Howard, Richard (Vol. 7)
Howard, Richard 1929–
Howard, a distinguished figure in American letters, is a critic, a translator, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. His Alone with America is an important critical work.
In Richard Howard's new book, The Damages, nearly every poem achieves a level of excellence not far below the peak moments in the best poems…. A few thoroughgoing technicians like Richard Howard are desperately needed to provide an esthetic backbone for any generation of poets. No poet writing in America today is a more exquisite—a more fastidiously deliberate—esthetician than Howard. His poetry is always lavishly textured, though the components of texture vary extensively from poem to poem. He is never without stylistic finesse, measure, proportion; however, in reading many of his poems at once, I find myself wishing, occasionally, to be outraged by an unseemly disproportion—an idea, or image, that in its crudity or excess may overpower its context. If only he were less determined to be flawless, and more willing to take risks. Howard is perhaps the only contemporary poet in whom unfailing artistic tastefulness may seem to become, at times, a vice.
The most abiding quality of Howard's new poetry is surface brilliance. Though most of the poems are without what is called psychological depth, they contain extraordinary quantities of topographical depth. If we can regard depth in art—unlike philosophy—as being a by-product of denseness and intensity of sensory data, then depth in Howard's poetry is to be sought less in the quality of the author's thought than in the superior elegance of his form. The best poems in The Damages are fortresses of poetic structure. The massive architecture of "The Encounter," "The Author of 'Christine'," and "Bonnard: A Novel"—to my mind, the three most distinguished poems Howard has written—seems to be capable of sustaining limitless amplification without losing the essential rhythm of experience that is set in motion at the start of each poem. Above all, this is a poetry of architectonics. Every line is consciously structured, and is felt to be an integral unit in the superstructure of the poem's surface.
If at first reading, structure appears to dominate subject in these poems, repeated readings may reveal that the true subject of this poetry is the structure itself; each poem being an adventure in which the structure is a persona, if you will, in the act of discovering and evolving itself; all the components of structure, then—the phrases, images, ideas, story—by a peculiar reversal of the usual priorities, may be viewed as vehicles for the enlargement of structure. It is no accident that the most successful poems are the ones in which structure is all-of-a-piece, rather than being deployed as a sequence of stanzas. (pp. 604-05)
Laurence Lieberman, in The Yale Review (© 1968 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Summer, 1968.
The … visions of Richard Howard's poems [in The Damages] are oddly old, almost senile, and nearly always shot through with a kind of learned preciosity; the poems are impossible to enjoy. When Howard is attempting to be funny, his sense of humor reveals all its rust, but never any corrosiveness. I think he is basically humorless; the closest approach to a working joke comes in a piece called "Crepuscular," and it's an in-joke to be appreciated best by other poets and translators.
The question of audience seems, in fact, not to bother Howard. It may be that I'm ill-educated; in any event, I am simply baffled by allusions to Aegidius Cantor, Eusebius, Florestan, Ossorio, though I am somewhat more at home with bows toward Bonnard, Homer, Anna Karenina, the Old Testament, Dracula and Frankenstein, and various Greek myths. But, in the end, so what?
The book-jacket suggests that the meaning of The Damages is "the cost, the forfeits, the exactions of life." And that's all very well, and even borne out by two or three of the poems—notably "Private Drive" and "A Far Cry after a Close Call"—but generally the book is less concerned with an examination of life than of the erudite clutter of a poet's mind, and the two are about as alike as labor and self-indulgence are alike. Instead of being illuminating, most of these poems are feverishly tedious, and even the best revelations are so sequined with allusion that the reader's intelligence is distracted beyond retrieval. (p. 118)
Robley Wilson, Jr., in The Carleton Miscellany (copyright 1968 by Carleton College), Fall, 1968.
Unlike much contemporary criticism,… Alone with America seeks its coherence primarily through an anatomy of private belief and finds its purpose in the personality needing that belief. As a result, the book has—and needs—no other internal organization than the alphabet … and no other general argument than a scant suggestion about the myth of King Midas. And since its purpose and coherence are personal, the book succeeds or fails on the grounds of its rhetorical relation: that is, on the most public of grounds. (p. 258)
Alone with America presupposes and embodies [a] sense of culture and therefore requires it as a public fact in order for its proper rhetorical relation to be sustained. I do not think the required culture exists and its absence has crucial effects upon the book.
