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Pierce-Arrow
Susan Howe
New Directions, $14.95 (paper)

by Brian Lennon

A popular expression of hostility to difficult poetry is to suggest that it is written to illustrate academic theories. Proscriptive accusations of this sort nearly always issue from a fellow poet annoyed by the apparent dependence of poems on other poems and other forms of writing. The implication is that intellectual work moves us away from the thing called experience–which may be more complex than mere portraiture, but must not stray beyond some form of common cognition. Thus the proliferation of the university writing workshop, its threat to the self-styled avant-garde out on the street, and the shifting allegiances of professional academics give us the ideologies of American post-war poetry: the poem as praxis versus the poem as theory, the poem as craft versus the poem as artifice, the poem as personal confession versus the poem as long-view History. Even if no actual poem singularly "is" any of these, their conflict is so embedded in the discourse of poetics that it’s nearly impossible to venture an informed argument for or against a poet’s tactics without some reference to their political situation.

It’s difficult to write intelligently about Susan Howe, not least because her method–now a subtle blend, now a violent collision of poetry and scholarship–simply discards the vocational borders so often used to define the work of poetry. Pierce-Arrow is Howe’s seventeenth book, and its sources include the Charles S. Peirce Papers at Harvard’s Houghton Library, manuscript drafts of A. C. Swinburne from the Beineke Rare Book Library at Yale, three recent biographies of Peirce, letters of John Jay Chapman and Henry James, a memoir of George Meredith by one Lady Butcher, Alexander Pope’s translation of the Iliad, Bruno Lind’s book on George Santayana, and various other Swinburneana and Peirciana, including diaries and other personal papers as well as drawings and photographs. A densely typeset and somewhat disorderly acknowledgments page confounds attempts to track unattributed citations in the poems–without letting you relinquish the urge entirely. This source material serves as information bath and catalyst for three long sequences that comprise the book: "Arisbe," a collage of Peirce-related biographical and other excerpts in prose with interpolated verse structures that gradually overrun the page; "The Leisure of the Theory Class," a dialectical weave of Butcher’s memoir, assorted Peirciana, references to Dickens, Schiller, and an archive of Husserl’s manuscripts, and the exchange between Lind and Santayana; and "Rückenfigur," a lovely and baffling lyric coda organized around the legend of Tristan and Iseult.

Peirce (1839-1914), the American mathematical logician and philosophical pragmatist whose work, in the faint praise of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, remains "fragmentary and extensive," is a study in glorious failure. He never held a full-time academic appointment, instead improvising a living as man of letters and intellectual-of-all-trades, and died leaving 100,000 pages of unpublished writings, as Howe tells it. In the history of philosophy he is overshadowed by Gottlob Frege, who anticipated some of his work on logic and evolved it into a highly organized system, and William James, who went on to deploy pragmatism as an indigenous American habit of mind. Peirce’s professional obscurity foreshadows the mystery of his spouse, one "Juliette"–a Gypsy? a German or French or Swiss aristocrat?–whose identity, for unspecified reasons, was suppressed, and over the course of time seems to have vanished. In the prose sections of "Arisbe," and again in lineated form in "The Leisure of the Theory Class," Howe recounts the efforts of Peirce’s biographers to trace her genealogy:

Juliette Annette Froissy
Pourtalai (or de Portalès
said to be the widow of
a Count Portalai her true
surname is still unknown)
What I see is the image
or hidden correspondence
Sometimes she claims to be
a Hapsburg princess she
knew Kaiser Wilhelm II
(they were children together
her mysterious income

Her new first name if
it is she is Anna Ada
von Portalès born in
Laasow/Niederlausitz (then
Prussia) the first of
seven children on table
5 Genealogical Appendix
But Anna died April 17
1889 unmarried is there
ever absolute certainty
Peirce had no idea she
spoke Polish among half
a dozen other languages

The vanishing of a life into diffuse remnants is revisited, and multiply recast, in these glimmerings of form. (Is it there? Is it not there?) In portions of the sequence entitled "Rückenfigur" ("reverse figure"), each line is partly isolated and (as in much of Howe’s previous work) functions as a discrete unit, a domino with its own valence tripping the next:

Day binds the wide Sound
Bitter sound as truth is
silent as silent tomorrow
Motif of retreating figure
arrayed beyond expression
huddled unintelligible air
Theomimesis divinity message
I have loved come veiling
Lyrist come veil come lure
echo remnant sentence spar
never never form wherefor
Wait some recognition you
Lyric over us love unclothe
Never forever whoso move

Much has been made of the absorption of American mysticism (Puritanism, transcendentalism) into Howe’s work, and certainly one might equally praise or blame this writing for approximating, as Martin Earl puts it, "the luminous strictness of a Quaker chair." Less often remarked, I think, is the affinity her projects display for the goals of philosophical pragmatism as formulated by Peirce, James, and John Dewey. Beginning with Peirce’s notion of truth as a function of practical "effect," pragmatists devised a theory of art-as-experiment that differs markedly from both the classical modernist sensibility and that of the most prolific group of postmodernist innovators, the poets associated with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (a now defunct journal). Like those of the pragmatists–James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience perhaps most famously–Howe’s works evade the programmatic bias that Pound gave to high modernism, and that postmodernists ever since have fought with their own dogma. If conservative poetries perpetuate a naïve belief in "experience" as exclusive of theoretic abstraction, subversive poetries constrict in their opposition to theoretically untenable realism, narrative, and personal voice. (If reading Hegel is not experience, what is it? On the other hand, why should it be necessary?)

The pragmatist poet begins with the practice indicated or suggested by theory–constructing a provocation of theory, an invitation to more theory (and hence more practice) rather than theory as bête noire. As Jonathan Levin suggests in The Poetics of Transition: Emerson, Pragmatism, & American Literary Modernism, "what matters most to a pragmatist is not the object of ... experience ... but rather the process the experience sets in motion"–a process which offers outward-spiraling incitements to more experience, to broader conceptions of experience. To read a poem is to formulate a way of talking back to it, of constructing for ourselves a verso or Rückenfigur:

Insufferably pale the icy
limit pulls and pulls no
kindness free against you
Deep quietness never to be
gathered no blind threat
Assuredly I see division
can never be weighed once
pale anguish breathes free
to be unhallowed empty what
in thought or other sign
roof and lintel remember
Searching shall I know is
some sense deepest moment

What is and what appears

Howe is staking everything on the venture that theory and practice, artifice and application, are perpetually messily entwined. It is a proposition that seems self-evident, and at the same time seldom in evidence. If Howe’s audience is now expanding past an elite outside (and more recently, inside) the academy, it might be taken as a sign that the professions are changing.

Originally published in the October/November 1999 issue of Boston Review

Originally published in the October/November 1999 issue of Boston Review



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