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Alessandra Fornetti (Venedig)

The Practice of Susan Howe's Poetry

The Practice of Susan Howe's Poetry
Susan Howe's poetry seems to present the apex of the contesting process run by the artistic movements of the Twentieth Century, which aim to deny and renew the traditional system of language in the arts. Writing at the very end of the century, Howe's work is in fact a sort of synthesis of the crisis in the different fields of art. It involves figurative arts as well as music and literature. What has changed is not only the result, the 'product' of artistic practice (which is less clear and less real) but also the instruments used by the artist. Susan Howe paints pictures with words: words are combined to form images, framed by other words, all assuming new values in tone, sound, color, and, finally, meaning. The following essay will focus on four of her poems, each representing a different stage in the approach of poetic language towards music.

1 Introduction

The recent publication of a collection of poems (Howe 1996) and the award of some important American prizes for literature1 confirm Susan Howe as one of the most serious and important poets of our time. She is not only involved in writing poetry 'for herself', but her books also show her ambition to change the way of creating poetry and the way of reading it. Putting on the paper poems which look like pictures she reshapes the boundaries of poetry. The central focus is no longer the voice and lyrical presence of the poetic 'I', but the subjective eye of the reader, who has to handle books which have to be turned over and side-ways, so that thay can be read both as pictures and as texts. Susan Howe is in fact not only a writer; her career began as a painter, when, in 1961, she graduated from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. She has also been an actress, an assistent stage designer, a radio producer and a literary critic. Her poetry is therefore the result of all these different artistic experiences which she sums up on the paper: words are combined as to shape framed pictures; the lines are moved as if they were actors on a stage in order to have different voices and different directions.

In this way the word itself assumes a new value: no longer put in a traditional form and context, it is considered first of all as image and as sound. Its disruption involves an active participation of the reader-speaker, who is no longer just a passive perceiver. Howe's poetry represents the breaking of the conventional modern language, the destruction of the given form of communication, in order to go back to a primordial use of the word, in which each single unity, each uttering of sound, even the stutter and the silence are full of meaning. Her poetry is not only a 'poetry of destruction': it is more the recovery of old values – that of history and that of language – which seem to have been lost in our present time, and through which she wants to state new meanings. Her work seems to be the apex of the contesting process run by the artistic movements of the twentieth century, which aim to deny every traditional value.

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It involves figurative arts as well as music and literature. What has changed was not only the result, the 'product' of the artistic manifestation (which is less clear and less real) but also the instruments used by the artist: Lucio Fontana does not paint, he engraves his canvas; Luigi Nono mixes classical instruments with electronics; Susan Howe paints pictures with words. She writes at the very end of the century and her work is in fact a sort of synthesis of the crisis in the different fields of art.

If one looks at her poems, one thinks of Cubism and of the Dada movement, which developed with the First World War; if one listens to them, one thinks of the music by John Cage or by the Italians Luigi Nono and Luciano Berio, representatives of the post-war generation. Susan Howe stands at the turn of the century: her poetry is no longer a denunciation, but represents a way of revisiting history and the past for a new beginning. This positive attitude excludes Susan Howe in a certain way from the so called 'postmodernism', even though her poetry deals with that formal literary experiment which uses linguistic disruption to blame the existing symbolic order (typical of the end of the century). This creative writing underlines the new attitude of the twentieth century towards the representation of reality and of the individual, who now occupies just a partial and provisional position.2 Everything has to be redefined, even the most – apparently – clear and basic value as language.

The focus of my investigation will be on Susan Howe's particular use of the word, her special way of writing poetry and the meaning of using such techniques. I will analyze four poems particularly representative of her style. They are taken from three different books, so that a gradual development will be pointed out. Moreover, I will try to make a comparison between Howe's poetry and contemporary music.

2 Revealing the Secret of Language

The first poem I am going to analyze is taken from the first section of Secret History of the Dividing Line (Howe 1978: 7ff.). The title refers to the History of the Dividing Line betwixt Virginia and North Carolina, a journal edited by Colonel William Byrd of Westover around 1728, which describes the expedition of twenty men, who had to define the unclear border between Virginia and North Carolina. Besides this journal, Byrd wrote the Secret History of the Dividing Line, in which he gives fictional names to his travel companions and tells the adventures of the expedition.3

In a similar way, Susan Howe also mixes history and fiction, and the theme of her poems is the American expeditions which aimed to conquer the land and divide it into different territories. The words 'Secret History' suggest the revealing of a secret by the poet, a secret which will let us see things clearer. It is not clear, however, which 'dividing line' she is talking about (there is probably no particular line and at the same time it is every dividing line), but the expression carries with it a sense of separation, an ending of onething and the beginning of something else. Furthermore a 'dividing line' implies an arbitrary decision, made in a cruel way, because it does not come in a natural way: something is just chopped in the middle.