One major result is Howard's sense of his subject. He sees recent American poetry as an existential drama about the search for self—a drama played out when no culture exists. This drama is at once for him the joy and despair of the art, and he captures in each essay its paradoxical effects…. Howard's attention is supreme and so the general paradox becomes in every instance new and specific, not only within each essay but in the different aspects of each poet's art. In this sense, Howard's success with his subject is undisputed: he can sustain nearly six hundred pages of very specific commentary without becoming discrete because he is constantly demonstrating—and not simply asserting—both the coherence and the co-inherence of the general drama and the specific art. All forty-one poets he chooses are necessary to this demonstration, and he properly omits those whose poetry, since it is derivative, adds nothing. Howard's taste thus merges perfectly into his subject and so gives him the ability (not often seen in recent criticism) to quote perceptively and usefully. In this fashion, then, the absence of the proper public dimension gives Howard his subject and contributes to his success with it.
Where the absence is damaging, I think, is in the prose style. Since the audience is not there, Howard transforms rhetorical relation into verbal rhetoric…. One suspects that [for Howard] a sentence began life with a simple syntax and that the elaborations were then painstakingly added. Its complexity, in other words, is not central but additive and linear, and the whole is thus not a unity but an eccentricity. Outside of perverse whimsy, the only serious explanation I can see for such a style is that it is intended to serve in place of the absent audience—as if the endlessly changing modulations of a single voice within an elaborate style could somehow substitute for the variety of voices in an actual culture. In this light, the style stands condemned by the very assumptions that created the context for the attempt: it is in its effects a self-regarding and therefore barbarous style. (pp. 259-60)
In Alone with America, then, Howard is a rarity among critics: he not only demonstrates his view of his subject simply by describing it, he exhibits that subject's deepest, most despairing nature. (p. 261)
Donald Sheehan, "Numquam Minus Solus Quam Solus," in Poetry (© 1971 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), January, 1971, pp. 258-61.
I am puzzled by the inaptness of Richard Howard's title for his new book, Findings. Of course one may find something at the end of the most labored exploration, and presumably this is the sense he intends to convey, since nothing in his poems suggests the luck of unexpected discovery. Instead we have conscious artifice, the most elaborate "literary" poems. Clearly Howard does not fall under my strictures respecting lack of verbal tension in the common style; he has done everything to avoid the common. Or almost everything: for his originality, nearly unique today, is still based on the example of a famous forebear, Robert Browning. Howard has made his reputation, which is now considerable, from his Browningesque dramatic monologues, and it is fitting that the longest in his new book, fourteen pages in length, should be given to the maestro, speaking on his last day. Howard's monologues are almost flawlessly written: voice and manner acutely toned; smooth, careless, erudite to the point of acknowledged ironic pedantry, aristocratic: suave is the word, I think. Everything permitted for the sake of texture. Yet though I have read them with a certain fascination, as I might read the speeches of Harry Truman if his ghostwriter had been William Faulkner, I cannot quite accept them…. Browning was a poet; which is to say, a maker, a creator, not an artificer. He was serious about what he was doing. And the first test of seriousness in poetry is a willingness to resist the temptations of poetry. Howard has resisted nothing; every verbal ornament goes in, every alliteration, assonance, bouncing rhythm, and wicked epithet; and frankly, when I come to "this thermal term, this nearly pearly, nougat-textured, art-nouveau pavilion," I gag. Yet the difference, evident as it is to our senses, is not easy to track to its origin. Both Browning and Howard are conspicuous in their poems; they can't be mistaken. Perhaps it is a matter of positioning. Browning in his best work seems subservient to his lines, while Howard, like the Master of the Hunt, whips his pack along. (pp. 329-30)
Hayden Carruth, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1971 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXIV, Number 2, Summer, 1971.
Richard Howard performed some remarkable feats of ventriloquism in … Untitled Subjects, a collection of dramatic monologues by eminent nineteenth-century artistic and political personages. Among those highly Browningesque poems the only character conspicuously missing was Robert Browning himself. In his new book [Findings] Howard corrects the deficiency with a brilliant piece, a lengthy, complex address by Browning to his son and daughter-in-law shortly before his death. The poem is so long and so exquisitely modulated that quotation would be a disservice; I shall simply say that it is worthy of its subject…. Howard has made the monologue form more his own than any other contemporary poet. The skeptical might say that there hasn't been much competition for him to face in recent years. Well, then, Howard deserves our praise all the more for having made a disused form once again viable. (p. 352)
Robert B. Shaw, in Poetry (© 1972 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), March, 1972.
