"It's the numinosity then, that Rilkean spiritual high, that makes a poem a poem and not a verse?"
"Whew. One thing that interested me about your essays was something that interests me about myself, and that is having been a precocious child and having grown up alone, reading all the time, and how that experience marks you. I was wondering if as a child, books were your best friends."
"Oh, yes. I was an only child and in a big house with a lot of books, and those were the companions and the playmates, and they were also a resource. They were a relief from my parents or from the world that threatened at times to become rather hostile. Yes, books were the resource and the relief.
"I'm a fanatic book buyer, and I'm constantly haunting bookstores and always buying more, much more than I can read, and it's hard for me to give them away. It would make everything a lot easier in my little apartment if I took some things off the shelves that I probably haven't looked at in five years and replace them by things that I want to read in the next five years. But I don't do it. The books get piled up on tables and under tables and in corners and so forth."
"I feel frightened if I don't have books to read, do you?"
"Of course. The idea of going out into the world without being armed in case something happens, and I'm stuck somewhere without a book, my God. Of course."
"Do you still feel as I do, somewhat like that same four-year-old child surrounded by books?"
"It's there, and it's within me, but I don't feel that I inhabit that child in the way that child may inhabit me."
"Do you often find relations with books more satisfactory than relations with people?"
"No, but I do with my animals. I do with the dog and with other dogs and with the animals around me here in New York. There are a lot of them. That I do feel. Books -- no, I use them as ways to understand and even beguile other people. But I don't think that they're more satisfactory than other human beings, but animals, yes."
In "Sharing Secrets," an essay completed in 1992, Mr. Howard recounts his appearance as a speaker and reader at the intellectually tony Bard College in upstate New York. As Mr. Howard waited to give a talk on modern American poetry, a young Bardean approached him. She said, "I don't like your poems." Mr. Howard replied that he, too, sometimes did not like them. The young woman was not to be stilled. She said, again, "I don't like your poems. I don't like them because there's too much history in them."
"I find," I said, "that although I like young people very, very much, and I like to be around them, I often feel frustrated by their numbness to the past."
"Oh, yes. As a teacher one discovers that that's very much the case these days. It wasn't always that way, but it is now. It's very distressing and even painful sometimes; the past seems not only not to exist but to be opposed and resistant..."
"And," I said, "denigrated."
"Yes, denigrated. Absolutely right. I'm distressed by it, as you are."
"What reason do you think there is for this denigration and ignorance of the past?"
"Oh, Americans are very suspicious of the past and always have been. For my students, especially my students who wish to write poetry, there's only their bodies and the weather. Things that have happened long ago and especially to other people who are dead, that's very suspicious to them. They're suspect. They don't like it. We're on a strange planet right now. Very strange."
"It's as if, for some young people, nothing has been written before."
"That's absolutely right. And it's my task to enforce the past and to suggest some relationship to it. I do it all the time, so I'm very much aware of that problem. The students -- especially at some schools -- are really not there to learn about what has been achieved. They're there to express themselves."
"But the self is such a tiny thing."
"Exactly. Perhaps even nonexistent."
I wondered what effect, if any, doing as much translating as Mr. Howard has done has had on his own writing.
"I've been translating for 35 or 40 years now; I would suspect that it made me realize that there were other ways to do anything that I might do. That was helpful and also a little frightening. But I don't think that translating French has had much consciously to do with anything that I write, either in criticism or in poetry. So far at least that I can tell."
I confessed that I sometimes tried my hand at translation, for amusement and refreshment. "After I have translated something," I said, "then for a day or two afterward I am looking at every word differently."
"That's right. That's the good thing for writers about translating. Sometimes I teach translating at Columbia. The students discover that themselves, just what you've described. It is a good thing to be aware of, and so I think there's that. But I don't think that the actual writing is affected by the fact that I translate French or..."
"I think my question was badly put. I find that anytime I try to translate something, then for several days after it's as if words almost have sparkles on them, effervescing bubbles."
"I understand that, yes."
"And the words belong more to themselves."
"And not to you."
"Yes," I said.
Poet James Merrill (1926--1995) and Mr. Howard were great friends. "For your generation of poets," I said, "what a loss Merrill's death has been."
"Oh, yes, that's exactly right. That's one of the things I wake up in the morning and am aware of every day. There was so much wisdom and so much playfulness, and it was perfectly acceptable to him that it be both. That he could be wise and funny as he was about what I guess you have to call 'popular culture.' It was Jimmy who taught me how to enjoy what I would have thought of as 'silly' movies. But he was wonderful about it, and he would take me to things or tell me about them and make sure that I was learning how to enjoy things that I had thought beneath contempt, and I was wrong.