Time Traveling with Susan Howe

Photograph of Susan Howe courtesy of Lawrence Schwartzwald (No reproduction without express permission.)

Photograph of Susan Howe courtesy of Lawrence Schwartzwald (No reproduction without express permission.)

Every mark on a page is an acoustic mark.
—Susan Howe [WR]

Every word was once a poem.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

I used to be attracted by word-a-day calendars. I had a friend who memorized each new word and made a point to use it in a sentence the same day. “I’ll use my clepsydra this morning to time my soft-boiled egg,” she might have said.

I tried her word-a-day method once myself, but didn’t get too far. It wasn’t fun—more like the chore of washing dried yolk off the egg cup than the delight of dipping toast soldiers in the egg. The calendar languished somewhere with a few pages torn off, then disappeared.

More recently, I tried again, signing on to a visual thesaurus. Now, each morning’s e-mail delivers a new word. The word comes with a folksy bit of etymology—not much, but sometimes a tantalizing glimpse. Here’s “rusticate,” from March 14, 2013:

Green Acres Word of the Day:

It’s a no-brainer concluding that rusticate is what rustics do. What do they do? Live in the country, as you would expect from rustic, a word of Latin origin that refers to open land. Rusticate also has a couple of transitive, infrequently used meanings: to send to the country, and to give a rustic look to (furniture, masonry, décor, and the like).

Rusticate 2013-03-14 at 10.59.09 AMAccompanying the word is a diagram, the word at its center, the meanings branching off. If you hover over a dot you get things like this: “send to the country: ‘he was rusticated for his bad behavior.’” From a tiny microphone, a disembodied voice speaks the word.

Unlike the friend who methodically memorized and used each new word, I let them float out and fade away. But while I’m with them, I’m happy to enter the dream world they create, to don a toga and survey the open land.

In her book The Midnight, poet Susan Howe quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, The Poet, on the subject of words:

The meaner the type by which a law is expressed, the more pungent it is, and the more lasting in the memories of men: just as we choose the smallest box, or case, in which any needful utensil can be carried. Bare lists of words are found suggestive, to an imaginative and excited mind; as it is related of Lord Chatham, that he was accustomed to read in Bailey’s Dictionary, when he was preparing to speak in Parliament. The poorest experience is rich enough for all the purposes of expressing thought. [TM 46]

Howe revels in a good dictionary, too: “[R]eading Noah Webster’s original dictionary,”  she’s said, “is very often like reading poetry.” [BL] Howe was weaned on words. Her Irish mother “brought me up on Yeats as if he were Mother Goose.” [TM 74]

I hope her homesickness . . . was partially assuaged by the Yeats brothers. She hung Jack’s illustrations and prints on the walls . . . as if they were windows. . . . She clung to William’s words by speaking them aloud. So there were always three dimensions, visual, textual, and auditory. Waves of sound connected us by associational syllabic magic to an original but imaginary place existing somewhere across the ocean between the emphasis of sound and the emphasis of sense. I loved listening to her voice. [TM 75]

When I read Howe’s words on the page, even (or perhaps most of all) the strangest of them evoke a time and place so thoroughly it’s as if I’ve time traveled to an earlier, quintessentially American world. Like these:

rest chondriacal lunacy

velc cello viable toil

quench conch uncannunc

drum amonoosuck ythian

[AR 10]

If I free my mind enough to let the words float between sense and sound, I’m transported to the tumult of early American settlement, traversing on violent seas from the Old World’s Lockean reason to wild rivers in the unknown New.

WildMuch of what fascinates Howe has at one point or another fascinated me: early American history, library stacks, old books, the etymology of words. Yet I never wanted to be an academic. My model was Barbara Tuchman, who “had neither an academic title nor even a graduate degree.” But I couldn’t figure out how to bring it off and still eat, and, in the end, my attention span was (and is) too short for the meticulous, thorough-going research and focused thinking that’s required. But I’m curious, and when something captures my imagination, I do my best to follow the trail of inspiration before it goes cold.

Though Howe ultimately became a professor, she isn’t an academic, either, and for a long time was on the outside looking in. When she was small, neither women nor children were allowed in Harvard’s Widener Library, so Howe was left “waiting at the edge while my father went in to find books.” [PS]

Howe followed in her mother’s footsteps, moving to Dublin to become an actress, only to discover she was “far too nervous” to pursue that career.

I knew then, and I still do, that the biggest mistake I made in life was not going to a university. . . . Because I love history, I love scholarship, but I’m an autodidact. I have never touched down in a disciplined way. I get these obsessions and follow trails that often end up being squirrel paths. There are huge blanks. [PR]

I’ve been down many a squirrel path myself—and as for knowledge, let’s just say it consists of more holes than cheese. With Howe, though, I wonder if those “huge blanks” aren’t a significant source for the imaginative leaps that make her work so alive. After all, if she’d had to defend a doctoral thesis with passages like “velc cello viable toil,” what would her dissertation committee have thought?