Like Browning, Mr. Howard is indefatigably clever, sometimes fatiguingly so. Like Browning, he is fascinated by artists and by the rich gossip which somehow (how?) relates them to their art. Like Browning, he wants to say for people what they would say for themselves. But he has now moved on from the dramatic monologue, to a new form (the dramatic duologue?), "Two-Part Inventions," in which a famous artist talks or is talked about. Mr. Howard plays his cards well and he doesn't miss a trick, but it all does rather reduce poetry to the higher trick-taking. Hölderlin, Whitman, Ibsen, Edith Wharton …: the snag is that such artists are necessarily in competition with the art which is here creating them. Mr. Howard does not mean to demean any of them, but his own art must somehow find room to breathe, so that he is driven not so much to belittle as to befriend them. Mr. Howard's Whitman is not less loved by his creator than is Louis Simpson's, but Mr. Howard's is too winningly lovable….
Any poem about a writer must invite a comparison of his words with its own, especially if it puts words into his mouth. For all their wit and glitter, Mr. Howard's dialogues never really ignite as dialogues. (p. 7)
Christopher Ricks, "'Two-Part Inventions'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 23, 1975, pp. 6-7.
With his fifth collection, Two-Part Inventions, Richard Howard has graced us again with what seems, at first, his familiar and elegant concern: to explore the last-century personality through the voices of its most fascinating artists. And the six long poems in this book deal generally with the generation that turned the century: Hölderlin, the old Whitman, Ibsen, Edith Wharton, Rodin, and an imaginary architect named Alessandro di Fiore, who seems to combine Gordon Craig, Antonio Gaudi, Louis Tiffany, and echoes of Ezra Pound ("an ancient man who looked/exhausted by his own head of hair")—the type of the aged artist who has survived his art. But these new poems are not cast as the dramatic monologues that earlier won for Howard a Pulitzer Prize and the acclaim of critics as the heir to Robert Browning. By releasing the implication of his form in Untitled Subjects—the other presence, the secret sharer—he has made each poem an invented encounter, epistolary or conversational, in which the dialogue between the artist and his ironic correspondent stretches toward a recognition scene which at once transforms and confirms identities. The personalities, thus split and gestured in intricately versed confrontations, and supported by the completed rhetoric and polite formalities of an age past, achieve a unique dramatic force which fulfills Howard's experiments to combine the structural intimacies of voice with the elaborate situations of speech. Perhaps it is the poet's own discovery of the possibilities of his form that, in turn, allows us to discover the true figure for comparison—granted that all comparisons are merely figures. For by inflecting these civilized conversations to show that, as one of its characters remarks, "Knowledge is/not what you have but what you are," Two-Part Inventions recalls not Browning's dynamics of will but Henry James's moral drama of understanding. Like James, the intention of Howard's art and all the work of his craft has been to dramatize the human heart and intelligence at their most difficult, their most lucid, their most telling points of convergence. Each of these enacted poems—these expenses of energy, both exhausting and costly—moves toward what we have learned to call a Jamesian acceptance, a state of consciousness that Howard has taught us again is "that final / act which enables us to see clearly." (pp. 422-23)
[His] poems are, in their largest sense, elaborate, even evasive, surrenders to silence, to the wordless void which is held distant by gorgeous gestures of redefinition and rhetoric, by fencing with idiom and identity, by a temporizing verse. During those delays it is the privilege of Howard's art and of our understanding to learn: to learn how "the passionate dead act within us," how an earth left godless by design is made divine by desire, how "pleasure rises to the pitch of vision," how we must surrender what we cannot lose. They are the lessons we expect of the old humane novels, whose absorbing sweep alone seems able to bring so much diverse life to light, but which Howard has allowed to verse whose lyric mode is only strengthened by its dramatic encounters. They are the lessons of a master. (pp. 424-25)
J. D. McClatchy, in The Yale Review (© 1975 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Spring, 1975.
Richard Howard is a master of the contemporary dramatic monologue. Now in Two-Part Inventions he has placed a second character on the page, giving the formerly unseen auditor a mouth, a point of view. The result, a sequence of small closet dramas, or dramatic dialogues, seems to have been composed by some fabulous artificer with the perceptions of Henry James, the wit of Oscar Wilde, and the technical finesse of Robert Browning. It is an altogether satisfying collection of poems by one of the most valuable writers in America. (p. 94)
Howard, always just off-stage left from encounter to encounter, is the central presence of the book as whole. It is a wonderful conception, beautifully realized….
