During the 1980s I wanted to transplant words onto paper with soil sticking to their roots . . .
I was introduced to the work of Susan Howe through a MOOC. Not just any MOOC, mind you, but the fabled “ModPo” (“Modern and Contemporary American Poetry” is its name in full). Book after book of and about poetry, one by Howe included, attached to my bookshelves like iron filings to a magnet. I regarded the growing mass of books, sometimes with longing, other times with dread.
There they remained until ModPo concluded, leaving a wild cacophony of new poetry ringing in my head. Where on earth was I to start with all these books? I knew the “right” thing was to choose a book of poetry, not about it, but I went ahead and chose a book of essays: The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound.
In the book, I fell upon an essay by Susan Howe. “On May 17, 1676,” Howe begins,
the Reverend Hope Atherton and Steven Williams, along with 160 members of a local militia, marched out into nature from Hatfield, Massachusetts, on a botched expedition against neighboring Sqakeag, Nipmunk, Pokumtuck, and Mahican tribes before the land was subdued. [Sound]
I knew Howe to be a “language” poet, a species of poetry particularly rich and strange. Yet here she was writing straightforwardly about early American history, using ordinary tools of facts, places, and names. I entered the dream-world of my own decades-old journeys into the annals of that time, of my delight upon learning, from a book I still own, that the nation’s Capitol had been built on a mosquito-laden swamp. A book now likely out of print and probably discredited, but as an early voyage into myth-exploding, it remains my myth.
Howe found Hope Atherton lying in the margins of history, in “George Sheldon’s A History of Deerfield, Massachusetts, published in 1895 by the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association.” [Sound] The subtitle of the volume in which the incidents Howe cites appears is “The Times when the People by Whom it was Settled, Unsettled and Resettled, Volume 1.”
The history is itself settled, unsettled, and resettled, formed more by accident than by design. The English won the first round of the Falls Fight, as it came to be known, but the Indians rallied their neighbors and pursued the English, who ran out of ammunition and had to retreat. Atherton, a minister who’d accompanied the troops, and several soldiers were separated from the rest. Atherton survived and ultimately found his way home, though his own account of his deliverance from harm was not generally believed.
Howe’s essay turns toward a paean to libraries, where
In the dim light of narrowly spaced overshadowing shelves I felt the spiritual and solitary freedom of an inexorable order only chance creates. Quiet articulates poetry. These Lethean tributaries of lost sentiments and found philosophies had a life-giving effect on the process of my writing. [Sound]
“True wildness,” Howe writes, “is like true gold; it will bear the trial of Dewey Decimal.” [Sound]
I recalled my own excursions into the stacks at Regenstein, the mingled scents of brittle paper, dust, and air, the sounds of turning pages, a chair scraped back, the copier’s whir. I sat at a table piled high with magazines from the 19th and early 20th centuries; I searched through fragments about stenographers and typists, hoping to fashion a coherent whole. The task was a chimera, though, for narrative order is a construct imposed on facts, just as a library’s call numbers are imposed on books.
In choosing her texts, Howe unravels constructions imposed by traditional narrative to set words free:
I wanted to transplant words onto paper with soil sticking to their roots—to go to meet a narrative’s fate by immediate access to its concrete totality of singular interjections, crucified spellings, abbreviations, irrational apprehensions, collective identities, palavers, kicks, cordials, comforts. I wanted jerky and tedious details to oratorically bloom and bear fruit as if they had been set at liberty or ransomed by angels. [Sound]
True to her word, the opening lines of Articulation of Sound Forms in Time appear as an inscription that blooms and bears its fruit in sound:
from seaweed said nor repossess rest
Marjorie Perloff writes,
From seaweed said: the story to be told here, if not quite “Spelt from Sybil’s Leaves” (Hopkins), evidently consists of fragments shored from the ocean of our American subconscious . . . . We know from this introduction that an attempt will be made to “repossess” something lost, something primordial. The sound structure of the passage, with its slant rhyme of sea/weed and repossess/rest, its consonance of weed/said/esaid, and its alliteration of s‘s (nine out of forty-one characters) and assonance of e‘s and o‘s, enacts a ritual of repossession we can hear and see. And so small are the individual morphemes—from, said, scape, esaid—that we process them one by one, with difficulty. This “saying” “from seaweed” will evidently not be easy.
