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Richard Howard’s Politics of Togetherness

The poet, who died last month, understood that American tradition is broken—but knew it was possible to begin again

Blake Smith
April 26, 2022
Chris Felver/Getty Images
Chris Felver/Getty Images
Chris Felver/Getty Images
Chris Felver/Getty Images

Tradition is dead. The values, symbols and forms by which our ancestors organized their common life, lie broken, irreparable. No one can now hope to see fulfilled the ambitions of the self-declared “moderns,” who in the first generations of the previous century aspired toward a new culture adequate to the upheavals of history. We can see ourselves in good faith neither as the heirs of a tradition perpetuating itself through our inheritance of it, nor as the bearers of a modern mission to remake the world. We are alone.

This was how Richard Howard, poet, translator, and critic, saw our situation at the end of the 1960s. His monumental survey of postwar American poetry, Alone with America (1969), analyzed the work of 41 poets, who, diverse in style, tone, and subject (ranging from John Ashbery to Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov to Sylvia Plath) were united by one problem: Americans’ estrangement from tradition and self-confident modernity alike. In his essays on these poets, Howard, while attending in a spirit of generous engagement to the specificities and temperaments of each, found them working toward a shared—and insufficient—set of answers. Most abandoned verse and meter; despite the attempts by modernist masters of the previous generation, like Ezra Pound and W.H. Auden (Alone with America’s dedicatees), to renovate them through a learned reappropriation of the whole range of occidental aesthetics from troubadour love songs to opera, these forms seemed not only obsolete after the bracing experiments of free verse and fragmentation, but also the ornaments of a vanished order, annihilated by the world wars and civilizational suicide of Europe.

Howard, who died on March 31 of this year, was one of post-traditional, postmodern America’s most sensitive and intelligent observers. Born in 1929, Howard, like the poets he profiled in Alone with America, came to adulthood in an America of unprecedented wealth and power, amid the apparent collapse of the ethical, intellectual, and literary traditions by which Americans might have sought to understand what this wealth and power were for. We are, in one sense, far from that postwar era. As we begin the second generation of the 21st century, America’s prosperity and security are increasingly uncertain and imperiled. The unraveling of American hegemony, indeed of American society, however, only makes our cultural disorientation a more crucial matter of thought and feeling, which we must be able to experience as the crisis that it is, rather than the benumbing, irresistible, or even unnoticed (because ubiquitous) malaise as which we often have lived it.

Howard’s criticism is urbane, filled with pretentious puns in multiple languages, and sentences of such length and side-winding digressiveness that to read them aloud staggers the breath and astounds the ear. His translations are elegant—and voluminous, numbering over 100, spanning the range of modern French letters from Baudelaire to Barthes to The Little Prince. His poetry is gossipy (recounting his literary run-ins, rivalries, and respects), or theatrical (staging encounters between literary figures of the past) often in an aureate, erudite prolixity that seems designed to dazzle the reader out of remembering the author was born in Cleveland (“the suburbs of his heart,” he called provincial Ohio in an early poem). None of these aspects of his work, however, which readers may take or leave as a lively mind’s delightful play or as pretentious, Frenchified self-satisfaction, should distract—although they have distracted—from the seriousness of its demand—the call that unifies Howard’s vast contributions to diverse domains of literature—to confront the twin loss of tradition and of high modernity, and, from their double ruin, to begin again.

Alone in America is a witness to a civilizational disaster and a celebration of those born under it. Howard heralded—but with crucial reservations—the poets whom he saw discovering new possibilities for literature. Howard praised Levertov, for example, as “an autochthonous maker,” whose American English, though carrying memories of the Old World, was confirmed in its “identity and autonomy” by a poet who was “not merely an agent but an origin of that language.” But Howard also saw the enormous risks of a poetics, without meter, rhyme, or reference to a thousand years of English forms, disappearing into prose.

This was not, he warned, merely a loss of certain techniques that distinguished the highly patterned writing of poetry from prose’s more expansive and meandering expressions. It was the collapse of the structures by which writers had pursued what Howard understood as poetry’s specific purpose. A poem, Howard argued, is a way of expressing, in the rhythms of language, “something happening in your life … your life when it seems to you to welter in a particular exemplary status.” Without concern for these rhythms, and for the experience they shape for the reader, American poets were losing the ability to understand the intensities of private experience as manifestations of our common—historical, national, human—life. As poetry became indistinguishable from prose, the private could no longer speak to the public.

