Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1410
Richard Howard has developed a wide acquaintance with the leading American poets of his day, and he has won great respect for his critical objectivity and insight. His steady stream of translations has established him as a major authority on French literature. However, his reputation as a poet overshadows his other contributions, significant as they are. Early in his career, he established the dramatic monologue as his most characteristic form, seeing it as a way of bringing the past and present together and as a way of layering meanings in a poem through the voices of multiple personas. Speaking through other voices, he once said, has enabled him to represent his own experience better than he otherwise could present it. In this form, he could portray characters and circumstances in a way that made his poetry both intensely expressive yet emphatically impersonal. At the same time, he uses his gallery of portraits and chorus of voices to explore the relation of the past and present, death and loss, and creative success and failure, as well as the passage of time and issues relating to gay artists. In the exploration, he also creates a vivid presence of his characters and their circumstances.
Quantities and The Damages
Howard’s first two collections of poems, Quantities and The Damages, were praised for their polished language, flawless rhythms, and linguistic effects. His themes include personal loss, the passage of time, survival, and acceptance. Critics noted Howard’s “formal virtuosity and a knack for aphorism.” In Quantities, Howard experiments in form with an almost restless energy, scarcely rhyming yet retaining regularity in line and stanza length, unifying his poem with a fluid rhythm, image, and sound. He sees the world with a fresh eye and conveys what he sees freshly:
The sea’s green fur begins at length To grow against you, and your own Accustomed skin gives way to end In a flourish of salt, swart hair.
In such lines, Howard sees landscape as a sensual presence, and he expresses it in a controlled, sinuous line. Throughout both collections, he seems to be sailing in a literary sea, searching, like Odysseus, for his home. The poems are shorter than his later poems, and the persona often appears to be speaking for Howard himself.
Rhyme surfaces here and there in the poems, French and Latin commingle with the English text, and other poets are named, as if beckoned to join the poet in his search for expression and identification. Howard’s interest in other times and places is reflected in many titles, such as “To Aegidius Cantor” and “Eusebius to Florestan: On Aproxexia.” A sense of loss informs many of the poems, as in the following lines: “Find/ my love: no islands/ for me. Lost/ my love last/ night on the islands.” The lines themselves are islands of meaning, separate yet linked to others, incomplete yet part of a whole. Howard’s form expresses both ambivalence and conviction.
The island metaphor is central to Howard’s poetic journey: People, places, and poems are discrete entities that are temporary stops in his journey. The verse epistle, which closely resembles the dramatic monologue, takes central position in Untitled Subjects, which won for Howard a Pulitzer Prize. In these poems, whose titles are simply dates, from 1801 to 1915, Howard creates a variety of personas, male and female alike, and reveals subject and circumstance through the voice of the poem’s fictive writer. Howard has said that translating the work of others is for him an erotic experience, for he enters the mind of the other author in the most intimate ways. The same experience probably led him to embrace the forms of these poems, for he and his character become one voice, intimately bound to one personality.
Howard’s many obscure references throughout the volume challenge readers to stay fixed on what these references do to portray the personality of the poem’s persona, as in “1897,” when Gladstone says, “’Ah, my boy . . .’/ ’we are well away from Balmorality here,/ the terrible Tartanitis which overtook/ the Throne in my time, hard upon/ the Morte d’Albert.’” Howard trusts that readers will understand references to the 1861 death of Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert; the play on the name of the royal castle at Balmoral; and the allusion to Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur in 1485.
Findings and Two-Part Inventions
In his following collections, Howard continued to employ the dramatic monologue, varying its subjects and voices to explore and reveal character. In Findings, he offers elaborate descriptions of snakes, dragons, works of art, and places: “But at night these ashes glow, this dust kindles; like/ the Sultan’s topaz, sallow/ then suddenly red, the moon turns Greek/ fire, catches” (in “From Beyoglu”).
The poems in Two-Part Inventions represent historical figures in dialogue. In a long exchange between Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman, Howard explores the relation of traditional form and formal freedom. In another poem, the sculptor Auguste Rodin discusses the sexual implications of his creations with a gay man, who sees the artistic and also gays as sharing “the miseries/ of continued possession” and “the struggles of continued exorcism.”
Misgivings and Lining Up
In the middle part of Misgivings, Howard takes another creative turn by addressing thirteen photographs of nineteenth century poets and musicians, including the photographer himself, Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon). Howard’s descriptions of the portraits give them a life and character that contrasts poignantly with the stillness of the subjects. Howard returns to this form in Lining Up, making it seem as though he is engaged in familiar conversation with his subject. Though he varies the look of poems, their stanza patterns, and their line lengths, his style remains consistent, marked by precise descriptions, historical references, and conversational tone. The remarkable result is that readers feel included in this conversation even though the subjects, references, and language are often beyond reach.
No Traveller and Like Most Revelations
Howard favors the long poem, which allows him to develop his subjects like a novelist, filling the poem with scenes and conversations that give historical context to his ideas and enable him to present his thoughts from different perspectives and in different voices. No Traveller opens with one of Howard’s most celebrated poems, “Even in Paris,” a thirty-page narrative that follows the poet Wallace Stevens on a visit to Paris in 1952. Told in a sequence of letters among three characters, the poem contrasts the distinctive tones and points of view that identify each character. Ivo’s letter is lively: “Now Roderick, according/ to Richard, our anonimo was none/ other than the Fourteenth Way of Looking at/ a Bleak Bard.” By contrast, Richard is somber, sardonic: “Christmas is a deadly season here,/ illustrating the old Parisian rule:/ every silver lining is tarnished by clouds.” Both styles are characteristic of Howard’s poetry, especially the later poems. His animated style shows elaborately on play, sound, rhythm, and shorter lines; his more somber, serious, or reflective style relies on similar features, but the mood is darkened by the subject, the sounds, and the lines’ tendency to lengthen: “Another fine, another fin-de-siecle/ feast of fast with dying dowagers.”
Like Most Revelations contains features that are characteristic of Howard, but the subjects are more serious and are concerned with current issues and urban scenes. Howard speaks of friends who have died of complications related to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Homosexuality is a subject in many of the poems, and the book’s final poem is about a news story of a man with AIDS who beats up gays.
Trappings offers readers the same virtuosity that has become Howard’s trademark. The central poem is a typical example of his inventiveness. The poem is a sequence on the subject of John Milton dictating Paradise Lost (1667, 1674) to his two daughters, the whole combining different points of view, styles, and forms and addressing various paintings that depict Milton dictating. Each voice is distinct and reveals a thought or perspective that brings life and meaning to a moment in time. The book’s characteristic wit and exuberance; the inventive spirit and ornate, convoluted manner of mingling diverse personalities and complex forms; and Howard’s preoccupation with gay issues, the classical past, literature, painting, and music, with artists, poets, musicians, seeking and having, losing and finding—all of these features give his poetry a uniqueness, texture, and flexibility that continue to surprise and delight.
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