The Stutter in the Text: Editing and Historical Authority in the Work of Susan Howe

by Susan M. Schultz


Mark DeWolfe Howe: The complexities of history deserve our respect.

Hayden White: It does not matter whether the world is conceived to be real or only imagined; the manner of making sense of it is the same.

Susan Howe: Somewhere Thoreau says that exaggerated history is poetry.

Susan Howe: If history is a record of survivors, Poetry shelters other voices.

Susan Howe’s work, while every bit as idiosyncratic in style as that of Language poets such as Charles Bernstein, revises tradition through her self-announced role as editor/interpreter of a series of prior texts.  Where Bernstein’s “dysraphism” describes a poetry constructed of mis-seaming, or the radical and ironic unraveling of tradition, Howe begins from a place of mis-seaming and reconstructs (or sews together) traditional texts. [1] Hers is a “tradition and the individual talent” with the caveat that she is a woman taking her place in a largely male tradition, so that she appears dysraphically in it.  She doesn’t attempt to step outside tradition, but to redescribe and reframe an existing one in such a way that it admits women.             

The truest of Howe’s originary metaphors for her “place”—or lack of one—in poetic tradition is that of the Harvard Library to which she was forbidden access when she was a young woman.  In The birth-mark: unsettling the wilderness in American literary history, Howe writes her own captivity narrative (which is also in a sense a conversion narrative) about her experience of that library as wildness. “What is forbidden is wild,” she writes:

The stacks of Widener Library [at Harvard, where her father taught law] and of all great libraries in the world are still the wild to me.  Thoreau went to the woods because he wished to live deliberately in order to give a true account in his next excursion.  I go to libraries because they are the ocean. (TBM 18)

When she went to the (ironically named) Widener Library with her father, she was forced to remain outside the second-floor entrance to the stacks because, as her father told her, to come in further would be to “trespass.”  She waited outside the entrance while he “entered the guarded territory to hunt for books”(TBM 18), a phrase in which “hunting” loses metaphorical softening and re-acquires a violent connotation.  Howe’s status at the frontier of learning made her a captive within the wilderness and so linked her to Mary Rowlandson, whom she calls “the mother of us all”(TBM 167), as well as the Native Americans who are the “other” of Rowlandson’s captivity narrative.  Howe writes that “a lot of my work is about breaking free: starting free and being captured and breaking free again and being captured again”(TBM 166).  She is at once lost in the wilderness and denied entry into it.  The escape into the wilderness or library will link her with the Native Americans whose lost voices so interest her in Singularities.  But it also allies her with Mary Rowlandson’s ambivalence about her captivity.  Howe’s authority stems, therefore, both from a sense of being originary, a member of an oppressed group whose power can only come from solidarity, and from her status as a representative of the dominant culture: white, historical rather than mythical, and editorial.  In both cases, Howe is a “captive,” but the nature of her capitivity oscillates between that of someone forbidden language and of someone, like Mary Rowlandson, who lays claim to a language and set of beliefs that are not hers, but those of male intermediaries—editors, publishers, authors of source texts (foremost among them, the Bible).  Authority is still figured as male and white, marginality as female and “other.”  Howe’s task as a poet who means to call these roles into question is that of a cross-thinker who fashions her role from a blending and blurring of traditional hierarchies.  To the extent that she succeeds at this, her poetry offers a radical new interpretation of American history and literature.  To the extent that she fails, merely turning the master narratives inside out, rather than dispensing with them or writing new ones, her work provides us with a problematic instance in the larger tradition of American works like William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain and earlier Puritan narratives of mythologized history.

Howe does not disdain the library, as she might; instead she infiltrates it like the scout in her poem, “Thorow,” who inhabits the wilderness secretly, and who alters it by seeing, not by attempting to “civilize” it. [2]   While Language writing creates a radically and self-consciously “new” poetry, Howe relies on the notion that poetic authority must be built upon the past and, more crucially, that there is no difference between poetry and history.  What is most radical in her work is her sense that the tradition is wild and that entry into the wilderness makes the poet into a scout or a captive, not an empire builder.  If the scout is also an editor, or a reviser, however, then her territory is still imperial rather than truly egalitarian; the burden of history, for Howe, is that it repeats itself, even as it is being edited. 

