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This item is taken from PN Review 265, Volume 48 Number 5, May - June 2022.

Your great days are gone, great days are always gone…

Richard Howard cut his teeth as a translator by Englishing two volumes of Charles de Gaulle’s war memoirs, Unity and Salvation, published in 1959 and 1960. The complete war memoirs (1940–46) run to 1,056 pages, and Howard rendered the lion’s share. It seems quite a leap from this commission to the several dozens of translation projects that followed, of Les Fleurs du mal for which he received a National Book Award in 1983; Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, Mythologies and Mourning Diary; Maurice Nadeau’s History of Surrealism; Simone de Beauvoir's 688-page Force of Circumstance (she was his one major female project); Michel Butor, Albert Camus, E.M. Cioran, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, André Gide, Jean-Paul Sartre, Stendhal, and much more. His bulldog, in the 1970s, he called Gide. (His stuffed gorilla was Mildred.)

In an interview in 2004 he declared, ‘The practice of translation is essentially, insofar as it concerns writing, a matter of erotic submission, and even erotic imposition.’ What a varied and demanding congeries of erotic dominators he submitted to, and what sinuous skills and imaginative responses he devised! With Barthes and Cioran, whose work he translated in extenso, he describes ‘a certain intimacy, or even an uncertain one,’ established over time.

By contrast, ‘The writer’s relation to his editor and to some extent his reader […] is essentially filial or fraternal.’ He was a significant editor, and knew whereof he spoke: he worked for publishers and magazines and helped to shape the careers of Frank Bidart, Charles Simic and J.D. McClatchy. McClatchy celebrated him on his ninety-second birthday:
I know no one who has done more personally to mentor younger poets – making editing suggestions, publishing their best work. In my own case, Richard was my first reader at a time when I urgently needed his candour and high intellectual standards. Unlike others, Richard does not compete with his students, begrudge them their recognitions, or expect them to turn into disciples and epigones.
Richard Howard believed in his readers. The poems often address us directly in the ‘you’ they deploy; they make no concessions, the dramatic monologues inhabit the periods from which they speak and take for granted the informing reality of their historic and biographical contexts. His narrative strategies make it possible for alert readers to infer what the causes, occasions and sometimes the vocabulary itself are doing. His monologuers don’t realise that they are disclosing more than they mean, or even than they know. Howard has internalised the irony that lesser poets would manifest in a trick of form or style, the intrusion of a voice or tone from a jarring register. He said in his 2004 Paris Review interview that he understood the poetic necessity ‘of the secret that the speaker, who does not know it, must reveal’.

The ‘you’ the poems address is not assumed to be stable: as his readers, we change in relation to the speaking voices. His last collection, A Progressive Education (2014), reviewed in PNR by David Ward, was his least characteristic and one of his most ambitious. ‘It consists largely of letters to teachers, composed in verse in the first person plural, from a sixth-grade class, decades ago, at Cleveland’s Park School (which Howard really attended).’ A return to the first years concludes a long, richly digressive journey.

1969 was his annus mirabilis. His third collection, Untitled Subjects, appeared with its monologues and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. His critical study, Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States since 1950, also appeared – a work of enormous critical assurance or hubris, depending on your sense of his inclusions and omissions. He was recognised as – potentially – a major figure.

In the wake of his death on 31 March 2022 at the age of ninety-two, the story of his life was re-told. It was, in its early years, chancier than most in material poverty, his being put up for adoption and losing his birth family and the kinds of memory that parents and grandparents inculcate, the accidentals which supply materials for imagining a personal history. In one poem he speaks of himself as ‘a borrowed book’. The missing elements became a core of the narrative of a fortunate adoption which has the intricacy of a good short story.

He received the 2017 Paris Review’s Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to literature. His criticism, poetry and translations stirred and troubled readers and stimulated change in ways of reading. His impact was not limited to the Anglophone world. The Paris Review was celebrating their one-time poetry editor (1992–2005) and Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite, just as dementia was beginning to undermine him. He had put in an exemplary innings and left – especially in the volume and quality of his translations – an unrepeatable legacy. He belonged to a category of writers for whom literature is a passion and vocation, only accidentally a career. As facilitator and practitioner, teacher and critic, he enhanced the world of poetry.

