The poet Susan Howe is probably best known today for a book published more than thirty years ago that is not by any conventional definition a work of poetry. My Emily Dickinson (1985) is a hybrid prose work including elements of literary criticism, cultural history, personal essay, lyric rhapsody, and aesthetic manifesto. Much of it consists of quotations, often with minimal or no comment. These come from Dickinson’s poems and letters, but also from Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, Jonathan Edwards’s sermons, Shakespeare’s history plays, the Brownings, Emily Brontë, and other sources. They are a record of Dickinson’s reading—and Howe’s. The “My” in Howe’s title is both a modest admission of partiality and an emphatic claim of possession.
My Emily Dickinson appeared in an era when feminist critics were rewriting literary history by bringing gender to the center of analysis and recovering the work of women writers. Howe joins in that general project but rejects any suggestion that Dickinson was a victim, a shut-in oppressed by patriarchal society and prevented from publishing. Her Dickinson is memorably fierce, a Calvinist nonconformist and mystical antinomian, “an American woman with Promethean ambition” who “sings of liberation into an order beyond gender.” She seems to remember and channel America’s founding history of violence, from the genocidal conquest of New England to the bloodshed of the Civil War. Yet Howe also insists that Dickinson was a contemplative poet, a reader, and a scholar. “Her talent,” Howe writes, “was synthetic; she used other writers, grasped straws from the bewildering raveling of Being wherever and whenever she could use them. Crucial was her ability to spin straw into gold.”
My Emily Dickinson is a powerful book about Dickinson. But it’s still in print and a contemporary classic because it is also a powerful book about Howe. What Howe has to say about Dickinson repeatedly says something apt and penetrating about her own writing. Her remarks about Dickinson’s “talent” point up how typically Howe herself writes out of the sense of urgency neatly expressed in that image of the writer as a reader grasping at straws and then spinning them into gold, like the miller’s daughter in the Rumpelstiltskin story, whose life depended on it.
This is what Howe does with Dickinson and all her quotations. To object that Howe’s Dickinson is more Howe than Dickinson simply misses the point. My Emily Dickinson belongs in an American tradition of works of visionary cultural history, including Howe’s models, William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain and Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael, whose aims and methods are different from and sometimes directly opposed to those of academic scholarship. The intention in such books, Howe has said, is for the writer to “meet the work” of the past, “not to explain” but to “meet” another writer, “mind to mind, friend to friend.” “Not just to write a tribute but to meet [Dickinson] in the tribute”—that was what Howe wanted to do.
Like The Birth-mark (1993), which gathers more writing by Howe on American literature, My Emily Dickinson gives us the reassuring impression that we know what kind of book it is and what it is about. This is in contrast to Howe’s poetry, in which, as a rule, she doesn’t write “about” a specific topic, and indeed writes in ways that many readers would hardly recognize as poetry, so fragmentary and disjunctive is it. But the distinction between Howe’s prose and poetry is hard to maintain. They are both formally innovative and intellectually demanding. Many of the essays collected in The Quarry (2015), Howe’s selected essays, first appeared in her books of poetry, where they are integral to the book, rather than ancillary or framing; and the poems in those books come out of the same preoccupations and make use of the same materials as her essays. This destabilizing play with genres characterizes everything Howe writes. It throws us back on our premises and makes us ask what a poem or an essay might be.
When we do, we start to read in the way that Howe does in My Emily Dickinson. The challenge is ultimately the same whether we’re reading her essays or her poetry, but insofar as the essays explicitly show Howe reading, and thereby show us how to read as she does, they supply a guide typically missing from her poetry, the absence of which makes it very difficult. This isn’t a kind of difficulty, moreover, that can be solved by explanatory notes, even if Howe were to provide them, although it helps a great deal when you know what she’s quoting from or alluding to. Nor is it a question of Howe speaking exclusively to an avant-garde audience. Her poetry is influenced by Minimalist painting, Concrete poetry, and experimental film, and it is usually associated with Language poetry. These influences and affiliations are significant, and no doubt fruitful to consider, but it’s just as important to read her work as part of a long literary tradition.
Howe’s work belongs to a class of difficult poetry succinctly defined by the poet and critic Allen Grossman. For Grossman, the prototypical lyric poem is a translation and interpretation of some other “poem,” some elemental music or foreign speech: think of Keats and the nightingale. To this model, Grossman contrasts poems of “intensity,” in which there is no mediating speaker, no interpreter or meaning-maker; the reader is instead immersed in the disorienting sounds and symbols of discourse not yet organized as meaning, and therefore not yet organized in a form that satisfies standard notions of what a poem is. Poems like these, with a nightingale in them but no Keats, are oracular, riddling, and rare. They place the reader in the position of an “exegetical participant” who is somehow “internal” to the poem and tasked with “completing” rather than “deriving” its significance.