Howe writes of her first experience of “the joy of possessing a green card that allowed me to enter the stacks of a major collection of books.” [Sound] I’ve long since lost my green card to Regenstein and I am, in any event, geographically displaced, but I found Sheldon’s volume by other means.
The volume bears the imprint of lost times. Sheldon gathers fragments and arrays them with his own connecting threads.
Of the night before the English attack: “Silence like that of death brooded over the encampment by the river, save for the sullen roar of the cataract beyond. With ears strained to catch any note of alarm, the English waited impatiently the laggard light . . .” 
Of the retreat: “The line of retreat being through a dense forest, the fleet Indians had the advantage of the mounted fugitives. They hung like a moving cloud on flank and rear . . .” 
He includes narratives of Atherton and others. One recounts the escape of Jonathan Wells, who, like Atherton, became separated from the other troops:
In Deerfield Meadows he found some horses’ bones, from which he got away some small matter; found two rotted beans in ye meadows where ye indians had thrashed yr beans, & two blew birds’ eggs, wch was all ye provision he had till he got home. He got up to Dfd town plat before dark, Saturday, but ye town was burned before & no inhabitants, so he kept along. 
Howe draws from the narratives to compose her poem, but rather than construct another layer of narrative, she deconstructs existing ones to locate the authentic essence of lost and fragmentary worlds:
Two blew bird eggs plat
Habitants before dark
Little way went mistook awake
abt again Clay Gully
espied bounds to leop over
Selah cithera Opynne be
5 rails high houselot Cow
Kinsmen I pray you hasten
Furious Nipnet Ninep Ninap
little Pansett fence with ditch
Clear stumps grubbing ploughing
Clearing the land
Several serious scholars emerged from among my university classmates. I didn’t lean that way, but I loved the stacks. I loved hunkering down among “primary source” materials and dreaming my own dreams. On reading Howe, I want nothing more than the chance to enter the “dim light of narrowly spaced overshadowing shelves”—before they, too, disappear—and listen afresh to soil-laden words.
Susan Howe talks about “wild libraries” with Al Filreis at Kelly Writers House.
Selections for solo piano by American Composers John Adams and William Duckworth, and, additionally, on Spotify, music for saxophone quartet by Martin Bresnick:
For a listening list on Spotify, click on My Susan Howe.
John Adams, Phrygian Gates
William Duckworth, The Time Curve Prelude No. 1
Al Filreis (in the video with Howe), Kelly Professor of English at UPenn, is the mastermind behind ModPo. Enrollment is now open for ModPo 2013. For more information, click here. (For those unfamiliar with the term MOOC, it stands for “massive open online course.” For a brief article on what makes for a successful MOOC, using ModPo as an example, click here.)
For more audio discussions with and readings by Susan Howe, click here. To hear Susan Howe read Articulation of Sound Forms in Time, click here. (The version of Articulation in the reading is not the same as that in Singularities.)
For several essays about Articulation of Sound Forms in Time, including Perloff’s, click here.
The image of Susan Howe is by Kelly Writers House and may be found here. The remaining images in the post are my photographs. All but one are of pages from Howe’s book Singularities (link below). The quotations at the head of the post and indicated by [Sound] in the post are from The Sound of Poetry /The Poetry of Sound, edited by Marjorie Perloff and Craig Dworkin, which may be found here. The quotation from Marjorie Perloff is from Perloff, Marjorie, Poetic License: Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1990, and may be found here. The quotations from Sheldon’s A History of Deerfield, Massachusetts, v.1, may be found here. (The quotation from the Wells narrative should contain superscript in various places, but I was not able to duplicate it.) The quotations beginning “from seaweed,” “two blew bird eggs,” and “Knee to intellect,” are from Howe’s poem Articulation of Sound Forms in Time in her book Singularities, which may be found here.