He is, irresistibly, a poet, and his diction, from line to line and from page to page, Jamesian, Whartonian, [or even] Wildesque though it may be, is quintessentially his own. He writes things, makes things, and his structures, particularly in their movement from the conversational to the epigrammatic, are marvels of compressed eloquence. There are one or two false steps—"All art need not be sunstruck, Sophie,"—but these do nothing more than accentuate the usual flawless quality of the language. (p. 95)
Joel Conarroe, in Shenandoah (copyright by Shenandoah; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Summer, 1975.
In Two-Part Inventions Richard Howard has pursued a hint from Bach: "to play clearly in two voices and … to arrive at a singing style and at the same time to acquire a strong foretaste of composition." The dialogues that result are elaboration of the careless-careful method of Mr. Howard's earlier book, Untitled Subjects, where an interlocutor might be implied but never introduced. Though Mr. Howard's speakers do tend to go on and on, with a garrulous drone more crafty and insinuating than could be dreamt of in [Gary] Snyder's philosophy, the splendid achievement of much of his volume deserves first notice. The poem about Hölderlin, an exchange of letters between a neutral (but very anxious and very feminine) chance observer of the poet and his physician (firm, condescending, and resigned—in a pun Mr. Howard would cherish—simply to patience), is a gorgeous piece of writing, as it is also the most sympathetic and detached observation of the poetry in madness that I can recall having read…. [In this poem,] the incidental touches, like the exquisite movement of the poem as a whole, have a vividness that comes to most poets once in a lifetime. (It has come to Mr. Howard several times already, notably in "November, 1889" and "A Pre-Raphaelite Ending, London.") Certainly, he is the oddest truly original poet since Elizabeth Bishop and indeed, in the calculated, witty jaggedness of his descriptive power, appears to owe something to her style.
According to Mr. Howard, it was Robert Browning who gave first impulse to the Howard dramatic monologue and dialogue. To my mind the connection with Browning is rather thin: these two poets go about their business to different ends. With Mr. Howard the dramatic setting is there chiefly not to unleash but to refine and limit poetic energy. He is, for better and worse, utterly outside the thrall of that religious fury which is displaced into comedy in a poem like "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister," and can be seen under the phantasmagoric surface of "Childe Roland" as well. The final or isolate state of Browning's artist-questers is lunacy, whereas Mr. Howard's characters move toward a boundary of intoxicating and, to the reader, insufferable aestheticism. Rather than derange the world with excess of imagination, Mr. Howard employs himself by rearranging.
Is there another contemporary poet who lives and breathes the medium of his own verse quite as freely as Mr. Howard? He is himself what he calls Ibsen, "a phenomenon of nature." Given the brightness and facility of his accomplishment, it is a pity that many readers should be acquainted with him only or mainly through his prose, a grotesque late-Jamesian pastiche that is more than faintly reminiscent of Auden's "Caliban to the Audience." (pp. 740-42)
The last poem in the book, composed of letters from an art student visiting Italy to her professor in America, is nearly in a class with that on Hölderlin, and prompts the thought that there is hardly a critic writing on art whom one could prefer to Mr. Howard in his poetry. And his loveliest prose is in his poetry. I have seen reviewers notice the circumstance and arm themselves with it as an accusation. Pope was once a "classic of our prose"—may Mr. Howard enjoy the company…. Mr. Howard's gentle gravity is neither borrowed from other poets nor shared with them. His example affirms for anyone who needs to know that it is no use choosing between this or that poetics. There are only poets. (pp. 742-43)
David Bromwich, in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1975, by the University of Georgia), Fall, 1975.
In 1974 Richard Howard published his fifth book of poems, Two-Part Inventions. In itself remarkable, it is all the more so when considered in the contexts of his other writings and of the modern distrust of surfaces. A, perhaps the telling distinction of Howard's poetry vis-a-vis that of his contemporaries is what one of his poems calls "all my skill at superficies." Although his "Scenes from the Life of Behemoth" mimes our sentimental deprecations—the rhinoceros's "so strange an outside" must yield "an answerable heart"—his poems have accepted and explored surfaces without seeking forthwith their abolition. He has learned, with instructive irregularity,… "Deep secrets hide/in surfaces, he knew, where else/ could they go?"….
