Richard Howard, acclaimed poet-translator, dies at 92

ABOVE: Richard Howard. Photo via Twitter.

NEW YORK (AP) | Richard Howard, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet celebrated for his exuberant monologues of historical figures and a prolific translator who helped introduce readers to a wide range of French literature, has died at age 92.

Howard, a professor emeritus at Columbia University, died March 31 at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in New York. His husband, David Alexander, told The Associated Press that he had dementia.

Over a 50-year period, Howard’s poetry, essays and translations totaled well over 200 books and established him as a vital literary creator, commentator and interpreter. He won the poetry Pulitzer in 1970 for “Untitled Subjects” and was a National Book Award finalist in 2008 for “Without Saying.” His translation of Charles Baudelaire’s “Les Fleurs du Mal” won the National Book Award (then called the American Book Award) in 1983.

Through “Les Fleurs du mal” and other English-language editions, Howard became essential in broadening the American audience for French writers. His projects included modern and classic French books, from the memoirs of Charles de Gaulle to experimental novels by Alain Robbe-Grillet to the philosophy of Howard’s friend Roland Barthes. In 2000, his edition of Stendhal’s 19th century novel “The Charterhouse of Parma” was a surprise best-seller.

“I first translated for myself and friends,” Howard told the Center for Translation in 1982. “I had read some books I knew I loved, and I wanted to share them with my friends who couldn’t read French. My friends would come over and I would make them dinner and after dinner I would read aloud. The pleasure in translating these books was equaled, I thought, by the pleasure in communicating them.”

A balding man with a light, musical voice, a fondness for monocles and a French bulldog named Gide, Howard was praised for the wit and stylishness of his translations and his ability to make French authors accessible. As a poet, Howard mastered a flowing, rhyme-less style both erudite and conversational, guiding readers on an intimate, informal tour of Western art and culture.

Instead of personal confessions, he channeled the voices of Penelope and Odysseus from “The Odyssey,” the daughters of “Paradise Lost” poet John Milton, and Edith Wharton and Isadora Duncan. He imagined Henry James as a movie critic and composed odes to the photographer Nadar’s portraits of Victor Hugo and Sarah Bernhardt.

One of his personal favorites was “1915: A Pre-Raphaelite Ending, London,” in which the widow of 19th century artist and manufacturer William Morris addresses her middle-aged, unmarried daughter.

“Save it all; you do not know

the value things will come to have until

the world grows dim around you, and your things

–however doubtful in the changing light,

things are what you have

left. And all you have.“

Howard’s other poetry books included “Findings,” “Lining Up” and “Talking Cures.” His influential survey of contemporary poetry, “Alone with America,” was a National Book Award finalist in 1970. Howard was voted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1983 and for years was poetry editor of The Paris Review. A compilation of his essays and criticism, “Paper Trail: Selected Prose, 1965-2003,” was published in 2004.

He was born in Cleveland just weeks before the 1929 stock market crash, and never knew the identity of the biological parents who apparently were too poor to keep him. Adopted as an infant by a middle class couple that gave him the last name “Orwitz” (changed by his mother to “Howard” after her divorce), he enjoyed at least one advantage of joining a relatively affluent family: His childhood home was big enough to include a well-stocked library that Howard would call his “precocious playroom.”

His love for French did not begin in a classroom, but in a car. During a childhood road trip from Cleveland to Miami, he was seated next to a Viennese cousin who decided to fill the long hours by teaching the language. By the time their journey ended Howard had “amassed a formidable vocabulary of nouns and even a rudimentary stock of verbs.” Decades later, De Gaulle would ask him how long it took to understand the language. “Five days, mon general,” Howard responded.

Howard was an undergraduate and graduate student at Columbia University, where he met Allen Ginsberg and became close friends with classmate Robert Gottlieb, later a top literary editor who published Howard’s translation of De Gaulle. Before his time on the Columbia faculty, he taught at the University of Cincinnati and the University of Houston.

Howard was openly gay for much of his adult life. His poetry collection “Fellow Feelings” was a tribute to such artists as Walt Whitman and Marcel Proust and his later works included several elegies for friends who died of AIDS.

He liked to tell the story of waiting backstage with W.H. Auden during a poetry reading in the 1960s. They were discussing the poet Bernie Weinbaum, who had a history of anti-gay, anti-Semitic remarks. Howard explained that since he was “both these things,” he was not a fan of Weinbaum’s.

“My dear,” Auden gushed, “I never knew you were Jewish!”

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