Grossman introduces these ideas in an essay on Hart Crane. He groups Crane poems such as “The Broken Tower” with bits of Shakespeare (“The Phoenix and the Turtle”), Blake (“The Mental Traveller”), Dickinson, Melville, and Yeats. All of these writers, including Crane, matter to Howe. All of them have affinities with sacred or occult poetry that reach back into classical literature and the Bible. For Howe, the crucial fact is that she finds inspiration not in listening to a nightingale, the roaring wind, or a burning bush, but in reading these and other writers, and above all when she reads them in facsimile and variorum editions and manuscript archives. Then Howe hears with her eyes as “a slash or mark wells up from a deeper place where music before counting hails from,” and her own poetry begins.
The phrase “music before counting” comes from Debths, Howe’s new collection of poems. Arriving in her eightieth year, the book pushes forward with fresh experiments in poetic form, while looking back on the whole of her life and career. Concerned with first and last things, with childhood and old age, it is a summing up of what is essential and abiding; and it is also just the opposite, a book of dispersals and vanishings that gives the last word to the illegible and incomplete.
The word “debths” comes from Finnegans Wake in a passage Howe uses as an epigraph for the book. It combines “debts,” “depths,” and “deaths.” The word is an example of Howe’s interest in misspellings, slips of the tongue, and chance verbal arrangements. A reader can’t help but stumble on the unfamiliar noun, and puzzle over it. Its strangeness and richness follow from its compression. Here, in one word, Howe binds three themes without settling the relations (the syntax, so to speak) among them. The point might be that death is the time of reckoning, when we must admit how deep in debt we are, and pay with our lives. Or it may be that our debts are a consolation. When they are debts to the past and to the collective history we call culture, the kind of debts evident in Howe’s echoes and quotations, including “debths” itself, they are deep ties to everything in human life that, for good or for ill, will survive us.
That she discovered rather than invented “debths,” and that Joyce is the writer who coined it, are both important. By allusion to Joyce, she marks her debts to Irish culture and to modernism, which are associated with her Irish mother, the actress and writer Mary Manning, who knew Yeats and Beckett and adapted passages of Finnegans Wake for the stage. Her father, Mark De Wolfe Howe, a legal scholar and Harvard professor, is present by implication elsewhere in the book through references to the poet-lawyer Wallace Stevens, the nineteenth-century lawyer and author William Austin, and John Chipman Gray, who wrote The Nature and Sources of the Law (1909) and other treatises still studied in American law schools. (“John Gray stands in for my father,” Howe observes in Debths, making the point herself.)
Over the years, Howe has developed a more or less consistent format for her poetry collections. She groups together two or more sequences of short poems—in Debths there are four—that respond to works of literature and visual art or archival materials of some kind. Only the sequences have titles, while the short poems, organized in lines, in blocks of prose, or as collages made from various print sources, each appear on a page framed by much white space. Written last but coming first in the order of her completed book is a prose essay in which she introduces her assembled materials and begins to explore them.
“Foreword” serves this role in Debths. Here Howe explains that many of the book’s ideas and images come from her experience as an artist-in-residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The sequence “Titian Air Vent” refers to particular paintings in the museum, curatorial wall text and catalog copy, and physical features of the building itself, such as the whispered roar of the air vent in the Titian room. Howe sees Gardner as “a pioneer American installation artist” and evokes her in the company of Henry James, Minny Temple, and other characters from Gilded Age Boston whom Howe has written about before.
“Foreword” also mentions as an inspiration the artist Paul Thek, whose retrospective exhibition, “Diver,” Howe saw at the Whitney Museum in 2011. Howe is drawn to many things in Thek’s work: the image of the diver, the dreamlike blues in his late work, his way of painting on and mostly obscuring newspaper text, his small bronze sculptures based on the Pied Piper story, and qualities of secrecy and whimsy that remind Howe of childhood’s magical thinking. “Periscope,” the third of the book’s four sequences, takes its title from a painting by Thek in which a periscope peers out of the water, which Howe links to the “Castaway” chapter of Moby-Dick, in which the cabin boy Pip is abandoned in the open sea, sinks into the depths, and has a vision of “God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom.”
