Susan Howe Thesis (near-completion) Retrospective

by ericaeller

Last year (2013) was the year of an intensely involved, chaotic, and wondrous thesis in which I wrote about poet Susan Howe. It is spilling over into this year, but I’m almost going to close the book I studied, Singularities, although I hope not for long. This post is geared toward open-source research resources of which there are many for studying Susan Howe.  At times unfamiliar, at times dark, at times esoteric, at times mystic, at times difficult she’s my friend of letters now forever.

I will now collect a few under-thoughts that did not necessarily go into my work.

She is a collagist

of time and sound and language

to express erasure, silence, stutter, half-light, ghostly voices, violence

and who conducts her interviews with audacity and wit

Her formative works stem from the age of the Bomb.

“I am naive enough to hope the truth will out. History may be a record written by winners, but don’t forget Nixon taped himself for posterity. If you are a woman, archive hold perpetual ironies. Because the gaps and silences are where you find yourself” (The Birth-mark 158)

Q. What sense of limit do you bring to your poetry? A. I hope my sense of limit is never fixed. All roads lead to rooms is an old Irish saying. An aphorism and a pun. In Western literary Tradition all roads seem to lead to Rome. A poet is a foreigner in her own language. I don’t want to stay inside. (“The Difficulties Interview” 27)

Moving inward to the Word in a materialist (Calvinist) sense

Singularities: A non-conformist interiority of archival wilderness and Rene Thom’s catastrophe theory of the singularity

She writes of lost scapegoats in history

Her poetic Conversion is boundary crossing


The professor who introduced me to Susan Howe’s work saves hard-to-find editions of out-of-print texts and interviews like this one. She passes around a manilla folder for people to make copies and then she retrieves her special copy when we’ve each had a chance to coordinate who’ll make the copies for everyone. I love this kind of open source “transgression” and sharing of secrets in literature. These are women who trespass.

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Howe’s archive is in UC San Diego. There you’ll see how she has written in the same brand of black journals for more than 20 or 30 years. Ritual. She writes in quotes, she writes in lyric. In one of these journals, quotes included passages from the following: Coriolanus, Mayakovsky, Wittgenstein, Joyce, Merleau Ponty, Racine, Trakl, Jakobson, Klee, Derrida, Artaud. I discovered that her nickname is Sukey in letters. In another one, there was a quotation from Master Eckhart: “In the vast (word missing) there is no back or front; the path of the bird annihilates East or West.” She had a definition of the German word “heimlich” written down – one of those quintessential German words. Here quotations were compiled in multiples on pages. As for her lyric, she mostly wrote in stanzas off to the left side of the page with ample room on the right, writing down from the top, using less than one third of the page in each page. These original lines were cut like diamonds. The form didn’t vary. This is dedication. Then there were her lines and lines of repeated, alternated, meditative lines in singles or pairs, typewritten in collections of hundreds of pages – these were the drafts that went into the making of “Taking the Forest” that is section three of her poem, “Articulation of Sound Forms in Time.”

One of the most interesting things I found searching through boxes in her archive was a letter from David Kaufman on Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem misplaced in a file labelled: Puritan critical articles.  (This pairing of minds was a topic of a lengthy research project I did!) I wrote it all down on a secret piece of paper that is now stashed away in my own file, because that was the only way to copy without losing the limited time I had. The fact that it was misplaced made me smile. This was an archive with strict rules about sifting through the materials so as not to misplace anything. I felt right at home in my library-ish mysticism.

A good descriptive word for her form: Palimpsest

(for example)

Theorists worth reading alongside Howe: Serres (anything), Foucault (Counter-Memory & other Essays: all), Benjamin (start with Theses on Philosophy of History or Critique of Violence), Irigaray (The Sex Which Is Not One), Levinas, Derrida (Archive Fever), Rene Girard (on Scapegoat and Conversion)

How it is possible to critique Howe: Maria Lugones? Jameson? Neil Larsen’s comments on postmodernism? I would love to see her break free from her Anglo-Eurocentricity in her choice of sources.

Through the Dark-side of the Archive of American History: Jonathan Edwards, Increase Mather, Sir William Johnson (multiple), George Sheldon, Thomas Shepard, Mary Rowlandson, John Cotton, Anne Hutchinson’s trial (and many more),

My thesis is on Antinomianism…

…used as a term to describe Howe’s aesthetic praxis.

I use these historians’ interpretations of the Antinomian Controversy: Ann Kibbey, Patricia Caldwell

This is a poem I wrote after immersing myself in her archives:

Spirit / Matter, Splay, Splatter, Smatter, Sputter, Mutter, Spittle, Title, Riddle, Spurt, Stutter, Speech.

And more open source finds:

EPC – a great resource

The things Marjorie Perloff wrote (bringing her to light)

Rachel Blau Du Plessis loves her

As does Ming Qian Ma

On The Midnight

Praise for her Bollingen Prize

On Souls of the Labadie Tract