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This poem is particularly important to understand Susan Howe's poetics and conception of language.

In its first dumb form

language was gesture

technique of travelling over sea ice

before great landscapes and glittering processions

vastness of a great white looney north

of our forebeing.

Died of what?
Probably Death.

I know all that
I was only thinking – –

quintessential clarity of inarticulation

family and familiar friends of family

pacing the floes nervously

climbing little ridges

the journey first
before all change in future

westward and still westward
matches coughing like live things.

In this poem Howe goes back to the very origin of language, to its purest form. At the beginning, language was 'dumb', which is a contradiction by definition, because language as a form of communication cannot be dumb. It means that the origin of language is not in the spoken word, in the articulation of sounds, but in 'gesture': the choice of the singular voice gives a sense of unity as if all possible gestures all expressions were enfolded inside the 'gesture'. The word, as it stands only suggests an idea, a symbol for something else, which is not the common way of understanding language. The poet realizes that language is first of all a technique, it is a mediant which in itself means nothing, but consists of the meanings we put into it and the value we give it. Therefore speaking is like "travelling over sea ice/ silent": Nothing is definite, everything moves in a surface of ice on the sea, where there is no sound. The words 'sea ice' are not linked in a traditional way but they are both nominatives simply put one next to the other.

In the whole poem there are no articles and no prepositions: the poet only looks for nouns. 'Ice' goes back to the beginning of all things, of the world; 'silent' takes us back to Genesis when the silence in the world was broken with the word Anochi, through which God created the world. He created the world in a word, with one word, one gesture; everything was enfolded within that word. In the fourth line Howe goes back in time – 'before' – and her landscape changes: it becomes plural, which indicates difference and variety; humanity, embodied in the word 'processions', becomes part of the new landscape. There is a religious reminiscence in this word: it brings with it an image of files of warriors, who, in God's name, conquered the 'great' new land. So the land becomes 'a white looney north / of our forebeing', which indicates the starting point of a new history.

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The frozen ocean was the symbol of our 'forebeing', now there is the 'white looney north' of our being. It is as if the poet had reconstructed the beginning of humanity, arrived at its origin, where she can now put a full stop. As Peter Middleton observed in his essay (Middleton 1991), the

use of the term 'looney' here is a way of repudiating Charles Olson's bravado about the history of forebeing. [...] Active here is a wariness about such metaphoric authority as is implicit in the very reference to ice as forebeing. Olson's usage relies on various forms of archeological, geological and other scientific authority which takes the form of a knowledge structured as propositions about the world, propositions which belong to specific islands of discourse out in the oceans of signifying practice.

The next two lines are a bit of a dialogue, with a sort of nonsense answer – 'Died of what?/Probably Death' – which are followed by the next two lines that are a kind of inner dialogue – 'I know all that/I was only thinking' –. It resembles an everyday chatter, where the meaning of the words is almost insignificant. The dash, a suspension, rounds off the form of the dialogue in the poem. In reply to the chatter comes the crucial line of the poem: 'quintessential clarity of inarticulation', which describes the essence of what language was, since it was clear when it was 'inarticulated', free from external rules. In this way Susan Howe wants to repossess the lost value of words, the essence of communication, which with time has become only an insignificant chatter. The alliteration of the 'f' in the next line gives voice to this chatter, since the author wants to focus the attention of the reader/speaker on the sound of words. The whispered quality of the letter 'f' can be connected to the word 'nervously' of the line below: both conceive the idea of restlessness, with reference to the new being described in this second part of the poem. In the last two couplets there is again the idea of the 'journey', which will determine 'all change in future'. The movement is 'westward': it could indicate the direction of the pioneers towards the central part of the country; but the 'west' is also the point where the sun sets and in this sense it could be an allusion to death.

