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  • “Eden or Ebb of the Sea”: Susan Howe’s Word Squares and Postlinear Poetics
  • Brian Reed

Instead of lines or stanzas, contemporary innovative poetry frequently relies on unfamiliar, often highly visual organizing principles. This essay argues that today’s “postlinear” poetries represent less a coherent movement or style, though, than a diverse set of inquiries into the interface between visual and verbal means of communication. To demonstrate the difficulties of generalizing about this heterogeneous phenomenon, this essay concentrates on accounting for the origins and function of one device, the word square, in the poetry of Susan Howe. Such a task requires that one examine Howe’s early career as an installation artist, her admiration of the painter of Agnes Martin, her apprenticeship to the concrete poet Ian Hamilton Finlay, and the abiding thematic role of the open ocean in her writing. The essay concludes with a brief comparison of Howe’s word squares to those employed by another writer, Myung Mi Kim, to illustrate the need for further, case-by-case analysis before critics can claim any reliable mapping of this new phase in the history of English-language verse. —br

In Poetry On & Off the Page (1998), Marjorie Perloff argues that the era of free verse may be drawing to a close. She examines recent work by a number of avant-garde poets—among them Caroline Bergvall, Karen Mac Cormack, Susan Howe, Maggie O’Sullivan, Joan Retallack, and Rosmarie Waldrop—and concludes that, whereas classic free verse depends on lineation to distinguish itself from prose, today’s “postlinear” poetry considers “the line” to be “a boundary, a confining border, a form of packaging” (157). This new species of verse freely violates longstanding literary conventions governing such aspects of page design as white space, punctuation, capitalization, font type, font size, margins, word spacing, and word placement. These experiments typically result in unusual “visual constructs” that impede, deflect, and otherwise coax readers’ eyes out of their habitual, left-to-right, top-to-bottom progress through a text (160). The predictable “flow” of the old free verse line thereby gives way to a “multi-dimensional” field of unexpected movements, arrests, connections, and disjunctions (160–63).

Perloff hesitates over how to define this emergent poetic sensibility. “I have no name for this new form,” she confesses. The “new exploratory poetry [...] does not want to be labelized or categorized” (166). The individual works that Perloff examines vary so greatly in page layout—some resembling shaped prose, some Futurist words-in-freedom, some advertising copy—that it would be hard indeed to find shared identifying traits such as the left-justified and right-ragged margins that typify most twentieth-century free verse.

This formal diversity signals more than the breakdown of the old paradigm for verse-writing. Postlinear poets have begun inquiring into what W.J.T. Mitchell calls the “image-text,” that is, the “whole ensemble of relations” between the visual and verbal (89). Moreover, as Mitchell alerts us, the “study of image-text relations” is far from a straightforward endeavor. Rarely do “image” and “text” work together in perfectly coordinated fashion. On the contrary, “difference is just as important as similarity, antagonism as crucial as collaboration, dissonance and division of labor as interesting as harmony and blending of function” (89–90). Postlinear poets revel in this ambiguity. They have recast their writing as a “composite art” that hybridizes “sensory and cognitive modes” while also “deconstructing the possibility of a pure image or pure text” (95).

If some poets have thereby discovered liberating possibilities for self-expression, literary critics, in contrast, have been presented with a new challenge. Postlinear poetry presents in miniature a dilemma that Mitchell considers inherent to the problem of “the image-text.” He argues that there is no “metalanguage” available or possible that could enable critics to speak confidently, synoptically, and transhistorically about the interface between the verbal and the visual (83). Almost every artistic exploration of that interzone proceeds differently toward noncoincident ends. In response, critics have had to insist on “literalness and materiality” in their analyses instead of resorting to too-abstract or falsely generalizing statements (90). They have had to “approach language as a medium rather...

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