Award-winning American poet Susan Howe visited Harvard Divinity School on April 24 to speak about the binding together of freedom and law, spontaneity and habit, as occasions for awakening a reader to the exaltation of spirit in process. Crossing the guarded borders between image and word, individual and community, history and the present, poetry provides an opening to the transcendent order that chance makes possible.
Susan Howe's collection of poems, That This, won the Bollingen Prize in 2011. In 2017 she received the Robert Frost award for distinguished lifetime achievement in American poetry.
AMY HOLLYWOOD: In 1704, I'm going to start in a weird angle, the English dramatist and critic John Dennis, later the subject of Alexander Pope's heated and characteristically cruel invective, argued for the confluence, maybe the identity of poetry and religion. Dennis rehabilitates the language of enthusiasm. He insists that the greater poetry, as he calls it, is an art by which a poet justly and reasonably excites great passion.
This is Dennis. "Since therefore, the enthusiasm in the greater poetry is to hold proportion with the ideas, and those ideas are certainly the greatest, which are worthiest to move the greatest and the wisest men, and divine ideas are ideas which shoo the attributes of God or relate to His worship are worthiest to move the greatest and the wisest men because such ideas belong to objects which are only truly above them, and consequently, truly admirable, desirable, joyful, terrible, and et cetera, it follows that the greatest and strongest enthusiasm that can be employed in poetry is only justly and reasonably to be derived from religious ideas."
Through a sleight of hand, a trick of the light, the greatness of the ideas is determined, known, and felt by the greatness of the passion and enthusiasm they elicit. And from this, it follows for Dennis, quote, "that as great poetry only is the adequate language of the greater poetry"-- great passion only-- excuse me-- "is the adequate language of the greater poetry, so the greater poetry only is the adequate language of religion-- and that, therefore, the greatest passion is the language of that sort of poetry, because that sort of poetry is the worthiest language of religion."
All of this leads John Dennis to Longinus's On the Sublime, and the point of it all for him to Milton. Paradise Lost is the worthiest language of religion. It leads me to Susan Howe. When I'm overwhelmed by great passion, I don't know that that's ever actually happened, so let me say, when I am rendered useless by feeling, when my emotions are too much for me, very often, when someone has died, I read Susan Howe.
They aren't the only times I read Howe. In some 14 volumes, her poems contain feeling without constricting feeling. They create mirrors for what I often can't name, can't articulate, can't and do not want fully to understand. They give shape to sorrow, and rage, and terror, pleasure too, and joy. In their order, word lists or carefully-spaced columns, spare lines of acute, often disjunctive images, precisely-calibrated prose, articulations of sound forms in time, and in their refusal of order, cut up pieces of text scattered across the page, upside-down and sideways, blurred and smeared, cut off at odd angles, sometimes creating mirror images between the recto and verso, sometimes stoically singular.
To be melodramatic, the favorite tone of our shared Irish-American forebears-- despite Susan's being Anglo-Irish, I'm going to pull her in with me on this-- I don't think I'd be alive without Susan Howe's poetry-- negative infinity melodrama, as she says in Debths, the description of my affective state. Hyperbole aside, I know I'd be less alive, less able to feel, and to feel deeply-- less able to think too, and to inhabit the contradictions of my experience.
I'm in no way representative, and yet we are, each of us, in some way, representative. So let me say not just the contradictions of my experience, but the contradictions of American experience-- for much of the Howe's poetry-- not all of it, but much of it-- of Singularities and Nonconformist Memorial to That This and Debths-- I won't give all the titles-- and her prose, My Emily Dickinson, The Birthmark, Spontaneous Particulars-- the Telepathies of the Archive-- all of this work made me for the first time care about American history-- actually, for the first time, made me feel like I was a part of American history.
It brought it alive and all of its violence, contradiction, pain, and pleasure. All of this work helps in the great project of rendering intractable realities visible, legible-- even as they're illegible-- and somehow livable. Her poetry and her criticism-- and I often find it hard to distinguish fully between the two-- is a refuge and a refusal, performing a contradictory doubling without which we can't survive-- without which we probably don't deserve to.
For Susan Howe, feeling, passion, is always thought, and thought feeling. Her critical restless mind, and ear, eye, and hand inform everything that she makes. Reading Howe is a lesson in how to read, and how to hear, and how to see both her own work and that of the larger traditions of which she's part-- most particularly, of course, perhaps for here, now at this time, here in this place, the American tradition.
