A poetics of listening: sound as distant diapason delight in the work of Susan Howe

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University of Alabama Libraries

Susan Howe is well known for her visual scatterings of text. This essay explores her early and late poetry's acoustic dimensions as framed by an attention to the "stutter" in American literature. Howe unlocks the wildness of history by displacing its sources and finding their hidden traces in manuscripts, letters, ephemera, and hushed voices appropriated by the "record of winners." While critics have directed our attention to visual prosodic disturbances enacted at the level of the page, I argue that a similar disruptive potential exists in the acoustic shape of Howe's words and syntactical arrangements. Using her own explicit references to Henry Thoreau, Jonathan Edwards, and Wallace Stevens, I examine Howe's affinity for an other mode of thinking that incorporates sensuous experience before (or in place of) a distillation of truth-content. In addition to these authors' approaches to sound, I explore the possibility of an aural shift from the rational primacy of the eye toward the sensibly various and fluctuating attentions in the ear. I provide some philosophical and phenomenological, as well as ethical, bases for welcoming such shifts. Through her collaborations with David Grubbs, Howe has extended her disruptive spatial productions into the temporal dimension of performance. Actively listening to Grubbs' processing techniques in conjunction with Howe's reading can reveal a bias in our attention to significant' sounds at the cost of (in)significant noise.' The essay concludes with some test cases of listening to the recordings of Thiefth, Souls of the Labadie Tract, and Frolic Architecture.

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