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On the Difficulty of Reading Susan Howe’s

Articulation of Sound Forms in Time

By Peter Middleton.


What is the “fate of difficulty in the poetry of our time”?

What is the “fate of difficulty in the poetry of our time”? Charles Altieri and Nicholas Nace gather the thoughts of twenty-six leading poetry critics on this question, each of them discussing the issue in relation to a single recent poem.1 It’s a fascinating enterprise, valuable as a guide to North American poetry today, and replete with promising interpretive strategies, although there are limitations. Single poems may not always be the best measure of difficulty, and the concept itself is elusive. The editors treat the question as addressable to an abstract concept, as if difficulty were akin to beauty or meaningfulness, a convergence of complexity, intellectual reach and emotional impact, that is definitely a desirable value. They are concerned that modernist poetic virtues may be dispersing like dandelion seeds in the digital wind of the enormous transformations in the way we write, read, communicate, and publish now. Fate is intrinsically a temporal idea. I find myself wanting also to hear another meaning in the question, speculation as to the eventual fate of difficulty in a specific poem, because much poetic difficulty is timebound. Difficulty due to obscure allusions, dizzying collage, encrypted syntax, creates resistances gradually unpicked by readers and researchers, once unfamiliar aesthetic frames becoming the mildly absurd, ornate gilt frames of a later age. Or does difficulty always fade, even expire? Might it accrue? Can formerly lucid poems become increasingly difficult, like once charming youths growing cranky, less intelligible with age? Maybe it is a case of once difficult always difficult, just as other features of a poem, its rhythms, its vocabulary, and its structures of imagery, remain relatively stable.

Speculations like these snagged at my thoughts as I lately reread what was once one of my favourite poems, Susan Howe’s book-length Articulation of Sound Forms in Time (I shall call it Articulation from now on).2 It’s a work whose “Rätselcharakter” as Theodor Adorno calls the “enigmaticalness” of modernist art, troubled me for several years after it was first published in a splendid small press edition from Awede. Back then I was alternately possessed by it and recoiled from it; its gorgeous, inventive epigrammatic lines generated a recurrent incomprehensibility that left me puzzled and even sometimes uncomfortably doubting my ability to read the more challenging current poetry. Today in its new housing, a slightly extended version published by Wesleyan in a compact format with an additional preface outlining the history of its presiding figure Hope Atherton, it still remains a difficult poem, yet it no longer has its old power, nor would I now as I once did consider it Howe’s best work. Her more biographical, more historically locatable texts such as Pierce-Arrow (1999) better display her extraordinary ability to compress verbal effects into a few words. Articulation remains a pivotal, fascinating work because it exposes more thoroughly than any other of her texts the working methods on which she has based her poetics, her construction of difficulty. The large assemblage of typed drafts, often many versions of just one page, in the University of California at San Diego Special Collection archive confirm the enormous effort that went into achieving the epigrammatic brilliance.

Articulation is divided into three parts, the three acts of a drama. The Wesleyan final version of Articulation expands on the previous brief Awede introduction with a lucid, seemingly authoritative prose history of a clumsy encounter between a European settler with the wonderful name Hope Atherton, and indigenous local people. As commentators have shown, it is not quite what it seems, not quite an accurate history, reminding us that its clarity of event falsifies our distance from that time. This section could stand for a whole American culture that perpetuates myths of origin, stories of Thanksgiving feasts, first settlements, English colonists arriving from the old world expecting to find empty wilderness instead of the forms of agriculture, villages and towns they were familiar with, stories that overlook the failure to recognise the active cultivation and the culture of the indigenous people. The second section presents us with verbally and visually hard to read texts, crushed letters, scripto continuo, semantic illegibility in the form of fragments of unfamiliar archaic vocabulary, and distorted layouts. Words fall over each other producing interpretive resistance that allegorically represents the actual difficulty of knowing what lived experience for those seventeenth-century people was like, how they felt about the soil, the noises from the forest, the forage, the joy and threat around their articulate lives.

