I MUST START by saying that Richard Howard is my dear friend, the mentor to whom I am most indebted, one of a few people who have shown me by example what it means to be gratefully beholden to others. So, what follows is equal parts personal recollection, tribute, and consideration of Howard's important work in poetry, both on and off the page.
It's hard to write about Howard's poems: few of us (myself very much included) have the ear for Howard’s layering, Jamesian sentences, and diction, and fewer still have the knowledge, the astoundingly comprehensive reading necessary to recognize and keep up with his allusions. The typical Howard poem is a several-page-long dramatic monologue (he is the last half-century's torchbearer for this ageless poetic genre) cast in syllabics learned from Marianne Moore (Howard is also perhaps the only significant practitioner of this meter since Moore) in which, more often than not, two great literary figures of the past meet for lunch and engage in a discussion that lives out Howard's own lush fantasies about the literature they might have written, the influence they might have cast upon each other, the lives they might have led had their lives intersected. For Howard, literary figures — he loves that word, "figures," meaning not just a biographical person, but that person in terms of a moment in history and the context created by all those who have read and discussed him or her, the way they “figure” in literary history — live on sort of like grown-up action figures, like toys he is shamelessly playing with, delighting in. The delight evident in Howard's poetic voice is one of the primary pleasures of reading his work.
Then there is Howard's other kind of poem, somewhat rarer in his ouvre, the short, omniscient lyric that brings wisdom and considerable wit (Howard also fans the cultural flame out of which puns continue to be born, an important service and, truly, part of all poets' job descriptions, whether they acknowledge it or not) to bear on considerable topics: time, aging, poetry itself. These are perhaps more inviting (though perhaps less precious to Richard) than the monologues, only because readers require less equipment to gain entry, allowing more readers to walk in. Here's one of Howard's finest works in this manner:
ELEMENTARY PRINCIPLES AT SEVENTY-TWO
When we consider the stars
(what else can we do with them?) and even
recognize among them sidereal
father-figures (it was our
consideration that arranged them so),
they will always outshine us, for we change.
When we behold the water
(which cannot be held, for it keeps turning
into itself), that is how we would move-
but water overruns us.
And when we aspire to be clad in fire
(for who would not put on such apparel?)
the flames only pass us by —
it is a way they have of passing through.
But earth is another matter. Ask earth
to take us, the last mother —
one womb we may reassume. Yes indeed,
we can have the earth. Earth will have us.
I love that rhetorical question in the second line about the stars — "what else can we do with them?” — because, first, it's the kind of offhand interrogation Richard — let me call him Richard from here on out — makes aloud all the time, with a mischievous smile and eyes pinching under the profound magnification of his thick, owl-eye glasses, when faced with the ridiculous behavior of politicians, poets, and people he encounters in Washington Square Park, near his longtime apartment (whose walls seem, literally, to be made of books — perhaps 10,000 volumes occupying every inch of a narrow New York studio), but also because it demonstrates what I'll call Richard's expanding poetic voice, which always speaks beyond the poem, into a conversation the reader is suddenly having with culture and history, even posterity, Richard’s friend the way “immortality” was Emily Dickinson’s.
Richard’s poems are always looking back, though sometimes at what might have been rather than what was. These might-have-beens are always in retrospect from this present, the one whose books and people formed Richard (“it was our / consideration that arranged them so”), and so Richard’s figured past reflects our time, our culture, the one we share with Richard, even if we don’t know it, or can’t know it as well as he does.
The above poem is a kind of sequel to one written a few years earlier — “At 65,” in which Richard writes:
The tragedy, Colette said, is that one
does not age. Everyone else does, of course
(as Marcel was so shocked to discover),
and upon one’s mask odd disfigurements
are imposed; but that garrulous presence
we sometimes call the self, sometimes deny
it exists at all despite its carping
monologue, is the same as when we stole
the pears, spied on mother in the bath, ran
away from home.
Richard’s art doesn’t lament age and bodily decay, it merely puts it in its place: the very boy who “stole / the pears, spied on mother […] ran / away from home,” must now view the world through aging eyes’ increasingly foggy window. Richard’s brilliant and precocious speakers do not wish, bodily, to return to the “one womb we may reassume,” but to inhabit the body in which they may remain the youthful age they are. The mask suffers “odd disfigurements,” but the body of art remains immortal.
We are not merely brains on stalks, but living bodies, too, and Richard remembers our bodies have their own lament, as in this prototypical early poem, from his second book, Damages:
An Old Dancer
Because there is only one of you in all of time … the world will not have it …
— Martha Graham
Your props had always been important:
Preposterous poniards, rings and thorns,
Things without a name you fell upon
Or through. Now they are your props indeed.
