Collaging the Power of Sound

Susan Howe, winner of the 2017 Robert Frost Award for distinguished lifetime achievement in poetry, gave an on-campus reading.

Award-winning poet Susan Howe read excerpts from her latest book, Debths, to a near full house last Thursday evening in Sharpless Auditorium. A prominent visionary writer and author of several postmodern works, including the esteemed critical study My Emily Dickinson, Howe has also long been committed to creating a space for herself and other women poets in a largely male-dominated tradition.

Howe’s reading was part of the English Department’s Weaver Series, which is focused on issues around mediation. For Howe, it has been working between disciplines, and pulling text from texts via a process of “collaging.” What is unique about Howe’s Debths is that it is both explicitly taken from other sources and yet still draws inspiration from events in Howe’s own life in autobiographical prose, paintings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum from her time as its resident artist, and clippings of various old American texts. Howe disclosed that a major part of her writing process is “walking the stacks” and waiting for her eye to fall upon a particular piece of literature. Her poems are completely composed by chance operation. “You are being dictated to by chance,” she says, “what you gravitate to and what catches your eye.”

Visiting Assistant Professor of English Thomas Devaney introduced the 2017 Frost Medalist with great excitement and ardor. “Howe’s work is a testament of a deep indebtedness, and she honors her forbearers as an artist by finding a way to go in her own direction,” he said. Devaney invited Howe to campus for a visit that coincided with his students’ own interaction with her works in his creative writing workshop and contemporary poetry classes.

“I wanted the students to hear one of the most eminent voices in contemporary American letters,” he said. “Layered and open, Howe’s work draws on primary documents and history, remixing quotes and images in striking new ways.”

A crucial facet of her writing style is the visual aspect of her poetry and physical awareness of what’s happening; every letter has its own compelling visual and sonic force. There is a distinct acoustic effect prevalent in each of Howe’s poems, and she emphasizes the articulation and enunciation of every syllable. The title of her book Debths is such an example. Howe’s voice had an emotive effect on the room, stirring the audience as she read poems such as “Tom Tit Tot.”

“Listening to it from the author’s voice is really interesting, and it makes you rethink how you read the poetry, also,” said Elizabeth Hoo BMC ’20 after the reading. “When we read poetry, we add our own voices. To hear how it’s supposed to be read by the author adds her own intention.”

Howe also spoke with a small group of students in Devaney’s creative writing class in Woodside Cottage the following afternoon. She offered advice to the students and answered questions concerning her writing process.

“You can tell she has a million thoughts about everything you ask her,” says Jo Kravits ’21. “You can almost see her thought process.”

The glimpse into the life of a poet was warmly received by Devaney’s students, who noted that they could tell that Howe herself is thrilled and honored to be in her line of work. “It’s not a profession,” she said of poetry. “It is a calling, between you and the word, and your internal paramour and the readers you have read.”

Although readings of her poetry will differ, one thing is for sure: Howe is a revolutionary contemporary poet, and a force to be reckoned with.

-Caroline Ford ’21

Photo by Lev Greenstein ’20.