Yes, 428 pages. And
a beautiful cover image from a Gustav Dore painting. I open this with
trepidation and enthusiasm. A quick flick though and I start reading. I continue reading, drawn along by
the rhythmic narratives. And to my surprise this happens again and again. I
say surprise because I'd not expect to be particularly drawn to either the
subject matter or the formal nature of the writing itself. But here is a writer
whose playful, witty and erudite poems flow and engage. Despite myself, short
dips become longer and more absorbing.
For a Selected Poems
covering a forty year period, there is little information about the poet
himself, only a brief synopsis of distinguished credentials. Given the volume
of work here and the range of subjects what a pity not to have a little
scholarly help in setting it all in context. But I suppose the quality of the
writing must drive the reader's curiosity to make sense of it for himself.
These Inner Voices are
largely imagined soliloquies, conversations, letters and observations on, by
and between writers, artists, musicians or their companions and protagonists.
If you had to categorize the writing I suppose you might call it 'C20th
Browningesque'. The subjects are wide ranging, historical and contemporary:
the dancer Martha Graham, Milton and his daughters, Henry James, Mrs Morris,
Ruskin, Wagner, Wilkie Collins, Bonnard, Isadora Duncan, Tarzan, King Kong
etc etc. Most of the poems are substantial in size and scope, carrying within
them a wealth of reference, ideas and detail.
A tetchy Walt Whitman prepares for a visit by Bram Stoker:
Stoker was born Abraham, and he should be
still - has the breath of humanity in it,
and Lincoln too. Can't Abraham write
fiction as well?
Gladstone's secretary describes his employer in retirement, Telemachus meets
Helen while seeking his father and hears
find him, don't worry,
lose a man like that. Of course you can lose
yourself and you will:
what finding a father means.'
In one series of poems literary masters consider movies made after their
time, (Rudyard Kipling on King Kong, Joseph Conrad on Lost Horizons). With a
quote from Lewis Carrol for an epigraph, 'Move Still, Still So' concerns a
woman consulting a therapist over sexual difficulties while flashbacks reveal
a childhood pose for a creepy photographer. Mme Millon prepares to sell
Bonnard paintings to the occupying Germans. A student writes of a visit to a
New York dinosaur museum, asking a teacher back home for help:
'explain to us about Time - about
those millions of years,
Dinosaur-chicken in the Diner, and
chicken-size Dinosaurs in the Great Hall, and
where they really are.
['Our Spring Trip']
The longest poem, 'The Lesson of the Master', extending to 22 pages, consists
of a conversation between Mrs Edith Wharton, American novelist, friend and
contemporary of Henry James, and a young male chaperone appointed by Henry
James as they travel by car to the cemetery with the ashes of her dead lover.
Now that's just the crudest outline.
Their dialogue explores identity and loss and is rich with comment on
writing, sexuality, love and the values of the society they inhabit, while a
dramatic tension develops between them. The poem seems to encapsulate the
tone and values of a particular era and social group:
society gains significance
from the life it gags...
If I was a
failure in Boston because
thought too fashionable to be serious,
in New York I failed
I was feared to be too serious
to be fashionable.
while producing passages that are universal,
I became what is called an author.
poet, like Swinburne. Poets write something,
authors write about something. My dear
we manage to do is merely
of what we
have failed to do. So when we fail,
it is only
because we have given up.
While I can go along with the endorsement on the back cover 'a unique poet whose work instructs
by delighting and delights by instructing', my sense is that to appreciate
this poem fully would require considerably greater knowledge and sympathy
with the literary times and milieu being referred to than I could ever
acquire. And hereby hangs the reader's dilemma. A certain amount of help is
at hand aboard the good ship Google, (where I learn learn enough to place Mrs
Wharton more firmly in her world) but that is no substitute for the breadth
of Richard Howard's scholarship, imagination and inventiveness.
However, if the poet's allusions and references run the risk of excluding the
reader, the actual writing does the opposite. He sets out to entertain and
enchant and what Anthony Hecht describes in his endorsement as 'his
incomparable copiousness' enables him to create character and atmosphere with
writing that is always polished and thoughtful. A lack of factual knowledge
on the reader's behalf or an inability to 'get' references and clues leaves
you in the hands of the writing itself where so often and consistently the
poet himself speaks through the characters and situations he describes rather
than the other way round. And here the real subject matter of the work is to
be found, what I'd describe as the sweep of human emotions underneath events
or behind the affectations the characters adopt, a sweep tinged with ironies
and a delight in the details of human affairs both great and small. There's a
predisposition to undermine human posturing and the illusion of success ( in
'Homage' he quotes Luke: 'woe unto you/when all men shall speak well of
you.'). The poem 'Success' describes an art dealer throwing a Christmas party with its atmosphere of
smugness and self-conscious preening. The the main decorative feature is a
Roman male nude sculpture with
pelvic arch indeed denuded
usual embellishment, so that
met the eye was a shadowed empty
socket, the mere embouchure
where once unstinting paraphenalia
lodged. 'Very fragile things, penises,'
she mused, and for a moment
one there succeeded in saying a word.
The poet is clearly enjoying himself in so many of these poems. Puns and
anagrams are commonplace, while memorable descriptions and pithy observations
occur like raisins in a fruit-loaf:
'It has nothing
to do with love, jealousy,
it is only passed around
same time, like pepper with the melon,
who happen not to know better:
['On Hearing Your Lover Is Going To The Baths Tonight']
Transience and mortality seem to underpin it all. Towards the end of the book
there are a number of elegies (he himself is getting older) and a final poem
eschews narrative for lyricism:
we aspire to be clad in fire
would not put on such apparel?)
the flames only pass us by -
it is a
way they have of passing through.
is another matter. Ask earth
to take us, the last mother -
we may reassume. Yes indeed,
have the earth. Earth will have us.
['Elementary Principles at Seventy-two']
Of course a few brief quotes are inadequate and the poems themselves are too
long to take any one as a whole. Browsing through once again I find fresh
pieces I've not come across before and for a moment wonder if, without
reference to them, I've done justice to the work. But that would be beyond
me. In some ways this is a daunting book. You couldn't sit down comfortably
and read it in a few sittings. It needs to be returned to and savoured
piecemeal over time, a long time perhaps, for too much at once might become
tedious. But you could return to it again and again and always encounter
something new, open a page and find yourself drawn in.