To paraphrase Sir Thomas Beecham, in the 1950s American writing was in a state of emergency, and so Richard Howard emerged. His new collection,Trappings, which shows him at the height of his form, reminds us how for decades, Howard’s work has served as a gold standard for those who care about the shape, sound, and wit of a poem.
Other young writers like James Merrill also followed the example of W. H. Auden in creating verse of great formal grace and profound feeling. But Richard Howard’s full cultural contribution over these past years is incomparable. Author of eleven collections of remarkable subtlety, his real measure as a poet has been difficult to ascertain, since his past ten books are out of print. The long overdue collected or even selected poems has not yet materialized, and so Howard’s other roles, extraordinary as they are, may have unjustly predominated in people’s minds.
He is, of course, a celebrated translator from the French, a prizewinner for hisFleurs du mal of Baudelaire, although as a rule he sticks to prose (his translation of Stendahl’s Charterhouse of Parma for the Modern Library is a current bestseller). And his collection of studies of his contemporaries, Alone in America, is an unmatched accomplishment. What other writer could have, or would have, entered into the imaginative universes of his coevals in such exuberant prose? And then there are his activities as poetry editor (a post he currently holds at the Paris Review, Western Humanities Review, and a number of presses), one of the very few poets to take up this task with happy results. A polymath by nature, Howard avoids the creepy clubbiness that some writers fall into when passing judgment on work by friends and foes, which can descend into an "I’ll-scratch-your-back" reciprocity. In America’s poetry scene today, dominated by the Academy because the majority of poets work in Academia, Howard is an inoffensive academician. What other poet has his Saintsburyian breadth of reading knowledge ? Someone who knows this much naturally fits into an academy, or else what does an academy mean?
Which brings us to the poems. Learned, yes. Formally illuminated, yes. But they are also imbued with a human heart and wit that, like James Merrill’s, makes them living things, forever actual. Whereas some casual readers may be hung up on Howard’s most literary concoctions, involving Browning or the nineteenth-century French photographer Nadar, in fact the body of his work consists of poems of experience and emotion. Erudite "trappings" are sometimes used to classify this writer, but what might be called his "personal" poems are among his most attractive and endearing; whether chatting backstage before a reading with Auden, or talking to poets Muriel Rukeyser or Mona van Duyn, what people say to him becomes poetry through an ideal transmutation. Amused and bemused in equal measure by what is current, he juxtaposes it with the timeless. So, a poem like the wry "Disclaimers" offers a politically correct institutional warning about Rubens’s "Rape of the Sabine Women": "the policy of the Museum is not to be taken amiss: / we oppose all forms of harassment, and just because we have shown / this canvas in no way endorses the actions committed therein." Showing a fascinated ear for today’s mœurs, the poem "Mrs. Eden in Town for the Day" describes a glamorous homeowner who is obliged to purchase "coyote piss– / for the garden":
… We use about a quart a month:
it really does deter the deer.
This man I know at the zoo keeps it for me, for
a group of us, actually:
all gardeners. He happens to be a keeper–
of coyotes, hyenas, wolves,
whatever–and keeps coyote piss as well
(under refrigeration, of course),
sells it right there at the zoo. I hate the long drive,
but I love having no more deer
in the garden. Expensive, too, or should I say
dear, but it’s definitely not
a competitive item–where else can you get
coyote piss that’s full strength,
not reconstituted from crystals or some kind
of concentrate? It has to be
fresh–from the wild–or the damn deer just
I wonder how such merchandise
would be collected?
Born in Cleveland in 1929, Howard’s seventieth birthday has passed without any festschrift hoopla, although it would not be characteristic of him to expect any. Indeed, he has helped so many poets over the years, deserving and undeserving, that we are probably to be grateful that worse neglect has not been his lot. Oscar Wilde’s quip is pertinent: "I don’t know why the fellow loathes me, I never did anything good for him." Still free of fear or favor, the poet of Trappings is at the top of his powers. Some contemporaries have declined into gloomy meditation on how "even I must die" (filling their books with Mexican woodcuts of skulls or making bloated lists of dead friends until the reader regrets not to have known the poet and died, thus benefiting from the publicity). The gripes of aging and vain heterosexual eminences are not Howard’s thing. Unlike such gloom-and-dooms, he keeps his wits about him. His poems on the soberest subjects are moving but delightful to read, like the series of elegies in his previous collection, Like Most Revelations.
The title of this new book, Trappings, may at first seem to refer to the sylvan Americana of Daniel Boone, but its meaning is in fact closer to La Trappe, that bustling hive of monastic energy and accomplishment. As a Trapper, Howard is a family singer, climbing the mountain and fording the stream of John Milton, for example. The five-poem sequence at the heart of the book, "Family Values," is a delicious excursus on the painterly subject of the blind Milton dictating Paradise Lost to his daughters. It is hard to be both tonic and Miltonic, but Howard is the man for the job. Here is Howard’s Deborah, the youngest of the daughters, from "Family Values I":
Come girls, it is time: I want to be milked!
such is his humor, so he summons us
–he would be cheerful, even in gout-fits–
but no frolic for me, the faery pen
he favors over Anne and Mary, far
the better scriveners (nothing he cares
for letters he cannot see, theirs or mine):
Wake to be the world that is your name,
Deborah, bearer of glad tidings, born
through death and known to me by darkness, wake,
utter a song.This to my thirteen years.
What does it mean that he will call me his
Cordelia, heart of hearts? Am I the more his
without a mother, and are these sisters
–merely for knowing her–Regan, Goneril?
Witty, formally dazzling, and imbued with their subjects, these poems also show an understanding of father-daughter relationships that may one day spark a dissertation topic, "Richard Howard as Feminist Poet." Other women important to this book include Columbia University professor Marjorie Nicholson, drolly portrayed as the Lady Bracknell of Butler Library, and a touchingly comic and true Muriel Rukeyser in "A Sybil of 1979." Inspiration from women artists like Lee Krasner and Dorothea Tanning is also central to the book.
Women are admired, but the quizzical nature of human connections in general are described in "The Twain Meeting," when during a trip to Japan the poet is puzzled by local body language: "Use both hands to receive presents in Japan: / it is a culture which makes no distinction / between left and right, though many Japanese / will be dismayed when American guests eat / noodles noiselessly." And the lost connections of death are focused upon, inevitably for a fin-de-siècle gay man at a time of Plague. The poem "Among the Missing" refers to ghosts of gay men who formerly cruised Gansevoort piers in downtown New York. The past, or what is lost, is epitomized by his fraternal and collegial rapport with the irreplaceable James Merrill, whose aura hovers over this book, although he is mentioned only once, in the reflective "At 65." Merrill and Howard are also linked, in my mind, as among the few poets of today who are admirable both artistically and ethically.
Gay themes are made current in another poem of reminiscence, "The Job Interview" (with Andre Breton, 1957), in which Howard remarks that forty years on, his translation of Breton’s Nadja "is still in print, / and people still hate queers." Indeed, Howard’s superb oeuvre has been achieved in times when the last officially sanctioned racism, homophobia, still flourishes in America today. Yet Howard has always been a poet of delight. Exuberance and energy are his bywords, and this splendid collection’s final words speak to a future of new poems that will continue to look back in joy: "Like Orpheus, like Mrs. Lot, you / will be petrified–astonished–to learn / memory is endless, life very long, / and you–you are immortal after all." Cleveland may never know what it wrought.