A snug periodicity, smugly ciceronian, protracts itself over line after syllabic line, all of a piece with the fastidious attention to faces, facets, and facades "within" the poems. Superficial poetry? Yes, but in the self-revaluating currency of such remarks as this one made by a hirsute speaker to his smoothskinned lover: "all surfaces are something of a paradox."
The paradox results from our dead-metaphorical use of the word "surface." What, after all, is the surface of word? of a poem? of a person? With proliferating synonyms, Howard probes several metaphorical uses for their similarities, their tricks….
Finishes: this word embraces another aspect of our paradox, for a finish is both a termination, the last laps (and lapse) in the wearing race through time, and an exterior preservative, a spatial something stubbornly irreducible. Howard's themes encompass both. Old Time appears (along with the old props: clocks, watches, sundials) as corruptor. His speakers often know themselves as dying, and dying as the attrition of gloss, a "gradual rot."… With poignant self-contradiction many would combat attrition by archival means, by saving finished things: thus the frequency of collectors, cataloguers, and quantifiers. His distinctive rhetoric, too, is highly buffed. The puns, flip-flops of cliche (Auden's "contempt breeds our familiarity"), allegiance to quirky detail, the assemblages of telling character traits and appointments—these features join the stitchery of consistently syllabic verse (with all those precious left-margin shifts) to effect an ornate elegance. Elaborate syntactical subordinations, as in "We Teach," play themselves out against the poem's inevitable termination in an effort to dictate the end, to conclude with controlled closure. No rents here. No vistas onto silence. (p. 5)
If Howard is our most Browningesque poet, he comes to the dramatic monologue less in reaction against the Romantic self-indulgence too often (and too easily) seen in modern "confessional" poetry than from facing up to the Audenesque challenges of "face."… Dramatized speakers enabled Browning to test, as no English predecessor save Shakespeare had, the intersection of character and idea, but Howard's speakers, following Pound, Stevens and Auden, remain poised in the very dilemma of faces that produces them. Browning's coy "as though" pales before Howard's spare unself-confrontation: "we are not ourselves / until we know how little / of ourselves is truly our own."
The many-faceted surface of Howard's poetry engenders, then, an "I" which, rejecting its finishes as "other," can know itself only in terms of its finishes. The high camp decor of Quantities, much defaced in The Damages, revives in Untitled Subjects with the discovery of its Victorian ancestry. Coincident with that discovery it almost meets an ancestral antagonist. Findings probes various loosenings of finish. And Two-Part Inventions, grasping the erotic force in and beneath all finishes, carries Howard, in Robert Shaw's fitting phrase, "beyond elegance." (pp. 5-6)
The elegance of Quantities tends to apotheosize, that of The Damages to animalize. Both dehumanize, but the latter more nearly answers the sphynx's unput question by admitting eros into history. Untitled Subjects moves beyond contests of personal and mythic history to face her question in terms of complex individuals in their irreducible historical contexts of props and finishes…. [The] true "Untitled Subjects" are not the personalities nor the poems, but the world of decorative surfaces in all its tenacity as it vaguely senses a life-force which threatens it. The fifteen poems assemble a cataloguer's variety of decorators and appointments in furnishings, music, faces….
Untitled Subjects itself is a Strawberry Hill of props, facts, details, and this proliferate catalogue is the book's center. (p. 7)
In his essays Howard is alert to loss and apocalypse, to the modern modes of yielding to the void, "the scandal and the labor of the Negative." The alertness continues in these poems, yet they cling to their own finishes without ending or undergoing an end…. Howard's project is to admit the blur of being without yielding to the personality-destroying Schwung. To accept the surfaces, the limitations, without precipitating the neurosis behind the scream. If this volume has polarized what underlay his earlier poems and found neither finish nor force a possible mode for him, his subsequent developments of the dramatic monologue suggest a modus vivendi based in softening the antagonism, in daring a slack. (p. 8)
The prose and drama of living speech, however striking in [Findings] are but tokens of that which propels Inventions beyond elegance: the volume apprehends Schwung as an erotic force which both gives rise to history and art and moves through them. Each of Howard's first three books contained a fine poem of sexual encounter. But if his earlier style tended … to oppose investigation into the self, even as it recognized the vitality of the depths, his current direction explores just that: in its social, almost novelistic manifestations. (p. 9)
Michael Lynch, "Richard Howard's Finishes," in The American Poetry Review (copyright © 1975 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Michael Lynch), November/December, 1975, pp. 5-11.