The journey is the dividing line here: it separates past from future, peace from restlessness, wilderness from civilization, inarticulation from articulation. The final image is in fact a negative one. The 'matches' are the symbol for humanity in its present form: 'coughing' indicates that it is sick and insignificant because it is not really using its potentiality of fire, not even for a short time. The metaphore stands for the present lack of communication, the closure of language in definite forms, deprived of any kind of meaning. The meaning of the whole poem is therefore a return to the past, to the origin of both language and history, in order to repossess a value that has been lost or that has been falsified in the present. The pure form of language, its 'clarity' (both of meaning and form) has to be found in the 'inarticulation', which reminds us of primitivism and barbarism4, that is to say born out of a certain natural order, in contrast with the imposed existing syntax and the overrigid meaning of words. In her "Statement on Poetics" Susan Howe wrote:

The poem was a gesture and vision before it came sign and coded exchange in a political economy of value. After the obliteration of languages, boundaries, and social formations; a redemptive intervention into chaos of communication. [...] I am pulling representation from the irrational dimension all knowledge must touch. (qtd. in Möckel-Rieke 1991: 280)

Again the words 'gesture' and 'vision' indicate a different dimension of language, before its 'obliteration', and they are linked to an 'irrational dimension', necessary to knowledge. Howe's poetry tries in fact to put on the paper and visually illustrate this irrational dimension, illustrated most clearly in the next three poems. But already in this poem she begins to manipulate the traditional language as she avoids using articles, prepositions, and even verbs. She wants to oppose her language to the traditional one, as a mirror of her opposition to the traditional history, in order to show the "true" history, which is not the one recorded by the winners. "Truth and reality belong to chaos and to the wilderness, and the poetical language is the more adequate to this truth, because in it the sound is sometimes more important than the meaning itself: it contrasts the logic of rationality and the laws of the conventional language." (in Möckel-Rieke 280) The next two poems I will analyze are examples of Howe's new language, which she directly links to American history, particularly as far as the marking of borders and the imposition of a new culture in this land are concerned. Because of their obvious formal similarities, the two poems stand as complementary pieces.

3 Loose References

(Howe 1978: 1)

The very first thing to do, even before reading, is to observe the poem. Its visual appearance is in fact as important as its verbal content. The poem looks like a piece of prose: it does not have the form of poetry we are used to, that is it is not made up of verses, which traditionally define 'poetry'. But it has a form of its own. It appears regular and clear on the page; its form follows and imitates the form of the page itself. Such clearness is given from the regularity of the spaces that divide every word; furthermore the blank space in the middle splits the poem in two equal parts: it indicates a sort of separation, a pause, a break. It visually represents the 'dividing line', title of the collection in which the poem is included.

The second thing which catches the eye of the reader is the two words which appear bigger, as they are written in capital letters. They are 'INDICATION' and 'MARK'. 'Indication' is something that has to be seen, found out; it gives the idea of direction and indicates a search. 'Mark' is at the same time a sort of symbol, a kind of seal (it recalls the idea of property) and indicates a line, a border. If we connect the two words in "the indication of a mark" it means that we have to see a mark, to look for it. Another out-of-the-ordinary element in the poem is the presence of two numbers, 1 and 2. They could suggest the listing of something, an order, or simply the act of counting and measuring.

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When reading the poem the first observation to be made is that each line stands by itself: there is no connection (at least no logical and grammatical connection) between one line and the line that follows. There is a sort of suspension both at the beginning and at the end of each line, because many words are not complete or fully written.

This sense of suspension and interruption is found at the end of the first block, where the last word is 'Americ': it is clear that the full word is "America", but its incomplete form shows the impossibility of pronouncing the whole word, of writing it in its entirety, as if something has been taken away from its being that is from its meaning, from its identity. Then comes the blank space which corresponds to silence; since the space between the lines is regular, this 'silence' has a definied duration which is that of one line, as if this line could not have been written, or has been cancelled. Other words that come out when reading are those connected with space. They give the idea of creating a space that has to be identified in some way, because the words are: 'mark', 'boundary', 'land', 'position', 'indication'. 'Times' is also a key-word, since it is the last word of the poem and indicates the inseparable relation between space and time, that is history. These words which suggest the idea of order and the meaning of calculated position appear in fact in a random and free way on the page. The fundamental logic suggested by these words is cancelled by a non rational expression: there is no logical connection between them on the page, no grammatical order, and no syntax.