The verse could be addressing the irruptions of human savagery that we have seen in recent years, as much as the centuries past.

It is the third section that bound me in its spell. It reads as if the first two acts of the lexical drama had through some process of verbal sublation resulted in this synthesis, a series of more than twenty poems in couplets and single lines. Yet the verse remains if anything even more enigmatic, striated with time past, the Western search for comprehensive philosophical explanations that harden into ideology, the invasion and settlement of North America, and the recurrent violence of human history, and constantly reminds the reader that interpretation’s expertise is not enough. The verse could be addressing the irruptions of human savagery that we have seen in recent years, as much as the centuries past. Its heaping up of ideas about the settlement of America, ideologies of warfare, philosophical systems, reminds me of a brilliant, if stumbling attempt to carry out what Stanley Cavell identifies as

A convening of my culture’s criteria, in order to confront them with my words and life as I pursue them and as I may imagine them; and at the same time to confront my words and life as I pursue them with the life my culture’s words may imagine for me: to confront culture with itself, along the lines in which it meets in me.3

The collaging of found texts evoking the settlement of north America, and the cracked tiles from the conceptual architecture of Western thought attempts to provide such criteria.

Here we have a poetry of glimpses, of seeing the welcoming “light on the legionnaires’ banner”, a mother at a window, half-heard “trace tidings.”

This third face of the poem will turn out to remind us constantly with its metapoetic gestures of just how many layers of mediation lie between us and then. Here we have a poetry of glimpses, of seeing the welcoming “light on the legionnaires’ banner”, a mother at a window, half-heard “trace tidings.” There are hints of the unseen violence of armies, of tinder ready to burn, of a tendency to “hammer at nature to temper Terrible.” Throughout this poem we are reminded that what we strain to see and hear from the archaic is mediated by a long uneven transmission of stories, writings, songs, rumours, across a “never ending sequence of / Becoming”, the recensions of time, inexorably estranging of us from all that we once knew, and before us, others lived with. Howe might appear to be following Thomas Browne’s advice on how to live:

Have a glimpse of incomprehensibles, and Thoughts of things, which thoughts but tenderly touch.4

We should give weight to the word “time” in the title of Howe’s poem, and an alternative non-sonic meaning to “sound,” so that we hear the title saying something like this: this work attends to the connections between supposedly durable forms (Platonic forms, philosophical ideas, scientific schemas, ways of living) over the longue durée. Given that the poem is in part a judgement on America as a history of invading settlers who brought invasive species of ideas from Europe, and in part a sceptical overview of the modes of world history evident in Spengler, Toynbee, and other historians of everyone, this version of the title also elicits more attention to the meanings of “articulation.” Arnold Schoenberg uses it to describe the opening out of musical structures; Howe incorporates this musical sense along with the concept of jointedness, alerting readers from the start to one of the most tricky salient features of the poem, its disavowal of most forms of syntactically determined propositions. This is a poem of unjointedness in which Howe achieves remarkable epigrammatic condensation. In one of my favourite lines, “algorithms bravadoes jetsam,” we are tempted to interpret this to assert that algorithms are no more than bravado, boasts claiming rational control with no more actual value (or substance) than garbage floating on the sea. And yet again I have overstepped what the poetry allows; it makes no such assertion, though it knows that we readers are keen to be agents of inference.

I can measure the distance between my early sense of the difficulty of the poem, and its fate in my imagination, by recalling that when I first encountered the poem, I thought I knew what was meant when it referred to the “visible surface of discourse”: surely this surface was especially visible in the incised print on the wide, pleasantly tactile, thick paper pages of the Awede edition. We meet this characteristic metapoetic gesture in the following section from about half way through the third, final section of the poem.

