Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Hall of Voices: Richard Howard

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Hall of Voices: Richard Howard

Article excerpt

Hall of Voices: Richard Howard Richard Howard. Inner Voices: Selected Poems, 1963-2003. Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2004. 428 pp. $16.00 (paper)

Richard Howard. Paper Trail: Selected Prose, 1965-2003. Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2004. 434 pp. $16.00 (paper)

Richard Howard. The Silent Treatment. Turtle Point Press 2005. 114 pp. $16.95 (paper)

In a 1973 essay on Emily Dickinson, given pride of place as the first piece in Paper Trail, Richard Howard meditates on the impulse to normalize Dickinson's eccentricities of presentation and sensibility. Mischievously, he proposes that we see those eccentricities as analogous to "perversions." "It was Freud," he writes, "who first taught us that a perversion is the opposite of a neurosis, that homosexuality, for instance, is not a problem but the solution to a problem." He goes on to explain what this might mean for a reader: "The one generalization I should care to hazard as to how we should respond to literature is that when we are troubled-bored, provoked, offended-by characteristic features of a writer's work, it is precisely those features which, if we yield to them, if we treat them as significance rather than as defect, will turn out to be that writer's solution to his own problems of composition and utterance." This principle, Howard adds, he derived from Jean Cocteau, who two decades earlier had advised him as follows: "Ce que les autres vous reprochent, cultivez cela: c'est vous-même (What other people reproach you for, cultivate: it is yourself)." Besides being a strategy for making one's way in a French salon, this was also, Howard saw, a plan for writing poetry, and he used it to become what he praised Dickinson, in her very different way, for being: a reproachable writer.

Reproachable? As The Silent Treatment, the title of his newest book of poems, playfully suggests, Howard is alive to the potential for insult, umbrage, and counter-attack in our dealings with each other. In particular he is attuned to the ways that people express or defend themselves against the hatred of Jews and gays, and to the isolating sacrifices required of the artist. He often reminds us that to make art is to risk giving offense, no less than other kinds of human singularity or difference do. The reproachable singularity he himself has cultivated is that of an immensely cultivated man. An obsessive reader, a lover of modern art, and a tireless expert in almost every other form of culture as well, Howard expects the reader to keep up with him; while he may explain and even tutor, he never provides notes to guide us through his work. In one poem he has Proust say, with some pique, "I don't see why / people can't look things up, I always do" ("Love Which Alters"). His poetry continually invites us to "look things up."

Howard's style, instantly recognizable, is learned, recursive, hypotactic, wise-cracking, arch. It is tempting to call it a camp style, and to explain it as a reflex of his homosexuality, that "problem" which Freud taught him to view as a "solution." But this would be to miss what is most daring and distinctive about it. That is, his homosexuality is less likely to scandalize the reader today than what he calls his "verbality." So while it matters that he is gay, it also matters that he worked as a lexicographer in the Fifties, and that he is a prolific and important translator of French literature and literary theory. The perversity of his poetry is the perversity of a style made out of the dictionary, the museum, and the library.

Howard doesn't write manifestoes or position-pieces-or perhaps he is always writing them, but only in the guise of lavishly sympathetic appreciations of other writers and artists. He has introduced, as Paper Trail reminds us, the work of many poets, including Frank Bidart, Norman Dubie, and J. D. McClatchy, and he has written on Rodin, Twombley, Mapplethorpe, and Brassai, among visual artists. Yet the book also includes one defense of Howard's work, "Sharing secrets," an essay written nineteen years after "A Consideration of the Writings of Emily Dickinson. …

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