Pulitzer poet laureate Richard Howard dies at 92

The cause was complications from dementia, said her husband, David Alexander.

Mr. Howard was a stylish and seductive fixture in the world of American poetry for more than half a century, based in a cramped Greenwich Village apartment where he lived with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, a French bulldog named Gide and a sprawling art collection. , including drawings by his friends Jean Cocteau and Dorothea Tanning. Every surface of his bathroom, from the ceiling to the inside of the shower, was covered with photographs of friends and artists, including Paul Valéry, Robert Frost, Harold Bloom and Susan Sontag.

Like Ezra Pound, he believed that “all poets are contemporary” and spent much of his life promoting the work of classic writers as well as young upstarts. He nurtured student poets eager for advice and support in addition to introducing many English-speaking readers to works by Stendhal, André Breton, Jean-Paul Sartre and other French masters, winning a National Book Award (then known as the American Book Award) in 1983. for his translation of Charles Baudelaire‘s 19th century collection of poetry “Les Fleurs du Mal”.

“He really is this European idea of ​​a man of letters,” said one of his former students, poet Mary Jo Bang, in a 2017 interview with the parisian review. “It’s not just the breadth of his scholarship, but the breadth of his work. … If you stick around once he greets you and keep looking for him, you see an example of what it is to be a poet – to have an expansive intelligence, to be generous with others and form a community.

Mr. Howard has taught at schools including the University of Houston and Columbia University, served as the poetry editor of the Paris Review and the Western Humanities Review, and has published more than 200 books in translation. , including the war memoirs of the French statesman Charles de Gaulle and numerous essays. by his friends Emil Cioran and Roland Barthes. He also wrote more than a dozen books of poetry and literary criticism, including the 700-page collection of essays “Alone With America” ​​(1969), which examined the work of 41 contemporary American poets.

In his own poetry he develops a polyphonic approach, writing “scandalous ventriloquisms”, as he puts it, in which he adopts the perspectives of literary and historical figures, usually from the Victorian era.

His dramatic monologues made him the heir of writers such as Robert Browning and also served as a sly form of self-exploration, according to his friend. Edward Hirschpoet and former colleague at the University of Houston.

“He always throws his voice, and therefore distracts you like a magician does, from something that motivates him,” Hirsch said in a phone interview, noting that Mr. Howard had grown up gay in the restricted environment of the 1940s Ohio. “It is possible to be dazzled by the literary encyclopedia that comes to life,” he added, “and to miss the fact that these poems are driven by personal experience, by a need to to disguise and reveal itself.”

Mr. Howard received a Pulitzer Prize for his third collection of poetry, “Untitled Subjects” (1969), which featured dramatic monologues from the perspective of artists and writers such as John Ruskin, Walter Scott and Jane Morris. Written as letters or diary entries, the poems suggested “a deeper plot”, wrote New York Times reviewer David Kalstone, “what makes this book exhilarating to read as a whole, rather than as detached or detachable poems: its awareness of the evasions and rigidities of history”.

While it was somewhat unusual for Mr. Howard to embrace the dramatic monologue at a time when confessional poetry was in vogue, it was even more striking that he wrote syllabic verse, embracing a poetic form more common to a language like French, rather than writing in free verse or adopting a more typical metric line like iambic pentameter.

“His design poems in all sorts of different syllable lengths meant that he introduced prose rhyme into the verses, in a truly startling way,” said Rosanna Warrena poet and professor at the University of Chicago who described Mr Howard as “an extraordinarily generous mentor”.

Mr Howard added a second speaker to his poems in the book ‘Two-Part Inventions’ (1974), which included imaginary dialogue between Whitman and Oscar Wilde, and drew on memories of his childhood for his latest published collection , “A Progressive Education” (2014), written as a series of letters from a sixth-grade class in 1950s Ohio.

Even when he forgoes dramatic monologue to write in other forms, he frequently turns to art and artists as his subject. He offered what Warren described as a sort of credo in the closing lines of his poem “Thebais,” on an Italian Renaissance painting by Gherardo Starnina, whose life is shrouded in mystery but whose works are displayed in museums, including the Uffizi in Florence.

“Look!” Mr. Howard wrote, “a man can vanish as God has vanished, / by filling all things with created life.”

Richard Joseph Howard was born in Cleveland on October 13, 1929. Put up for adoption with a younger sister, he never learned the names of his siblings or his biological mother, and was raised primarily by his adoptive mother, a social worker who gave him the surname Orwitz and changed it to Howard after divorcing him.

Mr. Howard grew up in a mansion owned by his adoptive maternal grandmother and spent most of his childhood exploring her vast golden library. “History and high culture were indeed my real home, and I found them there, in our house – in the library which became, in effect, my early playroom,” he said. the Revue de Paris in 2004.

He often recounted how he began to learn French: while traveling to Florida for a family vacation at the age of 5, one of his cousins ​​decided to teach him the language, giving him the names of things they saw through the car window. By the time they arrived in Miami, “I had amassed a tremendous vocabulary of nouns and even a rudimentary stock of verbs,” he said. Years later, when asked by de Gaulle how long it had taken to learn the language, Mr. Howard replied in a typically playful manner: “Five days, General.”

Mr Howard graduated from Shaker Heights High School near Cleveland and studied English literature at Columbia University, smitten by professors including poet Mark Van Doren and literary critics FW Dupee and Lionel Trilling. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1951, spent another year at Columbia as a graduate student, and continued his studies at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Returning to the United States around 1954, he worked as a lexicographer for several years at the World Publishing Co., writing dictionary definitions while working on poems for his first published collection, “Quantities” (1962). “The water is sour, the air is lonely here / And all the noises of this natural county / From the stable or the stable are not enough,” wrote Mr Howard in a poem.

By then he had also started working as a sort of in-house translator for Grove Press, falling into the business after he began hosting dinner parties where he cooked veal blanquettes and read French poetry for friends who did not speak the language.

“If Howard had done nothing but translate his whole life,” wrote Willis Regier in Prairie Schooner, a literary journal, “he would have been one of the greatest translators who ever blessed English.”

Mr. Howard has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Genius Fellowship. He was also Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, President of the PEN American Center and New York State Poet Laureate, and an eight-time National Book Awards finalist, most recently for his 2008 collection “Without Saying.”

In 2012, he married his longtime partner Alexander, a digital artist and his only immediate survivor.

Friends said Mr Howard could be outspoken in his criticism of poetry – he featured a writer at a public reading calling him ‘the finest monosyllabic poet of his generation’ – but had a generosity of spirit fundamental, keeping an eye on young poets in his 80s and offering encouragement whenever he could.

“I guess I have a pretty balanced interest in poetry of the past and poetry in the making,” he told the Paris Review. “The energy for both interests doesn’t need to be sustained – it sustains me.”

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