Visible surface of Discourse

Runes or allusion to runes
Tasks and turning flock

Evening red enough for chivalry

Algorithms bravadoes jetsam
All wisdom’s plethora pattern

paper anacoluthon and naked chalk

Luggage of the prairie
Wagons pegged to earth

Tyrannical avatars of consciousness
emblazoned in tent-stitch

Five senses of syntax

Dear Unconscious scatter syntax
Scythe mower surrender hereafter

Dear Cold cast violet coronal

World weary flesh by Flesh bygone

General absence of main verbs, prepositions, and most syntactical guide rails added an impression of streaks of vehemence resisting the loss of confidence in history.

Stone-carved runes might also serve to monumentalise this visible surface even after so many centuries of lichen and erosion. For many years I found this middle-period elliptical verse of Howe’s so deeply compelling I had little desire to perform sustained exegesis, half-consciously anxious that exposure to too much analysis might dim its brilliance. Her intensely, self-consciously poetic, often beautiful anti-propositional lines were compact with meaning that was seemingly best absorbed if viewed out of the corner of one’s gaze. General absence of main verbs, prepositions, and most syntactical guide rails added an impression of streaks of vehemence resisting the loss of confidence in history. When I try to describe the effect of this verse I find myself recalling an unlikely source, a marginal comment in the script of the John Osborne play, Look Back in Anger characterising how the actor should play the lead character, Jimmy Porter: “to be as vehement as he is is to be almost non-committal.” Howe knew what she was doing with these truncated bursts of judgement, and tells you so in a style for which she provides her own terms, a “Stern Norse terse ethical pathos,” so laconic many lines are cut adrift by the absence of connectives.

Now when I look at her books to try and recapture this enigmatic poetry I remember so well, I cannot elicit the sense of almost glimpsing profound insights, and find instead that lines like these at the start of the third part of Articulation of Sound Forms in Time present quite different features.

Corruptible first figure
Bright armies wolves warriors steers

scorned warning captive compulsion

Love leads to edge
Progress of self into illusion

Same and not the same
Cherubim intone their own litany

Universal separation
—Distant coherent rational system

Vault lines divergence
Atom keystone

Parmenides prohibition
End of passageway perceive surrounding

Consciousness grasps its subject
Stumbling phenomenology

infinite miscalculation of history

Great men thicker than their stories
sitting and standing

to mark suns rising and setting
Ridges of sand rising on one another

Mathematics of continua

fathomless infinitesimal fraction
sabbatical safety beyond seven

Empty arms cloud counterfeit

antecedent terror stretched to a whisper

Pulsing short phrases without the appurtenances of the proposition appear nevertheless to give no room for uncertainty: Atom keystone, fathomless infinitesmal fraction, Empty arms cloud counterfeit. Motifs that will be repeated in each of the sections that follow, create variations on these ideas and images of war, angelology, geometric cosmology, the “slaughter bench of history,” the haruspices of skies and landscapes, and the finality of mathematical certainties. Now the devices generating enigma are plainly visible, the shifts of capitalisation, the unpredictable isolation of some lines, and above all the withholding of clinching evidence for what is often an implied proposition, a hinted affirmation. And thanks to the archiving of almost every extant written phrase I can now discover what was previously hidden in an era when tracing sources required large libraries, an excellent memory, not to mention luck: an uncounted number of her phrases are found text whose status as allusion or cultural authenticity is deliberately unresolvable (Joe Luna’s recent illuminating excavations of J. H. Prynne’s The Oval Window and Bands Around the Throat expose related issues). Do we treat a line such as “Ridges of sand rising on one another” as an image of the waves of would-be great men who try to shape history? And is the source of this line in a passage in H. G. Wells’s Tono Bungay of any significance as an allusion or is the phrase simply a brilliantly repurposed found text? The line about stern Norse derives from the opening of a study of Norse mythology.

If we don’t do this, if we leave the partial illegibility of the text to its stern laconic insistence of receding imaginative spaces, what aesthetic enfilade are we left with?