Ralph Waldo Emerson did, in fact, speak here in this room. Henry James lived for a semester somewhere in the building while he was pretending to go to law school. I want Divinity Hall to continue to stand-- there are some worries that it's falling-- so that a century or more from now, someone will remember Susan Howe spoke here. Susan Howe made people feel. She made people listen and here. She made people think. She made people believe-- if not in God or religion, than in poetry-- poetry in its necessity for, towards, to, with the future.
Poet, critic, artist, sound magician-- in addition to her books, Susan Howe has done audio collaboration with the musician and composer David Grubbs, and her word collages have been exhibited at the Whitney Biennial, among other places. She has been honored with, among other things, a Guggenheim, membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Bollingen Prize, the Griffin Prize. We are honored to have her here with us tonight, and tremendously grateful to her for her work. Please join me in enthusiastically welcoming Susan Howe.
SUSAN HOWE: Oh, I'm overwhelmed. Oh my god. This is the room. It's just amazing. It brings my whole life, in some profound, deep way, full circle. And I'm sure it's the last time I'm ever going to attempt a lecture or a reading. It isn't really a lecture, so it's just beyond-- really, I'm being genuine about that.
You saw that I made some handouts including Emerson, but I just-- to speak before I start, I just want to mention Noah Webster and his Dictionary of the American Language, which changes radically after the Civil War-- basically before the 1840-- I mean the 1748 edition and the re-fixed editions after that through-- I'm not sure when, but around 1860-- are basically Calvinist.
It's a Calvinist dictionary. You mentioned Milton. It's Miltonic, really-- because I'm just going to emphasize the beauty of the singular words in the Emerson Divinity School address, which, in my opinion, is one of the most beautiful Emerson pieces he ever wrote. But I'm just taking that word meteor and I'm going to read it aloud from Noah Webster so you can see what I mean.
Meteor (noun)-- sublime, lofty-- in a general sense, a body that flies or floats in the air. And in this sense, it includes clouds, rain, hail, snow, et cetera. But in a restricted sense in which it is commonly understood. Two-- a fiery or luminous body or appearance flying or floating in the atmosphere, or in a more elevated region. We give this name to the brilliant globes or masses of matter which are occasionally seen moving rapidly through our atmosphere, and which throw off with loud explosions fragments that reach the earth, and are called falling stones. We call that by the same name, those fireballs which are usually denominated falling stars or shooting stars-- also the lights which appear over moist grounds and graveyards called ignis fatui, and meteor-like flame lawless through the sky (Pope), figuratively, anything that transiently dazzles or strikes with wonder.
I mean, It's like a poem in itself.
And then there is the wonderful Ralph, a snip from the Divinity-- a snowstorm was falling around us. The snowstorm was real-- the preacher merely spectral, and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him out of the window behind him into the beautiful meteor of the snow.
It's beautiful, because the word beautiful next to the word meteor-- only Emerson-- into the beautiful meteor of the snow-- I just find it incredible.
But anyway, I'm going to go on about that later. And then Wallace Stevens-- a poem is a meteor. And then the other handout is for later. So I call this session with you Concordance because it's the title of a new collection of poems I've been working on, and thought was finished, but have decided isn't. So at the end of this, I'll read one poem from the collection, but not the title group.
However, I have to tell you, Concordance, which-- that I speak about and I'm concerned about-- and I've made like a tent of paper scraps out of things from different concordance-- obviously I'm talking in reference to-- they contain the books, those huge volumes that contain an alphabetical arrangement of the principal words contained in an author's work with citations of the passages in which they occur.
Concordances, as I'm sure you all know, were biblical at first. And I think there's something interesting. There are not that many concordances of women's work. And it's amazing how many of the careful editorial work was done on concordances by women.
And I think there is a sense-- there is a devotional sense in making a concordance of an author's work. Emily Dickinson treasured her copy of the complete concordance to Shakespeare being a verbal index to all the passages in the dramatic works of the poet by Mrs. Cowden Clarke, Boston, 1877. Now you can see it online. But, in my day, you couldn't.
But I keep lugging my heavy copy of the concordance of the letters of Emily Dickinson, edited by Cynthia MacKenzie and Penny Gilbert, from Colorado University Press out of my bookcase, onto my desk, to track a word. I just find it essential. Although I'm sure if I could navigate the web more easily, or even had a research assistant--
Ha ha. Poets don't get research assistants once they retire. It will be there. I'm sure it'll be there via Google Books or somewhere in what they call shadow libraries, which is a word that intrigues me, the term.