Howe’s authority, then, is paradoxical; while she uses elements of the historical record in her poems, she does not use them as a conventional historian would.  For example, in “Articulation of Sound Forms in Time,” a poem I will read in more detail later on, Howe introduces a wanderer, Hope Atherton, from the historical record only to assert that, since “hope” is a word used to represent the feminine in our culture, “he” can be used to re-tell the tale in transvestite fashion.  “Sound forms in time,” then, exist at the intersection of history and language; if history is told through language, and in some sense created by it, then history can be changed by altering and articulating sound forms in new ways.  History in Howe’s work is dependent on the procedures of language; her authority as historian is based on her authority as a poet, not vice versa.  Such authority, while based on the record, often depends on rhetorical moves rather than the introduction of new “data”—the language, not the history, takes her from one place to another.  Language is an instrument for re-creating truth where none—or little—exists.  That her work’s authority is often based on a sleight of hand does not, of necessity, diminish its authority, which is at once reconstitutive (the feminist project of returning women to the text that they’d been left out of) and “emotive” rather than “rational.” [3]   Yet that authority springs from the poet herself, rather than from an “objective” record; Howe is, in fact, a strong critic of objectivity.  Where Howe’s work is most problematic, perhaps, is in her assumption that the poet, or the poet-reviser, can carry this authority on her own back, that she can create out of herself a form of objectivity that is a new history through the manipulation of her (and our) language.

It is through the “wild” that Howe most directly links herself to Emily Dickinson and stakes her claim to participate in the antinomian impulse behind Dickinson’s brand of American literature. “Emily Dickinson’s writing is my strength and my shelter.  I have trespassed into the disciplines of American Studies and Textual Criticism through my need to fathom what wildness and absolute freedom is the nature of expression”(TBM 2).  Howe’s freedom is made, paradoxically, of a melding of voices and genres and forms, and the creation of a system out of texts that attempt to destroy systems that have governed them, including Puritan texts that conflate history with prophecy, American with religious history.  As she explains: “By choosing to install certain narratives somewhere between history, mystic speech, and poetry, I have enclosed them in an organization, although I know there are places no classificatory procedure can reach, where connections between words and things we thought existed break off”(TBM 45).  This amazing sentence gestures toward both a system of organization and classification and toward a mode of writing that is able to capture or explore (in less violent terms) what lives beyond the frontier of a territory we might label “intelligibility.”  What she means to accomplish is a kind of hybridization of writing practices in which her authority as a poet enables her to revise history, while her authority as a revisionary editor allows her to turn historical documents into poetry.  Thus, the poet whose collection, Singularities, ends with the putative name of the author, “THE REVISER,” finally takes liberties not unlike those of the male editors she so despises.  “It was my postmodern editorial decision,” she writes in “Submarginalia,” “to turn some sections of the conversion narratives and Mary Dyer’s letter into poems”(TBM 39). [4]   Howe’s authority, like that of the editors she attacks, is often arbitrary.  It exposes the fundamental ambivalence in Howe’s work, namely her conflict with established authority, which gets played out in Trojan horse fashion, as Howe adopts the myths of her elders and then shows the ways in which they collapse under the weight of alternative readings of history.

Howe’s work is, in many ways, a search for a new kind of authority, one grounded in the history of places rather than of ideas, yet frankly indebted to those histories of ideas imposed upon places. But for her, as for the Romantics, place is often another word for language; Howe reads the landscape with the same freedom, and often the same self-referentiality, as a Romantic poet.  The Romantic poet’s primary interest is not so much in reproducing place as in transcending it, a motivation that complicates Howe’s work, rooted as it is both in the Romantic tradition and that of William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson, and other American anti-Romantic poets           

Howe’s project, the stripping away of accretions of meaning from the historical and literary record, requires an asceticism similar to that found in the work of Laura (Riding) Jackson and Gertrude Stein. [5]   It may be that their most significant intellectual precursors are the Puritan minister and thinker, Jonathan Edwards and, less surprisingly, Emily Dickinson.  Howe, the descendent of them all, would lead us to that connection.  In her blurred genre book of poetic criticism, My Emily Dickinson (1985), Howe paraphrases Edwards’s argument for “each person’s active participation . . . in the battle against sin.  To be in the world but avoid serving Mammon, I must renounce attachment to friends and worldly accomplishment”(MED 48).  For a poet whose religion was poetry, as Howe claims was true for Dickinson, the renunciation of publication is “far from being the misguided modesty of an oppressed female ego,” rather, “it is a consummate Calvinist gesture of self-assertion by a poet with faith to fling election loose across the incandescent shadows of futurity”(MED 49).  Where Dickinson refuses to participate in tradition, however, Howe constructs a tradition largely through her work on Dickinson.  For Howe, that tradition is not only made up of poetry, but also of editorship.

For the Puritans, who distrusted language, words are material; they are allied more to Mammon than to spirit.  Howe describes the necessary Puritan renunciation of Mammon in and through language that echoes Williams in In the American Grain and his review of Marianne Moore as a writer whose words are “clean” and free of an “aroma.” [6]   Howe writes: “If language imposes on the understanding names which familiarity has deadened, how does a minister preach a sermon when words and images have become predictable?”(MED 50)  The answer comes through a process of denuding language, purifying it, stripping off its metaphorical clothing: “Ideas must be stripped to their essence, rhetorical embroidery torn off”(MED 50).  Howe makes the connection to Dickinson, whom she sees as a poet of positive negation: “The recipient of a letter, or combination of letter and poem from Emily Dickinson, was forced much like Edwards’ listening congregation, through shock and through subtraction of the ordinary, to a new way of perceiving”(MED 51). 