Once upon a time however often I read and reread this passage its partial illegibility stubbornly remained. Now its obscurity is gone I am troubled: Was this opacity what gave the passage its addictive grace? As if in answer to this doubt, today I notice the subdued comedy of those thick bodied, thick skinned, thick minded great men, who sit around or stumble through their attempts at knowledge, as they mark the passing of time by ogling sunrises and sunsets, in an symbolically appropriate desert landscape. In this beginning was the word of Aristotle, so soon corrupted by lesser thinkers, followed by the “Bright armies wolves warriors steers,” wolfish soldiers who thought of themselves as warriors though they resembled cattle sent to slaughter. Or so goes my projected interpretation of what now strikes me as a voice of disenchantment whose chain of association can be readily followed. Yet even now there’s still grit in my interpretation, a residual unyielding difficulty. To make even these gestures at interpretation I have interpolated clarifying syntax, inferred verbs, and shifted the pulses into clauses. If we don’t do this, if we leave the partial illegibility of the text to its stern laconic insistence of receding imaginative spaces, what aesthetic enfilade are we left with?

Wallace Stevens can help partially answer this question. His self-appointed masterpiece, “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” begins by imagining a successor awaiting instruction: “Begin, ephebe, by perceiving the idea / of this invention, this invented world.” In an essay written thirty years later than Articulation, in the course of praising Stevens, Howe speaks in strikingly unfashionable language about enduring aesthetic principles that may help us understand the passion for disjunction and vehemence. She hints that she might be one of these protégés learning how to write a poetry that can discern the unreality of the seemingly most real ideological surface to recover the singular, intense particularities on the “outskirts of ordinary”:

As a North American poet writing in the early twenty-first century, I owe him an incalculable debt, for ways in which, through word frequencies and zero zones, his writing locates, rescues, and delivers what is various and vagrant in the near at hand.5

By future-proofing this poetics with the discourse of software processing and information theory’s stochastics, she makes evident that it is not Stevens’s skill at writing well-wrought, autonomous lyrics that her craft memory most values:

I don’t often remember Stevens poems separately except for the early ones but they all run together the way Emerson’s essays do into a long meditation moving like waves and suddenly there is one perfect portal. (24) 

For her, Stevens’s poetry is one great project relying on a confluence of verbal skills to create the perfect access to the internet of history. His poetry

makes me happy … Pleasure springs from the sense of fluid sound patterns phonetic utterance excites in us. Beauty, harmony, and order are represented by the arrangement, and repetition, of particular words on paper. … As if from some unfathomable source, knowledge derived from sense perception fails, and the unreality of what seems most real floods over us. (3) 

Happiness, pleasure, beauty, harmony, order, unreality: these aesthetic concepts are likely to make us uneasy today, even when used with such grace as her concatenation of the five words “fluid sound patterns phonetic utterance” bestows. We are more likely to think we live “after beauty” as Robert Pippin expresses it, to assume that pleasure decorates light verse, that order is a symptom of power not poetic critique, and that harmony in the words of Wallace Stevens’s poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” is a seductive ploy of the “bawds of euphony.” Or is this to misinterpret those potentially cloying words of Howe’s as aesthetic recidivism? Might we able to draw from this statement insights into the construction of illegibility in Articulation?

Near the end of her essay, she makes a cryptic comment that takes us closer still to her poetics:

Predecessor forgive our common fund credit bank corporation guilt trespass. I have risked everything to believe in an immense pattern.

The second sentence blurts out her reason for overstepping the bounds, the search for the “immense pattern,” a network of connections that would confer meaning on a poet’s vocation.

