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Howard, Richard (b. 1929)  

Richard Howard's searching and witty poetry, in which homosexuality is not a problem but a solution, is a significant contribution to the gay and lesbian literary heritage. Among the most accomplished of contemporary American poets, Howard worries the subtleties of language and life in poems that are at once elegant and vigorous.

He was born in Cleveland and educated at Columbia University and the Sorbonne. Currently University Professor of English at the University of Houston and poetry editor of The Paris Review, he is also a distinguished translator and critic.

He has translated more than 150 books by French authors--including Charles Baudelaire, André Gide, Jean Cocteau, and Roland Barthes--and he has written incisive accounts of contemporary American poets, collected in Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950 (1969). But his own searching and witty poetry is his most significant contribution to the gay and lesbian literary heritage.

Howard's first two books, Quantities (1962) and The Damages (1967), composed of original lyrics in several forms, translations, and imitations, are the work of a sophisticated and introspective young man, prematurely old and preoccupied with aging. In these poems, which evince the influence of W. H. Auden and Marcel Proust, Howard is obsessed with personal loss and public malaise, themes that also recur in the more ambitious later works.

Howard's third volume, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Untitled Subjects (1969), marks an important turning point in his career. A collection of fifteen dramatic monologues, letters, and journal entries whose subjects are nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century personages, actual and imaginary, famous and obscure, Untitled Subjects established Howard's reputation as an authentic successor to Robert Browning in his understanding of character and in his evocation of the past to illuminate the present. Although manipulating the voices of others, his concerns are not merely historical, but contemporary and personal.

Howard's fourth book, Findings (1971), consists of dramatic monologues and more obviously personal poems in which he continues to speak as a poet of "otherness." In his fifth collection, Two-Part Inventions (1974), he expands the dramatic monologue into dialogue and returns to the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries for his subjects.

Fellow Feelings (1976) is a miscellaneous collection of lyrics, some in Howard's own voice and some in the personae of fellow feelers, poets and painters, many of whom are gay. Misgivings (1979), Lining Up (1984), No Traveller (1989), and Like Most Revelations (1994) similarly combine poems spoken in Howard's own voice with poems spoken by historical personages, though in these later collections the figures are more apt to be French or Greek than English.

Howard's persistent themes are those of identity, existential loneliness, and the losses exacted by time. Homosexuality, which he defines as not a problem but a solution, is a significant and continuing thread that runs through all the books.

Whether expressed in the more intimate early poems, such as "DO IT AGAIN: Didactic Stanzas" from The Damages, or in the historical dialogues such as "Wildflowers" from Two-Part Inventions, which stunningly recreates the meeting between Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde in Camden in 1882, homosexuality is a recurrent motif.

In "Decades," from Fellow Feelings, Howard locates himself within a tradition of homosexual poetry in America, clasping hands with Whitman and Hart Crane. In other poems, he pays tribute to Auden, who functioned for him as a poetic father and prior ego.

Other noteworthy poems with gay subject matter include "The Giant on Giant-Killing" from Fellow Feelings, which retells the David and Goliath story from the perspective of a love-smitten giant; the meditation "On Hearing Your Lover Is Going to the Baths Tonight" from Lining Up; and, from Like Most Revelations, "What Word Did the Greeks Have for It" and the extraordinary contrapuntal dialogue, "Man Who Beat Up Homosexuals Reported to Have AIDS Virus."

Howard's identification of himself with fellow feelers, especially gay artists, enables him simultaneously to affirm and escape the self.

Claude J. Summers


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Bergman, David. Gaiety Transfigured: Gay Self-Representation in American Literature. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

Lynch, Michael. "The Life Below the Life." The Gay Academic. Louie Crew, ed. Palo Alto, Calif.: ETC. Publications, 1978. 178-192.

Sloss, Henry. "Cleaving and Burning: An Essay on Richard Howard's Poetry." Shenandoah 29.1 (Fall 1977): 85-103.

Summers, Claude J., and Ted-Larry Pebworth. "'We Join the Fathers': Time and the Maturing of Richard Howard." Contemporary Poetry: A Journal of Criticism 3.4 (1978): 13-35.


    Citation Information
    Author: Summers, Claude J.  
    Entry Title: Howard, Richard  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated May 5, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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