Take that iron prong you dangle from,
Strung up, slung like a sick animal
Who used to rise as straight as any tree
Without such corporal irony.
Propped then, you make no bones, or only
Bones, of husbanding your strength. For strength
Was your husband, and you’re widowed now.
The face that was a mask of wonder
Wizens into the meaninglessness
Of some Osaka marionette,
And there is properly little more
That you can do for us than think.
What thoughts are yours, or were yours when
Half-visionary and half-voyeur
You tore the veils from Remembered Women,
Rarely lovely, except as the space
That took them into its hugest mouth
Makes any movement lovely: at first
It was enough for you to be them,
Violent, often vague as they come,
Until the years and the work of years
Led you beyond being into more
Than self supplied: now you must review
What you have been and let the others
Do. What you were a whole theater
Has become. What have you lost by that
Exchange, save as the tree loses by
Giving up its leaves and standing bare?
O Dancer, you have lost everything,
Shuddering on your iron gallows-tree.
Bane, bone and violence, you answer
Yeats in kind, unkindest witch of all:
“We know the dancer from the dance” by age,
By growing old. The dance goes on,
The dancers go, and you hang here
Like stale meat on your dead steel branch.
Addressed to the aged Martha Graham, this poem narrates what is finally the central tragedy in the universe of Richard’s poetry: not the general finitude of the artist’s life and body versus the longevity of the art, but, more disturbingly, the decline of particular artists, particularly great ones, who must reconcile their finitude with the immortality of their own work, who must watch their art outlive them. Perhaps there is now greater torture for the great doer than to be swept aside by one’s own wake, forced to “review / […] and let the others / Do.”
This is why, I think, Richard, a gay man with no children of his own, has always surrounded himself with younger poets — he never stops doing, just some of what he does changes. He is the only octogenarian I know who has read more than 10 books by new poets every year of the last 40. Remember that Richard was also the publisher of many of the major figures in this generation: in the Braziller series he edited in the 1970s, he brought out first, or early, books by Frank Bidart, J. D. McClatchy, Cynthia MacDonald, Charles Simic, and others without whom we could not imagine the current poetic landscape.
Now, a brief interlude. In graduate school, I had the strange privilege of being, in addition to Richard's teaching assistant, what was known as "the Gide-sitter." Gide, named after the Nobel-winning French writer (Richard is, of course, the major translator from the French of the last 50 years; he translated Gide, and his version of The Little Prince makes that sublime story somehow more sublime, even if that’s the least of what he’s done), was a creature, ostensibly a dog, unlike any other I have ever encountered. A French bulldog by breed, Gide was certainly part human in his appetites and wiles. My role was to stay in Richard’s home when he left town, sometimes for weeks at a time, and care for Gide better than I now care for my own children.
Gide would do almost nothing without some form of compensation: to coerce him to walk, even a few steps, one had to bribe him with brown pellets of dry dog food, a baggie of which I was consigned to keep in my pocket at all times. I will never forget Richard’s demonstration of how to walk him through the park. The leash was less a tether than an oar; the walker essentially had to reverse-row Gide through the park, pulling against his fearsome stubbornness as though against a strong river current.
Inside the apartment, he spent most of his time sleeping, except when he felt inclined to hump anything he could wrap his legs around — Richard declined to fix him, unwilling to deny Gide any of life's pleasures. Otherwise, he would rarely move, snorting and snoring in the corner — French bulldogs were not designed — and they’re a sort of engineered breed — for breathing. The only time I ever saw him run was when he would play his favorite game with me: when I would open the front door to take the garbage to the trash chute, Gide would rush to the exit before me, look back with his alien grin, his eyes far apart as a fish’s — and run out the door at great speed, forcing me to chase him to the far, far end of the hallway, and carry him back. This was his favorite mode of transportation: being held aloft in someone's arms like a prince in a sedan chair. Gide was a really weird animal, but I loved him. He passed away years ago, and I will always miss him. What does Gide the dog-creature say about Richard the man of letters? Perhaps that Richard has a way of instilling a strange kind of humanity on anything upon which he exerts his influence. Though Gide may also have been one of the world’s great perplexities, an illustration only of himself.
I might as well confirm, too, a rumor that anyone who has heard of Richard may have heard: that instead of the normal around-the-table poetry workshops conducted in most MFAs, Richard invited, no, required, each of his students to visit his apartment on a weekly basis for his or her own poem-scrutinization session in his book-enthralled apartment (this is how I, and many others, met Gide), where Richard would scrutinize our poems like a jeweler testing the quality of some shimmering stone, the poem held close to his eyes on a clipboard, while the pen in Richard’s hand would excise unnecessary phrases and shape the poems into regular stanzas of two, three, four, or five lines (while the poet under consideration would fend off Gide’s advances on his or her crossed legs).
