(Ed note: This post originally appeared on March 11, 2008. Read Part I here. Mark Doty is guest editor of the Best American Poetry 2012. You can catch him at the BAP launch reading on September 20. Find out more about Mark Doty here.)
Thinking about what's difficult in poetry makes me want to talk about a book I've been reading with great pleasure, Susan Howe's SOULS OF THE LABADIE TRACT, which New Directions published in 2007.The contexts of these poems are complex ones, but Howe's book artfully establishes the grounds of her inquiry. She begins with two bits of prose, the first describing the Puritan preacher and writer Jonathan Edwards, and how he'd ride through the wild country of Western Massachusetts thinking through his essays and sermons, and scribbling on scraps of paper which he'd pin to his clothes, using their location as a mnemonic device. It's a beautiful figure of the poet, wearing words in the wilderness, clothing the body in fragments of text. Then Howe offers a riveting ars poetica, a description of her research time in the library at Yale, the crumbling books of American language, fragments of history. Such dislocated bits of speech float up even through her prose.
"Often walking alone in the stacks,' she writes, "surrounded by the raw material paper afterlife, my spirits were shaken by the great ingathering of titles and languages. This may suggest vampirism because while I like to think I write for the dead, I also take my life as a poet from their lips, their vocalisms, their breath."
The vocalisms and breath of the dead are indeed present in the short poems that follow, each a small rectangle of text in the center of the page composed of six to eight lines. There's a strange and exhilarating feeling of space between words and phrases, as if these fragments had sifted out of those library stacks, out of the gathered words and yellowed books our ancestors have become. Howe's
especially interested in the Labadists, a group of 17th century utopians of whom almost nothing remains, seeking the faint echoes of their presence, and her tracing of a kind of ancestry leads her to the doorstep of none other than Wallace Stevens -- who also was interested in tracing his ancestry, and who seems one of the most potent of the souls that ghost Howe's own poetics. A group of poems that bear Stevens' address as a title have the odd sense of being whispered, half-overheard conversations with spirits of the past. And, as in Stevens' own poems, they try to worry out the nature of beauty. This poem might be spoken by Stevens in his study, or by Howe in her own study, or Howe looking into Wallace Stevens' window on Westerly Terrace in Hartford.
Face to the window I had
to know what ought to be
accomplished by precedecessors
in the same field of labor
because beauty is what is
What is said and what this
it -- it in itself insistent is
Those last three lines are such a ringing esthetic credo. Like all Howe's work, they ask for full engagement, inviting the reader work out the relations between these words and lines, relations which are not fully determined already but contain the possibilities for multiple meanings. But how rewarding this work is, and how startling that such a forceful and intelligent definition of beauty -- that old Romantic problem! -- is made here in 17 words, most of them tiny, and together they make an abstract and irresistible music: "it -- it in itself insistent is" is music for ear and mind.
And these poems, of course, would be impossible without the poet's allegiance to her method:her crabbed, curious, gnomic collecting, her cobbling of order in the detritus of time.
You don't read such a book straight through and be done with it; you don't expect each part to yield meaning right away, and some of it may never come clear. That's what it's like, listening to history: confusion and multiplcity, glimmers of clarity, waves of inscrutable speech. How's book part library, part forest, spaces in which an American woman is walking and thinking with words pinned to all of her clothes.