The first sentence intimates that in writing poetry she feels the need to apologise to poetic mentors like Stevens for having once treated this poetic inheritance, the commons which we all inherit, simply as exploitable resource, trespassing by copying for her own gain the work of the precursor. Then the sentence begins to collapse inward into semi-incoherence, as if guilt obscures connective verbs needed to explain her intense emotion. Isn’t this excessive, this show of anxiety at influence? Is she saying that this is what writing poetry has come to, not just hers but the fate of the poetry of her time, this recycling of the sound forms of others? The second sentence blurts out her reason for overstepping the bounds, the search for the “immense pattern,” a network of connections that would confer meaning on a poet’s vocation. It sounds uncannily like what the astrophysicist Arthur Eddington called the “cryptogram of the universe.” Or is she more of a modernist in this belief? Yeats perceived an occult neo-Platonist set of gyres; Eliot a Christian eschatology; Pound a history of repeated economic and political archetypes; and H.D. an esoteric transmission within coded texts. Or is Howe more of a belated modernist because she wishes but is unable to share their confidence? When in another late book, Debths, she explains her preoccupation with pattern, she associates it with enigmas, disconnection, and disappearance:

I have always been interested in folktales, magic, lost languages, riddles, coincidence, and missed connections.

Are these lost languages, half understood remnants of archaic stories, the fragmentary constituents of the immense pattern whose existence she has to risk everything to believe in? Are the missed connections of her phrases in Articulation remnants if only allegorically of the great pattern?

Consider a poem that Howe doesn’t mention, Stevens’s “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” whose preoccupations are similar to those of the poems she does discuss, a poem of surging waves of meditation on the unpredictable wanderings of imagination in the real city, a poem in which Stevens imagines many of his favourite figures stumbling amongst “The bricks grown brittle in time’s poverty.” After thirty quizzical sections, having been admonished by pronouncements from Professor Eucalyptus that we must attend more fully to the nature of reality, and soaked by literal and metaphorical downpours “In space and the self,” comes a final troubled finale, as if the poet is at last apologising for not quite having found the right terms for the real because they would be nanoparticles of perception outside the range of solid object words:

The less legible meanings of sounds, the little reds
Not often realized, the lighter words
In the heavy drum of speech, the inner men

Behind the outer shields, the sheets of music
In the strokes of thunder, dead candles at the window
When day comes, fire-foams in the motions of the sea,

Flickings from finikin to fine finikin
And the general fidget from busts of Constantine
To photographs of the late president, Mr. Blank,

These are the edgings and inchings of final form,
The swarming activities of the formulae
Of statement, directly and indirectly getting at,

Like an evening evoking the spectrum of violet,
A philosopher practicing scales on his piano,
A woman writing a note and tearing it up.

It is not in the premise that reality
Is a solid. It may be a shade that traverses
A dust, a force that traverses a shade.

These first three stanzas build up a great syntactic tension within the long suspended clause that is eventually relieved by this fourth stanza’s opening word, “these”, and we are told that all those finer and finer discriminations, those minutest differences, are describable as “the edgings and inchings of final form.” A final form, if attained, would presumably be a finalised form, perhaps a secure, ultimate, “sound” form, to echo Howe. What though might a final form with such minute adjustments consist of? Stevens offers us this:

The swarming activities of the formulae
Of statement.

The final form sounds almost like a mathematically precise formulation, except that several countercurrents unsettle this would-be resolution: first the uneasy adjective “swarming,” that connotes chaotic, mindless insectoid activity; then the elegant image of the philosopher not making music but improving brain finger skills; followed by the stereotypically indecisive woman, a scribal Penelope, writing and destroying her writing. I think Howe sees a challenge in such verses, not only in the image of writerly indecision as feminine, but in the propositional resolutions that Stevens finds himself unable to avoid. He delays finding the centre of that first vermicular sentence as long as he can before clamping down on the line “These are the edgings and inchings of final form,” and then stretching out its equivalents all the way to the full stop at the end of the fifth stanza. In the final stanza he broaches a new possibility in the final sentence’s wonderful chiasmic circularity:

It may be a shade that traverses
A dust, a force that traverses a shade.

Shade and force, dust and shade exchange places around the perfectly chosen abstraction of the verb “traverses,” suggesting that if the poem were to go further still in its enquiries, it would need to unpick the propositional force of the sentence as a form. Which is what Howe will do.

