The poet Fanny Howe, a slight, jittery woman of 59 years, visited the University of Chicago last Thursday and Friday, giving a reading the first day and a lecture on her philosophy of poetry the second. Preferring to sit on the edge of her seat at a cluttered table in Rosenwald Hall rather than stand at the nearby podium, Howe spoke to Friday’s audience like it was full of familiar faces. The winner of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 2009 for her lifetime of work delivered selections from what she called her “read-aloud” book.
Howe is best known for her politically and religiously charged poetry (though she has also published a few novels and is currently working on children’s books), but the UofC students and faculty that attended her lecture and discussion on Friday were more interested in Howe’s idea of “itinerant” poetry. Before reading each of her poems, Howe told the audience where it was written, the places ranging from Ireland to Russia, from California to her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she and her sister Susan Howe, also a poet, grew up. She was inspired to write by Celtic and Chinese poetry, and this is reflected in the dense yet terse character of her writing. Most of the poems she read produced a tension between humor and seriousness, and between mass experience and the individual mind. They are packed with allusions such as “predatory purgatory,” but are rarely erudite. The poet also put down her book for a while to screen a fifteen-minute video after her lecture in which she narrated a bleak, black-and-white animation created by her son.
But Howe’s work, though stark, is not usually so pessimistic; it is often humorous, and frequently provoked nervous laughter in the audience. Many in attendance seemed almost unnerved by the informality and calmness of such a famous poet. Howe claims not to care whether or not anyone reads her poetry, and her ambivalence towards her readership fits well with her independent demeanor: “The life of a poet,” Howe said, is “a life outside the law.”