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Once upon a time, in the middle of a large, flat country that nobody wanted to visit, a foundling boy was adopted by a family of considerable means. The house in which he opened his eyes was magical—a library with coffered ceilings, leather-bound sets of Sand and Kipling lining the shelves. By the age of five he was speaking French, having been instructed by a distant cousin in the back seat of grandmother’s LaSalle. Columbia College, Paris, graduate study forsworn for the company of Roland Barthes, Nathalie Sarraute, Jean Genet—it is a tale worth telling, except that its protagonist has spent most of his life not telling it.
Or has he? By the age of 40 Richard Howard had won the Pulitzer Prize for his third book of poems, Untitled Subjects, published simultaneously with what remains the most elaborate account of his contemporaries, Alone with America: both the essays and the poems are devoted to other people. Now, 35 years later, Howard has birthed a second set of twins—matching volumes of selected poems and prose that encapsulate his entire career. Some of the poems and essays afford glimpses into the life behind the work; Howard has nothing to hide. But even while the essays range from Emily Dickinson to Robert Mapplethorpe to Claude Simon, they constitute an intimate autobiography. Howard’s relentless capacity for otherness—other centuries, other books, other voices, other writers, other people—is at all times driven by the wish to discover himself.
Emily Dickinson produced “the most relentless epic of identity in our literature,” says Howard in the opening essay of Paper Trail. “Compared to her, Whitman is an epigrammatist.” This remark plays off Dickinson’s well-known obliquity; applied to Howard, it invites the question of his preference for dramatic utterance, the performance of the dramatic monologue rather than the intimacies of the lyric. But no monologue by Richard Howard succeeds by virtue of ventriloquism; his poems never actually sound like, for example, Mrs. William Morris:
do as I say, save it all—
the rest of the things are mere images,
not medieval—only middle-aged:
lifelike but lifeless, wonderful but dead.
or like a ten-year-old foundling boy:
Isn’t that what dying has to mean—notbeing
here? The Dinosaurs are with us all thetime,
anything but dead—
we keep having them!
These poems sound exactly like Richard Howard—not so much because of what they’re saying but because the saying is enacted by the movement of the sentence, a great looping, spiraling boa draped upon the thorns of pronomination.
I’ve stolen that metaphor. Howard offers it to describe not his own sentences but those of Henry James, whose influence on American poets (Bishop, Hecht, Hollander, Merrill) he documents in the third essay of Paper Trail. Listen to one of Howard’s sentences:
If not actually upbraided in the matter of what so many of the besieging new poets like to call experimental form, the poetry editor (of, say, a gilt-edged, bon bourgeois, blue-chip magazine like The Paris Review) is pretty often laced into—I have seen it said, in a distinctly anti-bourgeois periodical, in Fuck You, A Magazine of the Arts, in fact, that only iambic pentameter was acceptable to the editor of The Paris Review—so that it is with regard to a stance, or at least a leaning, toward the experimental that I would extend my foregoing “submissive” gloss on that dialogue between two interlocutors who never speak, their pre-text being, quite literally, on the one hand the poems submitted in all their thousands, and their text—their post-text, really—being the poems eventually printed on the other.
This sentence makes syntax feel like a plot: it forces you, through manifold strategies of qualification and delay, to become obsessed with the act of discovery. Reduced to its simplest form, the first half of the sentence would say the poetry editor is often criticized. But all the allure is in the saying—the onslaught of alliteration (“upbraided,” “besieging”), the punchy repetition of heavily stressed syllables (“gilt-edged,”“blue-chip”), the sudden infiltration of a string of mostly unstressed syllables into this strategically thickened texture(“that only iambic pentameter was acceptable”), the opening of the figurative to the physical (“a stance, or at least aleaning”), and a sense, encouraged by all these strategies, that every word comes shrouded in a history of usages in which we must revel. To read this sentence is to watch a parade, and it can be difficult to get information from parades. What does Howard want the saying of this sentence to say?
The sentence says one thing, and it reveals another. Howard is writing about the complexity of editing The Paris Review in a time when the definitive standards of writing verse (as opposed to poetry) are in a state of what seems to him decline. But even if Howard says that he wants to return poetry to “a certain discipline, a certain strictness, VERSE,” the very artistry of his sentence reveals his devotion to darker, more challenging truth: the poet’s tool kit must inevitably be too heavy for any one poet to lift. Countering the claim that translating Les Fleurs du Mal without replicating Baudelaire’s rhymes might be akin to stretching a tightrope across the floor, Howard says that he has“ investigated other tactics for keeping the poemsuspended.”
The investigation of other tactics is a euphemism for the act of writing poems. If rhyme is jettisoned, what tactic must flex its muscles in order to keep the poetic contraption in the air? Meter. And if meter is forsworn? Line. And if line is abandoned? Syntax. Are great poems employing all these mechanisms being written? Are great poems employing only one of them being written? Certainly—though usually not by poets who congratulate themselves simply for writing in one way rather than another. Sometimes it will be necessary for a poet to remember every tool in the kit; at other times it will be equally crucial to forget them, though nothing can be forgotten if it has not first been remembered. A declared intolerance for what goes by the name of traditional or experimental poetry is too often a euphemism for I have no ear.
“Whatever Modernism may be,” says Howard, “we know this much about it, that its modes and mechanisms are those of fragmentation, dissociation, erasure, and opposition.” The boy who grew up in the middle of the large, flat country seems not so much opposed to these mechanisms asun beguiled by their allure: why would anyone embrace an aesthetic that encourages us to reject accumulated knowledge, to leave behind, to sunder, to break, to forget? Howard’s entire project is one of recovery, the exquisitely American need to create what Van Wyck Brooks called so many years ago a usable past. Recent poems such as “The Masters on the Movies” are devoted to American culture as such, but like Henry James, Howard reveals his American roots most strongly when he travels most extravagantly. The very expanse of his sentences, their twist and torque, is an American dream of plenitude.
