NEW YORK — At 73, Richard Howard gives the impression of having seen everything worth seeing, done everything worth doing and met everyone worth knowing. And in view of his accomplishments, such an air doesn’t seem unreasonable. But he certainly doesn’t feel that he has achieved all he can. “I think I just want to be alive rather than dead,” he says. “My stepfather once said, ‘You know, 60 is the last good birthday.’ I come from upper-middle-class Jews with a lot of money, and they were quite complacent. But I wish to be alive and changing — you either change or you’re dead.”
Actually, the poet is very much among the living. Howard has written 12 books of poetry, published 150 translations and won the Pulitzer Prize and an American Book Award, among many other honors. His latest book of poems, “Talking Cures” has just been published by Turtle Point Press. He is fit and impeccably groomed; his rooms at New York University are charmingly crammed from floor to ceiling with books and pictures. His pampered, bat-eared French bulldog, Gide, greets visitors, and the other creature there is Mildred, a huge stuffed gorilla Howard rescued from a stationery store that was moving. He found her a new set of eyes at The Doll Hospital.
Howard teaches at both N.Y.U. and Columbia University, and, while he’s careful to point out that some of his students are very talented — particularly, he notes, the women — certain aspects of the rising generation disconcert him. When he recites passages of poetry, he says, they look at him “as if I had become enchanted.” While he was teaching one of Jean Genet’s novels, Howard adds, he told his class about serving as Genet’s translator when the late French writer was involved with the Black Panthers. “My kids were fascinated by that because they’re celebrity nuts,” Howard says. “They’re obsessed with fame and being known. They’d far rather hear a story about Jean Genet than learn about a French novel of the 18th century. I’m surprised by their interest in fame. They all want to be famous.” Meanwhile, as he points out, few poets have achieved major, widespread renown, and most of them haven’t made money out of the craft, either, he claims, except for Robert Pinsky — who, in fact, seems to be a bit of a Howard bete noir.
For the most part, however, Howard, who is trenchant on almost any topic, is generous about his fellow poets. W.H. Auden was on the committee that gave him the 1970 Pulitzer for poetry. Howard, who calls him Wystan, says of the late poet, who died at 66 in 1973, “He was all over New York, giving readings. He was a citizen; he had his name in the phone book and voted. He was very kind and funny and rather schoolmistressy. He used to ask me to come over sometimes and give me advice.” Rather than, say, working as a translator, which Howard was doing at the time, “He thought it was better to be a carpenter. But I noticed that he wasn’t a carpenter.
“He hated the modern world,” Howard adds, “and he wasn’t sorry to be leaving it.” This, Howard notes, disappointed him because he wanted Auden to be a “glorious old man.”
When he’s asked about James Merrill, who makes a cameo appearance in “Talking Cures” in a poem called “Phallacies II,” Howard immediately pulls out a color snapshot of the two men embracing. “James was a dear friend,” he says. “He was a wonderful example of how to live. He was quite domestic and liked to cook. He had wonderful taste and he liked sitting around, talking, eating and drinking. Once Joe Epstein had written an article in Harpers saying, ‘What if your son grows up to be homosexual? What if he turns out to be a queen? I’d rather he be dead.’ [Merrill] wouldn’t go on a rampage or make any kind of proclamation of an official kind. But [when he read that] he said, ‘Richard, this is the enemy.’ Of my dead friends, his is the voice I hear most often.”
Howard’s own career, as he points out, has been divided into three parts — translations, criticism and poetry. He recalls learning French when he was five from a Viennese aunt or cousin “on a road trip between Cleveland and Palm Beach during one of my mother’s divorces.” Howard, who studied at Columbia and the Sorbonne, has translated Jean Cocteau, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Andre Breton and the war memoirs of Charles de Gaulle. While he says he feels that his poetry isn’t directly influenced by this work, in his own writing he is frequently, he says, “translating someone’s voice, speaking through the masks of other people. I speak quite often in the voices of others, which creates quite a lot of problems. People say, ‘Did that happen, or did you just make it up?’ I don’t know any more.”
In fact, one of his trademarks is the poem that adopts the persona of a celebrated writer or a real or imagined historical figure. One of his responses to Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” for example, tilts Browning’s theme on its ear in a dialogue written with seemingly effortless brio and wit. In “Talking Cures,” the conceits of voice include George Meredith writing in 1891 about the 1942 Tracy/Hepburn film “Woman of the Year” and Henry James in 1895 musing on “Now Voyager” (1942).
In conversation, Howard likes to keep it light. But he’s clearly no pushover. He interrupts a question about the current popularity of poetry before the query is even completed, making it clear that much of the verse around isn’t what he regards as poetry. When asked whether he considers rap poetry, he responds, “No. But it’s an expression…of something…anger, I think.” Nor is he particularly keen on the Poetry in Motion series, which posts snippets of verse in New York subway trains. “I don’t like that,” he says. “I don’t like poetry to be bite-size. I’d rather it be a secret vice than something plastered everywhere. Writing poetry is almost the last thing one can do alone.”
As for Ruth Lilly’s surprise bequest of $100 million to Poetry magazine, his response is unexpected. “I find it very distressing and indeed disastrous news,” he says. “It’s a willful and hysterical and I think rather loony dispension, because it’s just too much. If you realize that that amount is half the entire endowment of the Guggenheim Foundation…I like the magazine, and I’ve been in it a lot, and I’ve worked with its editors for years and years, but that isn’t anything to do with $100 million.”