In an America where, as Kenneth Dauber argues, “authority is . . . defined as rhetorical from the very start”(52), Dickinson’s authority comes out of a rhetoric of subtraction.  Stephen Greenblatt might be describing her (and Howe) when he writes about the Protestant ethos of Tynedale that “the Protestant discourse of self [emerges] out of conflicting impulses: rage against authority and identification with authority”(85).  For Howe, the original instance of this conflict from within the highly prized notion of authority was the Antinomian controversy of the late 1630s, at whose center was a woman, Anne Hutchinson.  Hutchinson, according to David D. Hall, represented a Puritan belief system that put an emphasis on inner spiritual experience.  Like Dickinson, Hutchinson “devalued the outward material world”(xi) and claimed the authority of her own inspiration.  In so doing, she “was openly defying the hierarchical authority that men derived from their gender, and from gender-restricted learning”(xi).  As a result of her “enthusiasm” and her claim to possess authority in her own right, Hutchinson was banished, denied even the knowledge of where she was being exiled.  In an interesting, but in many ways typical, conflation of nature and history, Howe writes that Hutchinson was then “murdered in the natural wilderness by history”(TBM 4).  The “natural wilderness” becomes less natural when it is implicated in the historical event of a woman’s exile.

Howe claims for Dickinson a similar fate—Dickinson who is as wild as her name’s etymology: “Emily: Feminine of the Teutonic Emil, ‘the industrious,’ stems from Amalia of the ancient Goths; and Amalia, or Amelia, goes back to the wild forest people known as the Ameler”(MED 65).  Although Howe does not see Dickinson’s non-publication as banishment but as an instance of self-assertion, she thinks of the male editors of Dickinson’s work as literary policemen bent on taming the poet’s natural wildness.  In this they are in some ways like the male editors of conversion and captivity narratives in New England: “A woman, afraid of not speaking well, tells her story to a man who writes it down. . . All testimonies are bereft, brief, hungry, pious, authorized”(Caldwell 50).  Patricia Caldwell uses a concept that is crucial to Howe’s sense of her own work, namely the “stammer”: “many of these voices were not so much crying in the wilderness as they were stammering to themselves in the dark.  But they did talk, because they had to”(114-5).  The verb construction “had to” is provocatively ambiguous here; not only did Puritans have to speak of their experiences in the New World due to their severity and strangeness, but these women spoke through the medium of male editors.  Their conversions were double, for not only did their spiritual worlds change, but so did their actual words.

Because women’s words were, from the beginning, transcribed and edited by men, Howe begins The birth-mark: unsettling the wilderness in American literary history by connecting a rejection of antinomianism to editorial practice: “The issue of editorial control is directly connected to the attempted erasure of antinomianism in our culture.  Lawlessness seen as negligence is at first feminized and then restricted or banished”(1).  Such lawlessness disturbs the very commerce of a society that places commercial value—however little—on words: “The trace of her unapprehended passage through letters disturbs the order of a world where commerce is reality and authoritative editions freeze poems into artifacts”(TBM 19).  Like Hutchinson, Dickinson is “tamed,” disciplined, frozen, and then frozen-out. 

Dickinson lived, according to Howe, “really alone at a real frontier, dwelling in Possibility”(MED 76).  It can be no mistake, then, that Howe devotes so much space and energy in her book about Dickinson to that poet’s frontier poem written in the midst of the Civil War, “My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun,” which Howe describes further as having as its subject “the lust for power”(MED 85).  Power, as Dickinson and Howe know, “will always demand sacrifice and subjugation of one group by another”(MED 93) and also demands the creation of authority through a demonization of the “other.” As Stephen Greenblatt writes in Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (1980), a book whose influence Howe acknowledges, “Self-fashioning is achieved in relation to something perceived as alien, strange, or hostile.  This threatening Other... must be discovered or invented in order to be attacked and destroyed”(9). Historiographer Hayden White also writes about the notion of “wildness” as part of “a set of culturally self-authenticating devices” and asserts that, “like the Puritans who came after him, Augustine found that one way of establishing the ‘meaning’ of his own life was to deny meaning to anything radically different from it, except as anti-type or negative instance”(151).  In terms historically, if not psychologically, closer to Howe’s own, Richard Slotkin writes that, “in opposing the Indian culture, the Puritan symbolically affirmed his Englishness”(22).  Eric Cheyfitz goes even further when he writes: “As Cronon’s seventeenth-century Puritans were meeting his seventeenth-century Algonquians, the Puritan’s God, we might say, was becoming truly American (as opposed to Native American): the ultimate individual, the infinite proprietor”(55).  Michel de Certeau helps us to make a link between the notion of a wildness considered “other” and Howe’s declaration that this move often depends on the “feminization” of the concepts.  De Certeau is interested in “the possessed woman, the victim”(245) and writes that “there must always be a gap between what the possessed woman utters and what the demonological or medical discourse makes of it”(247).  To that, Howe would add “editorial discourse,” or that which tames the possessed woman’s wildness (an especially evocative phrase when it is applied to a poet) by invisibly closing the gap between the woman’s words and the way in which those words are printed.  She also notes that, “If you are a woman, archives hold perpetual ironies.  Because the gaps and silences are where you find yourself”(TBM 158).  While print traditionally and historically is identified with power, de Certeau makes a fine distinction between the power of possession, which “is only a voice”(254) and writing, which possesses: “a person cannot be possessed while writing”(254).  Women, whose power is here figured as “voice,” lose power when their words are translated, edited, into print, which is a mechanism to control “possession.”  In Trinh T. Minh-ha’s terms, the dominant culture imposes a mode of writing on minorities (and, one imagines Howe would insist, on women): “The Well Written.  The master-servant’s creed carries on: you must learn through patience and discipline”(16-17).  Thus self-possession becomes the opposite of “possession,” and the poet must govern her tongue even as she rescues it from an internalized editorial (magisterial) conscience.  



