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 experiencewhich 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 its nearly impossible to venture an informed argument for or against a poets tactics without some reference to their political situation.
Its difficult to write intelligently about Susan Howe, not least because her methodnow a subtle blend, now a violent collision of poetry and scholarshipsimply discards the vocational borders so often used to define the work of poetry. Pierce-Arrow is Howes seventeenth book, and its sources include the Charles S. Peirce Papers at Harvards 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 Popes translation of the Iliad, Bruno Linds 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 poemswithout 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 Butchers memoir, assorted Peirciana, references to Dickens, Schiller, and an archive of Husserls 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. Peirces 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 Peirces biographers to trace her genealogy:
Juliette Annette Froissy
Her new first name if
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 Howes previous work) functions as a discrete unit, a domino with its own valence tripping the next:
Day binds the wide Sound
Much has been made of the absorption of American mysticism (Puritanism, transcendentalism) into Howes 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 Peirces 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 pragmatistsJamess The Varieties of Religious Experience perhaps most famouslyHowes 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 theoryconstructing 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
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 Howes 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.