He attended Columbia University and then went on a French government grant to study at the Sorbonne. He recounts how he originally acquired French. It was:
proposed by a relative sharing the backseat of my grandmother’s LaSalle sedan on the way to Florida when I was five. The family caravan (three cars, if I remember) was headed for Miami Beach instead of the annual trip to Europe, which by the mid-thirties had become unfeasible for Jews, especially my people, who were fond of vacationing in the Schwarzwald. My ‘aunt’ (she was in fact a rather remote cousin) decided to beguile the languors of the drive from Cleveland to Miami by teaching me French en route. Her method was to provide an eager five-year-old with the alternative terms for everything we saw out the window and indeed for the window itself, so that by the time we drove up to that neo-Hispanic art nouveau pavilion that was to be our residence for some weeks, I had amassed a formidable vocabulary of nouns and even a rudimentary stock of verbs.
When Charles de Gaulle heard the story he asked his translator how long it had taken him to learn French. ‘Five days, mon général.’

In 1954, back in the United States, he spent four years in Cleveland and New York working as a lexicographer for the World Publishing Company in the old days of lexicography when dictionaries defined meanings rather than described usage. The job, he said, was ‘drudgery, to the point of dentistry’, but he confessed in 1982, ‘I am grateful to lexicography […] for inculcating, or at least suggesting, habits of precision and concern with the quality of language on a level that is very important for both poetry and translation, an exacting feeling for the physical shape and size and movement of words as well as for their sense.’ This almost material feel for the specific word, and then words together in movement on the page and on the air, is a strong discipline against any romantic impulse. Accommodating restraints leads to form and away from the self-privileging ‘I’. It is crucial to the literary translator who is after more than just the sense of the original.

John Hollander, a contemporary at Columbia along with Allen Ginsburg, had directed him to Wallace Stevens. He found his own way to Auden, who became a dominant influence. Howard speaks of his early poems as ‘rewriting’ Auden, or writing from within a sense of Auden, an extension of the discipline of translation to the articulation of echo. Finding his way to his own poetry took time, his vehicle being a Browningesque use of the dramatic monologue, submitting himself (again, the erotic analogy) to the person, period and voice of someone not himself, making it real and sometimes, obliquely, making himself real through it, sometimes in the subject matter, sometimes in dialogue. His characters are allowed their prejudices. He trusts his readers’ judgement and does not interfere or interrupt. He does not show but lets them tell. Ben Jonson said, ‘Speak that I may see thee.’ This could stand as Howard’s ars poetica.

It all comes back to translation, to the dynamics that occur between languages when one submits to another, or between periods, voices, situations. The artist’s subjection is at the heart of the process. Does the artist have a voice – ‘in fact do I even have a register? I have a modulable energy, a verbality that can be persuaded by what I know or have tried to learn, and a certain mimic gift that allows the reader to suppose (often quite fallaciously) that it is a “distinctive” voice that is raised – or lowered.’ He never wielded on others the kind of influence Auden did on him. He teaches but would never subdue: his gift to younger writers is to provide endless resources, hints, gifts.

When in a dramatic monologue he himself needs to invent fact, supply narrative, he honours various givens: known facts, period and milieu, relationships which define a speaker’s voice. In the poems, ‘nothing is made up and nothing cribbed – everything is imagined and everything realized from what I know and have learned’.

Ford Madox Ford, in his indispensable reminiscence of Conrad, said, ‘You must not, however humanitarian you may be, over-elaborate the fear felt by the coursed rabbit.’ Also, ‘It is obviously best if you can contrive to be without any views at all: your business with the world is rendering, not alteration.’ Rendering: this is Richard Howard’s achievement as a translator and, at his occasional best, as a poet. 

This item is taken from PN Review 265, Volume 48 Number 5, May - June 2022.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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