She too is preoccupied with the undersong of phonemes, with red’s power to draw history out into the open, …

Before beginning to scrutinise the means by which her own poetry will try to find a different strategy to imagine such final form, notice how many of Stevens’s images and themes recur in the passages from Howe. She too is preoccupied with the undersong of phonemes, with red’s power to draw history out into the open, with men who hide inside their armour, with the distortions wrought by power on its symbols, with the convergences between formulaic abstraction and discourse, with philosophical five finger exercises, with women whose words have been abducted, and always, always with the sense that time crumbles everything in the shadows to dust. I don’t mean that she is deliberately reprising his music, or nudging us with recollections of Stevens, or borrowing his authority. Here is an example of how Stevens has become part of the creative commons on which she draws, working out implications in this (and many other) poems that he leaves hanging.

This interest in the poetic commons (something she shares with J. H. Prynne as his glossators have been showing) manifests itself in a notable preoccupation of Articulation, the attenuations of texts surviving from earlier times that exist as tattered physical artefacts often known to us only through many recensions, texts metaphorically no more substantial than “paper anacoluthon and naked chalk”, fragmented and erasable. She characterises such texts as origin fables of America that reveal a “Corruptible first figure” (appropriating Aristotelian logic), as grandiose claims to have found the perfect concept of totality as a “Distant coherent rational system” that soon falter in a “Stumbling phenomenology,” or as calls justifying war as heroism smudged with the blood of the “infinite miscalculations of history.” A tacit feminism runs through the poem, occasionally surfacing when she mocks men responsible for so many grandly fatal errors, those “Great men thicker than their stories,” who may think they are “Lords of the lay,” but as her sly pun on “lay” reminds us, allow their creative genius to co-exist with a predilection for sexual exploitation. These lines also call us to be alert for flashes of humour even in the darkest tones, and remind us that however much we reread we may still not have finished reading the poem.

Retrospectively, Howe insists that she values beauty, harmony, and order in poetry. Articulation can be read as a search for these possibilities that prove elusive. If we trace the visible and hidden surfaces of the representative passage I cited earlier, to examine its edgings and inchings, its less legible meanings, and its conception of solidities and shades of nuance, we start to expose our readerly desires to chastening reckoning.

Remember it begins like this:

Visible surface of Discourse

Runes or allusion to runes
Tasks and turning flock

Evening red enough for chivalry

Algorithms bravadoes jetsam
All wisdom’s plethora pattern

To read Susan Howe is to be aware of the physical medium of reception.

As soon as we start we meet a problem. Do we even know what would count as the visible surface of discourse? The phrase implies that there may be invisible surfaces too, as if discourse were a filo pastry or rock layers in a quarry, inviting questions about where these other strata are concealed, and by what means. And even if we are confident we can identify a surface, what is a surface of discourse? Can discourse even have a surface however metaphorical? Is this a way of talking about the surface meanings, the literal rather than the allegorical, or implied ideas? It is easy to assume that the visible surface is the material foundation on which the text appears, the inked, trimmed, bound Awede or Wesleyan paper. To read Susan Howe is to be aware of the physical medium of reception. My copy of the Awede edition of Articulation shows the stains and bent ears of use as a teaching copy. Up close the now dirty white soft card cover has dents and scorings, faint smudges and odd traces of organic matter, as well as a tea stain at the bottom of the large red circular arrows on the front cover that form a broken circle. On the back cover are printed two red arrows that have inverted the design on the front. Stain, curving arrows, and the stiff card cover, are all subliminal contributors to reading the poem.

We should remember that it’s possible to imagine that the phrase has dropped out of a sentence that denies this possibility.

I may still be rushing too fast to judgement, since this first line has no verb, and yet I am assuming that it asserts that there is a discourse with a visible surface. We should remember that it’s possible to imagine that the phrase has dropped out of a sentence that denies this possibility. We tend to read the line as at least minimally saying something like: “Here is the visible surface of discourse,” and in doing so accept a recurrent strain of metapoetics in this and other Howe poems from this part of her career, a textual reflexivity that keeps reminding us of the material surface of what we are reading when we read this part of the poem. This line could be part of quite difference assertions: “There is no visible surface of discourse”; or “The visible surface of discourse is not the paper or screen.”

