"Led by Language" Is First Full-Length Study of Noted American Poet and UB Professor Susan Howe

Language is a wild interiority. I am lost in the refuge of its dark ...Susan Howe

Release Date: June 14, 2002 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- "Led by Language" by Rachel Tzvia Back has been called a "groundbreaking study" of the enigmatic experimental American poet Susan Howe, professor of English at the University at Buffalo.

Published recently by the University of Alabama Press as part of its Modern and Contemporary Poetry Series, this is the first full-length study of Howe, who is known for having changed several literary genres.

Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1999 and as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2000, Howe has received two American Book Awards from the Before Columbus Foundation. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1996 and in 1998 was named a Distinguished Fellow at the Stanford University Institute of the Humanities.

Back's close and detailed reading of Howe's poetry illuminates the historical, autobiographical and theoretical influences in the poet's dense, often difficult, but always distinctive poetry and criticism.

The book highlights Howe's strategies for linguistic experimentation since, for her, language is a process of creating meanings. It examines as well Howe's historical motifs and autobiographical references and, since she also is a visual artist, her experimentation with such elements as typography, page design and images.

One of the mediums Howe uses is that of sound, and she is known, among other things, as a "sound poet."

"To an almost alarming extent -- alarming for me --," she wrote in 1989, "sound creates meaning. Sound is the core. If a line doesn't sound right -- and I do always have single lines or single words in mind -- if a line doesn't have some sort of rhythm to it, if my ear tells me it's wrong, I have to get rid of it, or change it, and a new meaning may come then."

Back makes a compelling case for reading Howe's work autobiographically. She argues that it is characterized "by an obsession with history and haunted with historical figures" -- from Mary Magdalene to 19th-century scientist and philosopher Charles Pierce. Back demonstrates the intensely personal nature of much of the historical terrain traversed by Howe and debunks the myth of the poet's impenetrability.

Back says she realizes the book will not turn everyone into a fan, nor is this to be expected, but that it makes Howe's work much more accessible to a wide range of readers, among them scholars of contemporary poetry, American literature, literary theory and cultural studies.

In a review of Howe's latest book of poetry, "Pierce Arrow," Mary Morris wrote that she "is changing the very definition of poetry, crafting pieces that seem more like academic essays (albeit essays that roll off the tongue, or page).

"Her work explores and re-invents history -- especially the history of under-represented groups -- with a prolific quality reminiscent of T.S. Eliot, and an experimental format suggestive of e.e. cummings or Marshall McLuhan," said Morris.

Back has created a thorough guide to reading and understanding this "disturber of the wilderness" who is critically acknowledged to be one of the nation's most important poets.

Howe was born in Boston in 1937 and is the author of 16 books of poems and three volumes of prose, including "The Birth-Mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History" (1993), which was named an International Book of the Year by the Times Literary Supplement, and the groundbreaking "My Emily Dickinson" (1985), in which she exposes the extent to which Dickinson's poems and our reading of them have been policed and "gentled" to conform with gendered social mores.

Howe's most recent poetry collections are "Bed Hangings" (2001), with artist Susan Bee; "Pierce-Arrow" (New Directions, 1999); "Frame Structures: Early Poems 1974-1979" (1996); "The Nonconformist's Memorial" (1993); "The Europe of Trusts: Selected Poems" (1990), and "Singularities (1990).

Her work has appeared in "Anthology of American Poetry" (Oxford University Press, 1999); "Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women," (1998), and "Poems for the Millennium, Volume 2," edited by Pierre Joris and Jerome Rothenberg (1998).

It also was included in the study "Disjunctive Poetics: From Gertrude Stein and Louis Zukofsky to Susan Howe" by Peter Quartermain (1992), part of the series Cambridge Studies in American Literature and Culture.

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