Concordance: An Evening with Susan Howe



(gentle acoustic guitar music) – In 1704, I'm gonna
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 in 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 or ideas which show 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 slight 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 illicit." 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, wordless 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 favored tone of our shared Irish American forebearers. (audience laughing) Despite Susan's being Anglo-Irish, I'm gonna pull her in with me on this. (audience laughing) I don't think I'd be alive
without Susan Howe's poetry. Negative infinity melodrama,
as she says in Debths. (audience laughing) The description of my affective state. (audience laughing) 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 Howe's poetry,
not all of it but much of it, of singularities and
nonconformist memorial to That This, in Debths, I
won't give all the titles, and her prose, My Emily
Dickinson, The Birth-mark, Spontaneous Particulars:
The Telepathies of 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 in
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 is 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's 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 hear. She made people think. She made people believe, if not in God or religion then 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 collaborations 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. (audience applauding) – Oh, I'm overwhelmed. Oh, my God, this is the
room I can't (laughing). (audience laughing) It's just amazing, and it
sort of brings my whole life in some profound, deep way full circle. And I'm sure it's the last time I'm ever gonna attempt
a lecture or a reading. It isn't really a lecture,
but so it's just beyond. Really, I'm being genuine about that. You saw that I made some handouts, and including Emerson but I just. I just, to speak before I start. I just wanna mention Noah Webster and his Dictionary of
the American Language which changes radically
after the Civil War. You know, 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. But it's, you mentioned Milton. It's also, it's Miltonic, it's really. And I just, because I'm just
gonna 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 gonna 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 this by the same name, "those fire balls which
are usually dominated, "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, just that, it's
like a poem in itself. And then, there is the wonderful Ralph. A snip from the Divinity: "A snow storm was falling around us. "The snow storm 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." Ah, I just find it incredible but anyway, I'm gonna go on about that later. And then, Wallace Stevens,
"A poem is a meteor." And then, the other
handout, that's for later. So, I called 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 that I speak
about, and I'm concerned about, and sort of I've made like
a tent of paper scraps out of things from different concordance. But they can, obviously,
I'm talking in reference to that 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 you'll, it's amazing
how many of the careful editorial work was done
on concordances by women. And I think there's a sense in make, there is a devotional sense in making a concordance of an author's work. Emily Dickson treasured her copy of The Complete
Concordance of Shakespeare, Being a Verbal Index
to the 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 Dickson 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.
(audience laughing) Poets don't get research
assistant once they retire. It will be there. I'm sure it will be there
on, via Google Books or somewhere in what they
call shadow libraries, which is a word that intrigues me, a term. I'm excited about crossing linguistic and geographic borders, increasingly possible to advance technology such as virtual reality, things like that. It's a whole world, new world,
out there inside the screen. New poets with new ideas about deep space and digital virtuosities. O brave new world that has no paper in it. (audience laughing) 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 mess. What I care about most is the books arranged on two large
shelves on my work room or ones I discover in a library. Their marginal notes,
slash 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, the place, is 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 jip, 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,
elm and ash trees, Emerson drafted Nature, and
Hawthorne wrote the Birth-mark and Rappacini'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, Nat 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 off Emerson's 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 enters Massachusetts from the north bisecting it. Deerfield, Deerfield
River, all these places that have been deeply involved in my work. The Tobacco Belt, 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 American 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. (audience laughing) As Stanley Cavell put it in the wonderful, The Senses of Walden, speaking
of Thoreau but also Emerson, and I wish he might have mentioned Margaret Fuller, but he didn't. "In this space of recognition, "in their working out of the common "in conjunction which
they, 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 it. 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." That's Emerson in The Poet. And here, again, back to my beloved Divinity School lecture, address, which is, well, I've already said it was one of my favorites. "I once heard a preacher." I'm gonna 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. "Men thought I go where they want to go "else no soul enter the
temple in the afternoon." And this scene, this was
where the snow comes in. "A snow was falling around us. "The snow was real. "The preacher nearly 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, about Jonathan Edwards,
another of my heroes. I must have a problem, but anyway. (audience laughing) He is, and that's 1730,
during the 1730s and '40s. Well, this actually is one
reason why he's my hero. During his ministry in North Hampton, 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 towards 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 half acre ex-urban, almost suburban plot on
the northeast corridor between Boston and Washington, on the shoreline, local
connection from New Haven. I like to sit on the side
between Stony 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 fields
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 housemates 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, Maugre the farmer's sighs "and at the gate, a tapering
turret overtops 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 the 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, "really 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, makin' 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 left
over 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 around alone and counting was
supposed to keep looking in spite of snares and false resemblances. Ask the librarian behind the desk for a cardboard box of
labeled file folders containing singular, whispering skeletons. Place 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, forest, migration, massed incarceration,
metadata relationships, fracking, plastic bags, global warming, environmental destruction,
possible human extinction. If we have nothing but truth to leave, how do 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 write, 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 definitions. So, I can't take a chance
on accidental sightings. She was Irish, of course. (audience laughing) Moving through measure may be transmitted from one generation's
folkloric reality to another. Sound is sight sung immortally. 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 into the lighthouse, Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Ramsey covers the sheep 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. It's 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 a separate presence, yes, but without restraining slippers. Paul Valéry 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's 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 blind, 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 lies 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 open to us and sits up for us not fastening the door. Thank you. (audience applauding) Ah, I'm sorry it was so long. (gentle acoustic guitar music)

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