The Inner Voices of Richard Howard

Kevin Larimer

There aren’t many subjects that Richard Howard avoids. In addition to being a poet, essayist, translator, editor, and professor, he is an ardent conversationalist who is always willing to supply a strong opinion. Although not everyone agrees with what he says, his range of experience in the world of letters is broad enough to support his viewpoints.

Literary magazines? He is the poetry editor of the Paris Review and the Western Humanities Review. Contests? He has judged the Zoo Press Paris Review Prize in Poetry, the Academy of American Poets Walt Whitman Award, the Utah State University Press May Swenson Award, and many others. As for poetry, he’s published 12 collections of it since his first, Quantities, was released in 1963. He is also the author of Alone With America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950, which was first published in 1969 and then expanded in 1980, as well as dozens of essays published in various magazines. MFA programs? He’s taught at Columbia University for years. And poetry in translation? He’s published hundreds of translations from the French, including his version of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, for which he received the American Book Award in 1983.

Howard will turn 75 in October, the same month that Farrar, Straus and Giroux will publish Inner Voices: Selected Poems 1963–2003 and Paper Trail: Selected Prose 1965–2003, and he seems more eager than ever to share his unique perspectives. “I don’t feel 75; I don’t look 75; blah, blah, blah,” he says. “As a consequence, it’s merely a number, except that I can remember a lot. And that part’s good: having been around for a lot of things.” Richard Howard has indeed been around for a lot of things, so when he adjusts his thick, black eyeglasses and begins to speak, people tend to listen.

On the Simultaneous Publication of Inner Voices and Paper Trail: It should be a moment of euphoria and triumph, and a certain amount of gratification, in the sense that I really have done what I wanted to do, but the time in which this has happened—the situation of our country and our country in the world—has made it a rather grim business. And I feel that it’s almost an accident that they should be coming out now; it deprives me of a sense of significance that I think I would have. Even though it’s a splendid moment for me and it’s of great interest to me, I don’t feel as single-minded in my pleasure about it as I might.

On Fame: I don’t think poets are ever famous until they become sort of institutions, and that usually happens after they are dead. Being a successful poet is a lot like being a successful mushroom.

On Poetry in Public: I wish there weren’t so many things that try to make poetry public, like National Poetry Month, like Poetry in Motion—those little bits of poems that you see on the bus and on the subway. Paper Trail has two essays in it about my feeling that poetry should be private, should be silent. I’m all for people reading alone in a room by themselves. I hate poetry slams. I hate the whole idea of the open mike and everybody getting up and reading a poem. I’m interested in poetry as an art, a very particular verbal art. As Auden used to say, “memorable speech.” And I don’t think you get memorable speech if you do it in that kind of “action poetry” way. Most of it is just dreadful.

On Getting Published: It’s not a hard thing to do. It seems to me that new books of poems get published with a kind of abandon almost, which was certainly not the case in 1963 when I started. It’s possible to get published; it’s very hard not to get published if you’re really good. There are more places to publish—not the main houses—but there are university presses, there are small presses, and in those areas there is really interesting poetry. It isn’t as difficult as it was when you felt that there were just three or four major publishers who publish some poetry and that was all there was. It was hard.

On the Number of Poets: There has been some swelling of the volume because of the writing schools. There are so many of them and they turn out so many students, and many very, very gifted ones. But I’m not sure that there is more good writing than there was, or excellent writing, or startling writing. I don’t think there was anything like the volume of interesting women writers in 1963 that there is now. We didn’t really have a concerted body of women poets in America whom we knew. We had great exceptions like Elizabeth Bishop or Marianne Moore—freaks of genius. I have wonderful male students, but there is something that has happened with the women students—they really are a different thing. And I am very much aware of it. What’s going to happen to these people in terms of making a living, I don’t know. I really don’t know. I think they can get their books published, but that’s not really a job.

On Workshops: Young poets have been deluded into thinking that if everybody sits around and talks about a text, then it’s a kind of democratic procedure and everybody has a voice. The muse is not an equal-opportunity employer. It doesn’t work that way.

On Judging Contests: You do it blind. You don’t know who’s writing these things, or you don’t ordinarily. Now someone like me, who’s read a thousand poems a month because of the magazines I edit—of course I know most of the activity, or a lot of the poets anyway, and I’m aware of what they do. So when a manuscript comes in blind, there are very few that are absolutely new to me. I think contests work. I’ve rarely seen a lemon. I don’t think bad things get chosen, but sometimes the most idiosyncratic and distinguished thing is not chosen. Nothing is rigged. There is absolutely nothing except one’s affection for what one thinks is the best work. And I have never felt that I was held down to choices that were there because I have taught the person or that I had already published the person. Absolutely not. I think it’s too broad a field for that.

On What’s Next: I’m almost finished with a book of poems that will come out next year. One of the things I was most nervous about doing this Inner Voices selection was that it would be a tombstone. It’s really why I held off this long. I really hated the idea of not producing the next. There was the sense that I had something else to do and that I would rather do that than collect or fall back on what was done, but it was lucky that when this happened I was already on a sufficient roll to keep going. There will be a book called The Silent Treatment.

On Turning 75: I go to a trainer three times a week. And I feel marvelous. I used to poke fun at people who exercised by saying, “I don’t do any exercise but jumping to conclusions.” That was my thing. And it was a stupid thing to say. I didn’t know it was stupid, of course. I hope I didn’t know, because I said it so often.

Kevin Larimer is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.