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Your great days are gone, great days are always gone…

Richard Howard cut his teeth as a translator by Englishing two volumes of Charles de Gaulle’s war memoirs, Unity and Salvation, published in 1959 and 1960. The complete war memoirs (1940–46) run to 1,056 pages, and Howard rendered the lion’s share. It seems quite a leap from this commission to the several dozens of translation projects that followed, of Les Fleurs du mal for which he received a National Book Award in 1983; Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, Mythologies and Mourning Diary; Maurice Nadeau’s History of Surrealism; Simone de Beauvoir 688page Force of Circumstance (she was his one major female project); Michel Butor, Albert Camus, E.M. Cioran, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, André Gide, Jean-Paul Sartre, Stendhal, and much more. His bulldog, in the 1970s, he called Gide. (His stuffed gorilla was Mildred.)

In an interview in 2004 he declared, ‘The practice of translation is essentially, insofar as it concerns writing, a matter of erotic submission, and even erotic imposition.’ What a varied and demanding congeries of erotic dominators he submitted to, and what sinuous skills and imaginative responses he devised! With Barthes and Cioran, whose work he translated in extenso, he describes ‘a certain intimacy, or even an uncertain one,’ established over time.

By contrast, ‘The writer’s relation to his editor and to some extent his reader […] is essentially filial or fraternal.’ He was a significant editor, and knew whereof he spoke: he worked for publishers and magazines and helped to shape the careers of Frank Bidart, Charles Simic and J.D. McClatchy. McClatchy celebrated him on his ninety-second birthday:

I know no one who has done more personally to mentor younger poets – making editing suggestions, publishing their best work. In my own case, Richard was my first reader at a time when I urgently needed his candour and high intellectual standards. Unlike others, Richard does not compete with his students, begrudge them their recognitions, or expect them to turn into disciples and epigones.

Richard Howard believed in his readers. The poems often address us directly in the ‘you’ they deploy; they make no concessions, the dramatic monologues inhabit the periods from which they speak and take for granted the informing reality of their historic and biographical contexts. His narrative strategies make it possible for alert readers to infer what the causes, occasions and sometimes the vocabulary itself are doing. His monologuers don’t realise that they are disclosing more than they mean, or even than they know. Howard has internalised the irony that lesser poets would manifest in a trick of form or style, the intrusion of a voice or tone from a jarring register. He said in his 2004 Paris Review interview that he understood the poetic necessity ‘of the secret that the speaker, who does not know it, must reveal’.

The ‘you’ the poems address is not assumed to be stable: as his readers, we change in relation to the speaking voices. His last collection, A Progressive Education (2014), reviewed in PNR by David Ward, was his least characteristic and one of his most ambitious. ‘It consists largely of letters to teachers, composed in verse in the first person plural, from a sixth-grade class, decades ago, at Cleveland’s Park School (which Howard really attended).’ A return to the first years concludes a long, richly digressive journey.

1969 was his annus mirabilis. His third collection, Untitled Subjects, appeared with its monologues and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. His critical study, Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States since 1950, also appeared – a work of enormous critical assurance or hubris, depending on your sense of his inclusions and omissions. He was recognised as – potentially – a major figure.

In the wake of his death on 31 March 2022 at the age of ninety-two, the story of his life was re-told. It was, in its early years, chancier than most in material poverty, his being put up for adoption and losing his birth family and the kinds of memory that parents and grandparents inculcate, the accidentals which supply materials for imagining a personal history. In one poem he speaks of himself as ‘a borrowed book’. The missing elements became a core of the narrative of a fortunate adoption

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