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...
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