Detective Work

Susan Howe on Dickinson, being a lost Modernist, and the acoustic force of every letter.

The Japanese maple outside Susan Howe’s house is stunning. It was blood red when I visited her this past fall. She told me she’s never seen it so vivid, though she’s lived in the same tawny wood and light-filled house in Guilford, Connecticut, for a long time. As we sat down to talk in her second-floor studio, I offered her the chair facing the beautiful tree. I felt I ought to be star-struck around such a formidable mind—Howe, who won the prestigious Bollingen Prize in 2011, has published more than 30 books, including the iconic My Emily Dickinson—but there was an ease to our meeting that probably surprised both of us. She made me want to pay careful attention to things.

Our conversation ranged from the early colonial settlers in America to Modernist poets, circled around what it means to be an American writer, and meandered into show-and-tell now and again. This wasn’t surprising given Howe’s tendency to work with archives. Almost everything she writes is informed by intimate experiences with primary-source material, with handling and looking at manuscripts or letters and writing something in response. Howe was trained as a visual artist. While abstractions such as history figure in and inform her work, so does her experience with the material elements of text—paper, graphic representations of language, and sound.

Her latest book, Spontaneous Particulars, co-published by New Directions and Christine Burgin, includes facsimiles of William Carlos Williams’s poetry on prescription pads and the early American theologian Jonathan Edwards’s writing on silk paper that his wife and daughters used to make fans. The following is an edited version of our conversation.


Are there phrases from your early work that haunt you? That you can’t get out of your head?

I work line by line, paragraph by paragraph, obsessively cutting and shifting … I’m fanatic about matching sound with sense in prose as well as poetry.

Actually, the lines I am proudest of are in essays. The last line in “The Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson"“Mary Rowlandson saw what she did not see said what she did not say”—I surprised myself with that one. And in the only essay about film I have ever attempted, “Sorting Facts: or, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Marker": “Where are you systems of planets around us? Drifting out of sight, away out of the frame of the screen behind the wings.”

Singularities is where I found my voice as a poet. I started writing that book up in the town of Lake George, New York, where I was living in an off-season motel cabin at the edge of the lake because I had a small fellowship to teach a poetry workshop. I’d never been there before. I was in shock at the cruel beauty of the Adirondack landscape—I hadn’t seen the Rockies yet.   

There was a small (almost one-room) library in the town. Among various regional historical maps and volumes, I found the 14-volume book called The Papers of Sir William Johnson. Johnson was born in Ireland in 1715. He came to New York to manage an estate owned by his uncle among the Mohawk, one of the Six Nations of the Iroquois. Eventually he became British superintendent of Indian affairs for the northern colonies and commanded Iroquois and colonial militia forces during the French and Indian War and the Battle of Lake George in 1755.

Now Johnson’s papers can be read online. But in the dead of winter in 1987, when I chanced on that edition of his papers transcribed with original errant spelling and punctuation, I vividly felt the effect of sonic sources typographically reproduced on paper. I found the old names for places nearby, along with word abbreviations, to be startlingly beautiful. By that I mean disjointed, chiasmatic, enthusiastic—choppy. It seemed to me that everything I wanted to express about landscape in language in the early captivity and conversion narratives I was so fond of, was activated in Johnson’s rushed recollections, supply lists, and battle communications: “Go on the scout / They say they will go near Swegachey.” Now when I look at the first lines in “Thorow” pulled from their original source, I feel the visual and aural shock effect of “Swegachey.”

My own words don’t run through my head, but when I reread them aloud on the page to myself, I’m beside the frozen lake with all its associations.

How else has place shaped your work? I’m wondering about place not just in terms of geographical area, but in terms of your studio and the library, how those environments have shaped your work.

I’m slightly agoraphobic. I have difficulty in traveling. So I have turned to the rhythms particular to this wide estuary with its coastal marshes, tidal inlets, and salt ponds. Not the open ocean but almost. Its hybrid nature, on the edge and in between.

I’m not the first to say there is incredible power in any landscape, even in the walk I take every day out to the old quarry, through the woods, to Long Island Sound. I take the same walk, but it seems that the place is alive and in some always new way, the past is here with me while I’m walking. I read the trees and the changing colors in the salt marsh. From the wampum shells that the Native Americans traded, to the hundreds of quarry workers who worked the rocks around me until World War I made gunpowder for blasting too expensive, and the quarries shut down. Almost covered now by sand and salt marsh and the ever rising tides, you can see the ruin of what was once a small Catholic church and the skeleton of trolley tracks— "echological" [sic] and cultural traces on the same three-mile stretch in the ever changing landscape. There is always something to notice and wonder over.