As a young writer newly come to New York with the aspiration to be what my wife calls “a part of literature,” it was hard to resist the deep and confusing allure of these meetings: a great man was reading my poems one at a time: they must have been worth something. Of course, this had a distorting effect on all of us, inflating our senses of ourselves as artists, letting us believe we were much further along than we were at 22 and 23. But I emerged grateful from that crucible, having learned vanity and humility before the same master.
In fact, it was in this position, facing Richard on one of the two couches that formed his meeting corner, that I became the model for one of his poems, “A Mistaken Identity,” from 2005’s The Silent Treatment, dedicated “to Craig Morgan Teicher, whom I recognized as the model for Ruben’s earliest dated work, Portrait of a Young Man […].” When he invited me over to read me the poem — mischievously promising me I’d never live it down — which interrogates the subject of this first portrait by the great Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, he also showed me the painting, which did, indeed, look a lot like me at the time, a messy beard and, well, that’s about all it took, or takes, with bearded men to match a likeness.
It was from this angle, where Richard had read my poems as a graduate student and where we have met and talked as friends ever since, that he, no doubt, based the mental portrait that appears in these lines, which describe an “oval doodad suspended by / a red cord” in the background of the painting and goes on to say,
Yet such ostentatious finery,
effective as it was, failed
to make the man your clothes had made of you
into anyone but my former student,
my contemporary friend
whose youth I have rehearsed with an equal
solicitude on my own premises …
It was that intricate ear
of yours, Craig, refuting a Flemish neck,
which gave the baroque masquerade away —
and quite distinct from your baroque drag
(like a sort of fresh-water clam fastened
behind your cheekbone).
I am nothing if not flattered to have earned such attention, and willing to suffer, eternally, that ellipsis in the name of friendship.
But, I digress. What I was getting at, what I am getting at by underscoring Richard’s literary mischief, is the eternal youth he has gotten, and we may get, from his writing. This is nowhere better displayed than in my favorites among Richard’s poems, which are among the most recent, slated to form a long-anticipated book called Progressive Education, begun, actually, in the last pages of his most recent collection, Without Saying. These poems, four of which are grouped there under the title “School Days,” are spoken in the voices of precocious fifth-grade students from a mid-century progressive school, Park School in Ohio, much like the one Richard himself attended; he even borrowed, as I understand it, some of his classmates’ actual names, including “Duncan Chu,” my favorite recurring character, who speaks true wisdom from the mouth of a babe, as do all them, addressing themselves to their school principal, “Mrs. Masters,” an almost divine authority to whom they appeal for judgment on every matter under the sun, including humanity’s senseless violence, as when one student nearly kills a peacock on a school trip:
should be punished, maybe expelled from Park School —
we all know for a fact he doesn’t even
believe in vampires,
no one in our class does — not enough to kill
a tame ten-year-old peacock for being one.
doesn’t believe in anything, he just likes
destroying things …
Religion also gets this faux-naive consideration:
And then Duncan Chu said that religions die
once they’re proved to be true. And that Science is
the tombstone of dead
religions. And Duncan’s not Jewish either.
But David Stashower is, so he had to
tell what his father
thinks: that Scientists now say the same thing
as Rabbis, but without capital letters.
Most alarming of all, Richard lets these poor kids come to term with death, with culpability, right under his, and our, eyes, when, after a piglet has been brought from a farm to visit the class, their science teacher
Dinny told us that as soon as Mr. Schwartz
put our piglet back
in the pen, the mother pig ate it right there
while she was nursing the rest of her litter!
How could she do that?
Dinny tried to explain to us that the sow
did not realize the piglet was gone, but
had found something wrong
with it once it was back, because everyone
had held it, and that’s when Jane McCullough and
Nancy Akers and
Jeanne Sturgess started crying, and Duncan Chu
said everyone should have been wearing gloves —
It’s as if this is what Richard has aspired to all along, to achieve the lost ability to see the world through eyes of much smarter than average children, who know more than they should and can’t quite resist the pain-tinged excitement that comes with knowing everything that they finally must. The dark weight of responsibility hasn’t quite dropped itself upon these children, but neither are they for a moment entirely unaware of its encroachment.
It seems to me that, in the voices of L. Frank Baum, Wallace Stevens, and a whole cast of others, Richard has been working toward these fifth graders all along, minds bent on creative engagement with knowledge but able to stave off, for the span of their youth, for the span of a poem, an excess of hopelessness, which damns all art and life. Richard’s work in and on behalf of poetry is, precisely, an antidote to hopelessness.