Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein’s interview with Susan Howe captures their early poems and thinking about Language writing poetics: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E was just over a year old with Number 7 to be published that month. I will investigate this formative moment for the ideas that continue to be crucial, that were effaced, and that enter into productive crisis in the present.
Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein Susan Howe’s WBAI-Pacifica radio show, New York City, March 14, 1979
Andrews and Bernstein sketch the by-now-familiar program of Language writing, an invocation of writing’s “modernist project […] an exploration of the intrinsic qualities of the media […] which from our point of view is language […] not some concocted verse tradition […] through academic discourse and […] book reviewers in The New York Times.” The “repression of knowledge” through such academic and publishing institutions contributes to a deficiency in “people’s awareness of what poetry and what other writing forms there are.” In addition, Andrews and Bernstein interrogate the very idea of genre in writing and propose “less intrinsic reasons for [the novel, philosophy, and poetry to be] separate than for music to be thought of as separate from painting or painting from writing.”
This playlist includes recordings of authors reading the entirety of a book or chapbook. I find that longer recordings allow me to become immersed in the textures of the work, to register the ambient sonic environment, and to perceive other small shifts and variations within and between pieces. I sometimes listen to one long recording that allows me to settle into a particular mode of listening and then follow it by listening to another recording that suggests another form of attention. I like the feeling of becoming engrossed and hypnotized by a recording and then using another recording to snap myself out of the experience so that I can see the initial recording with more critical distance.
From left to right: Marcella Durand, Jessica Lowenthal, Jennifer Scappettone. They're in my office at the Writers House, having just finished discussing Susan Howe's reading of Emily Dickinson's "My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun." It's the 32nd episode of the PoemTalk podcast. Please have a listen.
My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun-- In Corners--till a Day The Owner passed--identified-- And carried Me away--
And now We roam in Sovereign Woods-- And now We hunt the Doe-- And every time I speak for Him-- The Mountains straight reply--
And do I smile, such cordial light Upon the Valley glow-- It is as a Vesuvian face Had let its pleasure through--
And when at Night--Our good Day done-- I guard My Master's Head-- 'Tis better than the Eider-Duck's Deep Pillow--to have shared--
To foe of His--I'm deadly foe-- None stir the second time-- On whom I lay a Yellow Eye-- Or an emphatic Thumb--
Though I than He--may longer live He longer must--than I-- For I have but the power to kill, Without--the power to die--
Attempts to read and understand the poem form a central analytical narrative, or, one is tempted to say, a viscerum in and through Susan Howe's bookMy Emily Dickinson. Our group not only took a cue from Howe's sense of the poem's centrality; we used the recording of Howe's reading of the poem--and several passages from her book--as our basis and starting point. The recording comes from Charles Bernstein's interview with Howe for his LineBreakseries; the entire series is available through PennSound.
Jen Scappettone's comments help us contemplate Howe's working out Dickinson's sense of the way war enters the details of domestic existence. Al presents the extended conceit (the woman is to the man as a gun is to its hunter-owner) and then the four proceed--immediately--to complicate it, aptly. The gendering, Marcella and Jessica remind us, is not at all straightforward. Among the many questions pondered here: How do we know for certain that the gun is gendered female?
Dickinson offered several variant words. One of these is "art," which might have replaced "power." "For 'art' you need an artist," Marcella notes, "the creative power. Can the gun be the artist? Do artists extend power? What was the role of the artist or writer in America?" We listen to Howe (reading from her book) say, "When I love a thing, I want it and I try to get it." Sounds to us, at least partly, like a predatory version of the subject-object dynamic. Jen adds: "Love brings the owner and the gun together, but also the predator and the prey." Jessica speaks surely for all of us at PoemTalk when she says, in her final word, that she's glad to return to this crucial poem over and over.
This morning I interviewed and moderated a discussion with Susan Howe, and last night Susan read her work, including the opening pages of Melville's Marginalia, sections of The Midnight, and the poems in a series called "118 Westerly Terrace" (the address of Wallace Stevens's home). Click here for links to audio and video recordings of both events.
I'm reading Susan Howe's Melville's Marginalia. Years ago, at the start of my own antiquarianism, I got deeply into writers' marginalia myself.I'm reading Susan Howe's Melville's Marginalia. Years ago, at the start of my own antiquarianism, I got deeply into writers' marginalia myself. I looked into Melville's reading, as have many scholars over the decades. He was one of those who left traces of his responses to reading. This morning I went to the web--of course--following an impulse to see if the scholarship was still out of the way, out of print, hard to find - itself, in short, marginal. But no. There's a fabulous web site that shows us everything. Here's your link. Go deep.
New at PennSound. When Susan Howe visited Rachel Blau DuPlessis' class at Temple University, in December 1986, Rachel had the presence of mind to record the conversation. And years later she re-found the tape, gave it to us at PennSound, whereupon we converted the recording from cassette to digital audio. Now Jenny Lesser has segmented the whole recording into short "singles," by topic. Here is the list of the topics (and recording lengths). Links to these, and to the whole discussion, are of course available at PennSound's Susan Howe author page:
1. background to class discussion on Stein, Plath and Niedecker (4:35) 2. the poetics of "The Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson" and self censorship in the work of female writers (10:58) 3. the sense of crime in Howe's work (5:19) 4. female symbols in "The Defenestration of Prague" (8:01) 5. on pastoral components and female space in "The Defenestration of Prague" and "The Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson" (3:16) 6. on Howe's beginnings in the theater and as a visual artist 7. on the use of contradiction and fragment in the work of female writers (7:28) 8. duplicity in the works of Howe and Wallace Stevens (6:37) 9. Emily Dickinson as an experimental poet (0:58) 10. intertextuality in Howe's work (3:18) 11. on "The Liberties" and reaching an audience (7:08) 12. on Howe's writing strategy as a "post-objectivist" strategy and the idea that when nothing is said everything is said (6:20) 13. on equality and difference in feminist debates, power, and fascism (3:53) 14. how Emily Dickinson abolished categories (2:16) 15. the multiple audiences and functions of poetry (5:22) 16. on embedding in "The Liberties" (4:44) 17. on the meanings of birds, days of the week, and sculpture in "The Liberties" (7:26) 18. deciphering codes in "The Liberties" (4:14)