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An Open Field: Susan Howe in Conversation

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Susan Howe
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"The Angel Standing in the Sun," by J. W. Turner.

Poets.org: In your book, That This, which is largely about the death of your husband, the philosopher Peter H. Hare, you write: "Art is a mystery; artifice its form." How were you thinking about form in relation to grief when writing this book? I'd also be interested to hear what you think about the relationship between personal grief and artifice?

Susan Howe: In "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words," Wallace Stevens says, "A poet's words are of things that do not exist without the words." He also says, "Poetry is words; and words, above everything else, are in poetry, sounds." "Artifice" is a beautiful word in itself. The three syllables are musical—severe, sharp, and delicate. "Artifice" creates an Ariadne's thread of connections and associations.

I'm so involved with the sound of a sentence or a line, or a paragraph—there is almost no difference to me even if I'm anxious not to make scholarly mistakes. I get so caught up with the sound in my head of the words I am looking at on the page that the aural alchemy between each is the overarching force. One of my models for the ocular rhythm I am trying to explain is Emerson. Prose for Emerson is poetry. Almost always his verses seem to be composed at a less active pitch. For him, prose is where life is. Why am I even calling it prose? Sometimes Stevens takes the opposite approach in that some of his greatest poems are also philosophical essays. Henry James, in his late work, carries language to a place where he breaks open the paragraph. I don't quite know what I mean by this: it's almost as though the prose block on the page becomes a window—or widow.

On the night of my son's wedding, Peter went to bed, seemingly in perfect health, and died in his sleep. So grief was allied to shock at this formless calamity. I was devastated and thought I would never write again. Sometimes I would go to the computer and put down notes as one does in a diary. A couple of months later I printed out these original ramblings and began to think about forming them into a coherent narrative; one that might help others in the way that reading C.S. Lewis's A Grief Observed helped me. After the loss of your closest companion there has to be some sort of redemption. I say redemption, because you feel guilty for surviving. I can't rely on religious belief the way Lewis did, but the essential lyricism of faith—for me, the mystery of art or artifice; "contrived, compassed or brought about by constructive skill,"—provides its own sacraments. Keats's odes are as holy as The Song of Songs, so are Walt Whitman's "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," Hart Crane's "The Broken Tower," Stevens's "The River of Rivers in Connecticut," even the last pages of Finnegans Wake.

During 2007 I had been working on an essay relating to Jonathan Edwards and Wallace Stevens. The last poem "Fragment of the Wedding Dress of Sarah Pierrepont Edwards" in Souls of the Labadie Tract had been a way to translate into print my reaction to the thrill of seeing the collection of Jonathan Edwards's manuscripts at Yale's Beinecke Library. I had a transcription of a letter from Sarah Edwards to her daughter Esther when she learned of Jonathan's death pinned up on my wall by the computer. It seemed a premonition. The relationship between grief and artifice is that work (practice, composition) is your purpose for living and the only way to go on. I returned to the library and looked carefully at three of the manuscript books he titled "Efficacious Grace." Two of them were constructed from discarded semi-circular pieces of silk paper Edwards's wife and daughters used for making fans. If you open these small oval volumes and just look—without trying to decipher the minister's spidery hand—penstrokes begin to resemble stitches of thread as if the text moving across its fragile textile surface contains message within message. As if surface and meaning co-operate to keep alive in one process, mastery in service, service in artifice.

Poets.org: Can you talk about your process of writing, specifically in regard to the use of collage in That This?

Howe: One day I chanced on a folder titled: Wetmore, Hannah Edwards, 1713-1773, that contains a copy of "the private writings" of Jonathan's sister, in the hand of her daughter Lucy Wetmore Whittelsey. Lucy's transcription (much easier to read than her uncle's or her mother's handwriting) begins in medias res with an excerpt from psalm 55.6 "Oh that I had wings like a dove! [for then] would I fly away, and be at rest." Even if manuscripts can only lead to the limit of a voice, the acoustic shock of the first written word "Oh" on paper brown with age not written by the author herself, a copy of her mother's narrative but also a copy of that ancient plea for comfort—had a telepathic force. At home, I printed out transcriptions I had made in the library, then using multi-purpose copy paper, scissors, "invisible" scotch tape, and a Canon copier PC170, I collaged fragments of her "private writing "with a mix of sources from other texts.

Poets.org: Poets weave history with personal history constantly in their work. There is a lot of that in your new book. Do you feel like being a poet has changed since you started writing poems? Put another way, what do you see as the poet's place in our current culture?

Howe: My sense that art is a calling rather than a profession hasn't changed over the years. I say "art" rather than "poetry" because work that inspired me, coming from places in the spirit of earlier Black Mountain College, New College in San Francisco, and the St. Mark's Poetry Project, among others, during the 1960s and throughout the 1970s seemed open to collaboration between disciplines, to taking risks and testing limits. Then I felt the page was an open field—words on it an instant fusion of hearing and seeing. This is less the case now, probably because of the radical shift during these years from typewriters and xerox machines to computer technology.

In the edition of the long-delayed H.D. Book, just published by University of California Press, Robert Duncan tells us: "The secret of the poetic art lies in the keeping of time…To keep time—designing or discovering lines of melodic coherence." He wrote this in 1961. In 1949 W.C. Williams exclaimed in Book III of Paterson (a work that grows more and more daring and more comforting the older I get) "Rigor of beauty is the quest. But how will you find beauty when it is locked in the mind past all remonstrance!" In 2011, I keep hearing that poetry is irrelevant and there certainly isn't much market for it. That doesn't scare me. Poetry, grounded in the perception of endings, enjambment, and disjunction, is both a defiance of authority and a deposit from a future yet to come.

