by Richard Howard
reviewed by Mary Jo Bang
Oscar Wilde wrote, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” Poets have often taken Wilde’s advice to heart and written the truth from behind a mask. That has certainly been Richard Howard’s preferred poetic stance. In most of Howard’s earlier books the personae were often major and minor figures from literary or art history, often placed in their own historical times but sometimes in situations that were purely his invention—Wallace Stevens in Paris, for example. These textual maneuvers have made Howard very much a poet of the imagination (like Stevens), but he has also been a poet of social critique. Decorum and social relations have been two of Howard’s abiding concerns, along with lyric poetry’s traditional preoccupations—time and memory, death and truth. In Howard’s poems—regardless of the character’s previous existence in (or out of) literature, and independent of mismatched time periods or impossible geographic distances—all of his personae come to life in order to speak the truth—their truth—and to tell the reader about the difficulties of living in the social realm.
This strategy of taking characters from history and literature and re-contextualizing them is a bit like the contemporary poetic “erasure,” where poets take existing texts and obliterate all but what suits their own purposes. In both cases, the poet is writing over something made by another. There is an aspect of homage involved in both strategies, since to reuse what someone else has created implies respect (“the anxiety of influence” aside) and inevitably draws attention back to books and authors who might otherwise no longer be read in the contemporary plugged-in world. While Howard’s poems are grounded in the canon by his choice of figures, he slyly subverts the canonical by calling into question the accepted versions of history or myth. Persona also allows Howard to indulge a narrative impulse; it’s worth noting that many of the personae he has chosen have been novelists. The combination of that impulse with a poetic line (usually syllabic) and a musical ear has enabled him to create a body of work that is utterly distinctive.
His latest book of poems, Without Saying—his fourteenth and the first since his selected poems, Inner Voices, was published in 2005—is also a book of ventriloquized voices, although it feels here as though a shift has taken place. If one looks back over the last few books, this shift has actually been developing gradually. Since Like Most Revelations, published in 1994, Howard has begun to rely less on figures who might be unknown to contemporary readers and more on those who look, and speak, like us. This is useful since readers are often suspicious of characters from the distant past (what can they know about truth in the present-day world?). Plus, the very conceit of personae creates a degree of empathic remove by laying bare the artifice of the lyric “I.”
In Without Saying, Howard has cleverly dealt with those readerly resistances. Even the poem that adopts a mask from the ancient mythological past, “Ediya: an interview,” in which Medea’s mother speaks about her daughter, has been updated; a tape-recorder is in evidence, as well as the Miranda warning: “Whatever you say may be used in evidence against you.” The figures in this book also tend to be less august and more charming. There is a somewhat coy, but never cloying, series of poems that take as their conceit a series of letters written by two disparate writers, Henry James and L. Frank Baum of the Wizard of Oz, to and from James’s nephew and his wife, who have proposed that the authors meet over lunch. There’s another series of apostrophes, again using an epistolary conceit, by a representative of the fifth-grade class of what used to be called a “progressive school,” a school not unlike the one Howard attended as a boy in Ohio, to their teacher.
The title phrase, “without saying,” usually indicates something one doesn’t need to say because it is assumed true. However, here Howard, as he’s done consistently over his poetic career, uses persona to touch on things that are often left unsaid because their truth is unspeakable according to the rules of politesse or socially dictated mores. To this end, he sometimes takes people we are used to seeing as passive victims and places them in over-determined settings—in this book, a woman in a subway car finds herself sitting opposite a sexual exhibitionist—and then ironically empowers them; in the example above, the woman, instead of being cowed, turns the tables and takes a cell phone snapshot of the man’s exposed member and shows it to him as she exits the train.
The poems in this book steer a course between accessibility and ambiguity, between humor and mystery. They wisely gesture toward the fact that there are no easy truths, only endless revisions and new investigations. They also suggest that there is no simplifying the strange, and estranging, relationship between life and art. In “Bad Tolz, Bavaria, 1909,” an overlooked dead cat in an anteroom in Thomas Mann’s house becomes the mirror image of the poetically treated demonic mentioned in an introduction by Mann to Dostoyevsky’s short novels. In Howard’s poem, Mann’s words form the poem’s epigraph: “The demonic should always be addressed poetically; to confront it by critical essays strikes me as indiscreet.” That poem is made up of unattributed voices, as disembodied as that lifeless cat, but the speakers touch on the essence of the dilemma—how can we speak about what leaves us speechless because it refuses to be retained by the feeble boundaries of language? Only poetry can tolerate the perplexity. This is arguably one of Howard’s best books in a long career of writing poetry. While many poets write persona poems, Howard has devoted his writing life to that mode. That apprenticeship has resulted in an inimitable mastery.
Published on March 6, 2015