Authors: Susan Howe

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American poet, essayist, and critic

June 10, 1937

Boston, Massachusetts

Biography

Susan Howe has a reputation as a leading experimental poet, and her varied experiences have given her a rich background for her unusual writings. She has been active as an actress, a painter, a radio producer, and an assistant stage designer at the Gate Theater in Dublin. Howe’s father was a Harvard Law professor, and her mother was an Irish playwright and actress. Howe graduated in 1961 from the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts, where she received first prize in painting. During the next ten years she moved from painting pictures to painting with words to writing poetry. {$I[AN]9810001795} {$I[A]Howe, Susan} {$I[geo]WOMEN;Howe, Susan} {$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Howe, Susan} {$I[tim]1937;Howe, Susan}

Susan Howe.

By Baudelaire2013, CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Howe’s interest in the unusual in literature began in the 1950s when she was still in high school and spent her time in libraries, searching for out-of-the-way volumes and unfamiliar words. History was her favorite subject in school.

Howe was influenced by the poet Charles Olson, the painter Agnes Martin, and the historian Richard Slotkin, as well as by poet Emily Dickinson and Cotton Mather and other early Puritan writers. As a writer she has identified most persistently with Virginia Woolf, whose work she began to read early.

The artistic experimentation and freedom of the 1960s remain Howe’s permanent milieu. Her work during that time was in paint but anticipates some of her later preoccupations, for she began listing words under her paintings and, increasingly, leaving white space around her art. Collage, a favorite technique of hers, can still be seen in her poetry today.

Strongly as her background as a painter influenced her poetry, her interest in the theater may have influenced it even more. A Susan Howe poem looks like a stage, with words as actors. The placement of her words is crucial, and it follows that the way the eye moves across the page of a Howe poem is part of the poem: The eye skips, jumps, bounces, the attention is distracted, then brought sideways. There is evident drama in her words.

The strongest motivation in Howe’s writing is neither visual nor theatrical art but topographical: the landscape around her, particularly that around the Long Island Sound and Atlantic Ocean. Her love of the water may have grown out of her childhood in New England but was certainly enhanced by her second husband, David von Schlegell, who taught sculpture at Yale University and was devoted to sailing. He spent much of his life designing boats and sailing them, and his ties to water and design clearly influenced Howe, who has said that through him she connected writing and drawing in her mind.

Howe’s poetry is visibly unconventional. Often the lines of her poems are not placed horizontally on the page but diagonally, upside down, or at odd angles. She makes frequent use of mirror images and collage. Often her words appear initially to have no relation to each other. Much of what she is trying to say is absent from the poem, in the white space surrounding it or in the gap in meaning from one word to the next. Those who have been traditionally denied a voice in history, especially women, embrace her writing as a medium that communicates the unspoken. Indeed, Howe is always concerned with how her poetry sounds when read aloud, and in her own readings she emphasizes changes in dynamics, rhythm, and volume. Howe’s poems require deep concentration, for, spare as they are, they approach limitlessness in their implications.

Howe began teaching in 1988 as a Butler Fellow at State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo, where she became a professor and held the Samuel P. Capen Chair of Poetry and the Humanities before retiring in 2007. She has taught at Princeton University, University of Chicago, University of Utah, and Wesleyan University. She has been a writer or artist in residence at institutions in the United States and abroad, including the New Poetics Colloquium in Vancouver, British Columbia; Temple University; the University of Denver; and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts.

Howe has gained widespread respect for her writing, and is known not only for her innovative poetry but also for her probing analyses of marginalia in the works of famous writers. She is a two-time winner of the Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award, for the collection Secret History of the Dividing Line and for My Emily Dickinson. During the summer of 1988 she was one of five American poets at the Rencontres Internationales de Poésie Contemporaine in Tarascon, France. Her nonfiction book The Birthmark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History was named one of the “International Books of the Year” by the Times Literary Supplement in 1993, and it also won Howe the Roy Harvey Pearce Award in 1996. That same year she won a Guggenheim fellowship. Her other fellowships include a 1998 distinguished fellowship at the Stanford Institute of the Humanities and a fall 2009 Anna-Maria Kellen poetry fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1999, and, the following year became a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, serving through 2006. In 2011 Howe received the Bollingen Prize for Poetry from Yale University, for lifetime achievement and for her collection, That This, an elegy for her third husband, Peter Hare, who died in 2008.

