Peter Nicholls: On Susan Howe and History

The work of Susan Howe is perhaps most eloquent testimony to the continuing role of the poet-as-historian, though her texts also argue the need for a fundamental reformulation of Poundian principle. Howe clearly believes with Pound that the poetic medium offers a means by which to reactivate a "history" long since atrophied under the dead hand of the academy. Yet, for her, poetry offers not a medium for dealing with historical "facts," but rather a kind of "counter-memory," as she calls it, which will resist successful assimilation to the order of discourse. Howe's history, in contrast to Pound's, is always uncertain: it will not quite become what Jean-François Lyotard has called "memorial history," it will not allow us to forget the original traumatic event by the psychic defense of a normalizing narrative. "One forgets," says Lyotard, "as soon as one believes, draws conclusions, and holds for certain."

The thrust of Howe's poetics is thus firmly against cognitive and narrative modes of historical understanding, against any secure position of knowledge from which we might view the past. History is grasped instead as a force which invades the poet, and, as in Freud, there is always a tension in Howe's writing between this memory of a past which, as she puts it in Pytbagorean Silence, "never stops hurting" and its belated in a language somehow disfigured by it. "This tradition that I am pasrt of," she explains, "has involved a breaking of boundaries of all sorts. It a fracturing of discourse, a stammering even. Interruption and hesitation used as a force. A recognition that there is another voice, an attempt to hear and speak it. It is this brokenness that interests me.

Much is contained for Howe in that idea of hesitation, a word, as she notes, "from the Latin, meaning to stick. Stammer. Hold back in doubt, have difficulty in speaking." The failure to speak fluently thus becomes a sort of strength as it sets up a resistance to conceptuality and dialectic, embedding a kind of violence at the heart of poetic language. Stammering keeps us on the verge of intelligibility, and in her own work Howe's emphasis on sound is coupled with an habitual shattering of language into bits and pieces. "The other of meaning," she tells us, "is indecipherable variation," thus gesturing toward a writing which constantly courts the non-cognitive in its preoccupation with graphic and phonic elements.

This type of opacity far exceeds the particular unreadabilities of The Cantos. For Howe, the blasting of a segment of the past out of the continuum of history produces a condition of language which is in a particular sense anti-metaphorical: words do not become figures for things but remain stubbornly themselves. If poetic language thus becomes cryptic, it is perhaps because "history," if not felt as literally traumatic, appears partly unreadable in the wake of modernism. Where Pound could find the key to past iniquities in, say, the manipulation of Byzantine interest rates, "history" for Howe is registered less as a phalanx of facts than as an indeterminate force which produces opacities and distortions within our means of expression. History, in this sense, is what she calls a kind of "ghost writing" which perpetually refuses to become transparent, a writing of gaps and traces which keeps us poised between opacity and readability.

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Title Peter Nicholls: On Susan Howe and History Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Ira B. Nadel Criticism Target Susan Howe
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Cambridge Companion to Ezra Pound
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