Poets.org: You mention the technological shift that has happened in the last four decades, and continues to happen. When you say that "the page was an open field" and that it seems less the case now, what do you mean by that? With the internet, social networking, and blog culture also being in the mix today, do you see those as places where taking risks and testing limits can happen for writers?

Howe: When I said "the page was an open field" I had Charles Olson's essay "Projective Verse" in mind. Here he says that "from the moment [a writer] ventures into FIELD COMPOSITION—puts himself in the open—he can go under no other track than the one the poem under hand declares, for itself." Olson has currently fallen out of favor and it's too bad. I remember the thrill of first encountering the Maximus Poems IV, V, and VI in The Cape Golliard Press, 1968 edition. For Olson the syllable and the line make the poem—to that pair I would also add the margin.

Wallace Stevens says "Poetry is the scholars' art." Olson and Ives (among many others whose work I love) are scholar artists. In our culture this is taking a risk. Maximus is a concatenation of documents, dates, local legends, and quotations, arranged in such a way as to express force and peace. Charles Ives provides similar visionary intensity through sound quotation in pieces like The Concord Sonata.

Emily Dickinson was born in 1830, so her writing years occurred during the invention and widespread use of the typewriter. Sometimes I wonder over the insistent pencil or pen strokes in her late fragments and drafts—the way each word, syllable, punctuation mark, or letter shape is separate from and speaks to what follows or interrupts. "A Word is inundation when it comes from the Sea—Peter took the Marine Walk at the great risk," she once wrote. She tried the sentence out on a scrap of paper before incorporating it in a letter to an unknown recipient. She understood the prevision of the organizing intellect (habit) versus the unruliness of immediate sensation (spontaneity). In poetry they are antithetical but necessary to each other. A poet enters the engulfing nature of language itself—the distance and immediacy of words. Maybe her late drafts and fragments with their repetitive marks, crosses, dashes, strokes, circles, slashes, and blanks are archaic compositional sources clearing the ground for something new.

I couldn't imagine life now without my computer and the internet. Younger artists are here to test its limits and risks. Electronic technologies, as they evolve, are suggesting possible new forms of textual reproduction and presentation. The wide range of approaches and premises currently at play in the theory and practice of text editing offers hope that we may some day get useful editions of controversial manuscripts, such as those of Emily Dickinson, or Charles Sanders Peirce, among a host of other authors. That would be a delight. Except—there is nothing like seeing the original: it's a relation between the imagination and reality. As a person who used the typewriter for most of my writing life (shift key, roller, type bars, print head, paper as a surface the key strikes) I am still wondering over the way sound is limited and exaggerated in typeface and its relation to the quiet of marginal spaces on paper in a book.

Poets.org: To end on a question about the medium specificity of poetry and where pleasure fits in, do you think language, as a meaning-making tool, engages the intellect and the senses differently than music or the visual arts? What, if anything, do you think is unique to poetry as an art form?

Howe: For poets, in sometimes productive and unexpected ways, the internet is anti-virtuosity—virtuosity is yesterday's truth. Sadly, I was born yesterday, so, in answering the previous question, I don't think I emphasized clearly enough ways in which this digital age presents exciting new opportunities for collaboration between art forms. New relations will be found among disparate practices even though we don't immediately grasp their law of continuity. I know words are electrically connected through meter and melody, but my idea of what music in its sonic digital manifestation can encompass has widened and changed since collaborating with the composer David Grubbs on several recent projects.

As to pleasure in terms of affect and the senses—the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce titled a group of essays Chance, Love, and Logic. For me, this title encompasses poetry. Poems are intentional and intuitive at once. The spirit of execution is a spirit of experiment, an openness to order which chance creates. Words are visually concrete and tangibly audible. A poet surrenders with discipline to the sense of sound, sight, ideas, and rhythm in conjunction. Single words and sentence clusters directly affect involuntary memory. Involuntary memory is lucid, pre-verbal, soothing. "Affection" in Jonathan Edwards's sense of the term is the passion of a mind bent on a particular object but without its actual presence. The word stands in for the object. So the words you choose must be perfect. The world is charged with language; as a poet I am intensely involved in its logic. Of course language can't be separated from perception. It's a visibility effect of singular forces dispersed here and there, and at the same time concentrated and compressed between. Something to do with abstracting and recuperating the measure of time and memory. It's a balance of openness and closure, momentary epiphanies, human voices—unanswered questions.

Years ago a friend gave me a postcard reproduction I've kept pinned on the wall to the left of the computer screen, so I am facing it while I write. It's a detail from J.M.W. Turner's "The Angel Standing in the Sun." Emily Dickinson read Ruskin's Modern Painters; she recycled a passage for use in one of her so-called "Master Letters." I am pretty sure that Ruskin's account of how Turner's myriad watercolor sketches gradually drop away from detail into an epiphany of undecidability, may have encouraged her own writing-drawing process in her very late work. In this color photo reproduction the Angel of Revelation is brandishing a sword in his right hand. His dazzled gaze is toward infinite light. He could be traveling..."out upon Circumference—Beyond the dip of Bell—."

In conclusion, the question about what is unique to poetry, leads me back to thoughts on the circumference of Peirce's "Love in a Universe of Chance," and to the visionary company of love in Hart Crane's "Broken Tower." It isn't sky, only words of the sky. An imitation on the surface—drawn icon or written sign. To keep time—to measure. Now this way, now that way. Hit or miss—an arrow aimed at the eye of love.