Sunday, December 5, 2004


By Richard Howard

Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, $35, 428 pages


By Richard Howard

Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, $27, 384 pages


The poet, critic, translator, editor, and teacher, Richard Howard has celebrated his 75th birthday by bringing out two thick volumes of roughly 400-pages each: “Inner Voices,” a selection from the 12 books of verse he has published; and “Paper Trail,” a gathering of essays and reviews that span, like the poems, four decades.

No one in America is more experienced in the different fields in which he operates and no one has produced more steady and often adventurous work in them. As a translator, particularly of French writers, he stands in the top rank; by contrast, his poetry has been a relatively minority taste, and the new selection should remind readers of what they may have missed as one slim volume quietly succeeded another.

Some years back Mr. Howard brought out a large volume of introductions to the work of his American contemporaries in verse. “Alone with America” (1969) was generous — to a fault — with encomia, and also lavish, as Mr. Howard’s prose tends to be, in the vocabulary chosen to convey praise.

Inspection of the pieces in “Paper Trail” reveals that he won’t settle for an easy or familiar word if one more extraordinary can be produced. And produce them he does: hard ones like tmetic, enantiotropic, teratism, and pulsion; slightly easier ones like asymptotic, axiological, inspissated, opuscule, and enchridion. On the other hand he can and does write sentences whose impact is succinct and amusing, as when he calls the English novelist of the last century, Ivy Compton-Burnett, “the wittiest writer in English since Congreve and the meanest since Hobbes”; or when he notes what surely must be the case, that “reading five hundred haiku is to be nibbled to death by guppies.”

The prose pieces are arranged in sections, though with no introductory material to them or to the volume as a whole: poetry, French literature, the visual arts, prose, and a concluding set of 20 brief introductions to “new poets,” some of them by now well-known, others scarcely known at all. These introductions are so brief as to be forgettable, and any reader of this collection will pick and choose according to his interest.

This reader was disinclined to spend time with accounts of Michael Lekakis’ sculpture or Michel Delacroix’s paintings, or fiction by Alphonse Daudet and Claude Simon. If this serves merely to identify one’s Gallic limitations, there are good pieces on major figures Mr. Howard has translated like Stendhal, Andre Gide and Proust.

On occasion Mr. Howard’s prose can overreach itself, as when he calls Robert Mapplethorpe’s pictures “as crystalline in terms of their own art as the sonatas of Scarlatti or the last paintings of Mondrian, but as problematic, as imprecatory as any representation of the body I know.” What on earth is Scarlatti doing in such company? (Or Mapplethorpe, for that matter.)

The liveliest, most cogent piece in the collection, especially for the light it sheds on Mr. Howard’s own poetry, is titled “Sharing Secrets” and begins with a recollected moment after he has given a reading at Bard College. A young woman approaches and informs him that she doesn’t like his poems. The poet responds, amiably, that neither does he a lot of the time; but the woman persists: “I don’t like them because there’s too much history in them.”

This provokes Mr. Howard into reflections on the lack of “history” in many of his American contemporaries — of the absence of “subject” in figures such as John Ashbery, W.S. Merwin, and Mark Strand. In contrast to these “post-modernist practitioners of the art of forgetting,” Mr. Howard has dedicated his career as poet to acts of remembering and to the active presence of history in the poet’s mind.

History entered Mr. Howard’s poetry in 1969 when his third book of verse, “Untitled Subjects,” appeared. At a time when many American poets were showing their liberated egos or denouncing the Vietnam war, Mr. Howard gave us 15 poems, each of them spoken by different figures, mainly from the 19th century, from Walter Scott and John Ruskin to Oscar Wilde and the widow of William Morris.

Mr. Howard’s inventive brilliance in these poems consists in weaving anecdotes, bits of imagined conversation and gossip, into seamless and entirely credible narrative voices. In these poems Howard more than lived up to Ezra Pound’s injunction that poetry should be at least as well-written as prose.

Such a scrupulous attention to words may be illustrated by the final six lines of the last poem in “Untitled Subjects,” “1915: A Pre-Raphaelite Ending, London.” The speaker is Mrs. William Morris addressing her spinster daughter, May; the subject is a box of letters her dead husband left and which occasion various reflections and reminiscences on her part.

The narrative extends over 36 groups of six lines, not separated by the usual double space between stanzas, but each forming a distinct shape, incised as it were on the page. In the final six lines the mother pleads to her daughter to take care of the letters: “do as I say, save it all—/ the rest of the things are mere images, / not medieval—only middle-aged: / lifelike but lifeless, wonderful but dead./ These are mine. Save them./ I have nothing save them.”

Notable here is the expressiveness of the punctuation — its dashes, commas, and periods helping to summon up a passionate voice. And since all Mr. Howard’s subjects are granted at least some of his own formidably articulate powers, we may imagine “Janey” Morris capable of the play of similarity and opposition (medieval and middle-aged, “lifelike but lifeless”) as well as the culminating and very moving repetition, with a difference, of “save them.”

The inventive aplomb characterizing the 15 poems in “Untitled Subjects” (Mr. Howard’s regard for them may be measured by the fact that he includes 11 of them in the new collection, a larger percentage than from any of his other volumes) meant that further “development” in his skill as poet was moot. Only mediocrities develop, Oscar Wilde remarked, and Mr. Howard was already there.

He proceeded to discover and animate more “subjects,” and worked variations on a theme: the volume after “Untitled Subjects,” titled “Two-Part Inventions,” consisted of poems in which one subject answered another. At times Mr. Howard’s fluidity can feel like sheer gabbiness. One of the two-part inventions, “A Natural Death,” goes on for 17 pages; a later poem, “Oracles,” clocks in at an all-time Howard high of 21. The challenge issue to the reader is to keep up with minds and voices whose concerns occur on the wing as sudden, associative flights rather than spelled-out transitions. So on more than one occasion, the bar is raised too high.

His more recent volumes contain elegies to friends, some of them dead of AIDS (the critic David Kalstone receives a fine tribute). Mr. Howard himself is not shy about treating his own experiences as a homosexual, and in “Close Encounters of Another Kind” he writes a mordant and very funny poem that features “James Merrill, Terror of the Revels,” encountered at a triplex flat party of “gay men gorgeously dressed (and even gowned).”

He can also be funny and not the least mordant, as in “Our Spring Trip,” a letter from a fifth grader staying with his mates at the Taft Hotel in New York City and writing to his teacher back home (Mr. Howard’s poems are engagingly full of his own schooldays in Ohio), asking some large questions about the dinosaurs they have been viewing at the Museum of Natural History.

In fact Mr. Howard’s poetic oevure maybe thought of as a museum of various histories, selected and arranged by him so as to bring out their human foibles and poignancies. His poem “Writing Off” is in part a commentary on such an enterprise. It begins with a quote from the then poet laureate, Mark Strand — “In a field I am the absence of field” — and proceeds to correct this claim by lodging a counter one “that we are because we make / some sign of presence, all / that is signified by the marvellous / post-juridical compound / self-evident.”

The many selves Mr. Howard has given voice to in his poems may be thought of as a consequence of “too much history” that the woman at Bard found in them. There is indeed too much history for this poet not to respect and shape it into the forms of art.

William H. Pritchard is Henry Clay Folger professor of English at Amherst College, and is the author most recently of “Shelf Life: Literary Essays and Reviews.”

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