Susan Howe

Language VOL II: _Eikon Basilike_ and the Lyric Subject

For my final plateau, I would like to revisit Eikon Basilike’s relationship to subjectivity, having now made it through the six plateaus of this section. I realize at this point that my earliest observations about Howe’s complex relationship to subjectivity ignore one important element of this text: that it patently refuses to withdraw its subjectivity, its lyric “I,” even as it clearly works to dismantle the structures of language and authority that make that lyric subject possible. In this way, the text demonstrates a discomfort with the ways that language would seek to govern subjectivity, but also a refusal to withdraw that subjectivity lest the text merely reinforce a worldview in which the subject is not understood as a linguistic construct. For scholar Uta Gossman, this entails in Eikon Basilike a working-backwards, a kind of anarchoprimitivist politic that resists what she sees as language’s increasing ability to govern us as subjects. She writes, “[r]eversing the evolution of language also implies going back to a world less dissected, analyzed, and categorized by language that the increasing verbalization of culture has entailed over time” (105). I would argue, though, that this progressivist rhetoric mischaracterizes Howe’s poetic project in Eikon Basilike. Instead, Howe endeavours not to turn back an apparent “verbalization” of society, but rather to force herself into the structures of history and authority, both necessarily grounded in language. She thus refuses to be explained away by these structures, asserting the subjective experience of constructing a text rather than allowing textual production to dematerialize, allowing language to function as though it were a natural process.

And, though I am loath to admit it, probably the best way of thinking about the problematic of the asserted self in Eikon Basilike is through the scholarship of Marjorie Perloff and her engagements with Howe as a Language poet. It has been well-established that Howe’s inclusion in the Language school is strained to say the least. But, in “Avant-Garde Tradition and the Individual Talent: The Case of Language Poetry,” Perloff makes the argument for Howe’s inclusion by virtue of what she describes as the four main concerns of Language poetry: 1) that all poetry is constructed, 2) that Language poetry rejects the “referential fallacy,” 3) that Language poetry relinquishes authorial control, and 4) that Language poetry contains no direct communication of information (128). In my research I have called these the Four Pillars of Language Poetry, poking fun at the bizarrely dogmatic way in which Perloff characterizes the Language tradition. She also posits that Language poetry is always rooted in modernism (133), which might help to explain why my project keeps turning back to Gertrude Stein. It is clear, though, from my own studies of Howe here that she seems to abide by these Four Pillars. And yet elsewhere in Perloff’s scholarship she argues that Howe’s work actually walks a line between a Language poetics and a more traditional lyric sensibility, despite the fact that Howe’s detractors frequently argue that her “cryptic” writing necessarily prevents the expressivity one typically wants from the lyric (“Language Poetry and the Lyric Subject” 426). Howe is both concerned with the constructed nature of the Language poem and interested in interrogating a lyric self, partially, Perloff argues, because she occupies a different position than the heterosexual white men that dominate the Language tradition: “Howe’s ‘I’—female, maverick, only half New England Blueblood—is much less of an insider, much more self-conscious about her particular origins” (430). Therefore, Perloff argues that Howe “rarely speaks in her own person … preferring the voice of the chronicler … and the voices of others” (430-1). What this means for us is that we must understand Howe’s critique of history and authority as one grounded in forcing the individual subject back into structures that would be impersonal (sleeping in the library, as it were).

This is the primary concern of Ming-Qian Ma in “Poetry as History Revised,” in which the scholar reads Perloff as arguing that Howe impinges biography on the lyric consciousness (719). Ma expands on Perloff’s arguments, insisting instead that Howe fuses history and fiction together in order to expose that divide as artificial (717). For Ma, the absent centre king in Eikon is both authority and the origin of meaning, as Howe famously asserts in the Talisman interview. Thus, Ma posits that in writing—though she here is referring specifically to another of Howe’s long poems, “Scattering Behaviour Toward Risk”—the poet has a “perceptional meeting” with literary and recorded history (720), rather than simply a chronicling as Perloff’s rhetoric may suggest. What’s more, for Ma this is necessarily a feminist position. “History is seen by the poet,” she continues, “as a series of reoccurring vengeances initiated from patriarchal perspectives and inflicted upon a woman not for what she has done but for what she is” (728-9). By collapsing the artificial divide between history and fiction, Howe demonstrates a now commonplace understanding of history as simply a story that gains credibility through its repetition (729). It is here that I would like to suggest, too, that in this interest Howe’s work intersects with Derrida’s again, as this mistrust in the logocentric truth behind writing (and its ability to be conveyed by a writing subject) is central to deconstruction. As Derrida famously writes in the “Plato’s Pharmacy” chapter of Disseminations:

The truth of writing, that is, as we shall see, (the) nontruth, cannot be discovered in ourselves by ourselves. And it is not the object of a science, only of a history that is recited, a fable that is repeated. The link between writing and myth becomes clearer, as does its opposition to knowledge, notably the knowledge one seeks in oneself, by oneself. (1838)

It follows, then, that rather than attempting to articulate a history that would be somehow external to the logocentrism on which the very notion of history is built, Howe’s poetic project is one that insists on inserting or reinserting the personal into the narratives of history.