In most of her work, Howe mixes genres, moving between prose and poetry, explication and enactment, performing her dual authority as historian and poet.  If we are to look at her work within the context of its time, we see that Howe is not alone in her blending of genres; she is, in fact, very much a thinker of her own time in this assertion that, in some profound sense, the only contemporary or postmodern genre is a mixed one.  I would like to explore the ways in which her poetic practice enacts a theoretical stance adopted in the 1970s by two historiographers, Hayden White and Michel de Certeau, whose work I have briefly cited already.  I do this so that I can better discuss Howe’s own conflation of history with poetry, her claim to authority as a chronicler of histories that happened but were not written down.  White and de Certeau argue in remarkably similar terms that historical narratives cannot be distinguished from other kinds of narratives, that history and fiction have more affinities than differences.  Furthermore, they claim that the writing of history is based on linguistic practices usually associated with poetry or poetic thinking.  White and de Certeau respond to what they see as a lack of engagement by other writers with their subject; White claims that a good deal of twentieth-century literature is hostile toward historical thinking.(31) [7]   Their response to the de-authorization of history is to re-claim its authority by redescribing it, enlarging its field, opening its borders to the alien, the “other.”            

In her essay, “Incloser,” Howe writes that “knowledge, no matter how I get it, involves exclusion and repression”(TBM 45).  Perhaps the most significant exclusion involves the process by which knowledge is made or acquired, a process that often relies on fictions, supreme or not.  White, in his collection, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (1978), argues that history is created out of the process of telling it, “all discourse constitutes the objects which it pretends only to describe realistically and to analyze objectively”(2).  Historians work from a pre-existing set of explanatory paradigms, rather like a reservoir of plot-lines for dramatic productions; they take the material generated by their research and plug it into the paradigm that seems most reasonable to them.  For this reason, history is not so much an objective chronicle of unique events, but something that happens over and again because the number of plot structures are necessarily limited.  “There has been a reluctance to consider historical narratives as what they most manifestly are,” he discerns, “verbal fictions, the contents of which are as much invented as found and the forms of which have more in common with the counterparts in literature than they have with those in the sciences”(82).  Thus histories are, like literary texts, symbolic organisms, not one-of-a-kinds.  They are “fashions” that can be reproduced over and again, fashions that change over time.  White’s most radical statement to this effect is that “it does not matter whether the world is conceived to be real or only imagined; the manner of making sense of it is the same”(98).  History, then, is a rhetorical activity, not a scientific one, and the historian, like the American authors discussed by Kenneth Dauber, creates authority through style rather than through documentation.  The effect of this questioning of history’s authority is extreme, for it calls into question the discipline itself, much as Howe’s poetry interrogates the notion of what makes a poet separate from a historian, an editor, or a prophet.

