The Nonconformist’s Memorial
The Nonconformist's Memorial is a gathering of four long sequences that underscores Susan Howe's reputation as one of the leading experimentalists writing today. Howe is a poet of language in history whose work resonates back through Melville, Dickinson, and Shelley to the seventeenth-century Metaphysicals and Puritans (the nonconformism of the title), and forward again to T.S. Eliot and the abstract expressionists. The sequences fall into two sections, "Turning" and "Conversion", in half-ironic nonconforming counterpoint to Eliot's Four Quartets. Her collaging and mirror-imaging of words are concretions of verbal static, visual meditations on what can and cannot be said. For Howe, "Melville's Marginalia" is the essential poem in the collection, an approach to an elusive and allusive mind through Melville's own reading and the notations in his library books. This, says Howe, is "Language a wood for thought".
A New Englander herself, Susan Howe's work resonates with the voices of founding New Englanders, whose texts she often quotes at great length. Though her father was a Harvard professor, Howe made the radical decision not to attend college. Because she was the only graduate of Beaver County Day School not to pursue a college degree, the decision was considered subversive by her community. Howe's mother was an actress from Ireland, and thus Howe chose to apprentice at the Gate Theater in Dublin. Later, her work would become known for its marriage of the theatricality of her mother's profession and the historic grounding of her New England father. Failing as an actress, Howe turned to the visual arts, graduating in 1961 with a degree in painting from the Boston Museum School. Themes that would later become manifest in her poems were present in her visual art, such as her use of collage, and the rendering of images from other paintings onto her own canvas. When Howe began working in the medium of book arts, her use of words as visual elements directly led her to the composition of poetry. Howe's work retains something of her experience as a visual artist: the spatial relationship of words on the page bears a meaning in conjunction with the actual sense of her words and sentences themselves. With the publication of HINGE PICTURE in 1974, Howe became closely associated with the group of experimental poets known as the language school. Her poetry has maintained this spirit of experimentation throughout her career, and even her critical writings, including MY EMILY DICKINSON, which won a Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award in 1987, are unconventional works of scholarship, lyrically combining poetry, history, and literary history into a single, experimental genre. Though Howe had no academy training in poetry, in 1988 she became a vastly influential professor of English at SUNY-Buffalo, academic headquarters of experimental verse in America. Though Howe's work is at the forefront of the American avant-garde, the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, and former fellow of the Stanford Institute of the Humanities, she has been embraced by mainstream poetics. Formally recognized as an authority of American poetry, in 2000 she was elected to the Board of Chancellors, the advisory body of the Academy of American Poets.