In 1961, when Susan Howe graduated from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston with a degree in painting, the big news in art was the imminent death of art, or at least the death of painterly abstraction that had come to preside. Howe had every intention of being an artist. She moved to New York, touched the tarbush of bohemia, read the whole fraternity of artists’ writings—Ad Reinhardt, Donald Judd, Robert Smithson, etc.—made books of lists and images, and wall installations with illustrations, photographs, found text, and original verse. By the time her friend, the poet Ted Greenwald visited her studio, she was arranging only words on walls. At his insistence—“You have a book on a wall, why don’t you just put it into a book?”—Howe dismantled and sequenced her pages as Hinge Picture, her first book of poems. Taking title and epigraph from Marcel Duchamp’s Green Box, Howe defined this delay as a form that operates both “in the plane” and “in space.”
This exhibition is no different, really. It is a hesitation toward the imminent fact of publishing. The poem, TTT, was commissioned for our little way station, but with the foregone conclusion that it would later be paginated, printed, and published in quantity. But enough with motives; I don’t favor the full-control formula, and Howe is apprehensive about the particular havoc a space on the game board can cause a work of art. Her poem has to defend its own ambiguity. “Perception of an object,” as she writes, “means loosing and losing it. Quests end in failure, no victory and sham questor. One answer undoes another….” 
This is not a moment for making analogies—Howe’s poems are like drawings are like notations are like collages. No. They are poems. But if you write poems that are structured the way a piece of glass is when dropped from a great height, you probably mean something different by the word “poem” from what most people mean. Whatever poetry may prove to be, Howe’s is a material construction. And whereas most poets deposit words with an eyedropper, Howe cuts them out of other people’s mouths with a pair of scissors. But there is no sin about that. Poetry is innately related to theft. The lyre was invented, the Greeks tell us, by Hermes, who then gave the instrument to Apollo as compensation for stealing cattle.
“Archives, the material—the fragment, the piece of paper—” Howe says, “is all we have to connect with the dead.” Howe, like all library cormorants, carries within herself a world made up of all that she has seen and read, and it is to this world that she returns, incessantly. She haunts archives, marginalia, manuscripts, the paratextual particulars of print, and cuts up her research, far too deliberate a term, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. (Violence underwrites her act.) Coleridge then Browning then Yeats—a succession, orderly enough. Then a slice of Spinoza, a folk tale, some children’s babble, Paul Thek, a definition, a gap, some eccentric punctuation. While writing with other people’s words can be a glib game that preempts feeling, Howe’s references, occluded as they are, do not present themselves simply for intellectual applause. What a low and idle thing citation would be if it were to lead us to negate mystery and art.
Howe’s work cannot be conditioned to act by a cause other than itself. It remains open. And, after all this time, I can still be surprised by something new I find in it, or I can be comforted by a familiar circuit of thought. I am glad for this. But faced with the unenviable task of introducing her to you, I must stay close to Howe’s obsession—erasure, and the way enclosures, be they archives, books, methodologies, or forms of speech—domesticate information and marginalize voices as liminal and wild. It’s an issue that covers a much wider range than gender or medium. And Howe takes it up directly, ignoring the divide between the makers of things, and those who critique and historicize that which is made. Her work does away with the specious worm that criticism is inferior to creation.
I would be very disappointed in a future which is going to tell us which things are worth something and which aren’t, that didn’t treat her considerably. But there isn’t much to worry about, Howe’s work is its own log book. The way we referee the past, the way individuals read books, and events, and people, not in the way they are intended, or in the way of some distantly omniscient observer, but in the idiosyncratic way that we must—this is a basic point to which Howe returns. More simply, historical records do not represent, they arbitrate. “Who polices questions of grammar, parts of speech, connection, and connotation? Whose order is shut inside the structure of a sentence?”
Susan Howe was born in 1937. This is her first solo exhibition. Apart from her poetry, she is the author of two landmark books of literary criticism, My Emily Dickinson and The Birth-mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History, and three records with David Grubbs. Howe received the 2011 Bollingen Prize for American Poetry and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She has been a Stanford Institute for Humanities Distinguished Fellow, as well as an Anna-Maria Kellen Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. She taught for many years at the State University of New York-Buffalo. She lives in Guilford, Connecticut.
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