Sarah Howe is a British poet, academic and editor. Born in Hong Kong to an English father and Chinese mother, she moved to England as a child. Her poetry is precisely painted and aesthetically striking, often grappling with, and delighting in, problems of cultural identity and representation. Like Kei Miller’s explorations of hybridity and cross-cultural identities, Howe’s poetry is inventive, erudite and highly playful, engaging the reader with its passion for language’s intrigues and inadequacies. Howe’s first book Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus) was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for best first collection in 2015.
Sarah Howe studied for her BA, MPhil and PhD at the University of Cambridge, also spending a year as a Kennedy Scholar at Harvard. In her academic work, she has a particular interest in visual qualities in Renaissance literature and in the psychology of visual perception. Until 2015 she was a Research Fellow at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where she taught Renaissance literature. In 2015-16, she will be a Fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute. She is the founding editor of Prac Crit, an online journal of poetry and criticism.
Howe’s poetry is marked by a deep fascination with the ways in which poetic imagery enables human connection across geographical and cultural distance, and across time. Writing in the American journal Transom she says ‘When poetry succeeds in evoking that kind of bodily sensation in a reader – the crackle as you turn a page of vellum – that’s when you start to appreciate how writing might be a vessel for life and voice: writer and reader are sharing an experience, even if the former is long dead’.
Howe’s pamphlet, A Certain Chinese Encyclopedia (tall-lighthouse, 2009), won an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors. Her first full-length collection is Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus, 2015). A sequence of poems based on Jorge Luis Borges’ invented reference text ‘a certain Chinese encyclopaedia entitled The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge’ forms the backbone of the collection. Discussing this sequence in a piece for the Poetry Society website, Howe writes ‘Being half-Chinese half-English, I always felt Borges’s passage of wry Chinoiserie was somehow describing me’. While Borges playfully subverts the voice of the encyclopaedia, he also uses the imaginative space of the exotic ‘other’. Howe’s poetry powerfully reclaims and redefines this space, rooting her lyric adventures in tangible, lived experience. Her calm, knowledgeable voice doesn’t allow its own authority to be taken for granted; the mechanics of narrative, form and strategic enquiry – the poet’s ways of seeing – are often exposed and brought into question, as in ‘Sirens’, where the speaker rethinks her understanding of Roethke’s ‘Elegy for Jane’:
like at a put-off optician’s trip, when you realise
how long you’ve been seeing things wrongly.
I’d never noticed: in every stanza after the first,
Jane is a bird: wren or sparrow, skittery pigeon.
The wrong kind of pickerel! In my head, her
smile abruptly evolved . . .
The narrative poem ‘Tame’ takes its title from Borges’ classification and its epigraph from a Chinese proverb: ‘It is more profitable to raise geese than daughters’. The poem is a grimly beautiful study of the tradition of female infanticide, fusing elements of folktale and Greek myth to create a story that shocks us with its refusal of redemption. Both abused mother and rejected girl-child transform into elements of the natural landscape (lychee tree and goose), suggesting an imaginative, transcendent power:
her neck so far to mark the geese
wheeling through the clouded hills – it kept on stretching – till
it tapered in a beak. Her pink toes
sprouted webs and claws; her helpless arms found strength
in wings. The goose daughter
soared to join the arrowed skein . . .
But the goose daughter’s ‘obligation to return’ sees her fall prey to the story’s inescapable machinery, playing a part in her own destruction. The poem’s skilfully poised ending hints at power structures beyond the world of the story, drawing attention to the ways in which we continue to value and devalue human life.
The mother-daughter bond is central to many of the poems in Loop of Jade. The collection begins with a perusal of riches in ‘Mother’s Jewellery Box’ that introduces the book’s preoccupation with artefact and memory:
unfurl in tiers
careful o’s and a’s
With great formal ingenuity, the title poem ‘Loop of Jade’ intersperses a classical Chinese story (told by the mother) with more fragmented, imagistic recollection that deconstructs and unsettles the tale’s tidy narrative loop. The mother’s memories of her childhood are tangible and real, but at the same time distant and inaccessible to the speaker: ‘I can never know this place. Its scoop of rice in a chink-rimmed bowl, its daily thinning soup’. Speech – and language – is problematic. The word ‘mother’, in particular, is loaded with difficulty:
like watching her wade, one dredged step at a time, out into a wide grey strait – myself a waving spot, unseen, on the farthest shore.
Language – and, of course, poetry – becomes a means of intimate connection and, at the same time, a creator of distance and exile.
This inability to take language for granted is reflected in Howe’s concern with definition and wordplay, most notably in ‘Others’, which ponders an intercultural marriage:
and race, which has been a terrible pun.
and in ‘Having just broken the water pitcher’, which considers the subtle workings of Chinese Han script and the wordplay used to evade Chinese internet censors. Far away from the writer, ‘in some remote coal-mining district’, an imagined blogger marvels at language’s potential for subversion and complexity:
Crackdowns) sound exactly like breakable
porcelain. Done typing, he clicks Submit.
Recall the old monk’s koan, the correct
reply to Master Baizhang’s question:
His pupil kicked over the pitcher and left.
Here the pupil in the ancient koan story refuses to be bound by the power of an impossible question: what the water pitcher should be called, if not a water pitcher? Instead, he imposes a radical restructuring of the elements involved – with an imaginative power and risk that recalls Howe’s own skilled reframing of language and tradition.
In keeping with her fascination with the visual image, Howe’s poems are thick with painterly impressionism – as in the studied desire of ‘To all Laments and Purposes’:
a shadow world of clouds &
yews, another far orchard,
Like the work of John Ashbery and Jorie Graham, Sarah Howe’s poetry is highly concerned with its own construction and surfaces. But Howe’s humour, puns, elisions and ambiguities are never avoidance or retreat; all of her formal and linguistic powers are engaged in the serious business of bringing her truth more clearly into focus.
Discussing the British poetry scene in Transom, Howe complained ‘. . . we don’t seem to have enough really strong critics – voices that can show a generation of poets to itself, as well as to a wider public’. Her journal Prac Crit is a move towards facilitating a sharper and more deeply engaged mode of criticism. Individual poems are paired with responses, in the form of interviews and essays, encouraging both poets and readers to shed new light on the work.
Worrying at the subtle and complex workings of memory in ‘Crossing from Guangdong’ Howe writes:
Old stories tell that if we could only
get there, all distances would be erased.
Old stories, in Howe’s poetry, have a tendency to be fractured, unreliable, illusory, loaded with difficulty or loss. She offers us, as a counterpoint, a carefully constructed view that is self-consciously analytical and at the same time deeply emotionally engaged – her own, highly original, mind’s eye.
Loop of Jade, Chatto & Windus, London, 2015
A Certain Chinese Encyclopedia, tall-lighthouse, Luton, 2009
The Best British Poetry 2014, ed. Mark Ford, Salt, Cromer, 2014
Ten: The New Wave, ed. Karen McCarthy Woolf, Bloodaxe, Hexham, 2014
The Best British Poetry 2013, ed. Ahren Warner, Salt, Cromer, 2013
Dear World & Everyone in it: New Poetry in the UK, ed. Nathan Hamilton, Bloodaxe, Hexham, 2013
Howe’s own website
Howe’s online journal Prac Crit
Loop of Jade at Chatto & Windus
Interview at Transom
Howe on metaphor for Young Poets Network
Howe goes ‘Behind the Poem’ for The Poetry Review
Review of Loop of Jade in The Scotsman
Review of Loop of Jade on Dave Poems
Interview for The Poetry School
Essays on Howe’s literary travels through China, for Best American Poetry