The Quietist

Fanny Howe

1992 • 32 pp. • $9.00
ISBN: 9781882022120

Purchase from Small Press Distribution

The crux of Fanny Howe’s poetry is desire—a desire for justice, equality, and transcendence. In this light, Howe’s poetry may be seen as the modern inception of a medieval poetic and philosophical tradition in which Eros is an agent of inspiration that drives the poet and the poem deeper into metaphysical contemplations. (Howe herself suggests such a connection to this medieval tradition in the title of her book The Quietist…) Not that Howe’s poetry is purely “metaphysical” in nature and thereby overlooks the significant element of social critique– Eros also must be understood as the embodiment of sexual love. As such, love– as a gift from the gods and the testament of divine transcendence– brings an individual into the immediacy of social relations and into the implicit social demands that are part and parcel of human existence.

The Quietist is an extension of Howe’s desire for justice, social equality, and love…meditat[ing] upon the metaphysical aspects of existence manifest in the relationship of spirit and divine transcendence. The Quietist, in other words, is a longing for unmediated transcendence, which Howe foregrounds in the title of the book. In the essay “Weil Over Void,” Howe discusses in detail the Quietists, who were a Gnostic religious cult which adhered to the principles of poverty and silence:

The Quietists had a practice of lying utterly still and waiting to
discover what words rose from the void in their consciousness,
without an exertion of will. Like those who speak in tongues, they experiences ravings and messages from the deep. They were mystics
and anarchists. And in some cases they were poets.

The appeal of the Quietists for Howe is obvious: silence yields a stream of language that uncurls from the deep; and a relentless will and desire for transcendence as language brings the poem into being, as in the opening of The Quietist :

She saw four ways around the refuge.
Doves leading– each white & practical. A bit of gravel and
Shoes on the grass for foreign service.
The whole position was as if parked.
Statues smoked from leaves.
Little script on them. Words made voices
In their terminal search for content.–
For what’s contingent on the reason
For being in the world.
Less words, more sound.
Less nature, more words.

Opening unto itself, words and voices arise out of the deep– “words made voices”– and announce a search for content, which is the poem itself. The poem is the vehicle for and the manifestation of divine desire, within which the poem ebbs and flows. In its speaking, the poem affirms the possibilities of transcendence, and by doing so, hope is reclaimed and brought within the grasp of the human.

The force of desire in Howe’s poetry is manifest as the search for divinity as well as for hope, justice and love. As Howe’s poems remind us, the transcendent, love, and hope can be found in the world that surrounds us. Moreover, love manifests justice. In this regard, Howe’s poems are gifts of love that she offers to us so that we too may not “misinterpret the entire network of the earth” and lose sight of the implicit responsibilities of our own humanity.
—David W. Clippinger

Fanny Howe’s writing is a form of active, attentive waiting. Rather than forcing meaning, her scrupulous vigil opens a clearing in which spirit announces and enunciates itself. Not vaporous metaphysics, but process and struggle which lead to grace– “pure equilibrium amounting to enough.”
—Elaine Equi

The miraculous and the quotidian share similar phrases in these poems. Fanny Howe writes with the conviction that in order for the Word to be revealed it must first be a word, one fired in the crucible of social action and tenuous intimacies. She is preparing, through writing, for the arrival of a spirit greater than ourselves because inconceivable as ourselves.
—Michael Davidson


Fanny Howe (born 1940 in Boston, Massachusetts) is an American poet, novelist, and short story writer. She has written many novels in prose collection, and is the mother of novelist Danzy Senna. Her father was a lawyer and her Irish-born mother played in the Abbey Theatre of Dublin for some time. Howe is the recipient of the 2009 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, presented annually by the Poetry Foundation to a living U.S. poet whose lifetime accomplishments warrant extraordinary recognition. She is a sister of Susan Howe, also a poet. Howe has become (arguably) one of the most widely read of American experimental poets. She has also published several volumes of prose, including Lives of the Spirit/Glasstown: Where Something Got Broken (2005) and The Wedding Dress: Meditations on Word and Life (2003), a collection of essays. Several awards have been awarded to her, namely the 2001 Lenore Marshall and Poetry Prize, and the 2005 Griffin Poetry Prize. She is currently a professor emeritus of Writing and Literature at the University of California, San Diego. Poet Michael Palmer commented: “Fanny Howe employs a sometimes fierce, always passionate, spareness in her lifelong parsing of the exchange between matter and spirit. Her work displays as well a political urgency, that is to say, a profound concern for social justice and for the soundness and fate of the polis, the “city on a hill”. Writes Emerson, The poet is the sayer, the namer, and represents beauty. Here’s the luminous and incontrovertible proof.” Bewildered in Boston by Joshua Glenn states that “Fanny Howe isn’t part of the local literary canon. But her seven novels about interracial love and utopian dreaming offer a rich social history of Boston in the 1960s and ’70s.”