Boundaries are embodied figuratively; marking a boundary is shown in the poem to be a violent act: words are interrupted and left incomplete. The poet does not say what a boundary is; she visually illustrates it, and the consequence is the mutilation of words (as the verb 'maimed' also suggests). It is as if the text on the page is a part of a larger one which was partially covered and this is what remained of it. There is the idea of framing in order to meditate on the notion of a boundary: the boundaries of the poem become its new form; the result of giving it such limited form is that words are cut off and the reader cannot catch the meaning anymore; similar to the way in which boundaries have been applied to the 'land' of 'Americ'(a). This land has also been mutilated, it suffered violence.

In this context 'sachem' is a keyword because it contextualizes the poem in a precise historical moment, when violence perpetrated on the American Indians left them unrooted and nearly exstinguished; a result of the drawing of boundaries. Moreover 'sachem' is not only the old name for the chief of an Indian tribe, but nowadays also indicates the head of a political party in the USA. Thus, language itself has been unrooted in order to be applied to a new reality.

This poem is an example of Susan Howe's process of the deconstruction of language: the word stands for itself, out of a grammatical syntax; it is disrupted, so that a possible new meaning is to be found (as with 'mar' or 'nucle' in the text); or with expressions that are simply sounds on the paper, like 'ha' or 'O'. The result of this use of language is a new poetry, in which each word, being completely disjunct from the others, no longer in a traditional context, has also lost its traditional meaning and is considered first of all for its visual value as a written symbol, or for its sound, or simply for the image or sensation it evokes. The way in which the lines are arranged on the page (so as to form also a visual configuration) becomes part of the general meaning of the poem, which can be seen as a picture made up of lines and words.

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The next poem is taken from "The Liberties" (Howe 1990: 147ff.)5 and I discuss it as an example of Susan Howe's practice of writing poetry, as a further step in her use of language. "Liberties" indicates a part of Dublin (city of origin of her mother's family) where Swift lived. The collection is in fact concerned with the figure of Stella, but as the poet declared in an interview with Edward Foster, she did not start by thinking she was going to write about Stella and Swift.

When I began writing this time, I was really trying to paint that part of the landscape of Dublin in words. [...] So I start in a place with fragments, lines and marks, stops and gaps, and then I have more ordered sections, and then things break up again. That's how I begin most of my books. [...] the outsidedness – these sounds, these pieces of words – comes into the chaos of life, and then you try to order them and to explain something, and the explanation breaks free of itself. I think lot of my work is about breaking free: starting free and being captured and breaking free again and being captured again. (Foster 1990: 21)

The poem is in fact a picture made up of disordered words which stand for colors, sounds or simply suggestions: it is her and our 'liberties' to do things, to play with traditional order and conventional categories.

(HOWE 1990: 270)

The first impression the reader catches looking at the poem is that of a picture with the frame and with a nail at the top of it – 'C' – on which the picture is hung. The frame of the picture is made up of words, so that while reading one can reconstruct its shape: starting from the left, one reads the first line; then, arriving at its end, one follows the right side of the picture reading downwards; at its bottom, one reads from right to left, and again upwards in order to close the frame. As far as content is concerned, one is free to create it and choose his own way: following the frame (left – right, up – down, right – left, down – up) until reaching the center, or following the lines as in an "ordinary" reading (left – right) or any other casual order according to the reader's fancy. The mutilation of words is applied in this poem also to some inner words, as 'luminate' or 'fum': the reader can reconstruct the word in a creative process, giving it a meaning (for example 'illuminate' or 'fume'). The frame creates a limited space for 'art' distinguished from 'reality' with attempts to abolish the rules of that "reality" and find a new system of rules.

By the construction of a picture made up of words, Susan Howe mixes the mediums of painting with those of language, mocking traditional order and meanings: words are chosen first of all for their sounds and for the images they bring into the reader's mind.

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"I've never really lost the sense that words, even single letters, are images. The look of a word is part of its meaning – the meaning that escapes dictionary definition, or rather doesn't escape but is bound up with it." (Keller 1995: 15) Howe was a painter before becoming a writer and the visual dimension is a basic element in her poetry: "First I was a painter, so for me, words shimmer. Each one has an aura. Lines are laid on the field of a page, so many washes of watercolor." (Keller 17) Many words in the poem are concerned with color and light as for example 'white', 'golden', 'darker', 'luminate', 'flame', 'nero'. They are perceived by the reader first of all as visual images.