Because White believes that history and literature are like-minded in this way, he declares history’s authority to be poetic instead of scientific.  For him, metaphorical consciousness is “every bit as authoritative as logic itself”(10).  He refuses to separate categories like “myth” and “poetry” and “history” from each other, or to assign to the first two the label of “primitive” and to the latter that of “civilized”(104).  De Certeau develops this line of thinking further, arguing that “history becomes the myth of language,” and, more radically, that the very documents used to create histories are themselves invented.  In describing his notion of what becomes historical documentation, he uses a word crucial to Howe's definitions of history and poetry, namely “scatter.”  “[History’s] work consists in creating the absent, in making signs scattered over the surface of current times become the traces of ‘historical’ realities, missing indeed because they are other”(46).  Thus the historian is the “poet of meticulous detail”(80), historical “facts” are “figures”(85), and “historical figures” are “dummies”(9).  Whether it is considered to be myth or history, however, chronicles of the Puritans’ sojourn in the New World create authority for their tellers and for the community those tellers represent.  There is, as Richard Slotkin puts it, “a constellation of compelling metaphors”(6) that transforms knowledge into power.(7)  And so, as Howe writes, Mary Rowlandson creates a personal narrative that is once social history and mythology: “Each time an errant perception skids loose, she controls her lapse by vehemently invoking biblical authority”(TBM 100).  As Sacvan Bercovitch has so persuasively written, the Puritans attempted to create history out of their belief in religious symbology; history, for John Cotton, was backdated prophecy.  History is controlled by the interpretation of it. He writes, “The American jeremiad was born in an effort to impose metaphor upon reality”(AJ 62) or, as Howe might put it, to make scattered reality fit the traces of metaphor.

Of course the creation of history through metaphor was assigned only to certain members of the community; metaphor, which can be more wild than regulatory, was intended by Puritan fathers to help create an official story, not competing narratives.  As Eric Cheyfitz has argued, “from its theoretical beginnings, then, metaphor comes under suspicion as the foreign, that which is opposed to the ‘proper,’ defined the national, the domestic, the familiar, the authoritative, the legitimate”(90).  Metaphor, which exists at the “frontier between the national and the foreign”(94), is used by the powerful to patrol that boundary, not pull it down.  “The master struggles to deny the slave access to the full potency of language, that is, eloquence, by asserting the frontier of decorum as an absolute, or natural, frontier”(172).  By now it should be clear that Howe is most interested in “figures” that crossed that frontier and were “tamed” by the editors who have policed the frontier since the origins of American thought and literature.  Hence her interest in the “Scapegoat Dialectic”(TBM 53), enforced against women who refuse to acknowledge the pre-existing boundaries of the Puritans’ decorous metaphorical self-definition.  The danger consists in creating new metaphors; where the metaphor of enforcement insists on Rowlandson’s comparison of herself to a biblical character foisted into the wilderness only later to be saved, Rowlandson’s own occasional comparison of her Indian captors to her own people is dangerous to the definition of the white community.  Thus she ends up writing a narrative that continually undoes itself, one whose metaphors work to unravel rather than adjudicate the boundaries between world-views.  Howe writes: “Mary Rowlandson’s thoroughly reactionary figuralism requires that she obsessively confirm her orthodoxy to readers at the same time she excavates and subverts her own rhetoric”(TBM 100).  Howe’s own blurring of the boundaries of genre is intended to redefine history and poetry in such a way as to give power to the voice of Rowlandson’s subversions, to undo some metaphors so that others can be installed in their stead.  While Howe joins White and de Certeau as fellow-thinkers of this re-placing of genres, she does it with an explicitly feminist agenda in mind; the “possessed” women about whom they write become her historians; they come to re-possess the very histories that have excluded them.  So Howe takes their manifestos of history’s affinities to literature and enacts them through the figures of Puritan histories. 



My reading of “Articulation of Sound Forms in Time” [8] makes two main arguments.  The first argument is that Howe writes an American epic in reverse, in which she endeavors to undo the story told to us by the Puritans, that this poem is more like Williams’s In the American Grain than it is like a Puritan jeremiad.  By performing and taking apart the central ideologies that separate Puritan theology from the native American context in which they found themselves, Howe aims to get back to a point where the story can begin again, where it can be more inclusive.  She also wants to tell the story that the historians did not: on the first page of “Articulation,” she writes of a white attack on an Indian camp, “What the historian doesn’t say is that most of the dead were women and children.”  The function of the poet-historian, then, is to re-imagine the past so as to tell it again more completely, a role that makes the poet into a self-conscious creator of fictions.  Yet, because new stories, according to a thinker like White, do not exist, Howe’s “Articulation” does not so much tell a new story as attempt to deconstruct the old.  What is new about her story is the way in which it dismantles the old narrative, not the way she invents a new one; in that sense, she is faithful to the historical record, which holds her to the gaps rather than liberating her out of them.  The second argument is that Howe’s epic is a feminine one, but that her rewriting of the narrative is at times undermined by the underlying structure of her story.  To use de Certeau for a moment: Howe reaches for the paradigm that best fits her historical details, but the best paradigm proves to be the old one with significant details transfigured.  The way in which she tells the story in reverse, however, subverts the very authority of that paradigm.  What she aims for, then, is a kind of revelatory impasse, one that returns us to an origin so that what accrues are fragments of what she calls, in “Thorow,” “narrative in non-narrative,” or a poetic history that acknowledges gaps and questions its own authority in so doing. 