While “Foreword” presents these references in a relatively straightforward way, much more is happening. Howe makes us immediately conscious of that otherwise neutral-seeming title by starting her book with the phrase “Going back! Going back!” It is a haunting reminder of Dickinson’s two-word message to her young cousins in her last letter—“Called back”—which Howe has alluded to before in her work. All of Howe’s books involve going back into the past. This time she is going back into childhood memories under the pressure of death’s calling. Next come the maddening lyrics of Bing Crosby’s song “Little Sir Echo,” recorded with the Music Maids in 1939: “Little Sir Echo, how do you do?/Hello! (Hello!) Hello! (Hello!)/Little Sir Echo, we’ll answer you,” and so on. It is a peculiar, disorienting point of entry for the book, until we learn that Howe was sent at age eight to a summer camp for girls called Little Sir Echo. She remembers a picnic with her parents on the camp’s visiting day, after which, despite pleading to go back home with them to Boston, she was left “alone with my dread of being lost in the past; absent.”
Already on the first page, a great deal has been opened up for Debths to pursue. Howe’s remembered picnic introduces a sublime landscape—New England mountains and a deep blue lake—that reappears in the blazing blues of Thek’s paintings and the sea where Pip is left alone; the rocky cliffs evoked in a draft poem by Yeats that Howe quotes; and the rock into which the Pied Piper leads the children of Hamelin, forever to be lost.
Also mixed up with the child’s desperate sense of abandonment is another set of associations that will be unfolded throughout Debths concerning William Austin’s story “Peter Rugg: The Missing Man,” which tells of a ruined man “condemned to wander with his small daughter in a one-horse chair perpetually searching for Boston.” Howe points out that Rugg was a model for Hawthorne’s character Wakefield and by extension for Melville’s Bartleby. He is also related to figures of legend like the Wandering Jew, the Flying Dutchman, and Peter Schlemihl, the man without a shadow. Schlemihl is depicted on the front cover of Debths leaping in his seven-league boots from the edge of an iceberg, one leg stretched out over a roiling sea, in an etching by George Cruikshank, Dickens’s marvelous collaborator.
Howe’s associations are usually activated by some linguistic trigger. “There are names under things and names inside names,” she says. To trace those names is to bring “to light what has long been hidden in this psychic acousmatic toiling moil.” Howe thinks of that “toiling moil” (another phrase from Joyce) as a historical reservoir of voices echoing below the surface of our consciousness. The name that Rugg and Schlemihl share, “Peter,” comes from the Latin word for “rock,” which brings us back to the Pied Piper, whose name is very close to Pip’s. The Piper’s music, bewitching the children of Hamelin, points to the hypnotic charm of language as a sign system in which words link up with other words by means of shared sounds and letters, resulting in combinations that may or may not make sense—or lie somewhere in between, as in the inspired gibberish Pip speaks after being rescued, or in the case of echolalia. Language in this form is a version of the nightingale’s song and the “toiling moil” of Finnegans Wake itself. It is the basis of Howe’s wordplay, which in Debths includes instances of echolalia and channeled speech found in William James’s research on a celebrated Boston medium. Her name? Mrs. Piper.
“Titian Air Vent” broods on the future of the cultural past. The poems in this sequence are little boxes for Howe’s memories and associations, fitfully captured. They are formatted like wall text for artworks in a museum, with a noun, name, or phrase for the label or title, followed by a short block of prose, and then a series of nouns on another line, suggesting a list of materials (“Ceramic, plastic, laquer, newspaper” or “Reliquary, trellis cross-grid, shoelace, comma”). But Howe no sooner establishes that format than she disrupts it. Indeed, it should be emphasized how anarchic and playful this writing is. Although hardly known for her humor, Howe ought to be. Dry wit is a subtle ingredient in her work. But she can also be giddy and boisterous, even or especially when she is most serious, as in this antic response to Thek’s Fishman in Excelsis, a sculpture, both sublime and grotesque, in which dozens of fish and a tangle of cord resembling fishing line cling to a pale latex cast of the artist’s body, suspended in air as if floating above the viewer:
For what Porpoise
My body is made of bones. In times of trouble and perplexity I can bend my limbs and stretch half fish half Fishman in Excelsis. A luminous aura surrounds all things noumenal. No need for money money money
Believe me I am not rubbish
The first person is tricky in Howe. Here the “I” would seem to refer to Thek’s Fishman, then perhaps to Thek, and only then, if then, to Howe, as she “meets” Thek in her appreciation for the luminous thing he created. “No need for money” when there is illumination, even if the artist is forgotten and destitute, as Thek was before his death from AIDS in 1988. Who or what says “I am not rubbish”? It could be the seeming trash Thek took for his materials, the art he made with it, which in the case of his installation environments simply couldn’t be preserved; or it could be Thek himself, speaking to us from an era when American society treated people with AIDS very much like rubbish. His Fishman returns from the depths he plumbed to confront and provoke, like Pip or the drowned poet Hart Crane. Dickinson too is a revenant of this kind; her poetry survives in the perishable form of her holograph fascicles and scraps of envelope and note paper. “These tallied scraps float,” Howe writes in “Periscope,” referring at once to her poetry and its sources, “like glass skiffs quietly for/love or pity and all that.”
