Inner Voices: Selected Poems, 1963-2003 Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004. 420 pages; $35.
Paper Trail: Selected Prose, 1965-2003 446 pages; $35.
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
Inner Voices: Selected Poems, 1963-2003: The poems of Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Howard are noted for their unique dramatic force and for preserving, in their graceful, exquisitely wrought lines, human utterance at its most urbane. Here, in the first volume to draw together material from Howard's twelve books of poems, readers can fully appreciate the erudite nuances of his lyric poetry and the superb human and historical bravura of his dramatic monologues and imagined conversations among famous figures. Inner Voices leaves no doubt as to why Howard has been "a powerful presence in American poetry for 40 years" (The New York Times Book Review).
Paper Trail: Selected Prose, 1965-2003. Richard Howard has been writing stylish, deeply informed commentary on modern culture and literature for more than four decades. Here is a selection of his finest essays, including some never before published in book form, on a splendid range of subjects -- from American poets like Emily Dickinson and Marianne Moore to French artists such as Rodin and Michel Delacroix. Also included are considerations of modern sculpture and of the photography of the human body. Howard's intense familiarity with modern poetry is seen to excellent effect in essays on the "poetry of forgetting," on the causes and effects of experimental poetry, and on the first books of poets whose work he helped introduce -- among them, J.D. McClatchy, Frank Bidart, and Cynthia MacDonald. Of course, Howard brings to his consideration of French literature a rare wisdom drawn from his celebrated work as a translator of Stendhal and Gide, Barthes and Cocteau, Yourcenar and Gracq. Hilton Kramer once wrote that Richard Howard "performs the essential critical service. He shows us the extent of the terrain. He points out its essential features. and he gives us a very vivid sense of its ethos as well as of its esthetics." Howard, now in his 75th year, continues his adroit, inventive commentary, which enriches us all.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
From Publishers Weekly: Drawing on 12 previous volumes (including 1970's Pulitzer-winning Untitled Subjects: Poems), this big assortment plays to Howard's strengths -- above all, to his impersonations and dramatic monologues. Howard's hyperarticulate sentences fit the preoccupations of his sophisticated personae, many of them 19th-century French and English writers and artists. John Ruskin, Henry James, the early photographer Nadar, Proust, and Jane Morris (William's widow) all receive extended embodiments, as do the secretaries and intimates of other great artists. The book includes Howard's anthology hits, among them "Nicholas of Mardruz" (a biting response to Browning) and "Infirmities," in which the aged Walt Whitman critiques the closeted Bram Stoker. His elaborate forms, or "habitual/disorders," "suffice to hold fast to the small/change of small changes," exploring regrets or assessing the pleasures of the flesh. Howard's later volumes grew more personal (and more successful) in revealing specifically gay male experience. On the whole, these densely figured poems justify the copious ambition they embody.
New York Post: In the last half-century, no American poet has been more instinctively, elegantly cosmopolitan than Richard Howard. Again, the French parallel seems necessary: Just as Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier was called the greatest French novel in the English language, so Mr. Howard deserves to be known as the greatest litterateur in America.
Joan Acocella, author of Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism: "Howard, with a text, is like the boyfriend everyone wants: he sees you for who you really are, and still loves you. His sympathy, like his culture, is immense. At the same time, because of his Stradivarian attunement to language (no surprise in a distinguished poet and translator), he sees what is actually there, the words, and from them alone extracts the meaning. His own use of language is an added gift: high, mandarin, but with pauses and dashes and side thoughts -- the movements of a happy mind."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Poet, scholar, teacher, critic, and translator Richard Howard was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1929. He received his B.A. from Columbia University and was a Fellow of the French Government at the University of Paris, Sorbonne. Howard has published 12 collections of poetry and myriad translations from the French, as well as numerous essays. He lives in New York City, where he teaches at Columbia University and is poetry editor of The Paris Review.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR: Richard Howard and I talked several weeks before he celebrated his 75th birthday. He was in his book-lined Manhattan apartment, and I was at home in California. Mr. Howard is an august literary personage, friend and counselor to America's finest writers. I felt too ignorant, too jejune, too inelegant to speak with him. But I did, and he was patient with me, and kind.
"This," I said, "to you, may seem like the silliest question in the world. But I don't understand the difference between verse and poetry."
"Okay. And would you like me to define?"
