Howes, Barbara 1914–
Howes is an American poet, short story writer, essayist, translator, and editor. Citing poetry as a central means of ordering experience, she creates poems elegant in their clarity and formal structure. A sense of place permeates Howes's work, giving color to the recurrent themes of love and personal attachments. She has collaborated with her husband, poet William Jay Smith. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
[Barbara Howes] says that
Ascetic for life's sake,
Honest and passionate,
It is, and yet she herself achieves it admirably often [in "In the Cold Country"], writing with that scruple and precision which is the best proof of passion. Her balance deserts her, I think, only in the lesser satirical pieces, where disapproval can sometimes weaken into mere loathing. Elsewhere, in lyrics exceptionally varied in tone and matter, there is a blending of full sensibility with the New England taste for no nonsense….
[Her poems] work best at a slight remove from the personal. Accordingly, her best study of love is "The New Leda," a finely constructed poem about nuns; and her best celebration of love, "On a Bougainvillaea Vine at the Summer Palace," is an account of lizard-amours. Her translations from Valery and from Marceline Desbordes-Valmore are quite perfect, and suffice to place their author, clearly one of our foremost woman poets, at once in the first rank of modern translators.
Richard Wilbur, "Urgency and Artifice," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1954 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 4, 1954, p. 12.∗
["In the Cold Country"] announces the most accomplished woman poet of the youngest writing generation—one who has found her own voice, chosen her own material, and worked out her own form. Miss Howes is daring with language, but she is also accurate. Her originality stands in constant close reference to the material in hand, and although much of that material is fantastic or exotic, it is never so simply for its own sake. Her diction becomes more exact the more it is applied to certain dissolving effects in nature that attract her, and her poems are full of movement. She can unfold a landscape, or plunge through ordinary surfaces, as in her delightful poem "The Undersea Farmer." Her connoisseurship, always evident, is of an active kind that illuminates instead of merely skimming over this subject or that. In addition she has strong, positive emotions that continually resolve into a major key. Here watching a cultivated sense of tradition work through modern attitudes and techniques, we sense the possibility of a new reconciliation in modern verse, for so long filled with division and dissent. (p. 135)
Louise Bogan, "Verse: 'In the Cold Country'," in The New Yorker (© 1954 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XXX, No. 16, June 5, 1954, pp. 133-35.
[I] find Miss Howes a very exciting writer. It is true that she, like [Wallace] Stevens sometimes, is too ready to rest back on the sheer, rich, subtle "texture" of her writing, and that at its worst her poetry can be merely perverse ornamentation, but at her best—and a large part of this book is her best—the very indirection of her style contributes to her meaning. Her most considerable power is in her control over language. In "Danae," for example, she refers to the "martins flying in concert" as a "breathing shape hung on the air." "Breathing" is both brilliantly original and brilliantly accurate. But the rhetorical unit is still the poem rather than the phrase…. Sometimes, too, she will circle around her subject, extracting associations from it in a seemingly random manner: but it only seems random. For the effect of a poem she places much more dependence on the suggestiveness of language than, say, [James] Wright or [Louis] Simpson does; but her writing is still a rational poetry rather than the poetry of broken suggestiveness that we have had from Eliot and Pound. Her method is one of oblique precision. One of her finest poems is "Light and Dark," which actually has a simple sense: it is a momento mori. But by virtue of its beautifully sustained ominous tone it succeeds in being a very complex piece of work.
