Richard Howard’s Threatening Poetry

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ONE OF OUR FINEST, however underappreciated, American poets was Richard Howard, who died on March 31, 2022, at the age of 92. You may not have heard of him, but you may well have read one of the books he translated from the French. There are literally hundreds of them—everyone from De Gaulle to Saint-Exupery, Cocteau to Simone de Beauvoir, Roland Barthes to Jean-Paul Sartre. He translated with a grace that finally earned him the American Book Award in 1983 for Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal. He was also a teacher. According to Edmund White, an erstwhile lover, he knew “no love that was not pedagogical.” He was a brilliant, if eccentric, critic, especially of his contemporaries. His study Alone with America: Essay on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950 (1969, enlarged 1980) is a monument to postwar poetry. His blurbs were an art form in themselves. And he was a dear friend of mine for forty years.

            Richard was an adopted child. His adoptive mother came from a wealthy, highly cultured Jewish family from Cleveland, and, although he spent sixty years in New York City, his purring voice retained something of the Ohioan. Among his happiest moments as a child was being in the “magic chamber” of his grandfather’s library, “a grand room with a coffered ceiling, full of beautiful and untouchable matched sets” of books. At the age of five, he was taught French by an aunt, who thought it would be a way to amuse him on their long car trip from Ohio to Florida. He was sent to the Park School of Cleveland, which he celebrated in his final collection, Progressive Education (2014), in which he assumes the voice of a class of precocious sixth graders writing to their principal, Mrs. Masters, as well as to their teachers and fellow students. This book is an extraordinary accomplishment—he was in his eighties writing as though he were twelve. It is arguably his best and most approachable collection.

            Richard attended Columbia University, where his friends included John Hollander, Anthony Hecht, and Allen Ginsberg. In fact, he dated Ginsberg, and Richard told me of an adventure he and Ginsberg embarked upon to the wilds of Flushing, Queens, in order to examine an illegally smuggled copy of Genet’s banned poetry. For many years he lived with novelist Sanford Friedman.

            If Richard Howard is underappreciated now—though anyone who has won the Pulitzer Prize and the forerunner to the National Book Award cannot be called unappreciated—and if he receives less attention than contemporaries like James Merrill or John Ashbery, it may be because, as poetry critic James Longenbach has remarked, “Howard’s sensibility remains threatening to many readers.” How so? Much of his œuvre consists of dramatic monologues in the manner of Robert Browning, whose speakers reveal more than they wish to and test readers’ powers of discrimination. It’s a form that challenges the notion of “authenticity” that’s so valued by many poets.

            His poems may also be threatening because they test readers’ knowledge of literature and history.

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David Bergman’s 1991 book Gaiety Transfigured: Gay Self-Representation in American Literature has recently been released in a new edition by the University of Wisconsin Press.

 

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