“What an idea in such a time/as ours,” she admits, as the same five-line wisp of a poem in “Periscope” continues. Set beside Donald Trump or climate change—topics defining the end of the world in our time that are hinted at in the snarling polar bear and jagged iceberg on the cover of Debths—poetry cannot possibly matter at all. Howe replies to that thought by ending her little poem with the alliterative phrase “Pip among Pleiads,” which evokes Pip alone at sea under the stars, a floating scrap, another Fishman in Excelsis. “Pleiads” looks at first like a mistake for “Pleiades,” the seven sisters by which ancient Greek sailors plotted their course. But no, “Pleiads” is a choice, not an error. The noun, indicating a group of seven illustrious people or brilliant things, works as a variant name for the constellation; and the slight awkwardness of it, the insistence on using the unexpected form, is pure Susan Howe.
There is a long history of thinking about poetry as a heightened emotional and intellectual experience. The New Critics insisted that a lyric poem is so special it can’t be paraphrased. In her collage poems Howe goes one better by producing lyrics that can’t be quoted, only described or reproduced, like works of visual art.
Howe’s method for making collage poems is decidedly pre-digital. She uses scissors to snip text out of photocopied pages of books she’s interested in (sometimes directly out of the books themselves), arranges her scraps of text on ordinary sheets of white paper, tapes these in place, and photocopies the result on her Canon copier. “Text” in this case includes complete phrases and sometimes a passage of prose or poetry, but also punctuation, index entries, page numbers, running heads, and the like. Typically the collage is layered, with one scrap partially covering another. The text might be taped upside down or on a diagonal. Letters are broken, and words or parts of words repeated, as in a stutter or a bit of echolalia. So while it is possible to find statements and ideas in Howe’s collages, the visual complication of the page constantly interferes with our habits of decoding text, calling our attention to different fonts and leading or smeared traces of tape, and slowing down our reading almost to the point of thwarting it. There is so much white on each page that it becomes an element of composition, neither empty space nor mere background but part of what Howe is saying, and something to absorb and respond to.
Howe has combined the activities of reading and collage-making to create a highly original mode of writing that raises questions about what poetry is and how it works on a level even more fundamental than her spirited play with the genres of poem and essay. There is a paradox in the technique that’s important to notice. Howe is after the sort of “intensity” that Grossman describes: the poem as direct contact with the source of inspiration, in which the reader is invited to a meeting of minds modeled on Howe’s engagements with Dickinson and so many others. But we need to ask: If immediacy and connection are the goals of this poetry, why pursue them by a method that foregrounds the mediation of print and the collage-maker’s craft—fonts and diacritical marks, scissors and tape—and puts up such obstacles to reading? Wouldn’t you want a clear channel? Why turn up the noise?
Howe suggests an answer when she comments on her fascination with the facsimile editions of Yeats’s late poetry manuscripts. “What interests me most,” she explains, “isn’t the photographed handwritten original on the even numbered side but the facing typographical transcription on the odd. These doggedly Quixotic efforts at conversion are a declaration of faith.” Like her Dickinson, Howe is a scholar. She finds inspiration not just in the poet’s holograph but in the editor’s effort to transcribe it. The results can only be reductive and imperfect, but the marks of failure (strikethroughs, empty brackets, question marks) record a heroic “declaration of faith.” Even in its partiality, the transcription shows there is something larger and vital that can be no more than pointed to. The idea recalls the quest motif in Romanticism: the quest fails, but it affirms the power of mind to conceive of the goal, and the hero’s strength of will in undertaking to pursue it. Howe quotes Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” in both My Emily Dickinson and Debths.
