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HOWARD, RICHARD (1929- ) Richard
Howard brings to poetry a subtlety of psychology, richness of language, sensitivity to social structure, and density of cultural reference of the sort to be found in the prose work of Henry James, whose travel writing he edited. His formidable talents make his work quite demanding and have led to its being ignored and misunderstood. While it is true that Howard makes few concessions to the uninformed, he never parades learning for its own sake. Similarly while the work assumes a cosmopolitan sophistication, it is filled with passion; one of his interests is the manner in which erotic desire finds its way into the least likely of places and takes the most unexpected of forms. Formally complex, his poems' intricate structures mirror the complexity of thought and character. Many of his poems are dramatic monologues, and Robert Browning is his clearest influence, but his use of syllabics and complex allusions owe their debt to Marianne moore.
Adopted by a well-to-do German-Jewish family in Cleveland, where he was born, Howard attended Columbia University and the Sorbonne. Taught French as a child, he has become one of the most respected translators of French, with more than 150 titles to his credit, as well as the 1983 American Book Award for his translation of Charles Baudelaire's Les fleurs du mal.
In 1982 the French government designated him a Chevalier de l'Ordre National de Mérite for his service to French literature. Howards concern for continental thought and writing has not meant that he has ignored the American scene. His monumental study Alone with America (1969, 1980) examines the major poets who have emerged in the United States since 1950. He was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1996 and served as president of the PEN American Center (1978-80). He was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1986.
Much of Howards poetry has taken the form of dramatic monologues and dialogues, but even his more personal lyrics involve a conversation with the world. Some of the speakers in his poems are famous personages of the past. Untitled Subjects (1969), for which he won the Pulitzer, contains the voices Sir Walter Scott, John Ruskin, and William Thackery. But we also hear in his poems from an unnamed secretary, an anonymous vicar, the daughters of John Milton, a nanny, various wives, and a royal taxidermist. In "The Masters on the Movies" (2002), he imagines what Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and others who lived before motion pictures became an industry would make of this alternative narrative form. "The Masters on the Movies" suggests the kind of freefloating dialogue between personality, history, and culture that is Howard's continual delight and obsession. Such a meditation presupposes a past that is in constant contact with the present, a sensibility in which the canonical crosses and converses with the coarse and common. Howard's James, who died in 1916, having seen Bette Davis in Now, Voyager, released in 1942, wryly alludes to the film's concluding lines: "we don't reach the sun, we shall at least / have been up in a balloon."
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