Richard Howard, Acclaimed Poet and Translator, Dies at 92

Richard Howard, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who made the venerable genre of the dramatic monologue speak in a modern voice, and whose translations brought the work of Roland Barthes, Alain Robbe-Grillet and dozens of other French writers to an Anglophone audience, died on Thursday in Manhattan. He was 92.

His husband, David Alexander, said the cause was complications of dementia.

Mr. Howard’s intellectually finespun verse, replete with abstruse historical references, often addressed the reader directly as “you” in words spoken by characters as various as Sir Walter Scott, John Ruskin and Edith Wharton. In his hands, a verse style most closely associated with Robert Browning re-emerged as a surprisingly nimble vehicle, allowing Mr. Howard to weave his way through a welter of poetic subjects.

His voices bounced and echoed. In his 1974 collection, “Two-Part Inventions,” historical speakers engaged in a dialogue. In the series “The Masters on the Movies,” from his 2002 collection, “Talking Cures,” he imagined the responses of famous writers to Hollywood films: Henry James to “Now, Voyager,” Rudyard Kipling to “King Kong.”

In other poems, he addressed problems of love and identity, often with a leavening of wit and a disarmingly colloquial style, or the nature of art, a lifelong preoccupation.

In a review of “Inner Voices: Selected Poems, 1963-2003” for Prairie Schooner, the publisher Willis Regier identified Mr. Howard’s poetic hallmarks as “virtuosity, knowledge deep and strange, plenary vocabulary, courage, kindness, sympathy, steady and prodigious output, and a spirit that plays flamboyantly.”

Mr. Howard’s Pulitzer Prize was awarded in 1970 for “Untitled Subjects.” Published the previous year, it presented 15 dramatic monologues spoken by Victorians and Edwardians both eminent (Sir Walter Scott) and obscure (a secretary to William Gladstone, the British prime minister).

Mr. Howard’s volume of 15 dramatic dialogues was awarded the 1970 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.Credit…Atheneum

After translating two volumes of Charles de Gaulle’s war memoirs, published in 1959 and 1960, Mr. Howard introduced a pantheon’s worth of French writers into English, among them the novelists Claude Simon and Michel Butor, the Romanian-French philosopher E.M. Cioran and the Bulgarian-born literary critic Tzvetan Todorov.

His rendition of the complete “Fleurs du Mal” by Baudelaire, one of his rare ventures into poetic translation, won the American Book Award (now National Book Award) in translation in 1983.

Richard Howard was born on Oct. 13, 1929, in Cleveland to an impoverished Jewish woman who put him and a younger sister up for adoption. He never learned his biological mother’s name. His adoptive mother, Emma Joseph, was married three times. “Howard” was the Anglicized version of one of her husband’s surnames. Richard grew up without a steady father figure, and his sister was adopted by a different family. He never learned her name, either.

He grew up in a mansion that belonged to his adoptive maternal grandmother, whose late husband had been a successful merchant. He enjoyed telling the story of how he learned French: On a family car trip to Miami when he was 5, one of his cousins, to pass the time, taught him the French words for everything they saw out the window. De Gaulle, on hearing the story, asked Mr. Howard how long it took to learn the language. “Five days, mon général,” he answered.

Mr. Howard attended the progressive Park School in Cleveland Heights. After graduating from Shaker Heights High School, outside Cleveland, he attended Columbia University, where he was editor of The Columbia Review. His classmates included Allen Ginsberg, John Hollander and Robert Gottlieb, who, as an editor at Simon & Schuster, would later commission him to translate the second and third volumes of de Gaulle’s war memoirs.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1951 and a master’s degree in 1952, Mr. Howard studied modern French poetry at the Sorbonne on a French government fellowship.

Richard Howard in his New York City apartment in 1999. He was a celebrated translator as well as a poet. His translation of Stendhal’s “Charterhouse of Parma” has shown up on best-seller lists. Credit…AP Photo/Jim Cooper

He returned to the United States in 1954 and for the next four years worked as a lexicographer in Cleveland and in New York for the World Publishing Company, writing definitions for a new dictionary, a job he described as “drudgery, to the point of dentistry.” But the work had its uses, he acknowledged.

As he told the journal Translation Review in 1982, “I am grateful to lexicography, insofar as I practiced it, 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.”

His first book, “Quantities” (1962), showing the marked influence of W.H. Auden, gathered poems from the previous 15 years. It won respectful reviews for its high intelligence and precision of language.

“I had found Auden for myself back at Columbia along with Wallace Stevens, whom John Hollander had shown to me; these were the poets whose poems I seemed to be rewriting for so many years,” he told the poet J.D. McClatchy in an

Back to top button