These are allegoric metapoetic gestures (not the literal deictics I once imagined). Susan Howe winks at the reader when she refers to the “Visible surface of discourse,” or when elsewhere in the long poem she alludes to “terse ethical pathos,” “deserts of parchment,” mentions a “summary of fleeting summary,” and employs other phrases that denote textual materials. These, the poem seems to say, are indications that the reader should pay attention to the metalinguistics of what they are reading, the syntactic patterns, the truncated syntax, the elliptical style, the white spaces of the printed page (“Golden page third voyage”) struck by light from a lamp or sunlight. This prefix “meta” has become so widely used as slang, and recently been acquired as a brand by one of the largest American digital corporations, it is hard to recall how much more force its practice and theory carried several decades ago as it was affixed to many currently active nouns. The 1980s was its heyday as a term of intellectual adornment. The metapoetic was just one of a number of authoritative forms of higher level abstractions, metaphilosophy, metaromanticism, metalinguistic, and metapoetic, categories that enfolded supposedly lower level sortal gestures. The OED comments:

Originally and chiefly U.S. Frequently in predicative use. Designating or characterized by a consciously sophisticated, self-referential, and often self-parodying style, whereby something (as a situation, person, etc.) reflects or represents the very characteristics it alludes to or depicts.

This is a good description of what Howe is doing in Articulation. Given the ubiquity of the meta these days, it’s surprising to discover that the OED records the first usage of “metalanguage” as recently as 1936, and slyly provides a cautionary warning from Hans Reichenbach on why not to use the adjective “metalinguistic”: “The use of a metalinguistic vocabulary is not a sufficient criterion for a more advanced state of logical analysis.” These philosophers put their finger on the lure of the meta, its hint that with the ascendance into greater abstraction comes a more advanced state of understanding. Much of modern mathematics from Georg Cantor to Alexander Grothendieck has been driven by a fascination with what happens when a means is found of categorising a pattern of objects as itself a new object of investigation, raising the intensity of abstraction by several degrees. Analogical literary and philosophical strategies may not be so effective.

William James famously said that we should assume that even the smallest words, conjunctions for instance, have a sense or feeling attached to them, feelings of “and” or “but.”

From here it would be possible to wander for a long time in thickets of glosses. I shall make a path through only a couple. After the heroic red sky, the bravadoes, and the pretensions of wisdom, the poem appears to shift frame entirely, cutting from algorithms and frontier covered wagons, to “avatars of consciousness.” This phrase that cleverly merges esoteric and technospeak, probably originated in a quite different context, a scholarly article on Samuel Beckett, though Howe gives it a more psychoanalytic spin, and appears to be critiquing the religious dogmatism of these early pioneers who embroidered symbols of these tyrants onto their linen.6 The remaining lines of this passage revert to the metapoetic, first with the phrase “Five senses of syntax,” and then the witty parody of much literary theory of the time, “Dear Unconscious scatter syntax.” The word “syntax” carries various homonymic undertones, mostly obviously the play on “sin tax” with its associations of the wages of sin, of the idea that wrongdoing taxes the strength of the wrongdoer. By linking syntax and the five senses the poem again plays its metapoetic instrument, as if to remind us that our sensory information requires language. William James famously said that we should assume that even the smallest words, conjunctions for instance, have a sense or feeling attached to them, feelings of “and” or “but.” Asking the unconscious to scatter the syntax is amusing because it implies a separation of consciousness and unconscious that requires something as anachronistic as a letter beginning with the customary salutation. Is the unconscious “dear,” or is this the sort of address heard in the idiomatic phrase, “would you be a dear” that prefaces request for a favour that may be hard to deny? It also alludes to a widespread belief amongst avant-garde writers that disrupted syntax was liberating, that it allowed unconscious desires, whether individual or collective, to break through the plastic wrappings of ideology.