The first of Howe’s transfigurations is the name-change operation that she makes in her proem, “The Falls Fight,” where the American wanderer, Reverend Hope Atherton, is by fiat re-“figured” as a woman.  ‘In our culture,” she writes, “Hope is a name we give women.  Signifying desire, trust, promise, does her name prophetically engender pacification of the feminine?”(S 4)  The answer to this question is complicated, since in some ways it does; the wanderer, Hope Atherton, is a white American (man or woman or word) lost in the wilderness of native America.  Howe’s attitude toward Hope resembles her attitude toward Rowlandson; Howe at once admires Rowlandson’s resilience, her ability to survive and to write about her experiences, and disdains her constant use of biblical authority to render the Indians as savages.  Hope is, like Rowlandson, an ambivalent character.  The extent to which the narrative is predetermined is made clear in Howe's notion of the origin of the poem itself.  “Hope’s epicene name draws its predetermined poem in,”(S 4) she writes, asserting that her poem, too, comes of the kind of “Postdated Prophesie” alluded to in her quotation from John Cotton.  The only way for the poet to liberate herself from the pre-conceived narrative is through the work of de-mythologization, work that she accomplishes by ending this poem with only the “Rubble couple on pedestal” remaining (S 38).  “I assume Hope Atherton’s excursion for an emblem foreshadowing a Poet’s abolished limitations in our demythologized fantasy of Manifest Destiny”(S 4).  The poet, then, has imperial designs of her own; only when she undoes the myth of Manifest Destiny can her poetry break the bounds imposed on it by the very force of that myth on American letters.           

How does one untell a myth, demythologize a fantasy?  Howe does so, in part, by setting up dichotomous terms to represent Puritan thinking and that of the Native Americans they displace.  The most basic of these dichotomies is that of “system” or “logic,” which is Puritan, and “intuition” or “lack of system” (which is the “other”).  The world the Puritans enter is soon reduced to the grids that they place upon it, grids that Howe imitates on some of her pages, which are covered with fields of words arranged in rows.  Thus, in “Taking the Forest,” she writes of “Universal separation / —Distant coherent rational system” and of “Consciousness [that] grasps its subject / Stumbling phenomenology // infinite miscalculation of history”(S 17).  That this system is created somehow counter to historical process becomes clear later on: “total systemic circular knowledge / System impossible in time,” which is promptly called into question by “truant freedom of dream”(S 28).  Systems are necessary to the act of “possession”; late in the poem, when Howe invokes Columbus’s voyage she connects western system-making (“World as rigorously related System”) to the destruction of “pagan worlds”(S 38).

The first of Howe’s mirror pages presents the reader with a grid of words on the left-hand side of the opened book, and a similar grid on the right—one that is a mirror image of the first, with spaces between words erased so as to create one long, rather Germanic looking, word.  The function of these grids is to present the conflict between world-views and, perhaps, to gesture toward a way beyond the conflict.  On the one hand, Howe presents us with “system” words: “border,” “possess,” “empirical,” “Kantian,” and “force”; on the other, mixed in with these words, she provides: “is,” “open,” “Halo,” “Maoris,” and “Immanence”(S 14).  The fact that these words are separated on the first page imitates the separations caused by the systematizing imagination.  On the second page, these words run together in reverse; taking from the middle of the grid: "AkantianEmpiricalMaorisHumTemporal-spatioLostAreLifeAbstractSoRemotePossessRedden Border” and so on.(S 15)  But the most important word on both sides of this double page is the one that starts the grid on the left and which concludes it on the right, namely “is,” a word that suggests process, history, becoming, and a lack of system.  So the second grid becomes an answer to the first.  As the poem moves forward, it becomes clear that Howe believes the myth must incorporate both these ways of thinking, that neither should possess the other, even if (or especially because) the end result is an undoing of both; thus she posits “Untraceable wandering” against the next line, “the meaning of knowing”(S 25) and “Kneel to intellect in our work” against “Chaos cast cold intellect back”(S 34). 

And yet these binaries are, of course, too simple to be trusted entirely to do their own work.  So we begin from the rather more complicated Hope Atherton, the Puritan every-man/woman, wanderer in a wilderness that is at once the land and his own mind.  Howe effectively collapses her symbology inward when she creates this “figure” (he/she is not really a character), because this character at once serves to organize her text, by giving it a fulcrum to work around, and helps to unravel that text by valuing “wandering” (like the later term, “scattering”) over stasis.  Though a kind of hero in Howe’s book, as he/she might have been in Williams’s In the American Grain, where the only American successes are seen to be its failures, Hope’s historical fate was more absurd and more unhappy.  According to a letter of Stephen Williams in 1781, which is quoted in the text, Hope offered to surrender to the enemy, but they wouldn’t have him.(S 5)  In her own introduction, Howe relates that, “No one believed the Minister’s letter.  He became a stranger to his community and died soon after the traumatic exposure that has earned him poor mention in a seldom opened book”(S 4).  Thus, like the text itself, Hope begins as a paradigmatic figure and dissolves into language like the systems he at first represents (religious and historical).  His function is also linguistic; not only is Hope re-born as a word (“hope for the artist in America”) and as a woman because of the “nature” of his name, but he also reveals that he speaks the language not of this place but of England.  Thus, in “Hope Atherton’s Wanderings,” note the English accent on “matah” and “chirah”:

And deep so deep as my narrative
Our homely manner and Myself           
Said “matah” and “chirah”
Pease of all sorts and best
courtesy in every place
Whereat laughing they went away  (S 9)

Howe’s critique here resembles Williams’s; Williams points out that early immigrants from England, lacking words for animals they had never seen, still assigned the names of animals they knew well, calling the new bird a “robin” because they knew that “robin” was the name for a bird. 

Part of the unraveling effect of Howe’s own text occurs, not surprisingly, in and through language.  She is especially effective when she puns between the world and its words, when she attempts to make the landscape into language by echoing it (the verbal equivalent of her mirroring of texts).  So, in a section that begins, “Bound Cupid sea washed,” namely with a western mythological figure bound and suffering in the wilderness, she writes: “Cries open to the words inside them / Cries hurled through the Woods”(S 23).  Here the inner (words) become one with the outer (Woods) and both scream out their pain at what must be seen as a bad “translation” of one mythology onto a new place.  Then, in a section that begins again with a search, “Left home to seek Lost // Pitchfork origin,” two things are made (nearly) synonymous through this sound play: “tribunal of eternal revolution / tribunal of rigorous revaluation”(S 25).  Similar moments of transfiguration occur in the phrases, “Collision or collusion with history,” where in fact both words are true; “Milestones bewitched millstones”(S 35); and at the end (that is the beginning) of the poem, “Lif sails off longing for life”(S 38). 

What Howe has done, then, is to take a historical system, that of the Puritans, and desystematize it, in part by telling the story backwards, so that we end with Lif [Erickson] rather than beginning with him, as Williams does.  To desystematize history is to render it as myth, fiction, story, rather than assume its scienticity or truth-as-fact.  This beginning has itself been altered; it is not a real origin, but one that is achieved through destruction, that re-arrives at a destructive moment created by “Stern norse terse ethical pathos”(S 38).  Rather than recovering the Garden of Eden for its notorious couple, Howe recovers ruin—scattering—albeit in a state of nature:

Rubble couple on pedestal
Rubble couple Rhythm and Pedestal

Room of dim portraits here there
Wade waist deep maidsworn men
Crumbled masonry windswept hickory   (S 38)

What Howe does with the repeated wordplay, which here at the end involves the nearly comical sound of “rubble couple,” is to show (quite artfully) how the deformations of language, how its accidents, collide and collude with history.  A rubble couple is not gendered, either, but only the remnant of a cultural structure that takes gender as its primary sign.  More importantly, what this shows is how history can be revised through language itself.  This is where Howe comes closest, I suspect, to being among the visionary company of Language poets, although her puns are much more considered than are, say, those of Charles Bernstein.  Through an oxymoronic principle of scatter, Howe shows how history can, in some sense, become prophecy—in counter-movement to John Cotton’s assertion that history is postdated prophecy.  It can prophesy its own end, at the beginning.  The end of “Articulation of Sound Forms in Time” is, therefore, not quite an end or a beginning, rather a beginning in the end of American myth, which is also history.

Howe’s work emerges from a paradoxical crossroads in thinking through the relationship between history and imaginative writing.  On the one hand, in their work of the 1970s, White and de Certeau were invested in presenting history as the work of writing that comes out of the same process as fiction or poetry; history is little more than the historian’s imaginative reconstruction of it.  The historian’s authority is located not in the truths he or she discovers in the archive, but in his or her way of writing.  Style is substance.  On the other hand and at the same time, literary theorists like Stephen Greenblatt and other New Historicists were searching for a way out of text-only systems of literary criticism that had installed themselves in the academy since mid-century; I’m thinking here of New Criticism and deconstruction.  They found this new way in history and the authority it provided literary critics in examining texts as symptoms of larger cultural and historical issues rather than as “well wrought urns,” either intact or shattered.  The authority they reached for was old-fashioned in the terms set forth by White and de Certeau, but their mode of writing criticism and history relied in great measure on precisely the generic blurring of poetry, narrative, and history that interested these historiographers.  Howe’s blurring of genres and authorities, her paradoxical and sometimes simultaneous deconstructions and reconstructions of history, participate in this intellectual intersection.  Her obsession with authority, even as she tries to dismantle it, is symptomatic of her time. [9]  


[1]        In The Sophist, Bernstein defines the term “dysraphism” as follows: “‘Dysraphism’ is a word used by specialists in congenital disease to mean a dysfunctional fusion of embryonic parts—a birth defect . . . Raph literally means ‘seam,’ so dysraphism is mis-seaming—a prosodic device!” (44)

[2]        The “hero” of “Thorow,” collected in Singularities is a “scout” or “spy” in the wilderness.  That this scout is also Susan Howe, scouting out the wilderness of texts, becomes clear in the prose preface, where she discusses the poem’s origins in her visit to the Adirondacks in 1987.