I'm excited about crossing linguistic and geographic borders, increasingly possible to advance technology, such as virtual reality, things like that. There's a whole world, new world, out there, inside the screen, new poets with new ideas about deep space and digital virtuosities. Oh, brave new world, that has no paper in it.
But the thing is, I'm 81, which means from the typewriter generation. Even if I can't imagine life without my computer now, I must have a printer on the desk beside me. I don't trust the screen.
For my more radically spaced poems-- I still think of them as poems-- I use scissors-- hair-cutting ones are the sharpest-- all-purpose copying paper, scotch tape, and a printer-scanner. I don't know how to use Photoshop or InDesign. It's too late to learn.
The material on my hard drive is beyond my fathoming. Frankly, it's a miss. What I care about most is the books arranged on two large shelves in my workroom, or ones I discover in a library. Their marginal notes/marks, enthusiasms, now seem as calming as night and the stars. They're my best friends. I'm a paper person. They are the real thing.
But back to that single word, concordance, which can also mean a state of harmony between persons, or a musical chord with satisfying harmonic effect. For me, of course, Concord is embedded-- the place embedded in the word. And that embedding offers to my soul a sense of safety and simplification, soothing, even to sanctity.
Walden, the great pond, before its pastoral reflection, before the waste and weltering, frogs and red-winged blackbirds, other precursor heralds, chip, clamor, cart path, bug, cricket, ripple leaf. There's the Alcott's house, and the Bronson's teaching barn.
The Emerson house where, in an upstairs room overlooking what is now communal ground, with its apple orchards, almond ash trees, Emerson drafted nature. And Hawthorne wrote The Birthmark and Rappaccini's Daughter, among other stories published in Mosses of an Old Manse.
Here, because of the rarity of glass in 18th century New England, the windows were set with tiny panes. On one or two, Sophia and Nathaniel left notes etched into the glass with her wedding ring diamond. Nathaniel Hawthorne-- or it says actually "Nath Hawthorne." This is his study. The smallest twig leans clear against the sky. Composed by my wife, and written with her diamond. Inscribed by my husband at sunset, April 3, 1843, in the gold light.
Here, Margaret Fuller often stayed in a room or a famous in study. Here they shared ideas and hopes, and were each other's audience. Always remembering how close to Concord the Connecticut River and Massachusetts are. The Connecticut River interests Massachusetts from the north bisecting it, Deerfield, Deerfield River. All these places that have been deeply involved in my work.
The tobacco built tobacco and onions, Amherst college, Orra White Hitchcock, Edward Hitchcock, Mary Lyons, Mount Holyoke College, Emily Dickinson, and Noah Webster's American dictionary of the English language was printed in 1828 in Springfield Massachusetts. But my writing has also been influenced a lot since working with the musician, David Grubbs, by Charles Ives. And his use of quotation in his music, because my work is just a mass of quotation, basically.
His music is a synthesis of old and new. The New England landscape, history, abstracting, and recuperating nature at once. A balance of openness and closure with momentary epiphanies, fireworks, quirky historical materiality. Ives was unashamed about expressing a romantic modernist vision in his music. Of course, in the Concord sonata, and also in his essays Before a Sonata. And I'm unembarrassed. I am actually a romantic modernist.
As Stanley Cavell put it in the wonderful of The Senses of Walden speaking of Thoreau but also Emerson--and I wish he would might have mentioned Margaret Fuller but he didn't-- In this space of recognition, in there working out of the common in conjunction with what they call speaking of necessaries, speaking with necessity.
Their urgent call for every word in our human language as requiring attention, though, my god, have we forgotten. As though language itself has fallen from or may aspire to a higher state, say in which the world is more perfectly expressed, is something that Cavell assumes has a complex history and is essential to their vision that the world lies, fallen, dead, and that too is essential to their romanticism, taking thought for the lost dead, regularly taking thought for them.
They are free, and they make us free. Perhaps, Emerson and the poet. And here, again, back to my beloved Divinity School lecture, or address, which is-- well, I've already said it was one of my favorites. I once heard a preacher-- I'm going to repeat this, because it helps me here. I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say, I would go to church no more. Man thought I go where they want to go, else no soul entered the temple in the afternoon. And this was where the snow comes in. A snow was falling around us. The snow was real. The preacher, merely spectral, that gorgeous word, spectral. And the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out the window at the beautiful meteor of the snow.