Revisiting Articulation of Sound Forms in Time I find myself tentatively reaching several unexpected conclusions. It’s an unfinished poem, a proof of concept poem developing its distinctive austere unsyntaxed harmonies without the adherence to a recognisable history that sustains the major works that followed, Thorow, Pierce Arrow, The Midnight, and Souls of the Labadie Tract. Austerity renders its own reasonings partially illegible. I think it is an instance of the paradox that haunts Adorno in his discussions of Unbegreiflichkeit (translated as “incomprehensibility” by Robert Hullot-Kantor and less plausibly, though understandably, as “unintelligibility” by C. Lenhardt) in Aesthetic Theory.7 Is the work of art a soluble puzzle or an ungraspable enigma, and what conscious role does the author play in rendering this Unbegreiflichkeit if it emerges from the irrationality of wrong life?

What is sometimes missing in Articulation is Cavell’s confrontation. The absence of propositional forms disables engagement by the reader. Is the first figure corruptible? Why? Is separation universal? What is the poem intimating might be wrong with the attempt to construct a “Distant coherent rational system”? Why should the numerical endlessness of certain real numbers when measured out in all their decimal places be “fathomless”? We are left trying to fathom the answers to these and other questions. Throughout part three of the poem Howe hints at her suspicions of the misuse of Enlightenment aspirations, while not giving us enough to go beyond recognition of edges and inchings of the anti-foundationalist discourse of the 1980s. Thinking of Cavell’s idea of convening a society’s shibboleths and bright figures, I am reminded of Susan Neiman’s impassioned defense of the Enlightenment value of universalism: “the best forms of art lead us to what Aimé Césaire called ‘a universal enriched by every particular,’ a universalism learned with and through difference.”8 In later poetry Howe addresses this absence, adding figures with whom she has a close relation, mentors, family, Peirce, Mary Manning Howe, Stevens, and Thoreau, and repeatedly putting their ideas to the test. Finally it is a poem that amply demonstrates what it might mean to place, in her words and Stevens’s, “language at the barriers” without quite finding out what those barriers are. Exegesis is useful but will never adequately resolve interpretive difficulties; this is the fate of its difficulty.

PETER MIDDLETON is Emeritus Professor at the University of Southampton, and author of several books including Physics Envy (Chicago, 2015), and Expanding Authorship: Transformations in American Poetry since 1950 (New Mexico, 2021). He is currently writing a book on the genealogy of the concept of code. An essay on “Parrots and Paragrams: AI Language Models and Erasure Poetry” has just appeared in the Journal of Modern Philology, and an essay on autobiography in the work of John Berger and Lisa Robertson, a tribute to the life and work of Laura Marcus, will shortly be published in Textual Practice.


  1. Charles Altieri and Nicholas D. Nace, The Fate of Difficulty in the Poetry of Our Time (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2018).
  2. Susan Howe, Articulation of Sound Forms in Time (Windsor, VT: Awede Press, 1987); Susan Howe, Singularities (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1990).
  3. Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 125.
  4. Sir Thomas Browne, Christian Morals III: xiv.
  5. Susan Howe, “Vagrancy in the Park,” The Quarry (New York: New Directions, 2015), 3. Hereafter page numbers cited in text.
  6. “The Unnamable invents an ‘I’, as well as other, surrogate characters like Mahood and Worm, because language requires it. But he feels himself existing below or beneath these avatars of consciousness.” Fred Miller Robinson, “‘An art of Superior Tramps’: Beckett and Giacometti,” The Centennial Review vol. 25, no. 4 (Fall 1981): 331–44, 338.
  7. Theodor W. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1972), 179. Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 118. T. W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. C. Lenhardt (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), 173.
  8. Susan Neiman, Left Is Not Woke (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2023), 56.

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