Years of translating French prose have left Howard with a fetish for precision and a penchant for witty epigrams which often promise more than they deliver. Or, in Tallulah Bankhead's famous aperçu, there's often less here [in Fellow Feelings] than meets the eye. Howard quotes Auden's criticism of him on this score: "you must let up on that prose of yours. While you can, I mean:/Affectations harden." Puns and witticisms run the risk of taking over the poet's mind instead of working to greater ends, and sometimes Howard can't resist the obvious. (p. 335)
The intellectual's way of dealing with sexuality is to conceptualize the ambivalence of sexual give-and-take, and to equate love-making with the intricate harmonies of Bach. Insinuations and complications proliferate, as in metaphysical poetry, often as a result of language rather than of the experience it seeks to represent. The precision here is at times cold….
It is unreasonable to fault a poet for what he doesn't do. It is just to commend Howard as a powerful poet—one of the very best, incidentally, to write about painting and sculpture—and as a masterful creator, in dramatic monologues, of historical characters. Justice requires, too, that we recognize his ease at encapsulating moral wisdom in aphoristic pronouncements…. Howard proves the truth of what he says in a poem to Joseph Cornell, master miniaturist: "the tiny is the last resort of the tremendous." This, in itself, is enough. (p. 336)
Willard Spiegelman, in Southwest Review (© 1976 by Southern Methodist University Press), Summer, 1976.
"The Lesson of the Master" [a successfully staged fragment of "Two-Part Inventions"] has a plot—suspense about the relationship of the two characters toward the man they are en route to inter, teasing revelations—each of which expands on our understanding of the theme—and a resolution. The elaborate wit of the dialogue serves both to veil the situation, because its propositions are so exactingly interesting, and to intensify our curiosity. Also, the poet had freedom to create character, neither Edith Wharton nor her husband's former boyfriend having fixed images in the contemporary imagination.
The conversants in "Wildflowers" [staged with less success], an ancient paralyzed Walt Whitman and a young devotee named Oscar Wilde, can exchange only philosophy, not intriguing intimate facts about each other, and doing so must conform to or at least recall our popular images of them.
In Whitman's case, the task is easy: the old sage, weatherworn, insistent on earth and honesty, solid. Wilde, though, is practically impossible to play; he must be as brilliant, suave, ironic, and unpredictable as the characters he created and, beyond that, a passionate creator, utterly committed to his art, earnest, intense, bewildered: impossibly offensive and impossibly attractive.
Perhaps no one can play the part.
Carll Tucker, "Wilde Meets Whitman," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1976), August 23, 1976, p. 114.
By now, I think, we can begin by assuming that Richard Howard is one of our major writing poets…. Being able to make this assumption is a blessing to Howard's reviewers, since they need not defend or promote his work, but can pay attention to what he is doing more casually and more minutely. Take Howard's titles, for example. There have always been ambiguities in the titles of Howard's books of poems, but the ambiguities have gradually been turning to multiple puns. Untitled Subjects referred to poems listed by dates, hence without real titles (in their book versions), but also took up historical figures living during the nineteenth century—an age dominated by respect for aristocratic and political titles—who were not, for the most part, content with what titles signified.
Untitled Subjects as a title could also suggest a reluctance to specify the authentic subjects of the poems. And so on. (p. 157)
Howard has always found art and artists among the most fruitful of his subjects. Always, there has been implied in poems on those subjects a radical relationship between the abstract quality of fashioned artwork and the fashioning worker. In Fellow Feelings this relationship is examined with greater concentration than before and it is expressed in more sensuous ways. Similarly, the familiar puns are perhaps more common than before, and even more daring. It is as though we were to take the words into our mouths like butterscotch balls, rolling them from one side of our tongue to the other, surprised at how different they taste differently sensed. Sometimes the play is tasteful …, at other times it is a trifle crude. (p. 159)
From "Decades," the first poem in Fellow Feelings, which draws explicit parallels between the art and exile of Hart Crane and Richard Howard, to "Purgatory, Formerly Paradise," based upon Giovanni Bellini's "Sacra Allegoria," which might be called a representation of life in art, the poems in this volume powerfully convey the intense profit and pain involved in the artistic life, in particular because the artist is, by his art, both destructive of and exiled from the very matter that his inspiration calls upon him to exploit. (p. 160)
John R. Reed, "Words' Worth and Fellow Feelings," in Modern Poetry Studies (copyright 1976, by Jerome Mazzaro), Autumn, 1976, pp. 157-60.