Release Date: May 19, 2000
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Like a prophet in her own country, Susan Howe's reputation as a distinguished and pioneering poet and literary theorist is virtually unknown to most of her suburban Western New York neighbors and her colleagues at the University at Buffalo, where she has been a member of the faculty since 1989.
This month, at the height of a career distinguished by stunning literary achievement, Howe was elected by some of the most lionized figures in American literature to the Academy of American Poets' Board of Chancellors, the academy's advisory body of eminent poets.
She will join such luminaries as Louise Gluck, Lucille Clifton, W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich, Richard Howard, Charles Wright and UB colleague Robert Creeley, as well as other current members of the board. Previous members have included W.H. Auden, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Gwendolyn Brooks, Denise Levertov, Jay Wright and Robert Hayden.
Howe was elected, along with poets Philip Levine and Charles Simic, to succeed board members John Ashbery, John Hollander and David Wagoner, whose terms ended in November.
The author of 13 books of poems and two volumes of criticism, most recently "Pierce Arrow" (New Directions, 1999), Howe is widely known as the author of the groundbreaking, 1985 book "My Emily Dickinson" and 1990's "Europe of Trusts."
She has received two American Book Awards from the Before Columbus Foundation, a 1996 Guggenheim Fellowship and in 1998, was named a Distinguished Fellow at the Stanford University Institute of the Humanities.
A brilliant and intense writer, scholar and teacher, she is recognized internationally for her path-breaking work in the field of poetics. The reason for this, says Barbara Bono, chair of the UB Department of English, is that Howe is "a strong poet and critic working in the sinew and bone of poetic creation -- the actual material being of the poem, its image and inscription.
"She's the real thing," Bono continues. "For Susan Howe, writing is a physical act. Her beginnings were as a visual artist and she brings this sense of the physical process of creativity to her explication and modeling of poetry."
Bono says Howe's most successful graduate students have become editors and textual artists with a deep understanding of the holographic or handwritten process of making. Their emphasis, she says, is not on the narrative aspects of the poem, but on the point at which the poem comes into being.
"Howe's study of deeply introspective writers, such as poet Emily Dickinson and American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, fueled her own poetic making," Bono says. "Her students come for the heat."
Literary scholar Susan Schultz describes Howe's unorthodox work as melding and altering genres and performing typographical experiments that challenge ideas about what the written word is, how it operates and how it can be operated upon. Howe's books, in fact, sometimes have to be turned upside-down or sideways in order to be read -- as intended -- as both picture and text. Nevertheless, "despite her distinctly avant-garde surfaces," Schultz says, "Howe straddles the lines between modern and postmodern poetries.
"She may be postmodernist in her method, but her intentions often appear to be those of a last modernist. Her fragments are every bit as artful as Eliot's, and her desire to make them cohere (in literary and religious terms) is equal to that of Eliot, Pound or Hart Crane."
Schultz writes that if poems exist in order to communicate meaning, as Howe -- unlike her UB colleague, poet and theorist Charles Bernstein -- maintains, "then the radical nature of her texts reflect nothing so much as the difficulty of communicating new meanings, new histories."