An Oral History of Richard Howard


The Revel

Richard Howard.


This Tuesday, at our annual Spring Revel, The Paris Review will honor Richard Howard with our lifetime-achievement award, the Hadada, for a strong and unique contribution to literature. Long esteemed among poets for his verve and intellect, Howard received the 1970 Pulitzer Prize in poetry and was a finalist for the National Book Award seven times. His translations from the French helped introduce contemporary masters, such as Roland Barthes and Michel Leiris, to American readers and breathed new life into classics like The Charterhouse of Parma; his translation of Charles Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal won the 1983 National Book Award. He’s the author of sixteen collections and three books of essays; his translations number in the dozens.

But Howard has also had a distinguished career as a nurturer of young poets. From 1989 to 2011, he was the poetry editor of the Western Humanities Review, during which time he also held the same station at The Paris Review, from 1992 to 2005. As a teacher, he’s influenced several generations of poets. We invited friends of the Review to share their stories of Howard—of working with him, learning from him, and, in several cases, surveying his elaborately decorated bathroom, adorned with the photos of dozens of poets. A portrait began to emerge: of a curious, polymathic reader; a generous mentor; and a zealous, sure-footed practitioner of his form. 

EDWARD HIRSCH (poet, former colleague)

Richard is very unusual for an American poet because, as he said, he’s nailed his colors to the past. American poetry has almost always been forward-looking. But Richard is looking, thinking backward. He made himself up under the European wing of American literature. His great model is Henry James, our great novelist of consciousness, a person on whom nothing is lost. James is the quintessential American writer who thinks about the American experience through its relation to Europe. As a poet, Richard stands in the line of American romantics like Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane, rather the line of American homemade modernists like William Carlos Williams.

MARY JO BANG (poet, former student)

He really is that European idea of a man of letters. It’s not just the expanse of his erudition, but the expanse of his work. The reviewing that he’s done, the support of poets, the correspondences, the translations, even the selection of the translations—all this has put him centrally in a European tradition. We have very few people like that left.

VIJAY SESHADRI (poet, former student)

The poetry tends to flow into the criticism, the translation, the pedagogy, and they all form this very large river. All these voices become a part of a hydraulic environment, which contains or reflects in some way the bathroom crowded with the photographs. The personalities in the poems, in the photographs, the things going on in his mind are flowing together. The work is a reflection of a larger idea of culture that he has that he’s been working out his whole career.

BINNIE KIRSHENBAUM (novelist, colleague)

He often speaks of his childhood, but it seems he never did the things that children do. He talks about all the time he spent in his grandfather’s library. He learned to speak French during a long car ride to Florida with a distant relative who taught it to him during the ride. I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned a book that he hasn’t read. He’s always bringing me books. He introduced me to Jim Shepard. He even brought me a Carl Hiaasen mystery.


I browsed with him in a bookstore once, a week after he accepted my first published poems—he introduced my to Cioran and to Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. The message was, you still have some work to do.


In my ongoing attempt to come up to the edge of his intelligence—I could never possibly meet it—I have read and studied so much. I certainly never would have translated The Inferno without my relationship with Richard, and the expectations he sets for poets.


I think in those first fifteen years of my knowing him, I always wrote for Richard’s approval. When I wasn’t productive, he was always the person who would make me feel guilty. Although, he wasn’t doing it directly, of course. I had internalized his presence.


I once heard him say that there were three poets who had read everything that had come before—Dante, Milton, and Coleridge. They’d read everything in all the fields. In poetry, Richard has come as close to that as anyone could. He taught me that Baudelaire was the inaugurator of our modernity. His translations prove that. When I was young, I thought the poets of the New York School had invented the contemporary idiom. After I read Richard’s translations of Baudelaire, though, I and then turned to Apollinaire, I realized it had come from the French poets. Richard teaches us that literature is a rocky, sweeping, continuous river. We are fortunate to be part of it.


Richard was always getting his students’ work published—if he saw something that he believed to be great.

BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY (poet, former student)

When we had our first private meeting, I was shaking, of course. I was terrified. But he just said, with so much generosity, I didn’t know we had this kind of talent in the class. Then he took a few of my poems for the Western Humanities Review and for The Paris Review. The first time I was in print, it was because of him.

JEANNE MCCULLOCH (writer, former managing editor of The Paris Review)

In a way, for George [Plimpton] to hire Richard as poetry editor of The Paris Review was a funny thing to do. Richard was the lord of all he surveyed in his particular corner of the sky, and George in his. They couldn’t have been a more unlikely pair to put in a sentence, let alone on a masthead, on one level. But on this other level, they were both deeply devoted to nurturing young writers.


I would say that Richard’s on a first-name basis with everyone in the history of poetry. He really is intimate with these poets. They’re people to him. His mentoring of younger poets is meant partly to bring them into the community of poets, to make them understand that they are writing poetry, not just writing. That they are makers, and by making you are joining a community. That’s the mode—we’re a part of a project here, alone and together, all of us.


If you stick around once he welcomes you, and you continue to seek him out, you see an example of what it is to be a poet—to have an expansive intelligence, to be generous with others, and to form a community.

CRAIG MORGAN TEICHER (poet, former student)

He told me this story. A bunch of poets, he and Lowell, among others—and I don’t know how one could corroborate this—they went swimming somewhere in a lake. This must have been in the fifties or sixties. They were all in the shallow part of the lake, and they were swimming through each other’s legs, which I guess is something that midcentury people did for fun. And Lowell—who was famously sort of crazy—apparently locked Richard’s head in between his legs when Richard was swimming through, and wouldn’t let him up for a while. When he finally did, Richard surfaced to find Lowell barking with laughter at this funny thing he’d done. But it scared the crap out of Richard. It was a time warp for me, hearing that story—this connection to a casual moment in the lives of two of my heroes.


The first day I met him, I went to see him just to ask if I could be in one of his classes. I explained who I was, and what I was doing, and he very sweetly said, But, my dear, you’re already a poet. Because on his desk was a copy of Salmagundi Magazine. Coincidentally, there was a long article in that issue about his work by James Longenbach. Richard picked it up, opened it, and I could see that on the page opposite the end of the Longenbach was my poem. He said, See? Very nice poem. You’re already a poet.

That kind of generosity, though, is the kind I’ve experienced from Richard in all these years since. You’re already a poet. And to include you in that circle of poets when you’re just starting out … He’s never been otherwise.

LORIN STEIN (editor, former student)

In college I was lucky enough to take a seminar with Richard devoted entirely to the problems of translating the French alexandrin, the twelve-syllable line of traditional French poetry. A whole semester. It was one of the best classes I ever took. Richard could instantly point to what was alive in even crummy, apprentice attempts, and could gently dismiss for all time a stumble, as a stumble.

I remember him once pointing to a line in a translation of a sonnet by José-Maria de Heredia. I don’t remember what the line was, but I remember him muttering under his breath, Oh, that won’t do. It stuck with me. The idea that there’s no point in analyzing the problems of a translation if it won’t do.


There is no space in Richard’s apartment not covered with books, except the ceiling, where gravity prevents him from shelving them. And hung upon the bookcases and the few little bits of wall that are free are just hundreds of pictures of poets. I mean, there are pictures on every surface in the house where there’s room for them, but it’s really the bathroom where you notice it. Elizabeth Bishop … just all these people you don’t want watching you doing your business.


He told me someone went into his bathroom, came out, and wanted to know who I was, having seen my picture in there. I told him I wasn’t sure if that was a compliment or not. Quite the privileged place to be immortalized, though.


I understood that Richard was a high priest of art. I’m sure the Pope has portraits of all the saints in the papal quarters of the Vatican.


His apartment is the only place you can go to the bathroom and feel intimidated because you think the Goncourt brothers are observing you. But that’s what I mean by being intimate. These are models and mentors, sure, but he really doesn’t make that much of a distinction between the poets he knew and the poets he did not know, the poets he read and the poets he knew personally.