There are two collage-poem sequences in Debths, “Tom Tit Tot” and “Debths.” “Sometimes,” Howe writes in “Foreword,” “I think of ‘Tom Tit Tot’ and ‘Debths’ as collaged essays on the last poems of William Butler Yeats, the poet I loved first.” “Tom Tit Tot,” containing fifty-seven collage poems, is the longest section of Debths, and Howe places it at the book’s center. The title, which could pass for an instance of echolalia, refers to one of the books Howe copied and cut up to create it: Tom Tit Tot: An Essay on Savage Philosophy in Folk-Tale by Edward Clodd (1898). It returns to the Rumpelstiltskin story, of which Tom Tit Tot is an English variant. Some of these collages stretch across verso and recto pages, twisting and twining snippets of text like the miller’s daughter’s straw. Howe perhaps expects a demon to knock on her door any day and claim his due. Even on a casual study of the poems, certain phrases come to the fore that make “Tom Tit Tot” feel not simply retrospective but valedictory: “The rymes I have made,” “hopes and fears about a life’s wor[k],” and, again, “fears about a life’s work.”
“Debths,” the book’s conclusion, carries both the collage form and this sense of ending further. It is much briefer than “Tom Tit Tot,” and its collages are much smaller, with many fewer words. The reader may need a magnifying glass to follow Howe’s poetry as it recedes from view, sucked back into the blank page, the “deeper place” from which “music before counting hails.” It’s one of the remarkable properties of her collage poems that, when Howe performs them in public readings or in collaboration with the composer David Grubbs, they turn out to be texts that can be read aloud. But “Debths” is not a poem that can be read aloud. On the last page are two faint crossed-out words and a tiny trail of broken numbers, slipping into silence.
Yet “Debths” has plenty to say, much of which, as usual with Howe, it says by means of quotations. We can make out some of her sources: Paradise Lost, Donne’s “Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward,” Yeats’s “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” and a phrase from one of Yeats’s late manuscripts, “upon the frontier of unimaged night.” These are mighty poems to invoke. The Canon copier is working on the canon here. If Howe’s poems are to stand up to such sources, they must be capable of being read for the same reasons, and in some of the same ways, that we read and value her sources.
They are capable of that. For all of their difficulty and originality, Howe’s collages never stop being poetry. Even as they call out for new ways of reading, they also respond to familiar ones. For instance, the final collage in “Tom Tit Tot” can be read—almost—as if it were a free verse poem. Rather than being centered, the text presses against the left edge of the page. We can transcribe it as follows, with brackets to indicate a broken or illegible letter, allowing for the loss and distortion of some of the poem’s essential effects:
er’s edges. The par-
[m] underneath, half
[c]hance for any unity
[d], dust and puddle,
[o]pposition in its most
[ ], and yet all will be
[I]TTLE above eye-
l if not a little below
What is Howe saying with her scissors, tape, photocopy, and white paper? Well, the subject is central to her poetics: “edges.” Influenced by the “cuts” in cinematic montage and collage art, Howe’s poetry alters perception by disrupting syntax and grammar. That technique is extended here to cutting up words themselves to see what’s inside or “underneath” them. What we find are parts—halves, not wholes—or simply “dust and puddle.” This leaves Howe’s writing on the edge of intelligibility and even legibility. There can be no “chance for any unity” in such poetry. The most it can do is put up “opposition” to the regimes of power that maintain the order of the world, asserting contradiction and division in place of unity and its false consolations.
Or is Howe saying the opposite—that a disjunctive poetry like hers is our only “chance for any unity”? That’s an equally plausible inference. Throughout Howe’s career, the spirit of her work has been critical and skeptical, angry and oppositional, but also openly utopian. So we shouldn’t be surprised here when she continues by reversing direction: “and yet all will be.” It’s tempting to finish that phrase by adding “well”—as if it were a quotation from T.S. Eliot in his Anglican phase. But Howe stops short of promising us anything beyond the certainty that what will be, will be. She closes this meditation by returning to her central concern with perception. What she wants to do is bring into focus something between the lines, a little above or below eye level.
This account of the poem misses much of the interest of its material presence on the page, and therefore much of what makes it a Howe poem. At best, it’s one dimension of the poem. But that dimension is readily available. When we work at “completing” rather than “deriving” its significance, as Grossman puts it, the poem mounts a rigorous and poignant argument. If that argument seems highly literary, being preoccupied with its own process of composition and its implications, we can say the same thing about the work of Pound, Stevens, Stein, and Ashbery. Howe should be read in the company of these and other American poets who reconfigured the ground rules of their art. With her long career in view today, her comment on Dickinson, in 1985, applies to Howe herself:
A great poet, carrying the antique imagination of her fathers, requires of each reader to leap from a place of certain signification, to a new situation, undiscovered and sovereign. She carries intelligence of the past into future of our thought by reverence and revolt.