Susan Howe’s Definition of Poetry

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Ludwig Wittgenstein makes the following remark about poetry: “Do not forget that a poem, although it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information.”  However, it seems that Susan Howe’s poetry and prose does in fact enact the language-game of giving information.  As is evident with her latest collection of essays The Quarry, archival research yields historical details blended with personal history and poetic utterance.  If this were not enough to contradict Wittgenstein’s remark, then Howe also cites philosophers from Benedict de Spinoza to Charles Peirce, interweaving the symbolism of logic with metaphysical concepts that underpin the substrates of word and image.

According to Peirce, human ideas do not convey a private language but a sign system of its own.  For him, an idea is a sign, not a thought.  Extending this concept, Howe’s signs are not merely words but images and sound rhythms often leading readers to margins of open space and silence.  The space between words and letters is meaningful vacuity, not merely nothingness, not merely signified nonsense, but a conceptual zero of quietude, a reverential locus of contemplation.  It is a space free of assertion, of boundless reverie whereby one’s idea can be made active, alive, and purely elegiac, if need be, in correspondence with other ideas, signs, and not necessarily things.  It is a space between mind and world, what Wilfred Sellars calls the “space of freedom,” not a Derridean differance mourning the loss of signification, submitting to the nostalgia of presence for an absent sign, but is rather is a vacuum of conceptual freedom.

The first essay in the collection is “Vagrancy in the Park,” whereby ‘vagrancy’ pertains to mental wandering and reverie, not an individual’s uncanny loitering beneath yellow street lamps.  The connotation is apt since the essay addresses the poet Wallace Stevens and the philosopher George Santayana.  Most compelling is Howe’s statement:  “Poetry is an incessant amorous search under the sign of love for a remembered time at the pitch-dark fringes of evening when we gathered together to bless and believe.”

In my mind, this is one of the best definitions of poetry I’ve ever read.  I’m sure it’s consistent with Stevens’s many statements on poetry, but to me it feels a lot like W.B. Yeats too, namely the later Yeats.  The wording is important: “under the sign of love,” which broadens the substance and scope of poetry to diverse aesthetic gestures of ordinary facts, personal history, and philosophy–even the ordinary language-game of giving information.

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