Convention, for Howard, is no restraint but the cloud of glory trailed by every word, every turn of syntax. No single poet could dispel those clouds even if he wanted to: they are the place where we live, our only source of abiding freedom.
Listen to six sentences by Richard Howard, these ones set in lines:
Curious symptoms withal
for migraine: patterns moving
over surfaces, faint
most often, fine designs
that would come as a kind of cobweb
cast iridescent upon others, a net
intervening between me and them.
Lord! the things one sees when a fever-lit mind
grants no middledistance.
Prolixity of the real!
And just when we are grateful
for the dark, when night resumes us,
of what is unreal,
the melting waxworks of our sleep
called dreams. I am against dreams,
not being one to trust
memory to itself.
In my delirium, then, I had
conviction of divided identity,
neverceasing to be two persons who
ever thwarted and opposed one another.
By what “other tactics” has Howard kept this contraption airborne? The poem does not rhyme in the conventional way (at the ends of lines), and neither is the length of the lines determined by any metrical pattern. Instead, the turns and returns of syntax are draped across an intricate syllabic pattern: a pair of seven-syllable lines, then a pair of six-syllable lines, then a quatrain of alternating nine- and 11-syllable lines . ..
You can count the rest yourself, though what matters is not so much the count as the tension between the syntax and the points of terminus created by the count. That tension is called line, and the aural pleasure we take in this performance is due to the way line marshals the language into patterns of alliteration (“would come as a kind of cobweb”) or assonance (“cast iridescent upon others, a net”) that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the parameters of syntax. On the rare occasions when syllable count and syntax match (“Prolixity of the real!”), we feel the thrilling absence of the endless spill of enjambment that otherwise thrills us because of the way it determines intonation and stress. Were the line merely “cast iridescent upon others,” there would be no tension, no rising of the voice toward the terminal syllable “net,” which pushes us forward to the next line but also tugs us back to the sound of “cast” and “-scent.” Without that tension, there would be no line, only a string of syllables.
I’ve quoted this passage from “November, 1889,” a monologue in the voice of the greatest practitioner of the monologue, Robert Browning. Howard’s Browning describes the world as it appears through sickness, but he also describes the poem in which he speaks: it is a net, a design, a moving pattern through which the world is perceived. And if Browning initially thinks that the mind might be cured, he eventually sees that anything we know—the past, each other, ourselves—we apprehend through “a net that covers the world.” Howard has known this all along, of course, for it is his great theme. We would not want immediate access, purity, singleness, even if we could find it. We exist because we are, in sickness and in health, in dramatic monologue or in lyric, “two persons.”
“November, 1889” is reprinted among the poems of Untitled Subjects, but it was originally published in a later volume, as were several other poems now sitting comfortably in that sequence of monologues and apostrophes to the great Victorians. Inner Voices represents not just a winnowing but a reconfiguration of Howard’s career: although the selection seems to proceed chronologically, poems from Like Most Revelations (1994) and Talking Cures (2002) are tucked back into the Pulitzer Prize–winning volume of 1969.
More than suggesting the continuity of Howard’scareer, this rearrangement crystallizes the transformation that has taken place in its last decade. For while he has continued to write the elaborate Victorian monologues for which he is known best, Howard has also been writing other kinds of poems. These poems do not sound different, though they tend to be less theatrical, more liable to foreground the intimacy tucked more surreptitiously into earlier poems. Nor are they less involved with the quest for a usable past, a quest that consoles us only inasmuch as it also condemns us. Here are the final lines of “The Job Interview,” in which Howard creates his own past: the young American poet negotiating André Breton’s “legendary loathing of queers” in order to secure thesurrealist’s permission to translate Nadja:
of course I knew in my heart that the one
—O coward heart! would be to challenge this
champion of liberation, this foe of all
society’sconstraints, but I could do
nothing of the kind,
nor need I have. O reason not the need:
I left the Master of the Same New Things
with every warrant of his trust in me
as his translator
if not in French), and forty years have passed
since that traduced encounter. Where are we?
Nadja in English
is still in print, and people still hate queers.
I allay that heart of mine with the words
Breton wrote to Simone, first of his wives
(and a Jew like me):
criticism will be love, or will not be.
This poem also sounds exactly like Richard Howard, though the impression has little to do with autobiography. Howard’s syllabic procedures determine the shape of these stanzas, and the shock of the final line is due to the way in which itswisdom—borrowed from a source the poem also abjures—completes the pattern, syntax, and syllable count colliding to make a line that feels spoken by a voice beyond the poem, beyond the grave. Along with other recent poems (remembered encounters with Lee Krasner, James Merrill, Alice Neel, Muriel Rukeyser, Mona Van Duyn), “The Job Interview” suggests that we can only be remembered inasmuch as we are forgotten, that we can forgive ourselves only by recognizing the value of what cannot be forgiven. Reading these poems does not feel much like reading other contemporary poets; it feels like reading Henry James or Marianne Moore—uncompromising stylists who are therefore our most unflinching, most heartbreaking moralists.
Like James and Moore, like Dickinson, Howard is an American original. Like theirs, his language is closest to home when it is most arcane. Like them, he makes the world in which he walks. Paper Trail is something much larger than an argument about the shape of American poetry, and Inner Voices is something less than the record of 40 years of devotion to the art. “Once upon a time,” says Howard, “there was only time.” His poems are happening now.
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