Author Works Poetry: Hinge Picture, 1974 The Western Borders, 1976 Secret History of the Dividing Line, 1978 Cabbage Gardens, 1979 The Liberties, 1980 Pythagorean Silence, 1982 Defenestration of Prague, 1983 Articulation of Sound Forms in Time, 1987 A Bibliography of the King’s Book: Or, Eikon Basilike, 1989 The Europe of Trusts: Selected Poems, 1990 Singularities, 1990 The Nonconformist’s Memorial: Poems, 1993 Frame Structures: Early Poems, 1974–1979, 1996 Pierce-Arrow, 1999 Bed Hangings, 2001 Kidnapped, 2002 The Midnight, 2003 Souls of the Labadie Tract, 2007 That This, 2010 Frolic Architecture, 2011 (audiobook on CD, with David Grubbs) Salt, 2013 Debths, 2017 Nonfiction: Religious Literature of the West, 1971 (with John Raymond Whitney) My Emily Dickinson, 1985, 2007 Incloser, 1992 The Birth-Mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History, 1993, 2015 “Sorting Facts: Or, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Marker” in Beyond Document: Essays on Nonfiction Film, 1996; published as Sorting Facts, or, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Marker, 2013 Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives, 2014 The Quarry, 2015 Bibliography Campbell, Bruce. “Ring of Bodies/Sphere of Sound.” The Difficulties 3, no. 2 (1989). According to Campbell, Howe “is a kind of post-structuralist visionary.” He explains that this “means that, while attuned to a transcendental possibility, she is fully aware of how mediated both language and consciousness are.” While she must therefore explore history, she mistrusts it, and cannot “accept it as truth.” Chamberlain, Lori. Review of Defenestration of Prague, by Susan Howe. Sulfur 9 (1984). A useful look at this book—a sound, informal approach, which is the one that yields the best results for this poet. Chamberlain sees heterogeneity as always threatening to undermine unity in this work. Howe, Chamberlain notes, overlays self-remembering via various allegories with her remembering of Ireland. Chamberlain finds the final section “the most uneven,” containing “lists of words that do not invite the reader’s participation in this archeology of memory.” Crown, Kathleen. “‘This Unstable I-Writing’: Susan Howe’s Lyric Iconoclasm and the Articulating Ghost.” Women’s Studies 27, no. 5 (1998): 483–505. In-depth analysis of Howe’s poem “Articulation of Sound Forms.” Daly, Lew. Swallowing the Scroll: Late in a Prophetic Tradition with Poetry of Susan Howe and John Taggart. Buffalo, N.Y.: M Press, 1994. A critical essay comparing the work of Susan Howe and John Taggart. DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. “‘Whowe’ on Susan Howe.” In The Pink Guitar. New York: Routledge, Chapman & Hall, 1990. A comprehensive review of Howe’s work from a feminist viewpoint. DuPlessis is a thoroughly informed adjudicator of postmodern poetry; this is an excellent essay. Green, Fiona. “‘Plainly on the Other Side’: Susan Howe’s Recovery.” Contemporary Literature 42, no. 1 (2001): 78–101. Analyzes the effect of Howe’s father’s death upon her poetry. Ma, Ming Qian. “Articulating the Inarticulate: Singularities and the Counter-Method in Susan Howe.” Contemporary Literature 36, no. 3 (1995): 466–489. An analysis of the linguistic aspects of Howe’s poetry, including her rhetorical strategies, word placement, and textual formation. Naylor, Paul. Poetic Investigations: Singing the Holes in History. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1999. A critical survey of English Commonwealth and American experimental and avant-garde literature of the twentieth century. Covering the work of Susan Howe, Kamau Brathwaite, Nathaniel Macky, and Lyn Hejinian. Includes bibliographical references and index. Nicholls, Peter. “‘The Pastness of Landscape’: Susan Howe’s Pierce-Arrow.” Contemporary Literature 43, no. 3 (2002): 441–460. A close reading of Howe’s collection, exploring themes and associations that run throughout the work. O’Brien, Geoffrey. “The Way We Word.” The Village Voice Literary Supplement, December, 1990. Deeper than most journalistic notices, this article provides some firm handles for raising Howe’s work to consideration. “The complex structures, images and narratives Howe evokes [are] not written down; they exist in the margins of what is written down.” O’Brien notes Howe’s use of “runes, scratches, accretions of speech” and a vocabulary that “restores an awareness of the immensity of a single word.” Quartermain, Peter. “And The Without.” The Difficulties 3, no. 2 (1989). Finds Howe more subject to language than master thereof—approvingly, for this brings her poetry nearer to experience, creating a reality that culture seldom acknowledges. Quartermain reads text meticulously and succeeds in giving the impression that this is an excellent way to read Howe’s poems.

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