Without Saying (Magill's Literary Annual 2009)
Richard Howard is known as a poet and a translator with an uncanny agility with language; as a young man he worked briefly as a lexicographer. He is best known for dramatic monologues that not only capture the spirit of a time period but also explore subtleties of character of historical literary figures, often Victorian, whose complex works have made them part of the canon. In his thirteen previous collections, these sparkling monologues have been most frequently commented on, anthologized, and honored. They carry with them the richness of the era as well as insights into how the most profound thinkers and artists confronted the problems in their lives.
Beginning with his first book of poems, Quantities (1962), Howard has been compelled by the dramatic monologue. The monologues are perhaps most concentrated in his 1969 book, Untitled Subjects, which gives the voices of Oscar Wilde, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and others. For Untitled Subjects, Howard used Victorian photographs as the spur for a series of poems involving imagined speeches and letters by people photographed by Nadar, whose real name was Gaspard-Felix Tournachon. Nadar was a nineteenth century photographer who believed in reading the sitter’s character into the photograph; he noted that “[i]n teaching photography it’s this immediate contact which can put you in sympathy with the sitter, helps you to sum them up, follow their normal attitudes, their ideas, according to their personality, and enables you to make not just a chancy, dreary cardboard copy typical of the merest hack in the darkroom, but a likeness of the most intimate and happy kind.” Howard grafted his own understanding of his subjects onto Nadar’s likenesses, and his book, which included some of the Nadar likenesses, won the 1970 Pulitzer Prize.
Howard’s poetry often seems preoccupied with the question of how events turn into historywith the sense of disjuncture between experience and record. His poems trace constructions and reconstructions of historical truth, playing with story and life. The minute detail with which he creates people and events makes the reader both feel a part of his scenes and a secret listener in the shadows. Many of his works either mention or identify themselves as physical recordsletters, books, tapes, pages. One has a strange sense of walking into a picture through its frame and yet knowing that it is a framed picture, not life, one is walking into. The sepia background remains sepia. The museum feel is deliberately maintained.
Howard’s monologues are very different from those of other current practitioners of the popular medium, as they are all one voice and at the same time separate voices. The penetrating intelligence they share and the mixture of wisdom and cynicism appear in poem after poem, yet the personal idiosyncrasies, the quirks, of each character come through. The poems are also visually intriguing as he uses a flexible blank verse in some, experimental designs in others, and occasionally rhyme. The appearance of the poems on the pages reinforces the sense that different individuals are being portrayed who speak in different tones although their language may be similar.
Without Saying: New Poems contains more historical monologues as well as other voices, of myth figures and of Howard’s other selves. The title is teasing, evoking the cliché “It goes without saying”which is always followed by full disclosure. There are all sorts of ways silence speaks in these poems, tooone hears things that would not or could not be said and witnesses failed communications and missed connections, whether these involve an aborted meeting between two writers, telephone messages to an absent recipient, a teacher who gets across unintended lessons, or a Nobel Prize that is not awarded to the desired recipient.
A major figure in...
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