The poet is, or ought to be, Howard wrote, “that emblematic man, who … must stand, in particulars, for the generality.” The task of poetry is to discover in what seems like the originalities of peculiar selves the hidden originals of human nature, to ask of what seems to befall us, singly and exclusively, of our apparently incommunicable idiosyncrasies, “what does it mean—for humanity—that this can happen in a human life?” The decline of traditional poetic forms therefore poses a danger to the identity of the poet. Without a repertoire of flexible but familiar rhythms of language through which to communicate experiences to the reader, the “emblematic” status of the writer’s personal experiences became problematic, something either asserted, willfully and hysterically or ironically and chattily, but not demonstrated in the writing—not produced in the consciousness of the reader.

Some became poets of the contingent and personal. Frank O’Hara, Howard chided, descended over the course of his career as a writer into the mere display of personality, “a fidelity to the worst in himself,” coupled with a “growing scorn of any artifice.” Insistent autobiographical chatter, devoid of “the kind of tension that makes for a unity,” fills the page the way splotches fill a Pollock painting. Or in a still more unflattering comparison, O’Hara’s poetics was a “cult of personality” akin to that of Stalin. Howard had similar criticism for the apparently quite different Anne Sexton, whose tone—dark and violent—was at antipodes to O’Hara’s indulgent enjoyment of popular culture, modern art, and bodily pleasures. But Sexton shared with O’Hara, Howard argued, an abandonment of poetry’s rhythms, of the poet’s age-old ambition to make the reader feel, through the recursions and surprises of sound, something like the personal experiences blazoned by the poems’ speakers.

A poet instead might seek to empty the self out entirely, as Mark Strand seemed to do. Strand, himself a provincial (born in Prince Edward Island) Jewish poet, struck Howard as registering in his early work (Sleeping with One Eye Open, 1964) “a collapse, a defeat, a disintegration” of identity. The speaker of the poems became merely a “dummy” through which an impersonal language ventriloquized itself. By 1968, in his second book, Reasons for Moving, Strand had found a spare diction to match this ascetics of self-emptying, with lines made up of “the simplest declarative sentences” in which the poet, recording everyday experiences, steps as it were out of the life where they occur. Rather than bringing, as Sexton and O’Hara sought to do, his personality into focus as both the site of the experiences his poems attempt to communicate and as the force which is communicating (or at least, communicating about) them to the reader, Strand tries to dislocate the two, to wake from the “narcissist’s wet dream” by making his poems about the disjuncture between the self of experience and the self of writing. Howard drew attention to Strand’s “boasts”:

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing …

Such a “poetry of erasure” is only superficially different from the more straightforward egoism of O’Hara and Sexton. Instead of replicating something like the poet’s experience in the reader through the play of familiar (and unexpected variations on) forms, connecting the intimate, otherwise inaccessible incidents they described to others by creating new incidents on the page, and thus allowing the poet to stand as a particularly lucid discloser of the extraordinariness of ordinary life, these poems singularized the poet, whose task was now to confess his uniqueness—or to suspend his subjectivity in an ecstasy of witnessing. But without formalism, the pursuit of truth, whether conceived as an autobiographical tell-all or objective testimony, is impossible for poetry or any art, which succeed, if ever, through the “lies” of artifice—not by showing us things outside ourselves, but by making the semblances of those things take place within us.

Six months after the publication of Alone with America, Howard wrote in the first issue of the journal Prose a reappraisal of what his accomplishment disclosed about our culture. He observed that nearly half of the poets he had selected were Jewish. He did not say, Jewish like himself—nor did he reckon how many, although it was surely also rather a disproportionate percentage, were, also like himself, gay men. He mused that perhaps Jews were such excellent and representative American poets (it went without saying that Howard could not have selected poets who merely appealed to him, who were not in fact paragons!) because they could feel, in an especially intense way, the uprootedness of American postmodernity. Coming from annihilated elsewheres to a culture cut off from its own pasts, Jews were alone in America’s loneliness.

Howard’s poetry, however, was already wiser than the self-stereotyping (and self-concealing) of this essay. If the situation of postmodern poetics tempts some poets to shrilly or sardonically insist on their individual selves, and others, ostensibly, to extinguish the self through (self-asserting) feats of literary ascesis, it poses the same dilemma for the problem of the poet’s membership in groups larger than the self and smaller than humanity. To say, in a paraphrase of Strand, that one’s identity as a Jew (or gay man, or American, etc.) is an emphatic absence of identity, a field of absence, hardly resolves the issue. Our “identities” conceived either as what makes us individual, or as what makes us categorizable in “identity” groups, afford us no solution to the bewilderments of an era that can neither inherit the certainties of tradition nor continue the venture of modernism.