The years I spent living and teaching in upper western New York State, at the border of Canada beside the Niagara River, certainly influenced my writing. I always had that feeling in upper western New York State that there is something seismic, chemical, unseen. Sensory modalities, perhaps reflecting survivals of other knowledges, lost power struggles: before the Europeans arrived. After that, the breakdown of English-Indian relations, centuries of war, surveying, land grabbing—who knows.

It strikes me that going into an archive, for instance, the way that you do, going back to the primary sources to look at things, is in some ways a starting over or a return to an origin.

I don’t really understand why I got so interested in early American captivity narratives or the French and Indian War. I think I got there through working on Dickinson, in trying to explain the power of single words in her poems, their chiasmatic structure, the sense of seasons, culture, and environment where that language springs from. In trying to explore American English, as opposed to British English.

I felt about Emily Dickinson that to understand her, you had to understand her culture, and what surrounded her, and where she came from. It’s the same with Thoreau and Emerson. Thoreau is trying to locate the origins of America in the landscape; Dickinson finds it in single words, but your words spring from your landscape.

What about your landscape, then? Do you start to write as you walk?

I get a lot of ideas. This year we had a gorgeous autumn in Connecticut. In the afternoon I walk past the salt marsh, woods, and come to a wooden dock that’s just been rebuilt after Hurricane Sandy destroyed the last one. I look out toward Long Island and at the changing sky; I see migrating flocks of birds flying over; I hear their cries; I listen to the sound of waves washing underneath. I remember the spirits of my father, and David, and Peter, because they were all sailors, and I think how inadequate words are to describe the intensity of memory and nostalgia.

I want to return, for a second, to Emily Dickinson and to the archive. When was the first time you went to the archive to look at something?

The real archives? My father was the authorized editor of the papers of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., so the idea of collecting and collating somebody’s “papers” was always familiar. But my first shock, utter shock, was when I first saw one of Emily Dickinson’s fascicles in Harvard’s Houghton Library. The material object in itself so different from the edited version we all know. Their difference really shook me.

Before I ever got the object I had come to see, I felt painfully aware of how hard it was to get into the Houghton Library Reading Room. Just the whole ritual of being granted permission. The guard outside the inner sanctum, and then being shy and not from an Ivy League university. You start worrying, “What do I look like? I feel like am an interloper, a vagrant, an obvious amateur.”

It’s funny, because I was just in New Haven and wanted to go into the Beinecke, and I just assumed that I can’t. I’ve been in there, once, a long time ago, but I don’t have a university association anymore.

This is no longer true of the Beinecke. In fact, they are remarkably open in terms of access to their collection. Other places are another story. Of course, the Internet is changing everything in terms of visual access in mixed ways. Archives have entered new territories, to say the least.

In Spontaneous Particulars, you have this great line: “The library is the suburbs.” So you’d think anybody could get in.


It isn’t just the archives. It’s the issue of public and private libraries in general. My first terrific library experience was getting a card and being allowed to go into the stacks at Yale’s Sterling library because my husband, David, was teaching there. It was the first time I’d been into the stacks of a great collection, because I didn’t go to college. When I was growing up, [one of Harvard’s libraries] was forbidden to women, let alone to children. My professor father would go and get a book I needed and bring it out. When I first got the free run of Sterling—that was a tremendous moment for me. I feel that everybody should have that right, but they don’t.

Of course, there are great public libraries like the New York Public. You go into that big reading room, and you see people from every country, race, gender, the old and the young, and they are all studying a volume they have asked to see. Wonderful as that is, freedom to explore the stacks isn’t an option.

That browsing experience is lost to us, in some ways. Do you remember chancing upon books?

Yes. Absolutely. I recently chanced on this book Tom Tit Tot, by a man with the rather ridiculous name Edward Clodd, while I was wandering through the folklore section of the Columbia library. I was allowed in there since I was giving a talk at Columbia.

I remember that the color of book covers was very important when I was a graduate student. There was a whole series that was bound in bright orange. They stood out like shiny objects. Which reminds me of another question: I started by asking what phrases you can’t get out of your mind. What images can’t you get out of your head? Is there anything you’ve come across in an archive that is just seared in your brain, that you can’t not see?

