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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.)
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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 recaptured in its bitchiness, its short-sightedness, its hypocrisy, and its genius. After 16 pages of verbal sparring, Howard gives us his own "turn of the screw": this meeting, so telling for the two participants, has been arranged by the sadistic Henry James. But they manage yet another turn, by agreeing never to tell Mr. James what has passed between them: silence "is the one / telling punishment." It is a magnificent trouvaille.
This meeting, like all the others Howard invents, is a confrontation with truth, naked and cruel. Most of his characters refuse to hear what they are told…. The poems are verbal tours de force; they display Howard's easy mastery of free forms. There is rarely a wrong note, even in this collection which demands so many different voices. His "Wildflowers" has a brilliant counterpoint between the exuberance and self-dramatization of Wilde and the homeliness of Whitman.
Wilde: I shall cross that bridge
after I have burned it behind me
Whitman: Kiss me,
and catch your trolly, I've lectured long
enough. You must read the writing on the wall,
or the page, or on the face,
by yourself, Oscar
Such stylistic pyrotechnics can only come from a man to whom a poet or any artist cannot exist except through his words.
If one cannot fault Howard's taste or his reading, one can still wonder if he will ever give us his own voice. There is no doubt of his ability to hear and recreate, to translate from language to language, or from age to age, but we must still ask … whether he is finally a poet or an author.
The present collection offers the reader many selves; but it does not make clear the choice to be made among them. One finds oneself in the position of Rodin's fellow-traveler in "Contra Naturam" who assures the artist "You have been, from the first, the inspiration / of us all" and who looks for a profession of shared faith, an acknowledgment of what he sees in Rodin's work, "pleasure rises to the pitch of vision." But the voice of Rodin is that of a tired man who feels himself "slowly, inevitably / flowing toward death."… One suspects that Howard can sympathize with Rodin's desire to remain private and his fear of the naked moment.
To have ten voices is perhaps to have none. The intelligence that created these poems is too great to be spent only in exercises. Howard's poetry is not academic in the sense of a sterile conformity to a set of rules; but it runs the risk of looking only backward, of eternally recreating the past. Ours is clearly an age of museums; a time for recouping the forces. No one can perform this task better than Richard Howard.
But his work also gives every sign of knowing the sources of authentic art:
Without the boys—if it had not been for the boys,
I never would have had the Leaves,
book, the last confirming word.
it is neither Jacques nor Jean
I look at, once they are naked before me,
who stands, momentarily illuminated
in a clearing
We have come too late
for [the gods]. It is the world which is divine now,
and that is why there is no God. The divine
has no name, only the gods are named, like these,
and they change their names.
It is these qualities which we miss: a certain carnal truth which is at the same time divine; a sense of the immediacy of experience. The world of which Howard writes has as ineluctably vanished as the Greek world for Hölderlin.
Howard sees civilization as the last barrier against encroaching madness and death. And yet it is the balance of the two which creates artistic tension, just as it is the balance of body and soul, of self and Doppelgänger which is so precariously at stake in these poems. The voice of convention and the voice of folly: Howard knows that the two are finally inextricably wound up together. (pp. 113-15)
Robert K. Martin, "The Unconsummated Word," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Poetry in Review Foundation), Fall-Winter, 1975, pp. 109-15.
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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.
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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 Martini's Annunciation. Again the story is familiar, assuming we know that an angel appeared to Mary announcing that she was to be the mother of Christ. Once more the story is transformed, for Howard finds in the details of the painting parallels with his own case, and with the case of any artist who feels inspiration come like an angel bearing the questionably welcome news that he must bring to birth a work of art. (p. 88)
"Purgatory formerly Paradise," gives us a clearer idea of the method employed in these poems. The poem opens with the lines "He used—these are his words—to wander about / in his pictures at will…." What follows is Howard's wandering in Bellini's Sacred Allegory …, creating from it a story apparently related to his own life. The painting itself is an allegory that specialists have still not entirely explained, but Howard's story requires no academic solution, for it is his wish to create from others' artworks his own works of art that gain their strength from the fellow feelings one artist shares with another….
