An Interview With Poet Richard Howard

Kevin Larimer

Richard Howard is rarely at a loss for words. The poet, essayist, translator, editor, and professor is a tireless conversationalist who is always willing to supply a strong opinion on the many subjects to which he has applied his talents during a career that spans four decades.

Howard has published 12 collections of poetry and hundreds of translations from the French, as well as dozens of essays. He is the poetry editor of the Paris Review and the Western Humanities Review, and a professor at Columbia University. He has been the judge of many literary contests, including the Zoo Press Paris Review Prize in Poetry and the Academy of American Poets Walt Whitman Award.

In October, Howard will turn 75. During the same month, Farrar, Straus and Giroux will publish Inner Voices: Selected Poems 1963-2003 and Paper Trail: Selected Prose 1965-2003. Despite, or perhaps because of these landmarks, Howard radiates an almost youthful enthusiasm as he shares his unique perspectives.

On Surprises: I know I’m a readier writer now than I was 20 years ago. The process of confronting a new poem from the beginning is not quite so arduous. It seems to come with a certain sense of “I’ve been here, I know what I’m going to do.” There are surprises. Robert Frost used to say, “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” I want to surprise the reader and I suspect I do make some discoveries while I’m in the process. Still I’ve been aware just recently, in the last four or five years, that the poems get written with some sense of a sureness that I wouldn’t have dared. There are times when you have to abandon things when they don’t work. But in some sense all poems are abandoned, because you could stay with one poem and work on a thread of it, but you reach a point where you feel quite sure that it’s what you wanted to do, and I really think it’s more interesting to go on to something else than to fuss.

On George Plimpton: He was a lovable man. I was in awe of his aristocratic manner. I had never heard of anyone behaving like that. And it was partly narcissism but it was partly just the way he had been brought up. George was the politist person I have ever known, and he was polite with everybody. He wasn’t selective. He could talk to anybody, and would. And they would talk to him and he would get through to them somehow. He did have a real sense of what he wanted the Paris Review to be, and he obtained it. George was a wonderful editor, partly because he cared and partly because he let me do anything I wanted. But I knew that he cared and that’s why I really was careful. I really like the things we published in the last twelve or fifteen years.

On the Fancy Writer: I hope that my mannerism doesn’t get in the way of my matter. I’m a fancy writer. One writes the way one has to, but I think in recent years—after all, Paper Trail is about thirty or forty years of work—the manner of my prose has simplified and become a little stronger and more direct, and I’m please with that. I also think the poetry gets a little better towards the later work, but the poetry is pretty much what I wanted to do from the get-go. The prose is only what I had to do.

On Marie Ponsot: She is 79 and she is just wonderful. She makes you feel like you want to just jump right back into the computer and get to work. “That which is created must create itself,” is what Keats said. And she is the kind of person who makes you feel that way. She is wonderful.

On Becoming Politicized: Every day I read the New York Times when I take the dog out in the morning and every day there is something about “Three Americans Were Blown Up” or “Three Americans Were Wounded” so there’s this warning. It gets to me. That’s what I’m talking about: I really don’t feel as gleeful [about the simultaneous publication of Inner Voices and Paper Trail] as I might and I thought I would. That’s all, it’s certainly not what I thought I would feel. I’m not a political person, at least not overtly, but I’ve become … if you read the papers all the time, especially the Times, then you become politicized in a way that I wasn’t.

On William Butler Yeats: He said, "I think that all happiness depends on the energy to assume the mask of some other self and that all joyous or creative life is a rebirth of something not oneself, something which has no memory and is created in a moment and perpetually renewed."