Richard Howard receiving the 2017 Hadada Award. Matteo Mobilio.
Richard Howard, poet, translator, critic, and poetry editor of this magazine from 1992 to 2004, died yesterday at the age of ninety-two. He was the last of a certain type of literary person, of which I am tempted also to call him the first—I can think of no one like him, except perhaps Robert Browning or Henry James, two of the writers whose work most profoundly animated his life. His approach to literature was both comprehensive and conversational—he lived in the books he loved, all the time, was ever in the midst of talking about them, ever encountering the great writers in his imagination, and reawakening them in poems that staged impossible meetings between literary and historical figures. These were his favorite fantasies: Richard Strauss addressing Arnold Schoenberg, Henry James reviewing a film released in 1942. Such figures (he loved that word) were his toys, and poetry his lifelong playroom, though in addition to the goal of finding and spreading joy in literature, he was committed to stewardship; he made it his business to ensure that the giants of the past weren’t forgotten. His most frequent and vehement complaint about other people was “They don’t read.”
Reading was Richard’s primary occupation. His New York apartment was covered in books, floor to ceiling, interrupted only by a desk, a few places to sit, a bed in a book-lined alcove (which was also home to Mildred, Richard’s life-size stuffed gorilla), and the bathroom, adorned with dozens of small portraits of famous writers, glaring at anyone who dared use the toilet. The kitchen was an afterthought—mostly a place to store kibble for Gide, his eccentric French bulldog, since Richard almost always ate out. I used to care for Gide when Richard traveled, so I was once there on his return from a trip to Europe with his husband, the artist David Alexander; the souvenir Richard was most excited to show off was a gargantuan copy—I think in French, though perhaps in the original Italian—of Leopardi’s Zibaldone, which had not yet been translated into English in its entirety. Finally he could read it! New books were among the major events of his life. By his door was always a growing stack of books to sell to the Strand; at some point David had introduced the rule that for every new book that came in, one had to go out.
I was blessed to spend a lot of time with Richard during the last twenty years of his life. I met him in 2002 at Columbia, where I was his student, then his assistant, his dog-sitter, and eventually his friend. Richard unabashedly played favorites—he was from an older literary world that had always worked that way—and I was lucky enough to be chosen. I’ll never quite understand why he picked me, except that he saw something in my nascent poems, plus he liked underdogs and fixer-uppers, and at twenty-two, I was both—young, sloppy, and eager to live in literature as he did.
It’s difficult to convey now what a towering figure Richard was when we first met. With a mere phone call, he could usher any manuscript into publication. Susan Sontag would call him to complain about literary goings-on, and a constant parade of American literary legends marched through his doors—I met W. S. Merwin on Richard’s couch. His students came, too: he met with us in private, holding our poems up close to his giant circular glasses (of which he had pairs in enough colors to match almost any of his socks), crossing out extraneous words, adding commas, and enjoining us to make our lines neat and even. He preferred poems to be, as he liked to say, “attractive.” To sit with him was to sit in the glorious eye of a thousand-year literary storm, to be guided through its currents, to be invited in and taught how to comport oneself. Richard conceived of poetry as a big tent: he saw a need for many kinds of voices, as his many issues of the Review attest. He was a gatekeeper, an elitist, in the sense that there were tests to pass, passwords to learn, but he believed that anyone could learn them, so long as they weren’t among those who “don’t read.”
Richard is best known for his books of dramatic monologues from the sixties and seventies: Untitled Subjects, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, and Two-Part Inventions. In some ways, the prerequisite for appreciating these books might be to read everything Richard had read, which is to say almost everything. Very few people could feel fully at ease in the climate of Richard’s poems, but many can still be deeply pleasurable for those of us with a more limited frame of reference. Those poems revel in Richard’s favorite pastime: verbal improvisation. Richard loved the rhythms and beats and falls of spoken language, the ways clauses could fold sentences back on themselves, twisting like balloon animals. He loved to lecture, in part, I think, because he relished the opportunity to run his words through an obstacle course. Almost all of his dramatic monologues are simulations of lengthy, generous lectures—intimate because they are usually addressed to particular individuals, whom Richard imagines as eager and willing students. As a reader, or as one of Richard’s actual students, one was always trying to live up to the capaciousness of his poems, stretching to know a little more than one did.
My favorites among his poems, in part because I had all the necessary equipment to enjoy them—Richard made it abundantly clear, when I worked briefly as his secretary, that I lacked certain knowledge but he loved me anyway—and in part because they seem to me to embody Richard, the person, more than any of his other work (and please permit me, in tribute to my mentor and friend, this mazelike, Howardian sentence), are the ones in the last book of poems he completed, in 2014, called A Progressive Education.
Instead of characters from literature or history, these poems conjure a group of sixth-grade students from Park School, a progressive school much like the one Richard himself attended in the thirties and forties in Cleveland. For these fictional students, he told me, he was inspired by his own grade-school peers. They speak like adults, if those adults were all Richard. The poems are cast as letters, written in a collective voice by the students to their school’s principal, Mrs. Masters. They report back from a school trip, suggest changes to the curriculum, and try to fathom the disgusting act they learn about in their “Hygiene Concentration”:
… we learned about Sexual Intercourse
between Men & Women. Some Class members claim
they knew already
but according to
Miss Husband, most people know different things
about S.I., yet what Promotes Fulfillment
in Sexual Life
(her actual words)
is that everybody should know the same things.
“The whole Class / finds it hard to believe that grownup people / voluntarily subject themselves to such / senseless behavior,” the poem continues. A visit to the Komodo Dragon enclosure at “the Reptile House / of the Cleveland Zoo” suggests an alternative that fits better with the students’ emerging life plans, a “view of a Future / free from the horrors / of Sexual Intercourse”:
… one female
went ahead and laid
a clutch of fertile eggs that managed to hatch
by a process called parthenogenesis—
which means they don’t need
S.I. with the males.
(This also happens, one keeper informed us
with certain fish!) Well, what we’d like to know is:
could Science obtain
What Richard claimed, and what his poems will claim forever, is a profound sympathy for the questioning mind, in which nothing is ever settled, and which is ever finding and filling gaps in its collection of impressions and facts. This is the Richard I knew and whose memory I will always cherish: mischievous, wringing all the wisdom he could from a playful naivete. During the years he was writing poems in A Progressive Education, around 2010, a visit to his apartment meant a giddy private performance of his latest installment, intoned dramatically in Richard’s slightly high-pitched, nasal voice, suddenly inflected (but hadn’t it always been?) with the searching tones of a child who knew not whereof he spoke, yet knew he was right. These readings were all mischief, Richard practicing his brand of literary subversion.
Richard taught me many, many things; most of all, he believed in the value of my sentences, in their music and meaning. And I am far from alone in my gratitude. In the past day, my social media feeds have filled with snapshots of letters Richard wrote to aspiring poets, kind and hilarious rejection notes, and blurbs like tiny prose poems or mini essays adorning the backs of literally hundreds of books. Richard could be contrary and complex, but fundamentally he was generous: he wanted more poetry in the world; he lived to beckon voices onto the page. The fruits of his labor fill countless bookshelves.
Craig Morgan Teicher is the Review’s digital director and the author, most recently, of the poetry collection Welcome to Sonnetville, New Jersey.
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