A word on prosody and Susan Howe

Over the past few weeks, I have been spending time with Susan Howe’s latest (and perhaps last) book, Debths. I am working on a review of it that I will send to a Real Venue—this is not that. Rather, fortuitously, two other books I’ve read or am currently reading have helped to frame my reading of Debths in an interesting way. This is about that.

Recently, I read The Poetics of the New American Poetry, a collection of essays and remarks laying out the background prosodic views of the poets included in The New American Poetry, 1945-1960. It is a fascinating volume, a document that captures the ferment that accompanied the flowering of the American free verse tradition. Recurring in that volume is a revolt against received form. Each poetic moment must find its own form, and should not be mutilated into the shape of a sonnet. Interestingly, this revolt had a distinctly irrationalist bent. Here, for instance, is Robert Duncan:

Form to the mind obsessed by convention, is significant in so far as it shows control. What has nor rime nor reason is a bogie that must be dismissed from the horizons of the mind. […] The reality of the world and men’s habits must be constricted to a realm—a court or a salon or a rationale—excluding whatever is feared. […] It is of the essence of the rationalist persuasion that we be protected, by the magic of what reasonable men agree is right, against unreasonable or upsetting information. […] [T]he rationalist aesthetic was an heroic effort to find balance against this admission of vertigo, against the swirl of a vastly increased vision of what man might be. (pp. 197, 199, 203)

Reason and order, embodied by the use of received poetic forms, are on this view reduced to protective measures against everything that threatens to disorient. As so often, this irrationalism eventuates in the myth of spontaneity: “first thought best thought,” as Ginsberg put it (p. 350).

I’ll admit: when I read this, it made me angry. Even when, after reading on and finding out what, exactly, Duncan was protesting and very much rightly protesting, I calmed down, still it struck me as a manifestly uncharitable, limiting view of the use of received forms: damning the many for the sins of a few. Free verse does not require irrationalism, and received form is more than a coward’s retreat. But…

But now I have begun reading Paul Fussell’s Theory of Prosody in Eighteenth-Century England. Fussell looks at the conservative prosodists of this time, who favored metrical regularity to such an extreme that Pound’s injunction not to compose “in the sequence of the metronome” seems less like a ridiculous straw man (what I had previously thought) than like a serious critique. Fussell provides examples in the first chapter of these prosodists “correcting” Milton and others for their irregularities. These corrections can only be described as howlers.

And how do these lovers of regularity justify themselves? Their defense was explicitly moralistic. The human mind is threatened by disorder and must discipline itself. This works itself out in different ways in different aspects of life. In poetry, it works itself out in the establishment of clear, fixed prosodic principles. Regularity is the sign of an ordered mind; irregularity the sign of a disordered mind. First regularity, then piety, to summarize Johnson’s praise of Gilbert Walmesley (Fussell, p. 43).

Now the poets of The New American Poetry were certainly not reacting against 18th century British prosodists. But the British prosodists answer so perfectly to the 20th century American’s caricature of their critics that I begin to wonder whether that caricature is not, in fact, a perfectly fair and accurate representation. I don’t know, but I’d no longer be surprised to find it so.

Where does this leave us? We have, on the one hand, a conservative prosody that emphasizes regularity on moral grounds as a bulwark against disorder and chaos. And we have, on the other hand, a liberal prosody that eschews regularity in an explicit attempt to welcome disorder and chaos, to stand before it unafraid.

Which brings me back to Susan Howe and Debths. At first glance, Howe seems clearly to be the descendant of the liberal tradition. Open Debths to a random page and you may see something like this:

Howe, Debths

There aren’t even full words, let alone regular recurrences of stress. Look further and the connections continue. Debths is published by New Directions, a company noteworthy for publishing a great many of the poets represented in The Poetics of the New American Poetry (off the top of my head, Pound, Williams, Ferlinghetti, Lorca, and I know there are plenty more). In more ways than one, then, she does fit into this tradition.

But, as I read Debths, I think the relation to order and disorder is different from the irrationalist embrace of chaos represented by Duncan. (In fairness to Duncan and the rest of his generation, their statements are more extreme than their practice. But I am going by their statements here.) Howe’s book comes to grips with the reality of the poet’s coming death (Howe is 80). We can think of organisms as temporary pockets of order in a world that trends toward disorder; on this conception, the organism that is Susan Howe is nearing the point of disintegration, of ceasing to be able to hold its own against disorder.

Debths exists at or around this very boundary between order and disorder. Connections can be traced throughout the work, they swirl in and out of consciousness, now apparent and graspable, now beyond our reach. The collage poems (“Tom Tit Tot” and “Debths”) feel like frayed thoughts, crowded by indistinct, marginal voices. There is order, but it is imperfect, and perilously maintained. A page like the one given above captures a moment of a near-total wane in order, yet even this waxing and waning has a rhythm of its own, which Howe captures.

What this means for the reader is that the reader must take a rationalist approach to the book: must seek out its order intellectually. This is not a book that can be felt intuitively. It must be puzzled over. And yet it is a world away from the moralistic drudgery of Johnson. Johnson loved regularity because it satisfied the mind’s expectation of order. Howe’s poem works by satisfying that expectation only intermittently, and otherwise frustrating it. Still, the frustration cannot exist without the expectation.



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