Richard Howard creates his narratives from works of art in Fellow Feelings, just as he created narratives from imagined biographies in Untitled Subjects. But the narrative remains only a structure to convey a personal statement that transcends that narrative. (p. 89)
John R. Reed, in The Ontario Review (copyright © 1976 by The Ontario Review), Fall-Winter, 1976–77.
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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 superior nature, and homosexuality; the basis for the comparison is that both are unnatural, where nature is anything but ideal…. [Perversity's] definition in Richard Howard's poetry is precisely denial of one's nature. (pp. 90-1)
[The past:] The past as burden and the past as relief; the past as "all that exists" ("A Phenomenon of Nature") and the past as non-existent …; the past that yields the accomplishments of Untitled Subjects and Two-Part Inventions and the unyielding past that exacts the accomplishments of Findings and Fellow Feelings; the past that is at the heart of the paradox of possession and loss and that is the core of identity; the past is as much Richard Howard's preoccupation as it was Proust's. Or, say, as much as it is the preoccupation of the highest strain of American verse and fiction. (p. 91)
Where all else is uncertain [in Quantities] the poet keeps these short, painstakingly crafted poems to the high road of formal achievement (almost inevitably it seems); he has not yet found his stride. But if the poems are less the poet's own than those in Findings and Fellow Feelings, the poems in the three of these volumes (the unaccented syllables in the poetry's line) share characteristics first found in Quantities: the poems are brittle, individual, definitive—as though each of them were the last poem instead of the next poem. (p. 92)
"Loss" (like "rot") is an uncooked word in Quantities, an absolute that renders all else relative; the question to which the poems answer, or which exacts those answers that are the poems, is how to survive loss. (pp. 92-3)
The more loss costs, that is, the more survival does. Take "At Bluebeard's Castle" and "The Shepherd Corydon": poems at once feral and admonitory that reckon the costs of survival at any cost with an unashamed honesty worthy of Andrew Undershaft himself. It is all very well to 'be a survivor',… but these poems show that surviving tells against the survivor; for to overcome loss is to repudiate the lost—it is to make a grand refusal. The two poems contain, in addition to their images of the sexual demonic and the post-coital monstrous, a portrait of the artist as something less or more than human (a monster, a god), and they argue an equivalence between the impersonality of lust and that of art. In the harrowing conclusion to "The Shepherd Corydon," there is what amounts to a preview of the desolation of Findings and Fellow Feelings in which inspiration, however much it was demonic possession, is known by its having passed. In those late books as here in Richard Howard's first, the key to survival is will—but a will that one must almost dare to have…. Richard Howard's is a poetry of unease and, often, disease. It is a questing, Faustian, perhaps even Satanic poetry where the search is for knowledge and power, the power over loss that can only come from knowledge.
Probably a more important than a brilliant beginning, Quantities strikes many notes, and authoritatively, that resound throughtout the poetry; some of these unknown quantities will become the familiars of the later and more unexceptionably fine work. (pp. 93-4)
In terms of the oeuvre, then, The Damages is decisive in two respects. It passes a negative because silent judgment on some of the lyric impulses in Quantities and undertakes the exploration of the poet's past about which the first book was itself silent…. And, as for the second respect, The Damages points the way for the later poetry. In "A Far Cry After a Close Call," the letter "To Aegidius Cantor," and "Bonnard: A Novel," it uncovers the subject matter and, more crucially, the forms that some of the subsequent poetry's highest realizations revolve upon. Finally, when Richard Howard turns to the Twentieth Century's past in Untitled Subjects, it is because he has learned in The Damages that his past is not as vital as our past. (p. 94)
If what the poet will find in The Damages is that he cannot live in his past however much it lives in him, the lesson can only be learned by his having plunged into it….