The second important element of the poem is sound: "There is another, more uncounscious element here, of course: the mark as an acoustic signal or charge." (Keller 21) Words are valued by their pronounciation: some of them are pure sounds, such as the open syllables 'ha' or 'sa' or the closed syllables 'mum' or 'tom' which evoke a primitive ambiance: 'tom' suggests a simple drum beaten with the hands, and the onomatopoetic 'clap' is even less sophisticated. The poet plays with both the phonetic and the semantic identity of the words, as with 'no', which can be received by a listener as 'know'. In the poem there are no verbs, therefore it appears static, which is more characteristic of pictures. The movement comes from the choice of sounds: vowels (open and close) and consonants (whispering – 'thin', 'swallow') and volume (shouting – 'yell') all bring into the poem a kind of movement. The majority of nouns are rather strictly linked with physical images: 'cube', 'arm', 'verge', 'stone', 'glass', 'pane', 'wheel', 'crown'.

Language is dissolved in its smallest element, the word. It has to be considered according to the definition given by de Saussure of signifier (or shaped sound) and signified (or meaning). Even the 'reality' as the referent to which words point is no more available as a foundation on which knowledge can be based but has to be reinvented. Susan Howe tries to disrupt the existing "reality" based on narrated history in order to rewrite it, giving "voice" to its silent aspect. She does it by disrupting the traditional form of communication and going back to its origin, that is primitive sounds and inarticulated 'language'. In traditional poetry meaning is given through reference and grammar, whereas Howe chooses to break away from the conventional system and creates her own world of references and definitions. It has its own logic, order and meaning, separated from the grammatical value of words, but aware of acoustic and figurative ones.

The result is an apparent chaos and disorder: "Words are candle lighting the dark. 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God.' I think that there has to be some if only order in disorder. And words and sounds are...they reach up out there. A little flicker in silence...a signal.[...] But what do I know? What do any of us know?" (Foster 1990: 32) So language as "articulation of sound forms in time"6 is considered as the beginning of human knowledge and history. Going back to the chaos of language means going back in history; stating a new order in poetry means stating a distinct historical order, that is a new way of knowing things, that "depends on chance, on randomness."

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When Edward Foster asked Susan Howe how poems are related to history, she answered:

I think the poet opens herself. [...] You open yourself and let language enter, let it lead you somewhere. I never start with an intention for the subject of a poem. I sit quietly at my desk and let various things – memories, fragments, bits, pieces, scraps, sounds – let them all work into something. This has to do with changing order and abolishing categories. It has to do with sounds in silence. It has to do with peace. (Foster 1990: 22)

Changing order and abolishing categories is the first meaning to be found in her poems, especially when writing poetry is considered as a process, a mirror of the process of history and of language: "The content is the process, and so it changes." (Foster 1990: 23) A name is not a single entity but the description of a process, since no linguistic activity is more insistent than naming in its staking out of the real.7

As I said before, the word is considered as the articulation of a sound form in time, and poetry is made up of sounds and words, considered as timeless articulations. Articulation of Sound Forms in Time is the title of a collection of poems by Susan Howe. It is taken from a definition Schönberg gave to music, since sound and music are the building blocks of language:

Poetry is a sort of music. And then I think that the first experience we probably have of the world, just as we enter, is sound. We are slapped and we cry. Before we know what meaning is. So to be born would be to hear sound you couldn't understand. And to die is to hear sound, and then silence. So it's the articulation that represents life. (Foster 1990: 20)

Silence is embodied by the gaps between words and lines, as the lack of sound is part of the poem itself. "It is not mere negation, but it stands for 'the other' of the words, that make them visible and indicates their hidden meaning." (Möckel-Rieke 1991: 287) The two poems analyzed above are examples of 'field-words poetry" (cf. Möckel-Rieke 1991: 287); a result of the deconstruction of grammatical syntax. They provide 'fields' of sounds and pauses, where the construction of meaning is in the hands of the reader and where order is the result of musical and geographical structures. Such structures refer to the development of humanity through the ages since 'silence, bubble and sound' are the beginning and the end of man's articulated language. Susan Howe's conscious play with words aims to point out the relationship between signifier and signified, and their loose relationship with meaning.