I can’t get out of my head seeing the three “Master Letters” in the Dickinson archive at Amherst, being brought this envelope and seeing the fragility and the tininess of the letters, and yet the explosive force they contain. But I think the most incredibly, overwhelmingly, emotionally impressive manuscripts I ever saw were the Jonathan Edwards, especially “Efficacious Grace”that’s reproduced in Spontaneous Particulars. It’s semicircular because it is written on the paper his daughters used for making fans. You open it up as if it was the petals of a flower. Edwards was an obsessive marginalia writer. You’ll see a printed book he owned, and all around the edges of the text is his handwriting. He covered every inch of the paper surface; there are no margins spared, no nothing, just spidery calligraphy. The cursive strokes resemble sewing or stitches. The material object is fantastic.

The other thing that was thrilling to see more recently is William Carlos Williams’s “The Library” section from Book Three of Paterson; so many were written on his prescription pads. Williams is so conflicted over the library, whether it’s stale with the stink of dead men’s dreams, or beauty and defiance of authority. He understands archival research as the joy of the hunt and the capture, that to discover what he calls the “beautiful thing,” to name it, is to kill it. And this goes back to the original American experience. He’s a poet who’s deeply concerned with what it means to be an American writer.

Do you feel like the distinction between poetry and prose is useful to you, or has been useful to you?

I must feel there’s a distinction. I feel prose ties things down in a way that poetry does not. I find it much harder to write an essay than to write a poem. There’s a freedom in writing poems. I lay them out on the table and put them together. Whereas, writing an essay, I’m worry that the facts have to be correct. I work line by line, so maybe I’m writing prose poems, but I think it’s still more grounded in fact. In not making a scholarly mistake.

Wallace Stevens’s late poems are almost essays. “The Auroras of Autumn” and “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” teeter on the edge of poetry and prose, so do Emily Dickinson’s late letters. I’m fascinated by what lies between, by the line. “Line” being a loaded word in itself.

I was always taught that, orally, the line is the breath.

Yes, but it’s still tied to vision. That’s what I think you cannot avoid. Every single sound you put down, every letter you put down, has some kind of acoustic force.

This reminds me of your book Singularities, which I read 20 years ago. I remember seeing the word “thorow,” which is of course an aural pun on “Thoreau.”

That book came first, from seeing the word "through" spelled "t-h-o-r-o-w" in Johnson’s papers. Of course I instantly thought of Thoreau and Walden. But for Johnson and his transcriber, “thorow” meant “through” and “thorough.” “Throw” is an associational, graphemic effect. I saw the single word and thought, “That’s it. Here’s the hinge of a poem."

Speaking of words, what’s your favorite word?

My favorite is not a beautiful one—it is "k-n-o-w." I love it because “no” is co-present. The auditory effect occurs simultaneously. “Know” contains the present moment and its own negation. What you can’t know now is also present in the way you sound it in English. Dickinson once said in a letter, “dont you know that ‘No’ is the wildest word we consign to Language?”

H.D. talks about words within words, “the meanings that words hide,” in Trilogy. She writes that words “are anagrams, cryptograms,/little boxes, conditioned//to hatch butterflies ...”

H.D.’s wonderful Tribute to Freud is one of those works that hovers between prose and poetry, and she would have known Freud’s essay called “The Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words,” on words that contradict each other.

Ah, like “cleave” and “cleave.”

Or, in Dickinson, “bolt” and “bolt.” You bolt the door shut. You bolt, you run away. Or “buckle” in Hopkins’s great poem “The Windhover": “Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here/ Buckle!” Buckle: to fasten, limit, enclose, and also, to bend or give way. Anyway. I think "know" is as good as it gets.

I know what you mean. Before I came here, I opened up my copy of Singularities, and saw how much I had written in the margins when I first read it 20 years ago, and felt really ashamed about bringing it here.

Oh, I love seeing your pencil marks in the margins of something I wrote. In fact, I can’t possibly read a book without a pencil in my hand.

So that may be a way for people to read your work—with a pencil in hand. It’s funny to hear myself say “so,” because Singularities begins “Soe struck.” “S-o-e.”

That’s another oddly spelled conjunction I caught in an early captivity narrative. There it meant “so” as in "as a result of something," but acoustically it’s “sew” and “sow.”

Which is funny, because the letters “s-o-w” stand for “Statement of Work” in the business world now. It’s an acronym. A “Statement of Work” is basically a contract. You get it signed. You reap what you SOW.

I love that. Words are always in flux. I love Stevens’s last poem in the Collected ["Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself"]except for one word—"panache"...:“The sun was rising at six, / No longer a battered panache above snow...”

There’s an upscale hairdressing salon called Panache in New Haven that advertises all over the place. It’s ruined that word for me.

