Susan Howe

(This review was published in The Poetry Project Newsletter, June 2000.)

Charles Sanders Peirce—the inventor of Pragmatism and one of the main thinkers behind symbolic logic—described himself as “exemplifying the experimentalist type.” Of his theories, he wrote that they were akin to “a ship on the open sea, with no one on board who understands the rules of navigation.” A navigation experiment that will never end, the mind is a vast sea in which perpetual inquiry yields perpetual mazes.

In her brief foreword to Peirce-Arrow (New Directions, 2000), Susan Howe writes that “there always was and always will be a secret affinity between symbolic logic and poetry.” Symbolic logic is a method of inquiry that makes use of an artificial language like calculus to provide insights into interconnections of thought that speech cannot reach. Such systems of logic reveal networks and patterns of inquiry that simply thinking about thinking, or writing about thinking, cannot access.

Howe, however, does not read Peirce for his method, nor does she use his method as a means of theorizing language. Rather, she sees symbolic logic as an investigative process akin to writing poetry, and in making this connection invented a unique method of inquiry. Howe’s method is an investigative poetics in which interconnections and conjunctions between words, thoughts, and ideas are linked through both logical and illogical associations. These associations yield complex maps of emotional and intellectual thought processes. Poetry is the illogical equivalent of symbolic logic. It uses the rationale of language irrationally, leading to associations through which systems of thought are articulated as they are being created.

Howe explored manuscripts in the Charles Sanders Peirce collection of Harvard University’s Houghton Library, and discovered in them the illogical side of this thinking. Silhouettes of men with long noses, pyramids of numbers, phrases repeated over and over again: for a pragmatist, Peirce’s manuscripts show a mind as irrational as it was rational. From this archival investigation, Howe researched Peirce’s rather chaotic and disorderly life: his scandalous marriage to a woman rumored to be a gypsy, his estrangement from the academy, the purchase and eventual decline of his estate.

Howe finds that the genius of Peirce’s ability to simultaneous engage logical and illogical states of mind is closely akin to her own process of thinking and writing. On the one hand, her poetry embraces the logic of association where language is foregrounded as a method of making links between seemingly arbitrary concepts and words. But simultaneously, the illogical and confusing mind-states of grief, loneliness, and loss are revealed as a lyric necessity. Her poetry thwarts the semiotics of words and their references, charting a course through the mind in which both emotion and intellect find the space to co-exist.

This is not always easy to follow. The book begins with Peirce and ends with Tristian and Isolt. On the way, it passes through Hector, Hecuba and Achilles; Meridith, Swinburn and Symmes; Peacock and Hume. Literary and scientific masterpieces are presented as fragments that reflect their sources with as much distortion as they reflect their authors. Howe has made an home in these sources, and through them she finds comfort. But more than this, Howe’s emphasis on archival fragments that have been dismissed as irrelevant maintains the possibility of human connections—and errors—that are cast away in a technological era.

The investigative method of Peirce-Arrow is a process which reveals the simultaneous logic and chaos of poetic consciousness. Language alone does not adequately articulate fears, desires, and pain. The brilliance of Susan Howe is that like Peirce she has put herself into the sea of inquiry, creating the maps as she sails (writes) along.

Comments are closed.