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4 The Simultaneity of Speech

The poem above, from the volume The Nonconformist's Memorial (Howe 1993: 8), is another example of Susan Howe's practice of writing poetry: in this case the words are arranged as in a real painting, forming a particular shape and image, in which the visual impression plays a very important role. The above poem looks either like a computer with a lamp in front of it, or as a tomb stone, or as whatever else the imagination suggests to the observer. Words in this case are considered as material objects, they involve first of all the eye. Howe did not abandon the techniques of the visual arts and created here a visual collage but with words. In her interview with Lynn Keller she was asked how she makes this kind of poetry and she answered: "First I would type some lines. Then cut them apart. Paste one on top of the other, move them around until they look right. Then I'd xerox that version, getting several copies, and then cut and paste again until I had it right. The getting it right has to do with how it's structured on the page as well as how it sounds – this is the meaning." (Keller 1995: 13)

What determines the arrangement of the lines on the page is to some extent subconscious but it is also linked to the 'message' of the poem. Susan Howe the writer is still involved with the visual arts, but she changes her tools: the page is her new canvas, and the words are her colors. This is her way of abolishing categories, of crossing boundaries. The meaning of the poem is strictly linked with its visual configuration on the page. Particularly in regard to the poems in her book A Bibliography of the King's Book or, Eikon Basilike (1989a), Howe declared that through the verticality of the lines she wanted to represent the violence of the execution of Charles I, the violence of a particular event in history. She said: "There's no way to express that in just words in ordinary fashion on the page. So I would try to match that chaos and violence visually with words." (Keller 20)

Since the poem I chose deals with language itself, it seems that here the poet wanted to symbolize the impossibility of true communication: many words are typed one over the other, so that the reading of such words is nearly impossible. Some letters cover each other, so that for a particular moment in time – the meeting point happens arbitrarely – there is a perfect correlation but then they depart once more.

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It is as if words/lines were two persons, two individuals who meet and soon depart. This way of typing also symbolises the simultaneity of speech, the different levels of communication and of interpretation. Such simultaneity implies the fact that the poem cannot be read just by one person but should involve more readers, who sometimes speak all at the same time. The way in which the lines are placed on the paper could correspond to the directions to which different voices are projected: some are turned 'center – stage' so to form a kind of a circle as in a private conversation; others turn towards the outside, facing a 'public,' impling a less intimate sound, louder than that of everyday speech and perhaps even shouted. The 'Gardener' which appears in parenthesis might be whispering. Sounds and volumes, can correspond to colors and moods. In this mini theater some of the protagonists are more central than others but each has a very definied role.

In reading the text8 the line that first catches the attention is the one written obliquely: "Whether the words be a command/words be a command issuing from authority or counsel", which covers: "his hiding is understood". The lines can be understood as a sort of denunciation of the power of language and its manipulation in human knowledge. "Effectual crucifying knowledge": this is knowledge which does not free man, but, on the contrary, captures him in schemas and rigid orders which have no real meanings, but just deprive man of his own identity, of his own individuality: "what I am?" is nearly unreadable, it is perceived as a stutter, it has a question mark. It is partially overwritten by the line: "suddenly unperceivable time from place to place," which can be a definition for history.

In this sense the poem could be a criticism of progress, including the progress of words, when progress means regression, loss of the state of purity, authenticity and originality. History and knowledge present a kind of violence, that overwhelms each man's identity. Again the disruption of the traditional form of language suggests going back to a primordial of chaos, where purer and more meaningful comunication can be found; it is a "new way of perceiving grounded in the immediate feeling of understanding." (Ma 1995: 3) The word 'testimony' in italics is put at the very center of the poem, being a kind of end or full stop. It could be the symbol for poetry, as the testimony of time, of a voice in history. In her interview with Lynn Keller Susan Howe said "Testimony is right – side up, and for some reason that worked absolutely perfectly. With that Testimony is the 'soul's ascension', going up." (Keller 1995: 4)

5 Poetry and Music

In this section I want to point out some similarities between Susan Howe's poetry and contemporary music. Both are based on the disruption of classical languages – that of music and that of words – to express the crisis of our century. The melody as the harmonic accordance of instruments or words cannot be found anymore. Each voice stands by itself, different colors and intonations are placed one next to the other, all underlying the disjunction of modern cultures and the uneasiness of the modern man. The idea of such a comparison between poetry and music comes easily to mind when reading Howe's poems for the first time, since it is so difficult to catch their meaning; it is in fact nearly impossible to identify semantic and logical context. Rather, what the reader gets is an impression, an emotion as a result of the 'irrational' perception of sound (one of the most important elements of these poems). Then he must try to re-collect these sensations and give them a form.