It has been written about Howe that her “relation to the past is that of an antiquarian . . . not that of a historian” [Bruns 50]. As Howe herself once said, ” . . . the material—the fragment, the piece of paper—is all we have to connect with the dead. . . . There’s a level at which words are spirit and paper is skin. That’s the fascination of archives. There’s still a bodily trace.” [PR]

That This P3172681_edited-2In The Disappearing Approach (the first section of her book That This), Howe weaves a narrative about the unexpected death of her husband with another about the Beinecke Library’s “vast collection of Edwards family papers.” [TT 21]  Jonathan Edwards was an 18th Century theologian, “the only son among ten unusually tall sisters their minister father jokingly referred to as his ‘sixty feet of daughters.’” [TT 20] Howe writes:

Three of Edwards’ manuscript books I particularly love are titled “Efficacious Grace.” Two of them he constructed from discarded semi-circular pieces of silk paper his wife and daughters used for making fans.

If you open these small oval volumes and just look—without trying to decipher the minister’s spidery script, pen-strokes begin to resemble textile thread-text. Surface and meaning co-operate to keep alive in one process, mastery in service, service in mastery. [BL]

The second section of That This, Frolic Architecture, consists of collaged scraps of text, including scraps from “the private writings” of Edwards’ sister Hannah. Traces of narrative are present, but broken down as if by the maelstrom of life circumstance and grief.

“I remember the summer before my sister Jerusha’s death [TT 70],” the first line on one page begins, after which the text is obscured and mostly unreadable, before picking up again:

Jerusha P3142659_edited-1

Howe originally conceived of Frolic Architecture as a visual work, but she now performs it with composer and musician David Grubbs. Before the live performance I attended, Howe said she hadn’t thought it was readable. Grubbs, though, thought it was, and they embarked on the project of giving sound to the fragments on the page.

The particular alchemy of Frolic Architecture is revealed in performance as nowhere else. Howe reaches back in time through texts and envelops us in the past’s presence. She travels behind and below each text and locates the moment thought revealed itself in sound to create the world in words.

musick P3182693_edited-1Susan Howe and David Grubbs perform Frolic Architecture in Harvard’s Woodberry Room

An interesting discussion between Howe and Grubbs about their collaboration starts at about 31:00. The WR quotes in the text may be found at ~37:56 (acoustic marks, head quote) and ~53:00 (Beckett/Feldman, Listening List below). For the context of the two quotes, begin at ~37:21 (acoustic marks) and ~52:05 (Beckett/Feldman).


Listening List

 In an interview, Howe said:

William James says that in times of trauma and crisis a door is opened to a place where facts and apparitions mix. I wrote Frolic Architecture shortly after my husband Peter Hare’s sudden death from a pulmonary embolism in 2008. I was constructing what I thought was a collaged text, often while listening to Morton Feldman’s music and John Adams’s Shaker Loops. As I moved between computer screen, printer, and copier, scissoring and reattaching words and scraps of letters, I thought, I’ve never gone as far or felt as free. [PR]

On Spotify, click here for a listening list.

In addition to Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel and John Adams’ Shaker Loops, I’ve included two pieces by Dublin-born composer Donnacha Dennehy: Stainless Staining, in a stunning performance by Lisa Moore, and the extraordinary Grá Agus Bás.

I wish to thank Contemporaneous for introducing me to Grá Agus Bás through a live performance with Finnegan Shanahan in the sean-nós vocal part. Though Dennehy granted permission for the performance, he wasn’t sure whether anyone other than Iarla Ó Lionáird, for whom he’d written the vocal part, could sing it. On attending a Contemporaneous rehearsal and listening to Finnegan Shanahan (who learned sean-nós singing for the piece), Dennehy was delighted, for he saw the piece could live on, independent of a single performer or ensemble.

On Youtube:

Feldman: At the Woodberry Room performance of Frolic Architecture, Howe noted the power of Samuel Beckett’s Neither, set to the “absolute minimalism of the Feldman music, and this singing without words.” [WR ~53:00] I wasn’t able to locate the piece on Spotify, but it is available on YouTube.

Adams: Shaker Loops

Dennehy: Grá agus Bás (excerpt)


Credits: The photograph of Susan Howe in front of an image of a Jonathan Edwards manuscript is © Lawrence Schwartzwald and used here by kind permission. Please respect copyright and do not use this photograph without express permission, which may be requested by contacting Lawrence Schwartzwald here. Schwartzwald is a literary photographer, and a selection of his evocative photographs (which also include several of people caught in the act of reading), can be viewed on his Facebook site.

