English) or vertical (Korean).
The price of this compromise is degraded syntax. The words refuse
straightforward integration into logical statements. Kim suggests one of
the frustrations of bilingualism: a speaker endeavors to "translate" one
heritage and its attendant social conventions into phrases intelligible
to people for whom those things register as "foreign," only then to
discover the two languages brushing against and deforming each another,
producing unexpected, hybrid results.
Introduce single horse turnback
Introduction ride alone
(Capital) (fight alone) make a turn (27)
Today's postlinear poets do not pursue a unified program, nor do
they seek to establish a new, shared formal vocabulary. They work with
and against normative reading procedures in their efforts to explore the
full range of language's visual, auditory, and conceptual possibilities.
Their projects vary greatly. Howe's quietism is in dialogue with the
ascetic transcendentalism of the 1950s and 60s New York artworld, whereas
Kim's bilingualism belongs very much to the 1990s, a decade when U.S.
poetry opened itself to experimental articulations of racial, ethnic, and
gender identities. By charting
these disparate projects, however, we will gradually produce a
topographical map of contemporary visual poetics. The fecundity of the
artistry might be daunting, but the results will be correspondingly
richer and wilder, unsettled and unsettling.
Department of English
University of Washington, Seattle
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I would like to thank the Stanford Humanities Center and the University
of Washington's Royalty Research Fund for making this article possible.
I would also like to thank Terry Castle, Bob Fink, Kornelia Freitag,
Albert Gelpi, Nicholas Jenkins, Marjorie Perloff, and Susan Schultz.
1. Although Susan Howe claims that the
label Language Poet does not apply to her (see Interview with Keller
19-23) she nonetheless published in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, the
poetics journal from which the movement takes its name, as well as other
Language-affiliated periodicals, such as O.blek,
Sulfur, and Temblor. She has also consistently
appeared in the anthologies that have defined the movement for outsiders,
such as Ron Silliman's In the American Tree and Douglas
Messerli's "Language" Poetries.
2. See Back 3-4 for summary comments on
"Howe's visual experiments" as the "distinguishing mark" and "signature"
of her style. See Dworkin for a provocative overview of the subject.
3. See Möckel-Rieke 291 for a rare
discussion of Howe's "ballad" style.
4. See Dworkin for an extended analysis
of the "static" and "noise" that Howe produces through her manipulation,
superimposition, and violation of found texts.
5. See Back 142-44 for an analysis of
the "violence" conveyed by the "radically disrupted and chaotic" pages in
Eikon Basilke. For the remainder of this article, I will be
using the following abbreviations for Susan Howe's long poems and works
of criticism: ASFT for Articulation of Sound Forms in
Time; BM for The Birth-mark;
CG for Cabbage Gardens; CCS for
Chanting at the Crystal Sea; DP for
Defenestration of Prague; EB for A
Bibliography of the King's Book, or, Eikon Basilike; Fed for Federalist 10; H for
Heliopathy; HP for Hinge Picture;
LTC for Leisure of the Theory Class;
L for The Liberties; MED for
My Emily Dickinson; MM for Melville's
Marginalia; NCM for The Nonconformist's
Memorial [the long poem, not the collection]; PS for
Pythagorean Silence; R for
Rückenfigur; SBTR for Scattering as
a Behavior Toward Risk; SHDL for Secret History
of the Dividing Line; and SWS for Silence Wager
6. For one possible exception, see the
six-by-six word arrays in Robert Duncan's "The Fire: Passages Thirteen"
(Selected Poems 82-87). Howe may know this poem. See Howe, "For Robert
Duncan" and "The Difficulties Interview" 17-18.
7. See also e.g. ASFT 12,
14, 15; PS 78, 82-84; L 205-8, 216; and
SHDL 89, 116.
8. This preface appears only in the
1990 reprint of ASFT that is on the List of Works Cited. It
does not appear in the 1987 version of ASFT published by
9. See e.g. Back 42-44; Perloff,
"Collision" 528-29; and Reinfeld 142. Compare McCorkle paragraphs 5-6,
13-16. For other efforts to close read Howe's word squares, see e.g.
Back 21-22, 27, 96-100, and 118-19; Green 86-87 and 99-100; Keller
231-35; and McGann 102.
10. Compare Back 44 on the "multiple
and generative landscape" of this word square.
11. Compare Selinger 367 on Howe's
word-grids: "the raw material of a poem yet to be written or all that
remains of a piece now decayed."
12. See Benjamin 150-51 and 153.
13. Swinburne has recently become an
important presence in Howe's work. See "Frame Structures" (12) and
"Ether Either" (122; 126-27). See esp. the 1999 long poem The
Leisure of the Theory Class, which immediately precedes
Rückenfigur in Howe's book Pierce-Arrow
14. Compare Back 46 ("tendency to
contradict herself, every articulation containing itself and its
15. See Mitchell 45-56 for a
discussion of "multistable" images such as the Duck-Rabbit.