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The poet deals with single words, chosen more for their sounds, or for the colors or the images they suggest (always different because based on the subjectivity of the reader, and not fixed by the poet) than for the meaning we are used to associate with them. They are disjunct from any context; they appear displaced on the paper as single unities according to space and time (rythm and silence), that is to say following the rules of music. They are exactly 'articulation of sound forms in time' which is the famous definition Schönberg gave to music. Schönberg is considered the founder of contemporary music, since he developed the 'twelve-note system'9 on which the new classical music of the Twentieth Century is based. Also "new music" is characterised by a certain degree of irrationalism, since both the writing and the reading of the musical text is no longer fixed in traditional rules. 'Disruption' and 'spatiality' are key words for this music as well.

Both Howe's poetry and contemporary music are representative of the Twentieth Century's avantgarde. Here the word avantgarde indicates the denial of the conventional forms of the linguistic communication and the search for new forms, to express the crisis of language, of communication, and even of the relationship between art and public. As far as music is concerned, the twelve note system created by Schönberg at the beginning of the century embodies this crisis. It represents at the same time the disruption of the tradition and the renewal of musical language, since the traditional musical system is replaced by small, dissociated unities. The twelve note system, later developed into 'serialism', represents again the denial of every discursive syntax, in order to look for an objective language, free from the superiority of the subject. In this way it becomes a sort of universal language.

For composers such as Luigi Nono, Luciano Berio, and others of their generation, serialism represented an attempt to replace traditional structural principles such as melody, harmony, and rhythm with an abstract organization of pitches, note-values, and tone colours. Luigi Nono's Il Canto Sospeso (1955–56) is another example of such techniques of composition. In this work he sets to music, letters of farewell written by anti-Fascist resistance fighters in the hours before their deaths. The twelve-note technique does not prevent his music from exerting an expressive force, just as the development of autonomous musical forms in no way contrasts the political commitment. In Il Canto Sospeso Nono was caught up in a process of grieving that was not grounded in personal circumstances; for him a universal state is implied. Nono's writing is distinguished by a certain spatiality; in other words, notes or groups of notes are divided among the different instruments and hence associated with different sonorities or timbres.

This is a procedure already used by the earliest twelve-note composers but is applied here also to choral writing, with the component parts of the text (words and sometimes even individual syllables) allocated to various voices as the text migrates from one vocal and timbral register to the next. The syntactical connections in the text are totally dismembered: they are broken up into words, syllables or even smaller phonetic unities. Then they are recomposed into different articulations, according to the space-time directions of music. As a result new semantic associations, superimpositions, sort of phonetic clashes are produced; they also create new meanings, no longer recognizable on a linear semantic level, virtually impossible to identify semantic context, at least on a linguistic level. Such compositional innovations brought commentators to criticize the Venetian composer for evidently wishing to proclaim a message by drawing on specific texts, while at the same time largely preventing the listener from hearing what those texts might mean. Nono countered this by arguing that, far from being subverted, the meaning of the texts was transferred to other, musical means of expression. In this new musical context the voice also assumes a new value: no longer the vehicle of logical and semantic meanings of the word, it is now the instrument able to amplify the phonetic value of each syllable.

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This new use of the voice can be found not only in Nono's work but also in the works of Luciano Berio. In Thema. Omaggio a Joyce (1958) he sets to music Joyce's Ulysses. In the work he points out the deformation in the perception of a piece of music, obtained through the assumption of different perspective points. He also states a new relationship between music (exspecially by using electronic music) and poetry, since the text is 'dissolved' in a music that realizes a perfect integration between the musical perception and the logical-semantic structure of the textual perception. In an essay called "Poetry and music," (Berio 1959) Berio wrote that poetry like music is also a verbal message distributed in time. The text is not considered in its linear, semantic structure, but for its sonorous image, which is sometimes deliberately pointed out, sometimes totally confused. The narration of Mr. Bloom's adventures is less evident than the structure of the new polyphony.

A similar effect is achieved in setting to music of some of Hölderlin's romantic poems by Nicolaus A. Huber, one of Nono's pupils.10 Here the text is sung while following the frantumation made by the composer. It is broken up into single words, dissociated into small unities of syllables, distributed in a different musical space and time. In a certain way it even contrasts the content of the text itself, which celebrates the beauty of Nature in its Unity. Once more the logical-semantic level is completely lost. We can see that some principles of this new music are very similar to those governing Susan Howe poetic writings and consequently the results both in poetry and in music are strongly related. They share the disbelief in the traditional language, as its disruption demonstrates. Both Susan Howe and the contemporary composers replace their respective languages – words and music – with small, dissociated unities.

