Pulitzer-winning poet Richard Howard dies at 92

The cause was complications of dementia, said his husband, David Alexander.

Mr. Howard was a stylish, beguiling fixture of the American poetry world for more than half a century, based out of a cramped Greenwich Village apartment where he lived with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, a French bulldog named Gide and a sprawling art collection , including drawings made by his friends Jean Cocteau and Dorothea Tanning. Every surface of his bathroom by him, from the ceiling to the inside of the shower, was covered with photographs of friends and artists, including Paul Valéry, Robert Frost, Harold Bloom and Susan Sontag.

Like Ezra Pound, he believed that “all poets are contemporary,” and spent much of his life promoting the work of classic writers as well as young upstarts. He nurtured student poets craving guidance and support in addition to introducing many English-language readers to works by Stendhal, André Breton, Jean-Paul Sartre and other French masters, winning a National Book Award (then known as the American Book Award) in 1983 for his translation of Charles Baudelaire’s 19th-century poetry collection “Les Fleurs du Mal.”

“He really is that European idea of ​​a man of letters,” said one of his former students, the poet Mary Jo Bang, in a 2017 interview with the Paris Review. “It’s not just the expanse of his erudition, but the expanse of his work. … If you stick around once he welcomes you, and you continue to seek him out, you see an example of what it is to be a poet — to have an expansive intelligence, to be generous with others, and to form a community.”

Mr. Howard taught at schools including the University of Houston and Columbia University, was poetry editor of the Paris Review and the Western Humanities Review, and published more than 200 works in translation, including the war memoirs of French statesman Charles de Gaulle and numerous essays by his friends Emil Cioran and Roland Barthes. He also wrote more than a dozen books of poetry and literary criticism, including the 700-page essay collection “Alone With America” (1969), which examined the work of 41 contemporary American poets.

In his own poetry he developed a polyphonic approach, writing “outrageous ventriloquisms,” as he put it, in which he adopted the perspectives of literary and historical figures, usually from the Victorian era.

His dramatic monologues made him an heir to writers such as Robert Browning and also served as a sneaky form of self-exploration, according to his friend Edward Hirsch, a poet and former colleague at the University of Houston.

“He’s always throwing his voice, and therefore distracting you the way a magician does, from something that is driving him,” Hirsch said in a phone interview, noting that Mr. Howard had grown up gay in the constricted milieu of 1940s Ohio. “It’s possible to be dazzled by the literary encyclopedia coming to life,” he added, “and to miss the fact that these poems are driven by personal experience, by a need to disguise yourself and reveal yourself.”

Mr. Howard received a Pulitzer Prize for his third poetry collection, “Untitled Subjects” (1969), which featured dramatic monologues from the perspective of artists and writers such as John Ruskin, Walter Scott and Jane Morris. Written in the form of letters or journal entries, the poems suggested “a deeper plot,” wrote New York Times reviewer David Kalstone, “which makes this book exhilarating to read whole, rather than as detached or detachable poems: its awareness of the evasions and rigidities of history.”

While it was somewhat unusual for Mr. Howard to embrace the dramatic monologue at a time when confessional poetry was in vogue, it was even more striking that he wrote syllabic verse, embracing a poetic form that was more common to language such as French, rather than writing in free verse or adopting a more typical metric line like iambic pentameter.

“His designing poems in all kinds of different syllable lengths meant that he brought prose rhymes into verse, in a really starting way,” said Rosanna Warren, a poet and University of Chicago professor who described Mr. Howard as “an extraordinarily generous mentor. ”

Mr. Howard added a second speaker to his poems in the book “Two-Part Inventions” (1974), which included an imagined dialogue between Whitman and Oscar Wilde, and drew on memories of his childhood for his last published collection, “A Progressive Education” (2014), written as a series of letters from a sixth-grade class in 1950s Ohio.

Even when he dispensed with the dramatic monologue to write in other forms, he frequently turned to art and artists as his subject. He offered what Warren described as a creed of sorts in the final lines of his poem “Thebais,” about an Italian Renaissance painting by Gherardo Starnina, whose life is shrouded in mystery but whose works are exhibited at museums including the Uffizi in Florence.

“Look!,” Mr. Howard wrote, “a man may vanish as God vanished, / by filling all things with created life.”

Richard Joseph Howard was born in Cleveland on Oct. 13, 1929. Put up for adoption along with a younger sister, he never learned the names of his siblings or birth mother, and was raised primarily by his adopted mother, a social worker who gave him the last name Orwitz and changed it to Howard after getting a divorce.

Mr. Howard grew up in a mansion owned by his adopted maternal grandmother and spent most of his childhood exploring its vast, gilt-edged library. “History and high culture were indeed my real home, and I found them right there in our house — in the library which became, indeed, my precious playroom,” he the Paris Review in 2004.

He often told the story of how he started learning French: When he was traveling to Florida for a family vacation at age 5, one of his cousins ​​decided to teach him the language, giving the names of things they saw outside the car window. By the time they arrived in Miami, “I had amassed a formidable vocabulary of nouns and even a rudimentary stock of verbs,” he said. Years later, when de Gaulle asked him how long it took to learn the language, Mr. Howard replied in typically playful fashion: “Five days, mon general.”

Mr. Howard graduated from high school in Shaker Heights outside Cleveland and studied English literature at Columbia University, dazzled by professors including the poet Mark Van Doren and literary critics FW Dupee and Lionel Trilling. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1951, spent another year at Columbia as a graduate student and continued his studies at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Returning to the United States around 1954, he worked as a lexicographer for several years at the World Publishing Co., writing dictionary definitions while also working on poems for his first published collection, “Quantities” (1962). “Water is sour, the air is lonely here / And all the noises of this natural shire / From stable or from sty are not enough,” Mr. Howard wrote in one poem.

By then, he had also started working as a kind of in-house translator for Grove Press, falling into the field after he began holding dinner parties where he cooked blanquette de veau and read French poetry for friends who couldn’t speak the language.

“Had Howard done nothing but translate all his life,” Willis Regier wrote in Prairie Schooner, a literary journal, “he would have been one of the greatest translators who ever blessed English.”

Mr. Howard received a Guggenheim Fellowship and MacArthur “genius” grant. He was also a former chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, president of the PEN American Center and poet laureate of New York state, and an eight-time finalist for the National Book Awards, most recently for his 2008 collection “Without Saying.”

In 2012, I married his longtime partner Alexander, a digital artist and his sole immediate survivor.

Friends said that Mr. Howard could be blunt in his poetry criticism — he introduced one writer at a public reading by calling him “the best monosyllabic poet of his generation” — but had a fundamental generosity of spirit, keeping tabs on young poets well into his 80s and offering encouragement whenever he could.

“I suppose I have a pretty even balance of interest in the poetry of the past and the poetry coming into being,” he told the Paris Review. “The energy necessary for both interests doesn’t have to be sustained — it sustains me.”

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