16. The installation materials are
stored in Box 15 of the Susan Howe Papers (MSS0201) at the Mandeville
Special Collections Library of the University of California, San Diego.
Hereafter I will be citing unpublished materials in the Susan Howe Papers
as SHP, followed by their box and (if relevant) folder
numbers. For Long Away Lightly, see SHP Box
15, Folder 1. For On the Highest Hill, see Folder 4. For
Wind Shift / Frost Smoke see Folder 8.
Unfortunately, no dates are provided for individual pieces, and the
various materials are unlabeled, rendering many of them mysterious or
unidentifiable. Several of the scraps of poetry used in the installation
pieces, such as that beginning "on the highest hill of the heart," also
appear in SHP Box 6, Folder 6, with Howe's earliest poems.
In fact, there one can find "Wall 1" and "Wall 2," poem sequences that
either derive entirely from the installation work or represent the
installations' poetic precursors.
17. See esp. SHP Box 15,
Folders 2-3 for some of Howe's meticulous installation instructions.
18. See SHP Box 15, Folder 5 for this photograph.
19. See SHP Box 12 for
the working notebook dated 26 April-15 July 1974, in which she declares
herself Smithson's lineal heir.
20. See SHP Box 15,
21. For Smithson's Ginsberg
imitations, see Smithson 315-19.
22. Reinhardt's "Black Paintings" are
notoriously difficult to reproduce. For an example, go to the Guggenheim
Museum's online collection <http://www.guggenheimcollection.org>, search for "Ad Reinhardt," and
enlarge the available image.
23. For samples of Martin's and
Ryman's work, visit the Guggenheim online collections collection at <http://www.guggenheimcollection.org> and search on the artist's name.
For Martin, see also the online galleries available from the Los Angeles County Museum <http://moca-la.org> and the National Museum of Women in the Arts at <http://www.nmwa.org>.
24. See e.g. DP 89;
EB 61-62; L 162, 180; LTC 32;
MM 103; NCM 20-21; PS 77;
SBTR 70; SHDL 94, 113, and 114.
25. The Awede Press edition of
ASFT is unpaginated. When Wesleyan University Press
reprinted ASFT, they crammed these two lines into a single
page with another lyric (11).
26. For Krauss's influential account
of minimalism, see Passages in Modern Sculpture 198-99,
236-42, and esp. 243-88.
27. In a 1993 interview, Agnes Martin
declares herself an abstract expressionist (15) in the "transcendental"
mode of Rothko and Newman (13). She says that she has always sympathized
with minimalism's aspiration toward perfection, but intuition and
inspiration are necessary to lead one beyond mere mechanical perfection
to its "transcendental" corollary (Interview with Sander 13-15).
28. I concede that Reinhardt was an
advocate of art in its purity and that he considered any confusion
between art and religion to be anathema. Nonetheless, as Krauss points
out, "the motif that inescapably emerges" as one contemplates his black
paintings "is the Greek cross" (Originality 10). For Howe's
transcendentalist reading of Reinhardt, see "The End of Art" 3-4.
29. Agnes Martin's paintings
reproduce very poorly in digital formats, but for a hint at the dynamic
Krauss describes, see the interactive "tour" of the Agnes Martin Gallery
available on the web page of the Harwood Museum (Taos, New Mexico): <http://harwoodmuseum.org/gallery4.php>, last accessed 29 January 2003.
30. See the Keller interview for
Howe's cursory recollection of this correspondence (20). For Finlay's
letters to Howe, see SHP Box 1, Folders 4-6.
31. See Bann 55-57. See also Stewart
124, 129-30, and 139.n34. Stewart posits that around 1971 Finlay's
relation to the sea shifted, and that fishing boats gave way to warships
in his work (124-25).
31. The original is unpaginated. See
esp. the second, third, fifth, sixth, and eighth openings. I have included in the List of Works Cited a recent, readily
translation of Un Coup de dés that respects
Mallarmé's original layout.
33. See Palatella 74-76 for more
analysis of Howe's commentary on Fisherman's Cross.
34. See E. Joyce, paragraph seven for
a comparison between Mallarmé's Un Coup de dés
and Howe's compositional practice.
35. See for example:
ASFT 1, 23, 25, 29, 35, 38; CCS 61, 63, 68;
CG 79, 79, 80, 81, 85, 86; DP 88, 96, 100, 101,
103, 117, 124, 135, 146; EB 75, 79; H 43;
HP 53, 54, 55; L 158, 164, 168, 172, 173, 174,
187, 196, 198, 199, 213; MM 123, 134, 145, 146, 150;
NCM 17, 19, 26, 33; PS 28, 30, 31, 42, 45, 48,
51, 53, 56, 60, 64, 80; R 131, 136; SBTR 66;
SHDL 90, 105, 110, 111; and SWS 36, 42.
