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.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011


Overwhelmed by the sonic and textual fury — the appropriately enthusiastic and militant rhetoric — surrounding unfolding events in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, I suddenly feel the need to take a moment of pause and take up, I suppose, the ephemeral — the bodies I mistakenly throw under the bus or the self-possessed babies who, in their calm, I recklessly throw out with the bath water. The privilege of taking a moment of pause, a second to step away from the catastrophe and collect ones head, is exactly that: a privilege. Or the order and specificity of the information one absorbs in a single glance is contingent on the contour and stability of the landscape itself. Or we step away in the wake of catastrophe. This is analysis not strategy.

I found a broadside today containing two poems, one by Andrew Rippeon and one from Julia Bloch, while rummaging through a stack of papers I haven't touched in months. The broadside was printed to mark the occasion of a Segue Series reading they did together in mid October. A beautiful piece of ephemera, well-designed, marked by an impressive measure of labor and care, but nonetheless easily lost.

Andrew Rippeon, untitled:

the hill I am of
ashes hence my father's
son I am no song my
father's name adrift a boat
upon waters the color of
the moon ...

rich tilth of lyme and
ashes turned the living tree
from which he bound hangs
become now water as
hath and doth flow
daily from mine eyes


if ocean's edge a
falls remembered sound of
pebbles' wash the portes open
the gates from the hinges
empty terror houses rent
up and burnt


only rope alone against
such edge from which
he bound hangs and gleams
a moon the color of
this water ...

Opposite this poem, running against it, Julia Bloch, "The Selfist":

This narrow fortune, this
hand in absentia. Descent
of any kind, plus ascent.
I feigned a story but it's
all mine, all my mouth.
My spotless love hovers
with white wings
. Every piece
of clothing I ever lost
adorns the arm I've got
twisted at my spine.
Darkening stems
of the lower plants —
you'll find me listening
for them to collapse in this heat.

Each of the poems has about it a sort of self-assuredness which, even if illusory, one might imagine as a sometimes sobering necessity. I mean the pace. The pace of each is sober, settled. They are quiet, suspended against one another, in contradiction, each by an ambling prosody with a long contemplative gait.

While the first italicized passage in Rippeon's poem is hard to place (I suspect Duncan and am most likely wrong), a quick search for the second passage points toward Thomas Gates, governor of the Jamestown colony, Jamestown, 1610, "rather as a ruin of some ancient fortification than that any living person might inhabit; the palisadoes tourn down, the portes open, the gates from the hinges..." In one sense Rippeon's use of italics appears to set Gates' phrase apart from the words in the poem preceding and following it. The removal of the comma from the quoted phrase, and the line broken where the comma would otherwise be, offers portes — points of entry and departure — as skeleton keys capable of opening a gate not at the latch, not where it was built to be open, but at a juncture specifically engineered to refuse disarticulation. I think, lazily perhaps, of the "hinges of civilization," and, as such, see the thinking embedded in this poem as congruent with the racket of conflict and upheaval, contradiction and pain; barred doors torn from the hinges against "this | empty terror."