December 2004

Adam Travis

poetry

Inner Voices and Paper Trail by Richard Howard

Richard Howard is poetry editor at The Paris Review, teaches at Columbia University, and seems to enjoy an exemplary social life among the smart sets of New York -- the kind of life that can be conceived of entirely in terms of New Yorker cartoons. Richard Howard is a true American literary man, though without the ingenious violence of Edmund Wilson or reckless charm of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Of course Wilson and Fitzgerald were snobs, too, but for them the literary game was a kind of joke. Not so for Richard Howard. This business of being smarter than everyone else is serious stuff. Howard’s prose pieces begin with the kind of long, menacingly dull sentence that warns a reader that they’d better buckle down and get ready to learn. Or such was my experience with Paper Trail, Howard’s selected prose (1965-2003) that Farrar, Straus and Giroux just released. Honestly, I came to this book expecting to find more fiercely vital work. Richard Howard has a reputation for writing nasty reviews, but I couldn’t find anything in this whole book nasty enough to be amusing. Not that nastiness is a virtue, but strength of character is. Ezra Pound was nasty, but in his case destruction was a hilariously creative force.

Truth told, I feel a little bad about damning Richard Howard. Despite (or perhaps because of) a prior bad experience reading Howard’s prose, I wanted very much to like this book. When I was a senior in college, one of my favorite professors recommended Richard Howard’s more famous collection of prose -- short essays on poets -- called Alone With America. The collection begins with an essay on A.R. Ammons, about whom I was intensely curious at the time, but even that didn’t grab my attention. I attempted to read other parts of the book but got bored just the same. My fault, I thought. Maybe I just wasn’t smart enough. But being something of a periodical junkie I’m now much better read in non-academic critical prose than I was then, and feel confident and justified in pronouncing a no-holds-bared judgment on this book: Richard Howard’s critical prose is dull. I’ve also heard him described as “finicky,” but that’s really just another way to say that a person is tiresome.

This book does, however, serve a couple of purposes. One is informational/educational. My knowledge of, say, 20th Century French literature (one of Howard’s favorite subjects) is enriched for having read this book. The second is that I’m now familiar with the work of a famous contemporary poet/critic, which may be enough to motivate some neurotics and many academics to read this book -- you know, the kind of people who read literary theory.

To be fair, this book does have at least one spot of genuine brilliance, and that is an epilogue piece called “Manila Clipper” that Howard wrote about a trip he made to the Philippines when he was president of the PEN foundation. Marcos was dictator at the time, and word was that he’d recently imprisoned a writer and a filmmaker for either vulgarity or impertinence. Richard Howard thought he might try to get them out. Unfortunately, Howard never got to meet Marcos, but was very well received by Imelda Marcos at a small state dinner. Once Howard managed to politely broach the sensitive subject of the two prisoners and what he’d heard of their irrefutable innocence, Imelda Marcos -- furious at the very thought of there being injustice in her country -- exclaimed, “then let them out!” She immediately had a servant bring her a telephone on which she made the necessary calls herself, in front of her visitor.

The rest of the book, though, is business as usual -- a catechism divided into five categories: “On Poetry,” “On French Literature,” “On The Visual Arts,” “On Prose,” and “Introducing New Poets.” Richard Howard’s personal taste and style make him best suited to writing on French literature and visual arts. He’s such a Francophile he’s practically French -- and, somehow, it seems that most Americans who are overly affectionate for French culture end up knowing a lot about pictures. For example, there’s a great piece here on the unfortunate vicissitudes of a Rodin in Cleveland that yet endures despite some pretty serious vandalism. I would call bullshit on Howard if he were to pretend expertise on, say, west Ukrainian symbolist poetry in the 1980s, but his intimacy with modern French culture and letters has gone so far as an audience with Jean Cocteau, whose diaries he translated. Howard claims that Cocteau’s parting words to him were: “What other people reproach you for, cultivate: it is yourself.” (This story appears twice in the selected prose -- which I can’t blame him for. If it were my story I’d probably tell it three or four times, at least.) Howard’s essays on Baudelaire, Cocteau, et al, are very informative, and his refined prose is always endurable, sometimes even pleasant. For instance, the essay on Baudelaire is a regular crowd pleaser. Everybody loves Fleur du Mal. And it is nice that Howard also goes beyond only wildly famous subjects. For instance, an essay on the autobiographical works of Sardinian Count Xavier de Maistre (the younger brother of Joseph de Maistre) is fascinating for the novelty of it’s subject. I, at least, am more than a little intrigued by a dueling, romancing, Sardinian noble who fought in the Russian army against Napoleon.

It may seem paradoxical, but I find Howard at his dullest on the subject of American poetry. Let me say, though, that this makes perfect sense. Poets tend to think about literature in the same way that a logician thinks about philosophy -- in terms of a lot of abstract (sometimes mathematical) concepts that, upon close inspection, tend not to mean very much at all. But let me also say that writing about poetry is probably the most difficult thing a critic can do. The problem is that some poets, even in their prose, can’t help but think of syntax as a game. And Richard Howard is just another of these incomprehensibly ponderous poet/critics. Aside from a few Ivory Tower (read “boring”) poets, Richard Howard seems to write criticism only for himself… as if these published articles were a kind of personal notebook.

Conveniently, FSG has given us the man in full by also bringing out Inner Voices, Howard’s selected poems (1963-2003), a companion volume to Paper Trail. First thing, the name of the book is really, well, unfortunate. Inner Voices may be a great name for a sophomore chapbook, but in this context it’s just ludicrous. Before judgment, though, I ought to describe these poems. Imagine if you will, a long poem (200 lines, say), unrhymed with various riffs on the theme of one metrical (usually iambic) pattern. In other words, the poems sound alternately like fluent speech and fluent prose. To some extent, this is a real virtue. Ezra Pound was right when he said that poetry ought to be at least as good as prose; and blessed is the poet who can write as people talk. Invariably though, the people who talk in these poems seem to come straight out of some timeless Parisian salon. The poems read sort of like Scott Moncrieff’s translation of Proust -- except boring and not as good.

Several of Howard’s favorite poetic modes are represented in this book. One, the poetic epistle -- full of gossipy information about obscure Frenchmen -- is the kind of poem it would never occur to anybody to read aloud. Two, the dramatic monologues, most of which read like epistles. And three, the regular reflective sort of ditty in the voice of one or another anonymous speaker down and out over this or that existential crisis.

All of this means though, that Richard Howard is exemplary in lending his hard earned eloquence to the voices of countless speakers, real or imagined. Let me say that I think this among the most commendable of virtues in a poet. Least of all do I want to know explicitly about the poet’s own feelings or experiences. To be sure, the best poets have experienced powerfully wonderful and powerfully horrible things in this world, but the best know that literary narcissism or exhibitionism is terribly self-defeating stuff. The second greatest talent a poet can acquire is the ability to feel outside of himself -- a kind of sympathy. But the first greatest is the ability to write timelessly thrilling lines without which culture itself seems unimaginable. Call us crazy, but many poetry lovers swoon when we hear lines like T.S. Eliot’s “Midwinter spring is its own season.” Compare to this line from Howard, representative, but picked at random: “Maman was dead; the ink dried in its well.” Not bad, but entirely disposable.

Inner Voices by Richard Howard
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 0374258627
428 Pages

Paper Trail by Richard Howard
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 0374258856
434 Pages

Adam Travis works at Poetry Magazine in Chicago, Illinois.