The remainder of the images are my screen shots from the visual thesaurus and photographs of the cover of That This and collage text from Frolic Architecture. The quotations from Emerson may be found in The Poet from Essays: Second Series (1844); those from which Howe quotes may be found where indicated in the text. The visual thesaurus may be found here. (The etymology seems to disappear after the day it appears, so I’m unable to provide a direct link.) The quotation about Barbara Tuchman may be found here. The quotations from Howe’s work and interviews with Howe are indicated in brackets by abbreviation and page number (where available) as follows:

AR: Articulation of Sound Forms in Time (in the book Singularities)

BL: Blaney Lecture Transcript

Bruns: What Are Poets For?: An Anthropology of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics by Gerald L Bruns 

PR: Paris Review, The Art of Poetry No. 97

PS: PennSound Susan Howe Page (the “wild libraries” segment from the Fellows program may be found here)

WR: Woodberry Room, Harvard, video

TT: That This

TM: The Midnight

A previous post on Susan Howe may be found here.

10 thoughts on “Time Traveling with Susan Howe

  1. Mark Kerstetter

    “I have to have the King James version!” Of the many strange things about this piece (‘Frolic Architecture’) – which I thank you for sharing – perhaps the strangest is how it was conceived as a kind of visual art book made of text, until she was overcome (overwhelmed, it seems) by the acoustic qualities of the text as speech. I’m really going to have to let this settle in. I’ve heard (and “read”) sound poetry of various sorts, but she is doing it here in a way I’ve not encountered before, a way deeply informed by specific forms of historical diction. I can begin to access it through her love of the King James Bible, which I share.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Great observation about historical diction. Didn’t dawn on me at all, and that has to be right. On another tack, and this may well be too reductive, the circumstances under which she was writing brought Stein’s let us describe to mind–those times when words, at least as we conventionally understand them, fail.

  2. friko

    I love the way you followed Howe into the very soul of her work. As you say, once one becomes interested one has to immerse oneself, nothing else will do.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Isn’t it the truth–and then the trick is whether anyone is willing to follow you down the rabbit hole! Thank you for being willing. Above all, I hope by now you’ve had the last of snow over your way. Time for spring, already!

  3. angela

    Wow! What a ride…between your wonderful weaving of your reading of Howe interspersed with quotes and fragments of the book to the full exploration via video…who needs Coursera, I have Prufrock’s Dilemma! I am listening to the Feldman as I type and am intrigued.

    As I try to digest how Howe expressed her inspirations, there is a bit of resonance regarding her not being able to separate the visual from the vocal. I oft find that one writes words upon the page no different than a composer would place notes – a poet has no written allegro per se, but dictates it via breaks within the lines. That said, it seem a bit unusual that she cannot fathom the disconnect of vocal and visual, yet it started purely as a visual work….

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Angela: so glad you were willing to ride along!I love your observations, particularly this: “I oft find that one writes words upon the page no different than a composer would place notes – a poet has no written allegro per se, but dictates it via breaks within the lines.” In line with your last comment, I too am intrigued by Howe’s leap from visual to acoustic, to use her term. I can’t help but think the life circumstance under which she was creating the piece, as I noted to Mark, was relevant, here, but, again, probably too reductive.

  4. newleaf2013

    Susan, I appreciate your enjoyment of Howe’s loving exploration of words, separate and collected. I am particularly charmed by your introduction to this piece, the background you share of your own word exploration – your description is almost tactile, as you recount “(letting the words of the day) float out and fade away,” and “(entering) the dream world they create.” Your spirited pursuit of the next word waiting around the corner makes me smile, remembering a text from school days called “Word Power Made Easy” (much drier and less fun than the online word adventure you have undertaken). Given a choice, I join you and Howe in a good dictionary over a word list or word of the day sent, disembodied, through cyberspace: endless pleasure unfolds as we stride confidently from one word and one page to another, following synonyms, and trailing the elusive and tantalizing “see also…” — Elizabeth

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Elizabeth: As Emerson observed, the humble word is a potent force. I really do have the sense, in reading, and even more in listening, to Howe that she manages to get behind each word and retrieve the moment when the thought that became a word first formed up into sound. Quite the magic act!

  5. David N

    What I’d love to see most of all would be a transcript here of a true conversation – for such it would undoubtedly be – between you and Susan Howe. You are, after all, the ideal interviewer – full of ideas, but never one to impose them. ‘When something captures my imagination, I do my best to follow the trail of inspiration before it goes cold’ – that sums up so much of what I’ve got to know about you, dear Susan (if I may), from the blogworld. So this is as much a celebration of you as it is of SH, though I know that wasn’t your intention.

    Inspired to consult original Webster. Isn’t it fun to open a dictionary at any page, and find out so much you don’t know?

  6. Susan Scheid Post author

    David: Such incredibly kind words! Your comment about what makes for an ideal interviewer is fascinating and definitely strikes a chord. I realize that, when I read or listen to interviews, I want questions that, while not vague, are open-ended, leaving plenty of room for the person interviewed to respond. I am a rank novice in the interviewer department, of course, but I do try hard to avoid questions that close down, rather than open up, the conversation. And, you know, while it’s true my intention was to celebrate Susan Howe, you’ve definitely tapped into another truth, for this piece was certainly as much as anything an effort to give words to my own very specific journey of discovery into her work–and, above all, to inspire others to come along. Thank you so, so much for coming on this journey with me!

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