"The past is the present when I write," Susan Howe has written, and an interest in history is a distinguishing feature of this poet often associated with the Language poets. Indeterminacy of meaning, open forms, disruptive syntax, the removal of an individual overseeing consciousness, and an emphasis upon language as self-referential rather than representational - these are characteristics of Howe's poetry as well as of the Language poets. To this she adds the indeterminacy of history, its inability to be assimilated into the present, and the tension which results from its pressures upon the present. Additionally, Howe sees her poetry as having its roots in the literature of modernism rather than in the Marxist and poststructuralist context of much Language poetry.
Howe was born in Boston and her early career was as a painter. She worked on collage and performance pieces following her graduation from the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts in 1961, and out of this work came her interest in words. "I used quotation in my painting," she has said, "in the same way that I use quotation in my writing, in that I always seemed to use collage." She has also observed that the lists of words that she juxtaposed with her paintings became of more interest to her than the pictures, and she began to see the lists themselves as inadequate. In the late 1960s she discovered Charles Olson's open field poetics and became particularly interested in his use of archaeology and maps.
Her first book, Hinge Picture, appeared in 1974, and volumes have followed regularly since, initially with small presses and in recent years from publishers with a wider distribution. A poem by Howe may quote from or summarize a historical document, as in her Articulation of Sound Forms in Time (1987), but where a reader might then expect a commentary, the language of the poem breaks down into fragments of sound or syntax which call attention to the constructedness of the historical account and of the whole poem, and their resistance to any imposed order. Deletions might also be included, to foreground the process of the poem's composition.
Howe was married for many years to David von Schlegell, who directed the sculpture program at Yale University, and who died in 1992. Howe's own university teaching career began in 1988. She has been a member of the faculty at SUNY Buffalo since 1989. In 1996 Howe received a Guggenheim Foundation award. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1999, and elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2000.
Among Howe's most recent books of poetry are Pierce-Arrow (1999) and Bed Hangings (2001). Her earlier poems have been collected as Frame Structures: Early Poems 1974-1979 (1996) and poems from three later books appeared as The Europe of Trusts in 1990 (reissued 2002). In addition to the poetry, she has published the two prose studies: My Emily Dickinson (1985), and The Birth-Mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History (1993).
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