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E d i t o r i a l which has the intricacy of a good short story.

He received the 2017 Paris Review’s Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to literature. His criticism, poetry and translations stirred and troubled readers and stimulated change in ways of reading. His impact was not limited to the Anglophone world. The Paris Review was celebrating their one-time poetry editor (1992–2005) and Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite, just as dementia was beginning to undermine him. He had put in an exemplary innings and left – especially in the volume and quality of his translations – an unrepeatable legacy. He belonged to a category of writers for whom literature is a passion and vocation, only accidentally a career. As facilitator and practitioner, teacher and critic, he enhanced the world of poetry.

He attended Columbia University and then went on a French government grant to study at the Sorbonne. He recounts how he originally acquired French. It was:

proposed by a relative sharing the backseat of my grandmother’s LaSalle sedan on the way to Florida when I was five. The family caravan (three cars, if I remember) was headed for Miami Beach instead of the annual trip to Europe, which by the mid-thirties had become unfeasible for Jews, especially my people, who were fond of vacationing in the Schwarzwald. My ‘aunt’ (she was in fact a rather remote cousin) decided to beguile the languors of the drive from Cleveland to Miami by teaching me French en route. Her method was to provide an eager five-year-old with the alternative terms for everything we saw out the window and indeed for the window itself, so that by the time we drove up to that neo-Hispanic art nouveau pavilion that was to be our residence for some weeks, I had amassed a formidable vocabulary of nouns and even a rudimentary stock of verbs.

When Charles de Gaulle heard the story he asked his translator how long it had taken him to learn French. ‘Five days, mon général.’

In 1954, back in the United States, he spent four years in Cleveland and New York working as a lexicographer for the World Publishing Company in the old days of lexicography when dictionaries defined meanings rather than described usage. The job, he said, was ‘drudgery, to the point of dentistry’, but he confessed in 1982, ‘I am grateful to lexicography […] for inculcating, or at least suggesting, habits of precision and concern with the quality of language on a level that is very important for both poetry and translation, an exacting feeling for the physical shape and size and movement of words as well as for their sense.’ This almost material feel for the specific word, and then words together in movement on the page and on the air, is a strong discipline against any romantic impulse. Accommodating restraints leads to form and away from the self-privileging ‘I’. It is crucial to the literary translator who is after more than just the sense of the original.

John Hollander, a contemporary at Columbia along with Allen Ginsburg, had directed him to Wallace Stevens. He found his own way to Auden, who became a dominant influence. Howard speaks of his early poems as ‘rewriting’ Auden, or writing from within a sense of Auden, an extension of the discipline of translation to the articulation of echo. Finding his way to his own poetry took time, his vehicle being a Browningesque use of the dramatic monologue, submitting himself (again, the erotic analogy) to the person, period and voice of someone not himself, making it real and sometimes, obliquely, making himself real through it, sometimes in the subject matter, sometimes in dialogue. His characters are allowed their prejudices. He trusts his readers’ judgement and does not interfere or interrupt. He does not show but lets them tell. Ben Jonson said, ‘Speak that I may see thee.’ This could stand as Howard’s ars poetica.

It all comes back to translation, to the dynamics that occur between languages when one submits to another, or between periods, voices, situations. The artist’s subjection is at the heart of the process. Does the artist have a voice – ‘in fact do I even have a register? I have a modulable energy, a verbality that can be persuaded by what I know or have tried to learn, and a certain mimic gift that allows the reader to suppose (often quite fallaciously) that it is a “distinctive” voice that is raised – or lowered.’ He never wielded on others the kind of influence Auden did on him. He teaches but would never subdue: his gift to younger writers is to provide endless resources, hints, gifts. When in a dramatic monologue he himself needs to invent fact, supply narrative, he honours various givens: known facts, period and milieu, relationships which define a speaker’s voice. In the poems, ‘nothing is made up and nothing cribbed – everything is imagined and everything realized from what I know and have learned’.

Ford Madox Ford, in his indispensable reminiscence of Conrad, said, ‘You must not, however humanitarian you may be, over-elaborate the fear felt by the coursed rabbit.’ Also, ‘It is obviously best if you can contrive to be without any views at all: your business with the world is rendering, not alteration.’ Rendering: this is Richard Howard’s achievement as a translator and, at his occasional best, as a poet.

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