Snow glistens in its instant in the air. If a line is quick and strong, it pierces our glassy earth. It bursts out of reflection on all sides, because the heart refuses to be imprisoned in its first and narrowest pulses. It already tends outward with a vast force. Come in, sit distantly close to me, snow image.
Let's form crosses in the air while reading and sleeping according to reciprocal reflection. This broken mirror is the world, magnified. Seven years bad luck unless you quickly toss its glassy splinters in the river. Something has to rest just the way small eddies form in rivers. Errand. And this is Jonathan Edwards, and about Jonathan Edwards, another of my heroes. I must have a problem but anyway.
SUSAN HOWE: He is-- and that's 1730, during the 1730s and 40s. Well, this actually is one reason why it's right here. During his ministry in Northampton, Jonathan Edwards traveled alone on horseback from parish to parish. Boston was a three-day ride east. It was easier to get to Hartford and New Haven.
At Greenfield, the Mohawk Trail began its climb westward toward Eastern New York, then frontier territory. As an idea occurred to him, he pinned a small piece of paper on his clothing, fixing in his mind an association between the location of the paper and the particular insight. On his return home, he unpinned each slip and wrote down its associated thought according to location.
"Extricate all questions from the least confusion by words or ambiguity of words so that the ideas shall be left naked," he once wrote. Poetry is love for the felt fact stated in sharpest most agile and detailed lyric terms. Words give clothing to hide our nakedness.
I love to imagine this gaunt and solitary traveler covered in scraps, riding through the woods and fields of Massachusetts and Connecticut. In 2019, I can hear the high-speed Acela Express rushing through the remaining traces surrounding my four and 1/2 acre, exurban, almost suburban plot on the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington. On the shore line, local connection from New Haven, I like to sit on the side between Stoney Creek and Guilford, where I can see my neighbor's house, and when the leaves are gone, catch a split second glimpse of ours through the window as the train passes.
I suppose I'm trying to capture a moment before mirror vision. Because when you view objects that lie in front of your eyes, as well as others in the distance behind, what you see in the mirror has already been interpreted, so far as I can tell. More and more, I have the sense of being present at a point of absence, where crossing centuries may prove to be like crossing languages.
Most of my writing life has been spent in Connecticut, not far from where Hannah Edwards Wetmore, that's the daughter of Jonathan, no, I mean, the sister, sorry, lived and wrote. Reading her private writings, I experienced through an occult invocation of verbal links and forces the qualities peculiar to our seasonal changing light and color. It's a second kind of knowledge, tender, tangled, violent, august, and infinitely various.
And this is just, again, back to Emerson from a great poem of his called The Snow-Storm, again, snow. "Announced by all the trumpets of the sky, arrives the snow. And driving o'er the field, seems nowhere to alight. The whited air hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven, and veils the farmhouse at the garden's end. The sled and traveller stopped, the courier's feet, delayed, all friends shut out. The housemate sit around the radiant fireplace, enclosed in a tumultuous privacy of storm."
Emily Dickinson liked that last line so much. She copied the last four words down on a slip of paper, tumultuous privacy of storm. And it ends this way, a tapering turret-- "Maugre the farmer's sighs, and at the gate, a tapering turret over tops the work. And when his hours are numbered and the world is all his own, retiring, as he were not, leaves, when the sun appears, astonished art to mimic in slow structures, stone by stone, built in an age, the mad wind's night work, the frolic architecture of the snow."
I like the last line so much, that last line, I titled a series poem, and I used into the beautiful meteor of the snow as literally more than an epigraph, as a leaping off the page into frolic architecture. At this body is a history of a shadow, that is a shadow of me mystically one in another, another, another to subserve. Embody my body slipping. Embody my body slipping down, full toward its own secret sermon, sermon, sermon.
A missed sermon rough, a missed sermon, sermon, rough, sent to, wrote in the Romans. On the other hand, world. I used to be there, sss, felt soft, or in a sort, readily knew who or what I was. And there by the music, ah, and therefore lost, mmm, I was. Consulted with myself about it, and, and was ready.
That's Hannah Edwards remembering her delirium during an illness in 1736. Laying the burden down because noiselessness is tumultuous in its oceanic sense even when the open book is turned over face to table. Secret perceptions in readers draw near to the secret perceptions in authors.
The wings of an open book are the wings of desire. Only we too may interchange, each in the other, what each has to give. Each to each, other to other, over and over. I remember the summer before my sister Jerusha's death when, making stay, and I was leaning over the south fence and thinking in this manner that I was never likely to do better. And where should I go, et cetera,.