Keeping both Perloff’s and Ma’s comments in mind, we must thus read Howe’s tendency towards an embodiment poetics, as I describe in plateau four of the Howe section, as one in line in some ways with the Language poetics put forth by Charles Bernstein in his verse essay, “Artifice of Absorption.” In this manifesto, Bernstein argues that the primary goal of the Language poem is to work to destroy “utilitarian & / essentialist ideas about meaning” (18), which is to say that the Language poem is not concerned with expressivity or with encoding a meaning that will ultimately be decoded by a reader or critic. Rather, the telos of the Language poem is “[n]ot to describe or incant but to be / the thing described” (25, emph. mine). In this poetics, authorial identity in poetry, of which the lyric subject is just one manifestation, must be understood not simply as a reflection of monadic identification, but also potentially as a refusal to be absorbed, thus functioning as alternative and resistance (20). In Bernstein’s terms, absorption (the refusal of artifice, the acceptance of dematerialization of the writing process as the telos of language) functions as an ideological state apparatus, and thus the use of artifice or impermeability (29) to oppose or resist or refuse this absorption is an ideological or political act (53). In this light, we must read Howe’s poetics of embodiment as concrete in some ways, but in her insistence on literally embodying the lyric subject into his disjointed text, Howe employs those elements of a Language poetics that she finds salient. What’s more, because of Ma’s insistence on the feminine and feminist impetus behind Howe’s insertion of the personal into the historical, we must read Eikon Basilike’s almost overwhelming repetition of the lyric “I” as indicative of Howe’s larger feminist project of scepticism towards the eradication of the authorial persona altogether. As she famously stated in an interview, which I quote in my introduction, the refusal of authorial control is “alluring—but problematic for women writing/reading poems” (Guthrie).

To support all of this theorizing, I would like to spend my final moments on Howe looking to the many manifestations of the first-person pronoun in Eikon Basilike. What I would like to assert here is that despite Howe’s tenuous allegiance to Language poetry, the lyric “I” is actually not as removed from this text as my first plateau might have suggested. In fact, “I” is everywhere! For example, the lyric “I” that sleeps in the library in my previous plateau seems to appear on nearly every page of the text, most often in statements of identity or intent. For example, the previously-discussed mirrored pages include “I” twice each: “that I hide” and “I am weary of life” (56-7). They also contain the exclamatory “O make me / of Joy.” Other appearances of the “I” are as follows: “I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown” (59); “Side of space I must cross” (61); “I am a seeker” (twice) and “Tell you my author / I knew his hand” (64); “Saying so I name nobody” (66); “I am afraid of him [Milton]” (71); and both “I saw madness of the world” and “I feared the fall of my child” (74). Strikingly, these examples both suggest intent or identity, as I have suggested, as well as an absence, a negativity, or an instability. The personal pronoun also appears a number of times in the lengthy references to Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield towards the text’s end: first, “‘I Become Friendly with Mr. Dick” (77), and then the “I” appears ten times in the Dickens quotation on page eighty-one. Here the authorial representation of the lyric subject is obviously thwarted by the clear Dickens allusion.

But, I am especially interested in the fact that the “I” appears in various other, not signifying, instances throughout the text; if I am to insist on the visual and material importance of textual disruptions, I must similarly read these appearances of the shape of the “I” as gestures toward an imposingly asserted subjectivity. Some of these are as simple as the seemingly random appearance of “Brazen Wall I” (54), a clear image of artifice. Some are admittedly stretches in my own reading practice, as in “1 blank leaf” (68), an example that, for me, almost immediately recalls E. E. Cummings’s poem that meditates of the 1/I, and the dual-meanings of “leaf,” “l(a.” But, of course, the most important of these examples is the fact that the letter “I” appears over and over again in the text in “Charles I,” whose designation provides Howe with the ability to repeatedly insert a subjectivity into the text without relying too heavily on the presence of a lyric subject. On page eighty, the link between this king, the process of writing and producing bibliographies, as well as the construction of history, are all brought to the fore in the imposingly capitalized lines: “K CHARL | WORKS | VOL I / K CHARLE | WORKS | VOL II.” With both the use of the capitalized “I” and the vertical bar—which is used in programming to denote the logical term “or”—the presence of the subject punctuates the incomplete names and volumes. Rather than refusing subjectivity, as I might have believed earlier, it seems to be that Eikon Basilike almost obsessively inserts the “I” into a history made porous and unstable.

One thought on “Language VOL II: _Eikon Basilike_ and the Lyric Subject

  1. I really like the way you’ve argued against yourself in this plateau. I think that is a useful stance, particularly when dealing with texts like Howe’s.

    Forgive my very poor memory, but do you address Howe’s use of a male monarch (notably an absent/present male monarch) in your other plateaus? That seems relevant when you turn to viewing her work in terms of the “I” (the same goes for Dickens, etc., too).

    Overall, I think the plateau works very well. I do have a few questions/challenges, though:

    I can’t quite parse this sentence: “She thus refuses to be explained away by these structures, asserting the subjective experience of constructing a text rather than allowing textual production to dematerialize, allowing language to function as though it were a natural process.” Could you clarify?

    I don’t have Perloff’s essay with me at the moment, so I can’t say if my objections are towards her essay or towards your summary of her points–but, these points are pretty contentious, aren’t they: “3) that Language poetry relinquishes authorial control, and 4) that Language poetry contains no direct communication of information”? You seem willing to go along with them, which surprises me a bit. My challenges: is it a “relinquishing” of control, or merely a lessening of control (these are still created, manipulative texts, after all); and, as for #4, it’s hard to know where to begin–what is “direct communication of information” in a written/linguistic text? What is “information” and why aren’t Language poets (and Howe specifically) communicating it “directly”? At first glance, the points you mention seem valid, but I think they’re really castles built on sand (they seem sound, but the foundations aren’t solid). Perhaps you can clarify your/Perloff’s points around these issues?

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