Thursday, February 24, 2011


More often than not I hold prizes of any order in absolute contempt. In fact, I always hold prizes and awards in contempt. As Charles Ives once smartly remarked, "Prizes are badges of mediocrity." But to find Susan Howe awarded the Bollingen brings an incredible joy to the heart. For Howe specifically — no less than Pound, who famously received the first Bollingen Prize — accolades feel well deserved and a long time coming, the Bollingen in particular if only for the prize's connection to its first recipient in 1949. As most any student of Howe must know, the presence of Pound in her courses (or, for that matter, Wallace Stevens who was awarded the prize in 1950) was inescapable. For Howe, Pound and Stevens — along with Melville and Dickinson, in fact the whole of the nineteenth century — were permanent parts of the curriculum, no matter the theme of a course. And, however wrong I might be, I sense any responsible cultural genealogy would situate Howe closer to a figure like Pound than to the vast majority of her contemporaries. Her poetry has always been work of a wholly singular order, work unlike anything produced by her contemporaries.

From the early 1990s through 2007 Howe taught in the Poetics Program at the University at Buffalo and the energy, the deep care, she invested in her teaching practices was commensurate with the energies she devoted to poetic production. In 2007, the year Howe retired, Kyle Schlesinger published through Cuneiform Press I Have Imagined A Center // Wilder Than This Region, a touching and useful selection of reflections from former students on her pedagogical practice. Edited by Sarah Campbell, the book includes comments and essays from Barbara Cole, Richard Deming, Thom Donovan, Zach Finch, Ben Friedlander, Jena Osman, Sasha Steensen, Jonathan Skinner, Juliana Spahr, Elizabeth Willis, Peter Gizzi, Schlesinger and others. Dozens of other former students could have easily been included — particularly Michael Cross, one of the last students whose dissertation she played a major role in guiding — but I imagine any book-length festschrift devoted to a figure like Howe introduces impossible limits. In any case, Jonathan Skinner recalling a seminar with Howe:

We read essays by Emerson or poems by Stevens as — in Susan's words — "allegories of the sublime power of their rhythm." Susan's seminar on "Conversion Experiences" was a reconnoitering the border life of this power, exploring the religious background of American writing, especially as expressed in the colonial "conversion narrative." (Noting Quaker, Calvinist, Presbyterian, Unitarian, Lutheran, Pietist, Moravian, Swedenborgian and other religious roots in American writers from Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson and Melville to James, Stein, Stevens, Eliot and Duncan, Susan would exclaim, "Religion — you've got to deal with it!") Only conversion, it seemed, could express the violence entailed in daring to write, to begin on a white page.

It's been a couple years since I looked at my own seminar notes from the last two course she offered at Buffalo — or the endless and heavily annotated piles of photocopies from any dictionary Emerson, Melville, Whitman or Dickinson may have used (Howe never taught the twentieth century without intellectually intensive and, for her, absolutely essential forays into the nineteenth). But I suspect the close attention to the historicity of language, the philological orientation of her reading, along with Steve McCaffery's neoantiquarianism, played no small role in shaping my own sense of the landscape, and this is something for which I am incredibly thankful, as I suspect all of her former students are. Awards and prizes are nothing less than grotesque, but in this case delighting in the destructively residual feudal illusions a prize like the Bollingen sustains is, at the very least, shamefully pleasant.