The folio -sized double leaves that Jonathan Edwards' family wrote on were often homemade, hand-stitched from linen rags, salvaged from worn-out clothing or sometimes on scraps leftover from dress patterns. Lists, sermons, quotations of psalms, dissonant scripture clusters are pressed between coarse cardboard covers with frayed edges. The rag paper has grown deeper and richer in some.
In research libraries and special collections, words and objects come into their own and have their place again. This known world, this exact moment, a little afterwards, not quite. When we were children playing games of hide and seek, the person chosen to be it, now turned round alone and counting, was supposed to keep looking in spite of snares and false resemblances.
Asked the librarian behind the desk for a cardboard box of labeled file folders containing singular, whispering skeletons. Placed one in my looking glass hands. This consecrated branch transmits to posterity the benefits of seeds or buds hidden in trees for hundreds of years. Spirits interpenetrate, drift apart.
Signals and transmissions, the ins and outs, reversals, refuge, refugees, borders, children separated from parents, wars, carnage, forced migration, mass incarceration, metadata relationships, fracking, plastic bags, global warming, environmental destruction, possible human extinction. If we have nothing but truth to leave, how do we distinguish ideas of what we were from ideas of what we are in vibrant, contemporary, compost, jargon, trash, landfill?
Here in Guilford, on a clear night in February, I can see so many stars. Before coming in, I stop between the car and the house, and fixing my gaze on one in particular, I recite the same wish, star light, star bright, first star I see tonight, I wish Becky, Mark, David, Peter, and I won't die until we are very old. Very old, I whisper to myself and the celestial constellations.
I never do this indoors, because looking at a new moon through glass was and is terribly unlucky according to my mother's divinations. So I can't take a chance on accidental sightings. She was Irish, of course.
SUSAN HOWE: Moving through measure may be transmitted from one generation's folkloric reality to another. Sound is sight sung inwardly. I am folding tangled threads of royal purple for a robe wrapped tightly round to keep the breath of the night wind warm, the way women in Irish paintings wrap themselves in woolen blankets, or the way in To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Ramsey covers the sheep's skull on the nursery wall with her green shawl so her children will sleep.
As we grow old, we return to our parents. Their absent submission to the harsh reality of death makes the tangle luminous. A stellar pallor hangs on strips of silver, bubbling before the sun. The spell is broken. They are embarking with other happy couples for Concord.
I'm almost done. In his poem, The Course of a Particular, Wallace Stevens writes, "Today the leaves cry, hanging on branches swept by wind, yet the nothingness of winter becomes a little less. It is still full of icy shades and shapen snow."
Shapen is an obsolete past participle. This wild word relic softly and serenely concerns no one. Its pastness echoes in the sound of wind sowing through pitch pines. Certain affections persist in the soul under sleep only to meet in print, where they can at last be felt. Each letter of separate presence, yes, but without restraining slippers.
Paul Valery says, "The first line of a poem should come from the edge of things like a magic formula deep inside the chamber of a mollusk shell." Possibly, each little mirror phoneme on scraps of paper represents time passing. Now we see through a glass, but-- words stand out in isolation, not for what they say but for what seems to remain unsaid, stepping out as much as you like.
They almost seem transparent, because we think in different languages. And each slight verbal reference or connection gets lost, though found by some inherent sense of form in every respect but touch, linking the always undiscovered country to all families on earth. There is no other way for Eve, the unknowable author of life, to live, to teach others, bruising the serpent's head from years of treading water underneath the embroidered manifestations of earlier vernaculars.
Only her cloak remains as placeholder, keeping her skeleton safe somewhere far off. She lays siege to your heart in spirit of the occult as the setting into the work as truth to blind others so that wrath is not the last thing, knowing birth is identical with death and even mercy seasonable in days of affliction as unexplained spirits singing for air. This has something to do with ecology, with what lives buried on the ocean floor.
Shells, and sails, and ships cast down eons before house and home, even before time as the roofed gateway in which a bier is placed before, once again, disappearing. In January 1538, a woman at Walsingham was carted about the marketplace in deep snow and set in stocks for saying a despoiled shrine had begun to work miracles mingled into the soul of the world, a strong sun lording the sky. So let us all be as we are under our own roofs.
Late last night, when I couldn't sleep, I wondered at how the cold reversal of moonlight on snow outside brightens the common stillness of the house, and how quietly night stands opened to us, and sits up for us, not fastening the door. Thank you.