In fall 2012 Fanny Howe joined UMass Boston’s Creative Writing Program as its inaugural visiting writer. A major American poet and novelist, Howe is widely regarded as one of the most important writers of our times. She has published over twenty volumes of poetry, twelve works of fiction, six books for young adults, and two memoirs. For her contribution to poetry, Howe has been awarded the Ruth Lilly Prize, as well as the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, awarded annually by The Nation to honor an artist whose work supports “the arts and the cause of world peace.”
Howe’s childhood was spent not in the shadow of peace, but of war, in the Cambridge of 1940s, that was, according to Howe, very much “a man’s world, even with many men away in the war.” With her father away, Howe had not one but two strong women role models in her protective and talented older sister, the poet Susan Howe, and her mother, Mary Manning, a novelist and a playwright who founded the Poets’ Theater and produced the plays of W. B. Yeats, Frank O’Hara, and John Ashbery. Watching her mother rehearsing with the poets even as blackouts darkened their railroad apartment, even as news of war colored everything around them, left an indelible mark on Howe. It taught Howe to train her eye on life lived in the shadows, not with trepidation but with boldness, defiance and creativity, all qualities one can find in Howe’s prose.
After the end of the war, her father returned to teaching constitutional law at Harvard University. In the 1960s, Mark DeWolfe Howe was defending civil rights, trying cases and explaining civil liberties to Howe who “became his sidekick in various campaign activities.” By this time Howe was in her mid-twenties and had published in 1967, at the age of 27, her first collection of short stories and was heralded by The New York Times as “an exciting and promising writer.”
Her civil rights activism alongside her father got her interested in the question of race in America, and in 1968, Howe married the African-American writer Carl Senna, a year after interracial marriages were declared legal. The union was celebrated in the newspapers as ushering in a new future for America’s race relations. The marriage ended in divorce in 1978, but “colored” Howe forever. “With my children,” Howe explained in a radio interview in 2004, “I felt I became black; and my interior life is now fully identified with people on another side of history than the one I was raised in.” Identifying with her racial other has helped Howe to more easily question her privileges, but without losing sight of the radical politics she inherited from her activist father.
If Howe received a strong sense of racial justice from her father, she inherited a fiercely feminist outlook from her artistic mother. Consequently, Howe is also recognized to belong to a small group of avant-garde feminist writers who were writing against the masculine vein of writers such as Mailer, Roth, and Hemingway. Her vantage point as a female writer, she explains in an interview published in Bomb in 2013, is the opposite of the one occupied by male writers of the early 19th century, such as Tolstoy, who looked down at the world as God would. And while this perspective accords the male writer the privilege of a spokesman, giving voice to the anxieties of his historical moment, the woman writer finds herself grappling with a very different problem. “A woman’s problem,” explains Howe, “IS men!”
Interestingly, this perspective of looking up from under affords Howe an optimistic view of fiction and the world. “There is a revolution taking place right now in sexuality and power relationships,” she explains in the Bomb interview, “[and] critical consciousness will have to come from bodies we don’t even know exist yet.” She imagines the world is like a child that “we never dreamed we would have…We are responsible for the child but we don’t know how it feels about us. Half the story is missing.” For the missing half of the story, Howe looks to children, her biological and invented ones, and to the younger generation of writers.
Her prose style beautifully parallels her ideology of the infinity of stories and her decisive act to refuse overarching narratives. While, according to critic Joshua Glenn her novels offer a rich social history of Boston in the 1960s and 70s, her prose rejects the rigidities of plot and abandons linear narrative in favor of diversions, digressions, and impressionistic characterizations in the fashion of Virginia Woolf. She constantly interrupts her narrative with poetry of her own or one of the greats, as if the certainty of prose is something to be deconstructed, constantly challenged. By doing this Howe creates a unique kind of prose that “shatters into poetry.”
That is why it is difficult to draw easy conclusions from Howe’s novels, and perhaps also the reason why she turns more often to poetry. It is poetry through which she captures the simultaneous complexity and beauty of our world. Her poetry affords the reader the glimpse of “a life … inhabited intensely and lovingly,” according to a statement made by the Poetry Foundation that goes on to say: “her poetry is marked by the pressures of history and culture, yet [is] defiantly, transcendently lyrical.” The Poetry Foundation anoints Howe as a “demanding and deeply rewarding artist whose body of work seems larger, stranger, and more permanent with each new book she publishes.”
In her own words, Howe endeavors to “describe radiance—a preserved radiance—and to show that there is an invisible ‘elseness’ to everything. You go on because of it, but it’s the thing you can’t quite see.” In pursuit of this “elseness” and of “the thing you can’t quite see,” she consults American and European writers, world literature, theology, Catholicism and mysticism, and invents a new form, mixing prose and poetry. It is this new form that she wishes to bequeath to the younger generation of writers: a new way to think about stories, or simply put, a new way to think.
In the graduate workshop Howe taught at UMass Boston in fall 2012, she brought to every lecture a sweet treat, Swedish Fish, or a packet of butter biscuits, and a printout of an essay or a poem by one of 20th century’s greats. Once she read her class The Storyteller by Walter Benjamin; another time she read a poem by Rimbaud. “As writers we must always be aware of the politics of our times,” she said to her class. “And, we must make time for beauty.” Because even though people have glimmers of beauty, they don’t have time to study it. “To make time to study beauty,” Howe says, is “the responsibility of artists and writers.” Her works of poetry, fiction, and essays, as her life, are a testament to this important task.