The origins of words, our first experience of them, is interesting. When we were communicating by email, I said “assuage” is one of my favorite words, and bragged that Denise Levertov uses it in the poem "Zeroing In." You said, “She gets that right from Dickinson.” I didn’t know.

They say that “Time assuages” –
Time never did assuage –
An actual suffering strengthens
As Sinews do, with Age –

Poetry seems to be subject to all kinds of forces, and dictation, and influence that you’re not aware of, but it’s definitely there.

I was talking yesterday about dictation. And the feeling with a great idea that it dictates something to you—you have to do [or write] something. Like with that word “thorow.” Where did it come from? I had to write that poem.

But dictation is also copying. When you’re writing well, you’re taking dictation, and you don’t know where the dictation is coming from, which raises questions about originality and copies.

Like the landscape, one’s language is haunted by other people.

I use fragments. A lot of my work is, you would say, not original. Quotation can be a thrilling thing because there’s violence to quotation, cutting something out of its original context and repositioning, moving, and manipulating it.

Do you think a reader needs to know what the origin of the phrases are, the origin of the work, in order to read something well?

I don’t know, but I notice that I’m always looking for origins in other people’s work. Even with Stevens. I wonder, “Who said that? Where did he get that image?” In some of the poems, I can tell he was reading Yeats’s last poems, others I find Henry Vaughn, traces of Henry James’s story “The Altar of the Dead” in “The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain.” Echoes. Fragments. When you’re reading, you’re doing also re-collecting. It’s detective work. I love to follow footnotes.

As I was asking this question, I was thinking about T.S. Eliot.

The really interesting thing about “The Waste Land,” early Eliot, too, [is that it’s] sometimes almost completely quotations. That’s what makes it so beautiful and so strong. Those veiled acoustic sources.

I have an old friend who is in the advanced stages of dementia. He can barely remember his children. But he remembers music. If you play him something from his youth, songs from South Pacific or Cole Porter musicals, he knows melody and score. I brought him T.S. Eliot the other day, because he went to Harvard during the early 1950s when T.S. Eliot was a sort of god. I read him “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and from “The Waste Land.” He remembered whole lines, the familiar ones that used to astonish us then. “In the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo.” “Do I dare to eat a peach?” “I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach./ I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.” I thought, my God, how great T.S. Eliot is. These poems are so musical they can be remembered even after the ability to string words together has dissolved.

It reminds me of his line “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” I love the moments of rhyme in the middle of “The Waste Land.” They’re like flotation devices in the middle of a vast ocean of sound. They suddenly make you feel secure in the midst of an otherwise very confusing and scary poem. I think you have that, too, in your work.

That’s the nicest thing you could possibly say. I hope I do.

That’s my hope, that my work is comforting. At its best, finally, poetry brings us comfort. I read the last poems by Wallace Stevens, and this incredible comfort sweeps over me the way the 21st Psalm does. He calls it “a light, a power, the miraculous influence.” I’m a lost Modernist. Because of what you’re saying. I may not believe in God, but I believe in flotation devices.


Originally Published: January 14th, 2015

Catherine Halley is the editor of JSTOR Daily, an online magazine that draws connections between current affairs, historical scholarship, and other content available on JSTOR, a digital library of scholarly journals, books, and primary sources. She is the former digital director of the Poetry Foundation, where she served as editor...

  1. January 16, 2015
     Rob Holland

    Lovely interview. Great detective work all around.

  2. January 18, 2015
     Mrs. Arthur Keith III

    Hello! What a beautiful essay on Susan Howe and her
    description on writing. Often a reader has to dig to find
    why they like a certain poem or poet. I find my interest
    in poetry started as a child when hearing the rhyme of
    words in a children's poem my grandmother read to me.
    Following that was high school literature and Shakespeare
    sonnets... Thanks! ATK

  3. January 28, 2015
     Tim McGrath

    "My life had stood--a loaded gun" would have been a much
    better poem if the middle three stanzas had been cut.
    By themselves, the first and final stanzas would have
    deepened the mystery and given the poem the polished
    finish of perfection.

    Howe's book on Emily Dickinson should have been edited
    by Mabel Loomis Todd. There are many good sentences in
    the book, many that rise to the level of poetry. The
    scholarship is impressive, but the insights are often
    buried in expository prose. Exposition is the
    antithesis of poetry.

    And William Carlos Williams is the antithesis of Emily
    Dickinson. I don't know if it caused a scandal when he
    said, in The Paris Review, that he was a better poet
    than ED. But as far as I'm concerned, he forever
    disqualified himself as a judge of poetry.