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Richard Howard is the high priest of the
most secretive sect of the cult of art, one that, sheltered from the rude gaze of public
scrutiny, seeks to reward only the initiate. In his now infamous remarks at the 1996 PEN
Literary Awards, he decried the commodification of poetry into National Poetry Month as
surely "one of the worst things ever to happen to poetry." He avowed,
If we are to save poetry, which means if we are to savor it, we must
restore poetry to that status of seclusion and even secrecy that characterizes only our
authentic pleasures and identifies only our intimately valued actions.
Such is not a new or remarkable stance, but Howard offers himself as
a counterweight to Robert Pinsky's breakneck and publicly funded attempts to make poems as
commonplace as the morning newspapers (or perhaps a better figure, given Pinsky's
enthusiasm for technology-to make poetry as pervasive as those AOL CD ROMs that appear
weekly in everyone's mailbox). The irony is that, after the nation's poet laureate, Howard
is poetry's most public figure--as poetry editor of the Paris Review and the Western
Humanities Review, professor at Columbia, selector of manuscripts for various presses,
frequent lecturer at conferences and universities, and tireless champion of a growing
number of struggling and established practitioners of the art.
Howard believes that poetry should indeed be a secret, not
available for general consumption. Its value should lie in the very fact of its
unavailability (simple supply-and-demand economics). This is a difficult stance for a poet
today, as poetry struggles to find its place in our culture, and one might argue that only
a prominent poet like Richard Howard could get away with it. Part of the apparent secrecy
for Howard is his concern with the gaze of poems upon other works of art, including other
poems. Though he occasionally takes up a subject from the realm of the politically
correct, there is little that is merely socially critical or multicultural about his
work--or, better said, his criticisms are far more sophisticated than the usual claptrap of
today's politically conscious poetry. Refusing to be judged as a gay or Jewish poet,
Howard is openly hostile toward attempts to evaluate art by anything except aesthetic
criteria. In many ways he is our most conservative poet.
His latest collection, Trappings, as concerned with art as any of
his previous books, explores the nature of artifice itself. Howard's poems construct a
series of lenses, like a medieval microscope, to view his subjects. Those lenses are poems
that view paintings that view poems--so much focus and reflection on what has been
"trapped" in the eyepiece. Ten of the poems here are direct responses to
paintings or sculpture; others refer generously to other poems and poets, past and present
(including Milton, Browning, Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, Mona Van Duyn, and Muriel Rukeyser).
Howard examines what is held for us in the trust of Art in order to clarify it, negate it,
champion it, or offer a different perspective on it. As his speaker says in "Avarice
1849: A Distraction," a photographer attempting Balzac's portrait, "Indulge / my
lens but one more moment, then / you may correct my views as wisdom sees fit."
What saves Howard's work from being esoteric is his generosity
and emotional range. Not merely aesthetic divagations, Howard's poems engage the human by
whatever means they can. "The Manatee," for example, stands in dialogue with
poems by Frost and Bishop about strange, revealing encounters with the natural world-other
beings in animal guise-and reaches a conclusion borne as much out of aesthetics as from
basic, universal desire. "Our great / human hope . . ."
is to greet The Other (whatever gap
grins between us) as Another-let's say,
members of a cast one is
proud to share the Comedy with today.
Howard's generosity lies in recognizing that the "gap"
between the speaker and the manatee is essentially benign, not like a partition or a
hyphen, separating disparate elements. He arrives at this conclusion partly through a
linguistic observation. Manatee and emanate are anagrams: "no other verb could state
/ so well the means of its apparition." When human understanding is applied, the
manatee's nature becomes one of reaching out, and for Howard the great human comedy (the
tale with the happy ending) should gather everything in. This stance is the substance of
his dictum in "For Mona Van Duyn, Going On":
Most of us, Mona,
spoil our poems (our lives) because we have
ideas--not ideas but approved topics
that can be carried around intact.
The "possession of wisdom," he adds, should be renounced
for the "power to observe." Such recognition is the first task for Howard's
reader-initiate, as it is key to his approach to art.
Not everything, however, is so sweet. "Dorothea Tanning's
Cousins," for example, is a fine meditation on desire and familiarity and their dark
opposites (or are they themselves dark?). Howard sees in the abstract, mixed-media
sculpture (reproduced on the book's cover) a couple "melting / together yet somehow
sadly apart, / orifices certainly unmatched to / protuberances." They embody a play
of tyranny and submission, each alternating (or surrendering) to these roles, the one
truly becoming the other in all aspects. Though Howard calls them he and she, since the
sculpture is abstract, it is not clear which figure is which. The viewer-reader can shift
them in his mind. The goal of their embrace, much like the goal of religion or art, is to
reach that "pitch of expertise / when the thing seen becomes the unseen
thing"--when the practitioner's skill becomes the vehicle of revelation for the
faithful. Howard's conclusion:
With enemies like themselves (all cousins
"descended from a common ancestor"),
what lovers need
This is as political a poem as any. The ending questions the
grounding of relationships, loyalties. The cousins are enemies because their forces are in
opposition to each other, but are they themselves so different? Is coming together that
which drives them apart? Which of their multiple relationships should hold sway?
Howard's focus is always the nexus of life and art. It is not
enough to say that one simply is the other (though he often does). The two participate
fully in each other-feeding, deriving identity and pleasure, quarreling, and ultimately
sustaining each other, like a pair of lovers. The relationship is as messy as it is
beautiful, yet how could one exist without the other? Or wish to?
Based on a series of paintings that show the blind Milton
dictating Paradise Lost to his daughters, "Family Values" is his most extensive
treatment of this theme. The perspective is one of many removes-a poem about a painting of
a biographical scene made famous only because its subject has written a great poem.
Howard's poem is comprised of the voices of the daughters and letters between art dealers
and collectors, gallery owners and professors. Though the air might seem a bit rarefied,
Howard explores the nuances of these relationships, finding the tender (if often resented)
affection the daughters have for their father side by side with the petty, opportunistic
dealings of the art world. Howard is keen to show that the legacy of a work of art like
Milton's poem (how it has become known to the wide world) is unavoidably a story of human
"The Job Interview" likewise explores the messy
business of propagating such a legacy. Presenting himself in 1957 to André Breton to
translate Nadja, Howard faces "the danger": "Breton's legendary loathing of
queers." Howard struggles with Breton the artist and Breton the man-uselessly or
successfully, it is difficult to tell: "Nadja in English / is still in print, and
people still hate queers." His only solace is Breton's own words, written to his
wife, "criticism will be love, or will not be."
Poetry, too, will be love, or will not be. The dark and hidden,
that which is revealed by a change of perspective or from a distance, the metaphysical
nature of human relations as revealed through the lens of art--Howard knows that refining
his power to observe such secrets is truly the rarest act of love.