[3]        Alistaire MacIntyre’s After Virtue discusses the conflict between “emotive” and “rational” modes of thinking.  See especially “The Nature of Moral Disagreement Today and the Claims of Emotivism,” 6-22.

[4]        The last page of Singularities ends “THE REVISER,” as if it is the author’s signature at book’s end.

[5]        I developed these ideas at greater length in essays on Gertrude Stein (in Raritan) and Laura Riding (Arizona Quarterly).

[6]        In a review of Moore’s work, Williams writes that “Miss Moore gets great pleasure from wiping soiled words or cutting them clean out, removing the aureoles that have been pasted about them or taking them bodily from greasy contexts.  For the compositions which Miss Moore intends, each word should first stand crystal clear with no attachments; not even an aroma” (317-18).

[7]        Peter Middleton and Tim Woods introduce their book, Literatures of Memory: History, time and space in postwar writing (2000), by noting that their starting point “was the widespread conviction among literary and cultural critics and these historians, that the past has been killed, destroyed, lost or at best thinned out so much that it no longer seems relevant”(9).  Their book offers important testimony that this is, in fact, not the case—that “even avant-garde poetry...still devotes much of its inventive energy to rethinking the relations between poetic form, individual memory, history and temporality”(188).  Middleton and Woods are most interested in the ways in which poets present personal memory, however.  The poets they discuss are more mainstream, conventionally lyrical, than is Howe. 

[8]        “Articulation of Sound Forms in Time” is the first section of Singularities.  It was previously published by Awede press in 1987.  For another close reading/explication of the poem, see Perloff (50-53).

[9]        It is not the work of this essay, but bears noting that “her time,” in this instance, comes at the end of the Vietnam and Watergate era, one that spawned more than merely question authority bumperstickers.  Disenchantment with historical authority, as with a notion of the text as set apart from historical contingency, make perfect sense in this context, even as these ideologies are sometimes at odds with one another.


Works Cited

Bercovitch, Sacvan. The American Jeremiad. Madison: The U of Wisconsin P, 1978.

Bernstein, Charles. The Sophist. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1987.

Caldwell, Patricia. The Puritan Conversion Narrative: The Beginnings of American Expression. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983.

Cheyfitz, Eric. The Poetcs of Imperialism: Translation and Colonization from The Tempest To Tarzan. New York: Oxford, 1991.

Dauber, Kenneth. The Idea of Authorship in America: Democratic Poetics from Franklin to Melville.  Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1990.

De Certeau, Michel. The Writing of History. Trans. Tom Conley. New York: Columbia UP, 1988. Published in French in 1975.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980.

Hall, David D. The Antinomian Controversy, 1636-1638: A Documentary History. 2nd edn. Durham: Duke UP, 1990.

Howe, Mark DeWolfe. The Garden and the Wilderness: Religion and Government in American Constitutional History. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1965.

Howe, Susan. Articulation of Sound Forms in Time. Windsor, VT: Awede, 1987. 

_____.  The Birth-Mark: unsettling the wilderness in American literary history. Hanover: UP of New England, 1993.

_____.  My Emily Dickinson.  Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1985.

_____.  Singularities.  Hanover: UP of New England, 1990.

MacIntyre, Alasdair.  After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory.  Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 1984.

Middleton, Peter and Tim Woods. Literatures of Memory: History, time and space in postwar writing. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2000. 

Minh-ha, Trinh T. Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.

Perloff, Marjorie. Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991.

Schultz, Susan M. “Laura Riding’s Essentialism and the Absent Muse.” Arizona Quarterly 48: 1 (Spring, 1992): 1-24.

_____.  “Stanzas in Meditation: Gertrude Stein and the Muse of Self-Advertisement.” Raritan XII:2 (Fall, 1992): 71-87.

Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860.  Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 2000.  [References are to an earlier edition] Tucker, Arthur Holmes. “Hope Atherton and His Times,” a paper read at the annual meeting of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association at Deerfield, Massachusetts, February 23, 1926.

White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978.

Williams, William Carlos. In the American Grain.  1925; NY: New Directions, 1956.

_____.  “Marianne Moore.” Imaginations. Ed. Webster Schott.  NY: New Directions, 1970. 310-320.


Bio: Susan M. Schultz is the author of { Material Lyrics } (2001), Memory Cards (the happiness project) (2000), Aleatory Allegories (2000) among others.  She teaches at the University of Hawai’i-Manoa and edits Tinfish magazine and Press.

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