“My Susan Howe” or “Howe to Teach”

  • G. Matthew Jenkins


In the spring of 1999, I began teaching an advanced composition and literature course at Davenport College, a two-year vocational college in South Bend, Indiana. Although I had taught the course several times before, this time I subtitled it “Women and Literature,” mainly because most of the students whom I had been teaching at this college were women over thirty-five, returning to school either to get a job or improve their careers. At the tail end of an eleven-week syllabus that included Emily Dickinson and Susan Glaspell, I decided to try an experiment by ending the term with the poetry of Susan Howe. Many of my colleagues said I was crazy to try to teach that “arcane” stuff to such “under-prepared” students, but the results were far better than even I had hoped. Although I employed some very teacher-centered techniques, the success of teaching Howe’s The Nonconformist’s Memorial1 did not have much to do with me at all; it had more to do with trusting the premise and purpose that Language poetry itself purports: to involve the reader in the production of meaning.


Community College Student Advanced Composition Language Poetry Referential Meaning Freudian Psychoanalysis 
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  1. 1.
    Susan Howe, The Nonconformist’s Memorial (New York: New Directions, 1993).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    For a more academic discussion of syntax in language poetry, see George Hartley, Textual Politics: And the Language Poets (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1989). This book was essential to the crystallization of this classroom approach in my mind.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    See the introduction to “Thorow” entitled “Narrative in Non-Narrative” for another self-conscious example where Howe thwarts the expectations of narrative by interrupting it with fragmented pseudo-or nonnarrative. Susan Howe, Singularities (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1990), 41–42.Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    Susan Howe, Frame Structures: Early Poems 1974—1979 (New York: New Directions, 1996).Google Scholar
  5. 8.
    Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980); Revolution in Poetic Language (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984).Google Scholar
  6. 10.
    For a discussion of the relation of Kristeva’s work to Language poetry, see Megan Simpson, “Poetic Jouissance: The Subject-in-Process in American Women’s ‘Language-Oriented’ Poetry,” in Critical Studies on the Feminist Subject, ed. Giovanna Covi (Trento, Italy: Dipartimento di Scienze Filologiche e Storiche, Universita degli Studi di Trento, 1997), 185–208.Google Scholar

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© Joan Retallack and Juliana Spahr 2006

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  • G. Matthew Jenkins

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