Sunday, December 27, 2009

[ Howe and the idea of the archive ]

Susan Howe: "I am drawn toward the disciplines of history and literary criticism but in the dawning distance a dark wall of rule supports the structure of every letter, record, transcript: every proof of authority and power. I know records are compiled by winners, and scholarship is in collusion with Civil Government. I know this and go on searching for some trace of love's infolding through all the paper in all the libraries I come to." This is a deeply skeptical view of historical knowledge, but Howe doesn't follow it to its bleak anti-historical conclusion--that history is nothing more than the inescapable expression of a while to power. Instead, she undertakes reconnaissance missions in language and history.

For Howe the archive can function, as Libby Rifkin has put it, as "extensions and even instruments" of "writerly agency."

For Howe "the manuscripts of Emily Dickinson represent a contradiction to canonical social power" (The Birthmark, p. 1).

In "Towards a Poetics of the Archive," Paul Voss and Marta Werner write: "The archive's dream of perfect order is disturbed by the nightmare of its random, heterogeneous, and often unruly contents."

Margins are important to Howe. Marginalia is a site of literary wilderness for her. She notes that "margins shelter the inapprehensible Imaginary of poetry." It is in the archival margin that the author being read engages in "a conversation with the dead" authors he or she is reading. In "Melville's Marginalia," she writes: "I thought one way to write about a loved author would be to follow what trails he follows through words of others."

Howe often reminds us that she is not a critic and not a trained scholar, suggesting that she has "trespassed" into academic disciplines not the purview of the poet.

"If you are a woman," Howe writes, "archives hold perpetual ironies. Because the gaps and silences are where you find yourself."

"I go to libraries because they are the ocean." (The Birthmark, p. 18)

Derived from Stephen Collis, "Archival Tactics and the Poet-Scholar: Susan Howe and Charles Olson"

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