Howard, Richard 1929–
Howard is an American poet, critic, translator, and editor. His poetry is highly structured, with definite meter and carefully chosen language. Considered neoclassic by some critics, Howard's work is often historically inspired. His use of narrative verse and dramatic monologue has prompted frequent critical comparison to Browning. He received the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1970 for Untitled Subjects. (See also CLC, Vol. 7.)
Richard Howard's verse is elegant and cultured, tasteful and erudite. A man of learning and a connoisseur, he brings to his poetry a mind trained in the rigors of French poetics and an ear attuned to the rhythms of Ronsard as well as those of Browning.
In these days of vatic pronouncements and True Confessions, he remains a voice of civilization, a man trained in an older tradition. His poems speak clearly of his commitment to the mind and to precision of expression.
I can think of no other living poet who writes with such elegance. Only Richard Wilbur among Americans seems to come close. It is perhaps worth noting that both Wilbur and Howard are skillful translators steeped in the somewhat more controlled atmosphere of French poetry. (p. 109)
[Richard Howard] has clearly defined his own notions of poetry, and his practice reveals his fidelity to those standards of rigor. His danger is of turning in the direction of academic verse, where technical precision is matched to essentially torpid matter.
[Two-Part Inventions] is marked by a sense of High Wit. Its keynote is its urbanity: Howard rarely ever missteps. He has a clear voice of his own. The question remains: what does he have to say with that voice?
Two-Part Inventions consists of six relatively long poems …, all more or less dramatic dialogues. The form is surely Howard's own, although it derives somewhat from the Renaissance body-soul dialogue and the Victorian dramatic monologue. The title, we are told, is meant to be taken in its musical sense as "two voices … each developing a single idea."
The poems are also inventions, that is to say, fictions. Each of the meetings is more or less imaginary, although based on actual events and characters. A large part of their appeal will derive from our general desire to gossip about the famous and frequently scandalous. Sex, madness, and death recur as topics, always, however, carefully modulated by the tones of drawing room or polite correspondence. (p. 110)
The topic of homosexuality is one which recurs frequently in this volume: it is one of the bases of the conversation between Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde in "Wildflowers" and of the conversation between Rodin and the unidentified traveler in "Contra Naturam." In the Victorian and Edwardian world of which Howard writes, the unmentionable crime remained barely beneath the surface, frequently giving rise to art, but remaining still unacknowledged—ashes to be carefully deposited in ash trays, or tidied away under the rug, never to be strewn about on the public thoroughfare. (p. 112)
The world of Edith Wharton, Henry James, and Marcel Proust has been marvelously...
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Fellow Feelings contains some of [Richard Howard's] most impressive work. These include "Venetian Interior, 1889," a remarkably full rendering of the sad world of Pen Browning; "Decades"; and "The Giant on Giant-Killing." The latter two utilize Hart Crane's history and Donatello's bronze of David, respectively, to illumine Howard's own life. Both poems openly explore homosexuality: indeed, the book is the most out-of-the-closet collection since Howard's own Two-Part Inventions. Rather than being sensational, Howard's poems convey tenderness, and seek understanding. He movingly pictures both himself and Crane as on "permanent short-leave from the opposite sex." In "The Giant on Giant-Killing" we are given a defense of homosexuality, yet are reminded that the name Goliath, while meaning destroyer in Assyrian, means exile in Hebrew. Throughout the volume there is a feeling of singularity and alienation.
Howard's most felicitous gift is for the well-turned epigram. Some are worthy of Wilde: "Ripeness is hell"; "The tiny is the last resort of the tremendous"; "Kissing is not cosmetic, merely cosmic"; "We are what we see"; "The sacred and the suburban often coincide;" etc. The danger Howard risks is that he displays too much wit. Verbal pyrotechnics call attention to themselves, rather than to the meaning they are employed to convey….
Yet all wit and wordplay are employed to extremely serious ends. If the book has two misfires ("Compulsive Qualifications" and "Howard's Way"—poems in which questionable subjects seem paraded rather than contemplated), it also has many direct hits on fascinating and difficult targets. Howard is one of our most original poets. (p. 597)
Robert Philips, in Commonweal (copyright © 1976 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), September 10, 1976.
More than ever, Richard Howard's poems convey the sense of personal history transformed into a fable that is worth hearing. There is a powerful personality behind the poems of Fellow Feelings, and the individual pieces, from the opening poem "Decades," to "Howard's Way" and "Compulsive Qualifications," to "The Giant on Giant Killing" and "Vocational Guidance," convey this personality with a clarity that relates it to something larger, for the poems of Fellow Feelings are also about art, and thus the personal history that colors them becomes part of the larger story of the modern artist. It is a familiar story of wounds that must be turned to profit, of inspiration that comes mysteriously and cannot be denied, of achievement which solves nothing but makes the need to persist more acute.