36. See for example BM
17, 18, 26, 28, 32, 37, 46, 50, 55, 61, 69, 82, 83, 132, 150, 166, 178;
"Ether Either" 119, 123; "For Robert Duncan" 54, 55, 57; MED
45, 87, 106, 109; "Since a Dialogue" 172; "Sorting" 297, 308, 311, 319,
320, 326-327, 323, 325, 328, 338, 342; "Where" 4, 11, 12, 18, 19; and
"Women" 63, 88.
37. Howe spent her childhood and youth
split between the United States and Ireland. See "Ether Either" 112-13 and 118-19.
See also a letter by Howe qtd. in Möckel-Rieke 303.n92. And see
BM 166 and "Sorting" 320. Ireland in Howe's work is
identified strongly with the ocean and ocean-crossing--see
HP 54, L 213, "Sorting" 338 and the first page
of WB. For Howe's discussion of her husband's love for the
ocean and ship-design, see "Sorting" 295-97 and the Keller interview 4-5
38. The ocean's central role in her
poetics deserves comparison to that of the wilderness, a related concept
upon which critics have frequently commented. See e.g. Back 176-77;
Dworkin 399-400; Möckel-Rieke 290-91; Nicholls 589; Palatella 91-92;
Schultz paragraph 3; and Vogler 220-23. See Middleton (esp. 87) for a
rare statement on the centrality of the ocean in Howe's work. Compare
Reinfeld 126 and 142; and Perloff, "Collision" 518-19.
39. For the violent sea, the realm of
history's nightmare, see BM 61; CCS 63;
EB 70; PS 48; DP 100; "For Robert
Duncan" 54; L 160, 196; and SHDL 91, 105, 110.
40. For invocations of the sea as a
place of origins, see ASFT 1, 35; BM 82; CG 85; DP 88, 101, 123-24;
H 43; HP 53; L 168, 173, 204, 212;
MM 146; NCM 8, 19; PS 53, 60, 80;
R 136; "Sorting" 311, 328; and SWS 36, 42.
41. For the sea as a place of peace
and silence, see BM 17; CG 86; DP
103; L 199; PS 28, 30, 53; "Sorting" 338;
SWS 42. Compare NCM 26 and 33.
42. For the sea as a place of
peregrinatio in the medieval sense of sojourning in a fallen
world, see ASFT 35, 38; BM 83; CCS
63, 68; CG 81; DP 117; L 158, 164,
168, 173, 174, 213; MED 45; PS 42, 56;
SHDL 90, 111; "Sorting" 297, 308, 325. For the sea in its
more neutral aspect as a place of drift, see BM 156;
DP 117; EB 75; L 195; and
43. For the association between the
ocean and death, esp. drowning, see BM 37, 178;
CCS 63; CG 79, 86; DP 88;
HP 54, 55; L 161, 187, 198; MED
109; EB 79; MM 123, 145, 150; "Where" 18. "To ebb" in Howe is a recurrent verb that calls to mind
the ocean in its aspect as a metaphor for death and mortality. See
DP 128, 146; L 178, 212.
44. See BM 47, 48, 49,
68, 164; NCM 18; "Difficulties Interview" 17, 21, 24; Falon
interview 31, 37; and Keller interview 13, 19, 26-27, 31.
45. See BM 28, 55;
HP 46; MM 116; and PS 45.
47. Howe apparently learned of
Thoreau's idea of the "noble mole" from Ed Foster during the course of an
interview. See BM 178.
47. See NCM 18 and 30
for poetic moments when Howe explicitly connects "sound" and
"perfection." See also BM 172 and MED 55.
48. According to Ming-Qian Ma, Howe
conceives of poetry as taking shape in a "space-time dimension" that
permits her poetry to act as a corrective to traditional historiography
("Poetry as History Revised" 719-21). Ma does not specifically connect
Howe's concept of "space-time" to Derrida or to deconstruction, but his
argument made it possible for me to make that connection.
49. For other examples of Howe's
habitual synaesthetic confusion of sight and sound see "Ether" 119, "Women" 84, HP 56, and BM 139.
50. See Perloff, "Collision" 524 for
the source of this argument. See too McCorkle paragraph 7.
51. See the sixteenth page of
Fed. The original is unpaginated.
52. See H 42 (the poem's
beginning); PS 78, 82-84 (the end of the poem);
L 216 (the poem's conclusion); and SHDL 89,
116, and 122 (word squares at the poem's beginning and end). For an
author-figure confronting her (non)existence, see L 204-8 (a
section titled "Formation of a Separatist, I").
53. See Fraser 167-68, Graham 68, and
Wright 58. Bök and Wershler-Henry are unpaginated. For Bök,
see the section titled "Euclid and His Modern Rivals." For
Wershler-Henry see the unfolding page near the book's center.
54. My thanks to Grace Ku for
pointing me to this passage and helping me navigate the thoroughgoing
bilingualism of Kim's Dura.
55. See Beach 184-87 for his
contention that the 1990s saw the "combination of the linguistic and
formal energies of the avant-garde or experimental tradition with the
transcultural and interpersonal energies of an expanded racial and ethnic
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