Listen to Fanny Howe read “Scrape and Bell” for an introduction to her poetry and voice.
Fanny Howe is part of a long line of poets who care deeply about exploring how and where the inner life intersects with the outer world. That inner life is spiritual, emotional, introspective and contemplative, and intimately interwoven with the vagaries of the ever changing world. Howe doesn’t rest on our common assumptions regarding the permanence of personality. Exploring the dynamic relationship between the endlessly evolving state of mind we often label “the self” and the ever-changing world it constantly interacts with is implicitly at the center of many of Howe’s poems.
For Howe, like many of her predecessors, including William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich and others, this exploration must lead us to consider our relationship to the politics and social movements of our time, the living conditions of our fellow inhabitants on the planet, our responsibility toward them, and what this means regarding our spiritual life and how we view our actions and lives.
So it’s only natural that the search for inner, spiritual understanding in Howe’s poetry is inextricably linked to the self’s connections to others and the world. Because this relationship is fluid, the ground is ever-shifting for the speaker in her poems, and for her readers. Try as we might to hope otherwise, life and our responses to it are unpredictable, and so are Howe’s poems.
She tends to compose in what would typically be described as sequences of short interconnected poems, but they are not so much poetry sequences as sustained meditations, and they build and progress much as a prolonged mediations do: our minds rarely allow us to focus on one question or concern without bombarding us with other thoughts, memories, images, regrets and desires. Howe’s poems are no different.
If you expect a persistent, linear narrative from poems, you’ll be in for frequent surprises. Nor is she the author of surrealistic collages constructed out of free-associations. Howe’s poems ask more of their reader and their writer than such easy categorizations allow. This is only part of what makes time spent with them so worthwhile.
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