Howard’s poetry, however, models a way to elude the characteristic failures of the postwar poets of aloneness, thinking through identities not directly as “one’s own,” but taking them up as masks. In his 1969 volume Untitled Subjects—published the same year as Alone with America—Howard offered readers a series of dramatic monologues, each by a 19th-century figure (most real, some imagined). Bringing new life into the unfashionable and apparently utterly uncontemporary Victorians, Howard used them to think about his, and our, own problems. Rather than try, as Strand seemed, to become the ventriloquist’s “dummy” of a world outside the self (a project that, however, convincingly executed, could only ever fail; there is no one who can speak through us but ourselves), Howard would make these historical and pseudohistorical personages and situations his own “dummies,” and find, in speaking through them, that they often could tell him more than he knew.

Untitled Subjects, for example, features an imagined letter to Moses Montefiore, a Jewish financier and leading British Zionist of the late 19th century, from Hermann Levi, who conducted the opera Parsifal for the notoriously antisemitic composer Richard Wagner. Against Montefiore’s “kind misgivings” to Levi’s collaboration with Wagner, the conductor advances several arguments. Wagner’s apparently sweeping antisemitism is in fact motivated specifically by his rivalry with the Jewish composer Giacomo Meyerbeer (at the time one of the most famous in Europe). It is Wagner’s wife, Cosima, who is the real hater of Jews; her husband is noble and sensitive. Finally, these biographical details are of little importance compared to the great work—not that Wagner is making, with the help of a Jewish collaborator—but that is being wrung out of him, “sponge … squeezed by God.” The beautiful music of the opera, not the magnanimity or petty prejudice of the vessel by which it enters the world, is what matters—and all that will be remembered. In half a century, Levi writes (this is 1882), “what will it signify / to our children, in Germany where mine / are born, and in that new Zion where you have bred / the hope of yours,” whether Wagner was an antisemite?

Of course, in 50 years—that is, in 1932, one year before Hitler took power—all this would matter a great deal, and the very idea of art for the sake of art, ignoring racial and political hatreds, would be attacked by Wagner’s totalitarian admirers as a bit of Jewish degeneracy. More cogently than a direct statement could, the poem makes us participate in its speaker’s longing to escape considerations of “identity”—ethnoreligious attachments and personality alike—into a conception of art as an aperture through which impersonal beauty flows—and, knowing what the speaker of the poem does not know, the terrible conclusion of the half-century ahead, feel how awfully that longing will be answered. From Untitled Subjects on, Howard wrote poetry chiefly through such characters, or, with greater frequency after the ’80s, through first-person reminiscences that retained a semifictional form. Both in structure and in content, the latter pointed to possibilities beyond the confessions and erasures Howard had criticized in Alone with America.

Howard learned in his poems what it might mean to be together rather than alone. If it is now impossible to be traditional, in the sense of taking up a set of techniques, subjects, and models generally recognized as canonical (and equally impossible to see oneself as part of a modernist avant-garde working together to overthrow tradition and replace it with some new canon), it is still possible, and imperative, to write ourselves into the past. Both in form (experimenting with quantitative verse and shapes of stanzas to organize his monologues, dialogues, and epistolary poems) and in content (speaking through characters drawn from the era before the tradition’s end), Howard showed what it would be like to have a poetics of playing well with others.

These others—the great poets he echoed, the figures through whom he ventriloquized (they were often the same)—became Howard’s necessary substitute for a tradition. They replaced, insofar as it was possible, the repertoire of received forms by which poets had mediated between their interior intimacies and the public. They gave the poet not only a set of others to and with whom to speak, but a means of accessing the otherness within himself, and within each of us. Howard’s poems tell us that we find this otherness—our own difference from our “identity” and “identities”—not through our brave self-declarations or bravura self-annihilations, but through our generous interest in the people of the past.

Thirty-five years after Alone with America, Howard returned to Strand’s boast, “I am the absence of field,” in his own poem, “Writing Off.” Strand, he argued, stood for a poetics—an ethics—of “forsaking ... withdrawing himself from the scene.” This was, Howard countered, just another means by which a poet “scores identity,” showily presenting his purported absence. Howard put forward a “converse claim,” a different vision of poetry. He brought forward a series of images—Arabic calligraphy, the cave paintings of Lascaux, and a wall “covered, cancelled, encrusted” with graffiti—declaring that they were “the field from which Mark Strand / proclaims himself absent,” our insurmountable desire to inscribe ourselves in the world and “sigh / with authorial satisfaction.”

Critics and translators—those who receive and transmit, pitch and catch culture—are perhaps particularly thick in the impasto of art, their writing only a hidden layer, providing a surface on or through which what they prize can become visible. But poets too, and all “original” writers, are losing ourselves in the palimpsest. The impossibility of immortality, of persevering in being at least as a name—or of preserving ourselves from our compulsion to devote ourselves to the memory of others—is not for Howard the tragedy of art. Art is rather the condition of making something together that, bearing us along unseen, transcends everything, after tradition and modernity are gone.

Blake Smith, a contributing writer at Tablet, lives in Chicago.

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