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New York State Poet, 1993-1995

"For we are not ourselves until we know how little of our selves is truly our own."
Richard Howard from “Beyond Words” in Findings

PREVIOUS VISIT: NYS Summer Writers Institute Reading - July 2, 2007

Richard Howard, poet, translator and critic was born in Cleveland, Ohio on October 13, 1929. An only child, he came to regard books as “ideal playmates” and resolved to be a poet himself at the age of four. He received a B.A. from Columbia University in 1951 and an M.A. in 1952. A growing interest in modern French poetry led to further graduate study at the Sorbonne from 1952 to 1953.

After returning to the United States, Howard supported himself first as a lexicographer and then as a translator of French. Since 1958, he has translated more than one hundred fifty books and has earned recognition as one of the truly authoritative translators of modern French literature. His work reads like a list of France’s leading writers, including Robbe–Grillet, de Beauvoir, Breton, Gide, Camus, Barthes, Reynard, Genet and Cocteau.

Howard’s first book of poems, Quantities (1962), received an enthusiastic reaction from critics impressed both by the poet’s technical brilliance and by his precocious youth. His second collection, The Damages (1967), displays what would become a trademark talent for impersonating a wide variety of historical voices.

Alone with America (1969), Howard’s first collection of critical essays, represents a broad survey of modern American poets who have achieved recognition since 1950. Adopting Auden’s dictum that “there is no criticism except advocacy,” he seeks to appreciate each poet’s strengths and individual mission.

Untitled Subjects, his third book of poetry, received the Pulitzer Prize in 1970. Here he exhibits his unique mastery of the dramatic monologue, presenting the voices of both well-known and marginal figures of the recent past. His fourth book, Findings (1971), continues to employ dramatic monologues but focuses more consistently on particular issues of existential anxiety.

In Preferences, a unique book published in 1974, Howard invites fifty-one major poets to pair their own contributions with a poem from the past. He accompanies each pair with a page of comparative criticism. Critic James McKenzie hailed the volume as “a valuable contribution to literary criticism.”

His fifth collection, Two-Part Inventions (1974), represents a new reliance on dramatic dialogue, rather than monologue, to explore highly charged situations of rejection, love and loss. Fellow Feelings (1976), his sixth collection, incorporates a new openness about personal matters including the poet’s own homosexuality. Howard’s next two collections, Misgivings (1979) and Lining Up (1984) introduce a novel interaction between poetry and the visual arts. Portions of each address portrait photographs of famous artists by the Frenchman, Nadar.

No Traveller (1989), Howard’s most recent volume of new poetry, continues to reanimate the voices of the dead, including personalities as varied as Wallace Stevens, Virginia Woolf, Rodin, Proust and Kafka. A review in Poetry magazine declared that “each line is taut with observation and energy” and predicted that Howard “will fascinate an ever wider audience.”

Penguin issued a volume of selected poems in 1991. A collection of new poems, Like Most Revelations, will appear in 1994.

In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, Howard’s numerous awards for poetry include Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters medal. Harold Bloom has proclaimed his work, “One of the handful of surprising and refreshing inventions in American poetry . . . Howard delights and astonishes.”

Howard’s translations have also earned high honors, including an American Book Award nomination for A Lover’s Discourse by Roland Barthes in 1979 and an American Book Award for Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal in 1984. The PEN American Center medal for translation followed in 1986 and the France-America Foundation Award in 1987.

Richard Howard is the poetry editor for the Paris Review and former poetry editor of the New American Review and of the New Republic. He has served as Director of the Braziller poetry series and as President of the PEN American Center. Currently, he is a professor of English at the University of Houston.

from the works of Richard Howard

. . All
is nothing, but afterwards: after
everything has been endured.
Till then, everything is something
other than what it is . . . .
You are not likely to make much of
what I have just said to you. . . .
But then, you are not likely
to be here. . . . What is likely?
It is an irony, it is even
a paradox you should be
asking for these reminiscences,
these webs I have been spinning
so long—God forbid you might call them
ideas! Those my colleagues have,
and from my colleagues I have learned: all
fabrication of ideas
is evasion of a story . . . But
for all my stories–have I
even told you one? Have I begun? . . .
—from “Oracles” in No Traveller

. . . I shall never forget,
as the convent gates were locked behind us,
Wagner turned and asked if I entertained prospects
for my daughter. ‘None but to rescue her,’
I replied, ‘from the countess her mother.’ On which
he cast down his eyes—” (who could believe that?)
“— and these were his very words: ‘Late experience
has made my own relation to the world
a negative one almost entirely. Were I
not an artist, I could become a saint—
yet this redemption is not assigned me.’ And then,”
said old Liszt, “with a feverish embrace
he cried: ‘Leaving that girl behind us is merely
another proof, my friend, of the great rule
by which I determine my life: all art is but
elegy.’” Liszt had tears in his eyes, then,
and could no more than stammer out to me: “Ma foi,
c’était superbe, as our poor friend Chopin
used to say.” . . .

— from “1882” in Untitled Subjects

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