"Some poetry is written in verse and some verse, if it's meaningless enough, becomes poetry. But verse is merely the technical name for a kind of writing that is in a certain order. All poetry at one time used to be written in verse, but we have, since about 1870, a great deal of poetry that is written in other forms, from prose to some kind of verse or even some deliberately not-verse forms. It is a complicated issue, but I don't think it should get in your way."
"I always think, when someone says 'verse,' that they're speaking down about the poem. They're not quite taken with it."
"No, no. That's not right. You know the old name for it is 'numbers.' When Pope was a child he said, 'I lisped in numbers, for the numbers came.' In my case many of the poems are written according to a syllabic count, kind of an accentual one. That's a kind of verse: syllabic verse. It isn't necessarily something that you hear when it's read aloud, although you can see it on the page, very clearly. I would say that there's a more explicit order to verse. But it aspires to be poetry most of the time."
"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.
"Jimmy was a very attentive and wise friend who listened a lot and didn't impose. And then when there came a moment when he would set forth something you weren't expecting, it was particularly effective, because he had been so watchful and waited. Then came these extraordinary insights. He was a wonderful friend, and I think I've internalized him a lot. I'm very much aware of him all the time and what he would say. I can hear the laugh and the voice and so forth. Yep."
"He read well."
"Oh, my, what a reader he was. What a performer. He could read things from The Changing Light at Sandover to audiences that hadn't a clue what that sort of enormous structure was. But for the reading he would just do one little part, and he would say a couple of lines to explain what he was doing. Then the rest of it was all his making it so attractive and available that nobody had any trouble with it at all. It was very effective and certainly was an inspiration to me and made me realize that you could do it with almost anything if you believed in it enough and were careful enough about putting it across. He was able to do that with very simple audiences, elementary audiences. But he could reach them."
Among poets of Merrill's generation I wondered if the world in which, for instance, James Schuyler and John Ashbery moved was different than the world in which Merrill lived most of his life.
"Yes, I would say very different, because Jimmy grew up loving the things around him. Schuyler had an enormous affection for the everyday world. A lot comes through that way. But in Merrill's case, of course, it's a much, a much larger world than that, and one that he's quite comfortable in."
Mr. Howard didn't know Schuyler as well as he did Merrill. "But I remember sitting around with him, and he was very quiet, but he would talk, and he was charming. Then the poems, and even some of the prose, were very, very attractive. I got to like them quite a lot."
"Did you know Frank O'Hara?"
"Oh yes, very, very well. A very striking and animating figure. Frank was a demon when he was drunk, like many Irish people, and he was difficult. Jimmy Merrill was never difficult.
"He was very, very careful of other people. And other people's feelings."
"Did you know of Merrill's longtime friendship with Frederick Buechner?"
"I remember hearing about it and knowing that they were always in touch and so forth. I had read a few books by Buechner, and I was not very taken with him, especially with the religious aspect that came later on. But Jimmy was very, very, very much involved with Buechner. I read the first Buechner book and some of the last one. He wasn't somebody that attracted me. Jimmy was very interested in all kinds of people, many more than I."
"It's a wonderful thing to be, as you say about Merrill, 'interested in all kinds of people.' It's a wonderful thing, too, to be able to write about reading in the way that you do."
"I'm glad you like the papers. I'm not nervous or apprehensive about the response to the poems because I've put the best of myself into them, and I know what they are. I have some confidence in them. I don't have the same feeling about my prose and about criticism."
"I enjoyed them, first of all, just for the language."
"Well, some people object to the language. I have really tried to write more clearly. I wrote a big book about American poetry a long time ago, called
Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry, and I think I annoyed more people than I enlightened by my fancy prose. I've gotten better about that. I'm simpler now."
"Your poem, 'For David Kalstone,' is very moving [see page ##]."
"Yes, that's an important one. He was a very attentive and affectionate friend, and he had a wonderful mind. Wonderful mind. Wonderful reader. That little book of his, called Five Temperaments: Elizabeth Bishop; Robert Lowell; James Merrill; Adrienne Rich; John Ashbery  -- that's marvelous."
"I have that book and recall learning a great deal from it but have not looked at it in years. I keep thinking I should give it to someone. I don't live in a place big enough to keep all the books I want to keep, but I can never seem to get rid of certain of them. Are you that way with your books?"
"Well, I can't get rid of much, but I find ways to keep them all. I have an office at school as well as the apartment, so I have another whole place to keep them in."