I took care of his dog for a long time—this amazing creature of a thing named Gide, who was a French bulldog, more human than dog, though a very strange human. French bulldogs, you know, they’re one of those inbred kind of breeds, and they can’t really breathe. So when Gide would sneeze, he’d cover his own face with snot. And you know that scene at the beginning of Scooby-Doo, where Scooby just like licks all this food off his face? That was Gide’s favorite thing, to sneeze on his face. It was like a free meal.


One of my favorite days of the year when I was managing editor of the Review was to bring our volunteer poetry readers over to Richard’s apartment. He would sit with this crowd of aspiring poets and discuss their work. For volunteer readers, this was way beyond any kind of cash remuneration for their services they could have ever imagined. Unfailingly, behind Richard on his high-backed armchair, would sit Maude, in those days—Maude, who was later eclipsed by Gide. The young poets would sit there and try to keep a straight face as Richard, in his wonderful, articulate way, critiqued their work while the dog licked the bald pate of his head.


Gide also licked other things.


When I was in my thirties, when I realized I was going to actually have a life in poetry—before that, it was really questionable—but after I published a book and had a job, I began looking around for literary models. I couldn’t find many. Most poets, I discovered, were very bitter and somewhat unhappy. They felt underappreciated. When I met Richard, I met someone who was not bitter, who wasn’t so concerned with his own reputation. He really felt fulfilled. And the way he felt fulfilled was the way he participated in literature. And the way he brought other people in—of course with his own translations, but also with his talks about poetry, his reading of poetry, his reviews. I found a model of someone who was fully realized. He was joyful in his participation in poetry.


When I close my eyes, I picture Richard in one of his spectacular outfits—but mostly I just see this huge smile. The way he looks at you with utter delight. He’s somebody who is truly happy to be in the world.


He has always had that impeccable sense of style. Early on in his tenure as poetry editor at the Review, we invited him to a causal dinner at George’s. I think we made a pot of spaghetti. I can still see Richard arriving, looking debonair—the red frames of his glasses matching the stripes of his shirt, the elegant jacket, the whole look. And then there’s George, bent over his manual typewriter with one shirttail out of his trousers, sleeves half rolled up, hair every which way because he’s on deadline. His prep for dinner was to tuck in his shirttail and comb his hair. I felt like a nervous yenta, bringing these two together, but I needn’t have worried. Their common sense of mission at the Review was clear even that very first night, over spaghetti on Seventy-Second Street.


Richard loves to read his poems to his friends. He loves to share the excitement of creation. He’s got a wonderful, performative voice. Reading a poem by Richard is only part of the experience. Hearing it is the complete experience.


Richard is the heir to Browning, with his dramatic monologues. He disguises himself. “Howard’s Way” is a way of thinking about himself through others. He does remarkable impersonations of other figures. But behind it is a kind of meditation about being a person, and how to be a person and become an artist.


Richard doesn’t insist that young poets sound like him, or like one another. He’s open to all kinds of things. He has a nose that will let him say, This will do, that won’t do. But it’s a very mysterious thing. It’s the same thing that made him able to hear and honor a daunting diversity of voices in Les fleur du Mal. It allows him a great variety of pleasure and experience in his reading. That’s one thing to treasure when you look at his years at The Paris Review, the variety of expression.


That image of our volunteer poetry readers gathering at Richard’s apartment has never left me. It embodies, to me, some of the singular things about him as an editor and, I imagine, as a teacher—his love of nurturing talent, and the time and care he energetically puts into that. Also, of course, his ability to draw a crowd around him that would hang on his every word.


It’s important to remember Richard made himself up. All this knowledge didn’t just come to him through his education. Yes, he went to progressive schools in Cleveland, and then Columbia. But he decided to turn himself into a person of letters. It’s a very American story. He decided to do that. He figured out how to talk like that and how to think like that. You know the other people in Cleveland weren’t talking and thinking that way. Richard’s is a very American story of how to become, and how to live the life of, a cosmopolitan artist.


Daniel Johnson works at The Paris Review.