The three finest poems in the volume are in the third section of the book, devoted mainly to works of art. All three poems demonstrate the insinuation of narrative into an essentially lyric poem. In the first of these, "The Giant on Giant Killing," inspired by Donatello's bronze statue of a sensuously appealing David, we have Goliath's account of how David defeated him. The basic story is familiar to us all, but Howard's version is surely unusual, for it suggests that Goliath was willingly defeated in order to be near the beautifully young David for whom he had conceived a strong passion. "In "Vocational Guidance," the subject is Simone...
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Like Good and Bad Angels, two spirits of very different kinds are at work in Richard Howard's six books of poetry to date. One is genial and generous, and shows itself in the two best known of the volumes, Untitled Subjects (1969) and Two-Part Inventions (1974)…. [The] measure of the heights to which the books rise can best be taken in terms of pleasure. There is an ampleness about the books that is perhaps the sine qua non of pleasure itself. For the reader of the poetry entire, however, the surest guide to their genius (or angel) is the relief felt in coming to them, particularly since we cannot help but sense that this feeling was the poet's before it was ours—his Good Angel was at work….
But the two books are haunted by their successors, Findings (1971) and Fellow Feelings (1976), the fourth and the sixth of the volumes, in which the Bad Angel shows itself. These two are demanding where the other two are openhanded, compelling where the others are attractive; if we sense the poet's ease in Untitled Subjects and Two-Part Inventions, we will feel the constraints under which he works in Findings and Fellow Feelings. The measure of the depths to which the latter two sink, as it is perhaps the Bad Angel's name, is will. (p. 85)
But Findings and Fellow Feelings are no less accomplished than their predecessors in the oeuvre; their success is different in kind…. [For] the reader, the delight in pleasure should be no less enjoyable than the admiration of will….
The line of the oeuvre is clearest if we see the six books in three pairs and note the movement in each: the rising from Quantities to The Damages, and the falls from Untitled Subjects to Findings and from Two-Part Inventions to Fellow Feelings respectively…. But before attempting to follow these ups and downs through the six volumes, it will be helpful to have some idea of the landmarks to be met with along the way. [There are six landmarks which occur as major themes throughout the poetry. They are: water, twilight, paradox, preconception, contra-naturam (art and homosexuality), and the past.] (p. 86)
[Water:] The Brenta's paradox, that it moves and stays the same, is just what interests the poet, as the sea's rising and falling interest him for the analogy to sex and to inspiration in art….
[The] edge of the sea is the site of metamorphosis and realization….
[Twilight:] The twilight in Richard Howard's poetry is often literal, a favorite site or situation for the poems, but it is more often figurative: the poems take place in "the day between" two opposing states, usually late in the day of the one with the night of the other coming on. The setting for the love poems is as the love itself is setting…. (p. 87)
Between sickness and recovery is another of the twilights in which the poetry finds a congenial locus (and the reader finds another paradox). Since recovery must be to another and perhaps more devastating illness, the normal everyday sickness of self, getting better is also getting worse….
But the most interesting of the twilights is semantic. Most markedly after The Damages, the poems proceed almost as a consequence of the connotations and etymological suggestions that gather about a preceding phrase or word; qualification seems always to be compulsive in Richard Howard's poetry. (p. 88)
[Paradox:] Change is the subject of Richard Howard's poetry; to contain change is its project. No rhetorical device better suits each than paradox, however little the paradoxes are themselves rhetorical.
Most if not all of the paradoxes turn on the impossibility of having what is possessed, perhaps because one is possessed by it as well, so that losing something is the one way to know that it had once been had….
In the way that a paradox contains change within itself, so will the many emblematic poems, for they defy change by being incomplete (in the sense that only what is complete can be changed): their application needs to be discovered again and again….
In general, there is about the poetry what I can only think to call a kind of self-destruct mechanism, for the art seems to ask that the made fail before the unmade, the particular disappear into the exemplary, and the conceived call attention to the anterior conception. (p. 89)
[Preconception:] Richard Howard usually works from a model. The poems begin with something that is already there—a life, a painting, a poetry, a quotation, or a model (or models) draped and posed by the poet himself (as in Untitled Subjects and Two-Part Inventions). A favorite form, then, is the epistle where the boundaries of the correspondence are carefully defined by the stated subject matter and the relationship between the correspondents.
The power of the given or preconceived is perhaps the dominant characteristic of the poetry, for the poetry works from something rather than toward something and finds its satisfactions or dismay within a situation rather than in its sequel…. The poetry is dramatic, not narrative; comedy, not tragedy. (pp. 89-90)
[Contra-Naturam (art and homosexuality):] Richard Howard's verse sets itself in opposition to nature. As often as not, experience in the poetry is the experience of art, in the same way that the oeuvre might better be described as a criticism of art than as a criticism of life. So thorough-going is the poet's antipathy to nature, workaday experience, and life "as it merely passes" ("Waiting for Ada") that even the art upon which he lavishes his attention is non-representational, non-mimetic.
Implicit in the poetry is an analogy between art, as a second and...
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