Richard Howard ’51’s Writing Life
By Gordon Chenoweth Sauer ’11 Arts
Naturally, a profile of esteemed poet, professor, translator, critic and essayist Richard Howard ’51 would begin with a discussion of writing. Say, perhaps, his 1970 Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry collection Untitled Subjects; or his translation of Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, the 1984 National Book Award winner (Howard, a translator of French literature, is a Chevalier d’Ordre National du Mérite); or his poetry collection Without Saying: New Poems, a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award. Rather unnaturally then, it is Howard’s bathroom in his visibly literary West Village apartment that warrants attention, simply because framed portraits of W.H. Auden, Charles Simic, Lionel Trilling ’25, Emily Dickinson, Lucie Brock-Broido ’82 Arts and others paint the walls an antiquated black and white. Such a display illustrates a lifestyle steeped in a distinct historical, cultural and literary tradition for a man whose own portrait represents 40-plus years of devotion to his craft.
A master of voice, Howard has been lauded for his poetry’s technique and “collegial joy,” to quote critic Benjamin Ivry. Howard’s forthcoming collection, Progressive Education, to be completed this winter, returns to his schooldays at the progressive Park School in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, with a series of 12 poems in which male and female fifth-graders address letters to their principal, Mrs. Masters, detailing the “injustices” of the school.
Howard was about 9 when he decided he wanted to be a poet. “My boyhood was that of a little boy in the library,” he says. “Although I had plenty of friends at school, I stayed home and read books. That was quite a preparation for being a poet.” Howard says he chose Columbia because his cultural interests were in New York. Among a distinguished group of students rising amidst a star faculty, he studied under Quentin Anderson ’37, ’53 GSAS, Andrew Chiappe ’33, ’39 GSAS, Fred Dupee and Trilling.
“Those four were very powerful influences, and I saw a great deal of them, both at school and afterward,” says Howard. “Quentin remained a friend until he died only a few years ago, and I still see his widow and his son. Lionel was a very powerful influence, and a friendly one. He appeared to be interested in what I was doing and what I did.”
Among Howard’s peers were his oldest friend at Columbia, Robert Gottlieb ’52, editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster and Alfred A. Knopf before becoming editor of The New Yorker (1987–92), and fellow poet Allen Ginsberg ’48. While Gottlieb was editor at Simon & Schuster, he published Howard’s first commercial translations, Charles de Gaulle’s war memoirs.
At Columbia, Howard was editor of the Columbia Review from 1949–51 and a member of the Philolexian Society. After matriculating at GSAS and studying for one year, Howard left Columbia without a graduate degree to study French letters at the Sorbonne from 1952–53, having been awarded a fellowship by the French government. He had learned French as a child from the Viennese wife of his grandmother’s cousin on a five-day car trip from Cleveland to Miami. “By the time we got to Florida, I was already pretty sure of myself about French. I knew that that was something I wanted to go on with,” he says.
After three years in France, Howard returned to Ohio, taking a job as a lexicographer before moving to New York City and publishing his translations in 1958. Howard’s first poetry collection, Quantities, was published in 1962. He has since published more than a dozen collections of poetry and more than 150 works of translation. Howard was Poet Laureate of New York State (1994–96), Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets (1991–2000) and is currently poetry editor of Western Humanities Review. He also directed the Braziller series of poetry, published from 1971–78, and in 1996 received a MacArthur “genius” grant. Since 1997, Howard has been a professor of writing at the School of the Arts.
Still, when asked whether writing can be taught, he is unsure. “I think it’s a matter of reading that can be taught,” Howard says.
Howard believes reading was a staple of his College tenure: “My fellow students and I were very serious readers. If Trilling mentioned something that we had never heard of, we would precipitate ourselves to the library and get it and read it. That was just part of the education.”
Now 80, Howard has a clear vision of the transformation American poetry has undergone in the past 50 years — the good and the bad.
“There’s just as much talent, just as much dedication and commitment among the young people who wish to be poets as there ever has been. But often the work of a young person of talent isn’t based on a context of familiarity with the whole tradition. Therefore, it makes it harder for poets to continue sometimes. The biggest difference I see in American poetry, though, is that there are as many interesting and valuable exciting new poets who are women as men. That had never been the case before, and that is not the case in any other country.”