Rhythm is totally reinvented, multiplied by different instruments or voices and following the frantumation of the language. Spatiality can be considered as the distribution to various instruments, to notes or group of notes, or to words or group of words, in a musical or linguistic space and time. Here the definition Schoenberg gives to music as the 'articulation of sound forms in time', used by Susan Howe as the title for a collection of poems is made clear. The irrational dimension of the composition, particularly used by John Cage, characterized by the casuality both in the composition (made up of superimpositions, 'silences', lack of specific indications for the execution) and in the reading of the piece is an important element also in the poet's work. They all write in a new language where a specific subject is not directly involved. They all speak the universal language of emotions (courage, fear, hope etc.) and this same universality is supported by the lack of clear semantic context or meaning.

Susan Howe's experimentation with poetry is thus an attempt to go back to an original, universal language, free from the conventions of modern communication. Her poems are both pieces of visual art and of music, and point out the inability to communicate through the traditional use of words and at the same time state the universality of language and art.

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Howe's poetry is also a voyage through American 'time and space'; the reconstruction of American history with the help of a new language. She gives voice to its original inhabitants by using visual symbols and primitive sounds; by creating chaos with words she goes back to a certain savagery; she reproduces the wilderness of the landscape by pointing out fences and boundaries; she stresses the result of modern rationalism through the disruption of syntax. Looking for the origins of American civilisation she uses a language which is a mixture of both reason and irrationality, shaping the 'myth of the beginning' in poetry.


"The Way We Word: Susan Howe Names Names" (1990), in: Village Voice Literary Supplement 91, 27.

Berio, Luciano (1959): "Poetry and Music", in: Incontri musicali 3, 2–16.

Foster, Edward (Hg.) (1990): "An Interview with Susan Howe", in: Talisman: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics 4, 14–38.

Howe, Susan (1978): Secret History of the Dividing Line. New York.

Howe, Susan (1983): The Defenestration of Prague. New York.

Howe, Susan (1989a): A Bibliography of the King's Book, or Eikon Basilike. New York.

Howe, Susan (1989b): Articulation of Sound Forms in Time. New York.

Howe, Susan (1990): The Europe of Trusts. Los Angeles.

Howe, Susan (1993): The Nonconformist's Memorial. New York.

Howe, Susan (1996): Frame Structures. Early Poems, 1974–1979. New York.

Keller, Lynn (1995): "An Interview with Susan Howe", in: Contemporary Literature 36/1, 1–34.

Ma, Ming-Qian (1995): "Articulating the Inarticulate: Singularities and the Countermethod in Susan Howe", in: Contemporary Literature 36/1, 466–489.

Middleton, Peter (1991): "On Ice: Julia Kristeva, Susan Howe and Avant Guarde Poetics" in: Easthope, Anthony (Hg.): Contemporary Poetry Meets Modern Theory. Toronto.

Möckel-Rieke, Hannah (1991): Fiktionen von Natur und Weiblichkeit: Zur Begründung femininer und engagierter Schreibweisen bei Adrianne Rich, Denise Levertov, Susan Griff, Kathleen Fraser und Susan Howe. Trier.

Palatella, John (1995): "An End of Abstraction: An Essay on Susan Howe's Historicism", in: Denver Quarterly 29/3, 45–57.

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1 Susan Howe has received the "Columbus Foundation American Book Award" twice, in 1980 for Secret History of the Dividing Line, and in 1987 for her critical study My Emily Dickinson. She also received the first "Roy Harvey Pearce Award" as a poet and a critic for The Birth-Mark.

2 Think of Freud's 'the I that I think I am is dependent on an uncounscious I can never know'.

3 See Möckel-Rieke, 292.

4 'Barbarism' is a word Howe herself used to describe how "modern rationalism springs from barbarism", describing the behaviour of two bears in a zoo, in the preface she wrote to her collection of poems Frame Structures. (Howe 1996).

5 Originally published in Howe 1983.

6 Articulation of Sound Forms in Time is the title of a collection of poems by Susan Howe (1989b).

7 See "The Way We Word: Susan Howe Names Names" (1990: 27).

8 It is curious to note that the poet said she never read the text aloud, so "I haven't plotted out exactly how I'd read it" (Keller 1995: 2).

9 The twelve-note system is a twelve note row, containing every interval.

10 I am particularly referring to a concert in Venice in April 1997, where the poem "Der Winter" by Friedrich Hölderlin was performed.