A Poet of Found Language Who Finds Her Language in Archives

“One must cross the threshold heart of words,” Susan Howe writes early in her new book, “Concordance,” an appealingly jagged sequence of collage poems. The “threshold heart,” for Howe, is a kind of echo chamber where sound dazzles the inner ear and resonance dances with meaning. To invite us into this complex space, Howe populates the pages of her new book with sliced texts and textures, pasting down items as varied as draft letters, the preface to Oliver Wendell Holmes’s “Common Law” and (yes) concordances. These collages invite readers into protracted encounters with scraps. Some of the book’s pages are just glued together slivers of dislodged indexes. This is not to say they are not also delightful.

Howe, a Bollingen Prize-winning poet whose career spans 45 years and whose work has been grouped among the language poets, has an abiding fascination with histories, archives and ghosts. “Concordance” appears alongside a rerelease of Howe’s much-admired 2014 book “Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives,” a critical book of complementary fascinations, scraps and glued-down tatters. To enter either book — one poetry, the other criticism, though in Howe’s hands these cousins share shaggy features — is to suspend oneself in a conversation about meaning, about how texts allow us to find it. “Concordance” requires readers to channel their inner bookworm or hungry archivist, the tender scholar for whom typefaces, fonts, ink stains and marginalia create an ardent flutter. Utility is beside the point. Of what use now the concordance, that elaborate alphabetical list that helps scholars illuminate a word’s frequency in a deeply studied text? To whom and for what is this painstaking and antiquated piece of work useful, especially in the era of Google word clouds and computational linguistic analyses? Howe wants us first to be the kinds of readers who swoon as much for the yellowing paper and the dated stamps as for the content of the letter itself…

Read this New York Times piece by Red Hen author/poet Tess Taylor here!