In The Damages, the past is turned to in the hope of making sense of the present. (p. 95)
Released from a Freudian version of the significant past, just because it so little signifies, Richard Howard goes on in Untitled Subjects to his century's past (or, what is more significant still, his century's art's past) because he has discovered in The Damages that we are
much less individuals
than we hope or fear to be.
("Bonnard: A Novel")
[Untitled Subjects] gives me pause. I think that the overriding fact of the book is its greatness, but it is just greatness in a work of art that is unaccountable. (pp. 96-7)
For their accessibility to the reader and what is perhaps their inaccessibility to criticism, then, the poems in Untitled Subjects ask for little commentary.
What is at issue in the volume is identity in one of its most fascinating respects, that as between the life of the artist and his living (on) in the art. As an artist's work may be taken as a realization of his or her life, it takes the life from them as well—one of Richard Howard's twilit paradoxes. (p. 97)
In Untitled Subjects, Richard Howard's "aspiring memory" seeks and succeeds in finding a means for resuscitating the lives of artists that have been absorbed by and lost sight of in the work we know them by….
As explicitly retrospective in its title as The Damages, Findings … is the most moving of Richard Howard's books of poetry, perhaps because what it looks back on are prospects that have been foreclosed. Not the least of these is the claim staked and mined by Untitled Subjects—the past…. The poetry in Findings is wrung from the want of those resources—an abundant past, an abundant language—that had been the poet's on the heights of Untitled Subjects. Cast down, the poetry will arise from resistance in the first part of Findings, from acceptance in the second part. (p. 98)
In Findings and Fellow Feelings where the world is closed to the poet, language is open to him; lexicography and linguistics take up when afflatus leaves off….
The world that is closed, or foreclosed, opens a world in art. Art in Findings and Fellow Feelings is entered into, and is the more lively for the world's deadliness. (p. 99)
Power is the characterizing preoccupation of American verse since World War II—not the acquisition of power, but its renunciation once had. In Richard Howard's work, the giving over begins in Findings … and continues through Fellow Feelings…. But Two-Part Inventions … contains its most brilliant images, in Edith Wharton's surrender of Gerald Mackenzie's ashes and Sandro Fiore's exultation in the loss of his art, and its most explicit expressions…. The prerequisite to relinquishing power is admitting that it is not yours, and still less yours to have, so the great work of Two-Part Inventions will be the admission of the Other. (p. 100)
From the unions of Two-Part Inventions, the poet has been returned to the isolation of self. Others are just what he lacks and all that he seeks to find in Fellow Feelings, for alienation is monstrous.
Now we can see, retrospectively, that what the characters in Two-Part Inventions had to give each other seems to have been offered from within the circle of self, as though over walls that finally closed the characters off from one another, for the end of each poem is or anticipates a separation. But we should never have noticed but for the "coming-to" in Fellow Feelings.
The poet turns to the worlds in language … and in art …, exactly as he turned to these resources in Findings…. But the others most sought after are people.
So he calls them up and calls on them (Larbaud, Magritte, Proust, and Cornell face to face, Toulouse-Lautrec, Simone Martini, Giovanni Bellini, Robert Browning, and Randall Jarrell increasingly obliquely). (p. 102)
As often as the poet has turned from life to art, when art turns into life he flees—alienated and therefore on his way to the notion that art is Purgatory not Paradise. Seeking others, the Other finds him.
Appeals of an altogether different kind are made to Auden and Hart Crane, for of each Richard Howard asks and receives a paternity. (pp. 102-03)
In "Decades," the image of paternity is … more explicit. As Hart Crane found his father in Walt Whitman, Richard Howard finds his in Crane: "Take my hand / as you gave yours to him." Brilliant in the poem is the degree to which the artistic lineage is so inevitable that it seems even more natural than nature. (p. 103)
Henry Sloss, "'Cleaving and Burning': An Essay on Richard Howard's Poetry," in Shenandoah (copyright 1977 by Washington and Lee University; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Fall, 1977, pp. 85-103.