That beckoning host ahead
Inn-keeper Death, has but to lift his hat
To topple the oldster in the dust …
Who would have thought it possible to use the word "oldster" in combination with the medieval personification of death as innkeeper? That she does use it so, and uses it well, is a tribute to her stealthy control not only over the separate lines but over the poem as a whole. (pp. 300-01)
Thom Gunn, "Excellence and Variety," in The Yale Review (© 1958 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. XLIX, No. 2, December, 1959, pp. 295-304.∗
Like the title, most of [Looking Up at Leaves] is cool and quiet; it would be possible to drift along through it without fully realizing the vistas offered…. But much is happening. Most impressively there is a steady realization of the metaphorical potential in ordinary surroundings. The reader encounters a series of limited engagements with representative experiences having a widening implication…. (pp. 270-71)
The book is divided, the first part containing poems with a Caribbean setting and the rest relating to New England; but throughout, the sequences turn into a trancelike pursuit of a centrality established by tone and implication: just as the sentences can swim and skate, so the consciousness behind them can move easily and establish a balance and readiness. Sometimes, though rarely, the subjects can be serious and even menacing …, but even in such poems the author's encounter is characteristic of ballet or fencing rather than the more stark engagements often cultivated, these days. Tragedies are distanced….
It should be said that scenes or narratives, or occasional lunges of fantasy … succeed more impressively than the few poems of asserted wisdom…. But balance and comprehension mark the whole book. Its great distinction is its exactness, its tempered confronting of events or experiences which more strident voices have sentimentalized by exaggerated toughness. Whole congresses of irony appear quietly, as people are kindly presented and yet coolly characterized,… while the writer conducts herself with the confidence indicated by one of her deft phrases, "sidesaddle on the ocean." (p. 271)
William Stafford, "Sidesaddle on the Ocean," in Poetry (© 1967 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CIX, No. 4, January, 1967, pp. 270-71.
Robert B. Shaw
[The Blue Garden is remarkable] for the clarity of its descriptive passages. The poems are objective and wonderfully poised. Miss Howes's poetic methods might be seen as symbolized in A Letter from Little Tobago, about her visit to an island bird sanctuary. She can get close enough to see a bird where most of us would glimpse only a blur; at the same time, she never becomes intrusive or threatening to the creatures she is observing. The scenes and their natural inhabitants retain their integrity while Miss Howes stations herself at just the proper distance. The description seems all the more compassionate for its controlled expression and visual exactitude. About half of the poems are set in the West Indies; many of the rest have their background in Vermont. It is the West Indian pieces I find most memorable. (p. 348)
Robert B. Shaw, "No Strokes of Lightning," in Poetry (© 1973 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXXII, No. 6, September, 1973, pp. 344-50.∗
Barbara Howes finds New England a congenial poetic landscape …, though she varies it often with a setting antipodal to her dour Vermont hills—the superabundance of tropical climates…. A Private Signal … includes a selection of poems from her three principal volumes [Light and Dark, Looking Up at Leaves and The Blue Garden] a handful of her justly admired translations, and her most recent work….
Howes is apt to use her landscapes as objective correlatives for human states of feeling. "The Undersea Farmer," for example, observes islands from below water-level as "pyramids of depth, where old benumbed seas chill the shoals"; diving for the life around their bases becomes a...
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It is tempting to observe that Barbara Howes is to Elizabeth Bishop what Peter Davison is to Robert Frost, but such a remark would not do Ms Howes justice…. It is rather a pity Ms Howes so often sounds like Ms Bishop when she is, in fact, very much herself. Her subjects are New England landscapes, its people, its moods, and very often her own life and friends. Barbara Howes has perfected a chiselled, uncompromising style which is also compassionate—a difficult and perhaps particularly feminine achievement which requires that the poet be at once gentle and terribly tough. It is encouraging to note that the later poems selected for A Private Signal are better than the early, rather stilted ones…. Often …,...
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The first poem in Light and Dark, and also the first in … A Private Signal, is a poem that stands as an image for all the rest [of Miss Howes's work]. It is called "Chimera." In mythology, the chimera is a triple-bodied monster, with the head of a lion, the body of a she-goat and the tail of a serpent. Often this monster, killed by Bellerophon, is thought of as an evil creature, a source of dismay, but Miss Howes celebrates it for its energy…. The poem welcomes this energy just as Milton welcomed Lucifer's. It appears without qualifications in both sides of her vision, the obscure as well as the clear, which is partly why her book is called Light and Dark. (p. 4)
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