Thrown Voices: Richard Howard & Susan Sontag
SUSAN SONTAG: I think of Richard Howard as a very central figure in our culture, maintaining and giving eloquent voice and illustration to standards that are in peril today. Richard and I go back a long way. He’s my first serious literary friend. He’s not the first writer I ever met, but he was my first profound chum, ally, buddy, accomplice, brother in literature. We met soon after I came to New York in the beginning of the sixties, and we immediately started cooking up projects—things we wanted to sponsor and impose—so this is a special occasion for me. I’ve invited Richard to begin by reading a few poems.
RICHARD HOWARD: When Susan and I first knew each other, she responded wonderfully to some early poems, and I’d like to read one that she knew about at the very beginning—this goes back to 1962—and then I’d like to read one poem from the new book, so that we have a range. This first poem is called “Jubilary Ode on the Hundredth Anniversary of the Birth of Marlene Dietrich”:
And even after hours
Of waking and a little sleep,
When you by impulse walk
Abroad some natural morning
Or immoderate night,
So fondly will the earth adjust
Its formal longitudes
To fit your stride; so freely will
The light consent to fall
In with your way of looking at
The world; so willingly
Water itself run up to your
Dry mouth (as for dear life)
When you would drink: it is as if
You slept through every one
Of all the ages requisite
To raise the bright trapeze
Of blood within your body, hang
Your acrobatic eyes
From the still unruined arches
That chamber in your skull.
Like love in Shelley, moving with
The easy unconcern
Of its own motion, the purpose
Of your overpowered
Self lives upon itself, and each
Excess of separate
Feature balks some other of its
Singular growth by a
Kind of general song. There is
An innocence in such
Accord, a music I can hear
Beyond our carnival
And all its obstreperous cries.
Simple to tell by your
Breathing, by your heart’s meters, that
You are no accomplice
(The record makes it clear—you were
In our crime of being Somewhere
The night of Anytime.
And then, from last year, “My Last Hustler,” which has a little clip from Robert Browning, from a poem called “My Last Duchess”:
. . . all smiles stopped
When “Brad” is lying naked, or rather naked is lying
in wait for whatever those he refers to as clients require
by way of what they refer to as satisfaction, denying
himself the distraction of alcohol or amyl, there appears
in his eyes no flicker of shame, no flare of shameless desire,
and what tribute he is paid finds him neither tender nor fierce.
On a bed above suspicion, creases in obviously fresh
linen still mapping a surface only a little creamier than
the creaseless hills and hollows of his compliant flesh,
Brad will extend himself (as the graphic saying goes)
and the upper hand—always his—will push into place the man
who happens to be there till happening comes to blows
(another saying you now more fully grasp): full-blown,
Brad will prepare himself, though not precipitately,
for the grateful-kisses stage; he offers cheek and chin
but objects to undergoing your accolade on his mouth:
he has endured such homage too early, too often, too lately,
and for all his boyish ways Brad is not wholly a youth.
Routines on some arduous rigging, however, can restore
him to himself in mirrors, every which way surrounded
by no more than what he seems and mercifully by no more.
Booked by a merciless Service for a thousand afternoons,
Brad will become the needs of his “regulars” confounded
by his indifferent regard, by his regardless expense . . .
Take him—young faithful!—there and then. Marvel! praise!
Fond though your touch may be and truly feeling your tact,
yet a mocking echo returns—remote, vague, blasé—
of Every Future Caress, so very like your own!
However entranced the scene you make (the two of you act
as one to all appearance, but one is always alone),
derision will come to mind, or to matter over mind:
the folly, in carnal collusion, of mere presented skill.
Undone, played out, discharged, one insight you will have gained
which cannot for all these ardent lapses be gainsaid
—even his murmured subsidence an exercise of will—
is the sudden absolute knowledge Brad would rather be dead.
SONTAG: Richard, let’s start talking about your poetic project—your particular project as a poet. In a lot of your poems, your characteristic mode is a mode of address. Often it’s in the form of a dramatic monologue, or it’s actually addressed to a figure. There’s an incredible suite of poems in the new book, Trappings, which is a set of variations on the theme of Milton dictating Paradise Lost to his daughters, based on real and imaginary paintings. It’s a virtuoso exhibit of different registers and different voices on the same theme. This is not the only thing you’ve done as a poet but it is certainly the principal strand in your work. Could you talk about where it comes from, how it relates to Browning, Eliot, all the rest . . .
HOWARD: Well, it comes from reading and it comes from the fact that I was an only child, and I grew up in my grandfather’s house. He had died four years before I was born, but his library was there—he was a gentleman who liked to move among fine bindings—and I was a little boy alone in the library. And I learned to read very early, and I communicated with these volumes from a very early age, and it was the most authentic and responsible communication that I had. When it gradually became possible to extend that communication by writing my own, in a sense, responses to what I had been reading, I found it quite natural to do so in voices—as Susan has suggested, in terms of address. It was a question of talking back. And talking back to something that I had heard. I didn’t know how to do it at first, and I think there was a lot of fumbling. In the first two books, in fact, I was learning, and with the third book something happened and I found that I could speak more accurately and validly, for myself, if I spoke through what I suppose might be called a mask. And I began writing these poems in the voices of someone else. That has persisted pretty much till now. And as you say, there are other things going on, but that is the way I now think of poems. That is the project. There was the example of Robert Browning, most powerfully; there were a couple other figures who helped
SONTAG: —some of Eliot, obviously.
HOWARD: Sure, and some Tennyson, but it was mostly Browning. The secret that Robert Browning communicated was that when you speak in the voice of someone else, the speaker, thus registered, reveals something without realizing that he or she is revealing it. There is something unacknowledged in the speech, in the discourse, that escapes with the speaker unaware. And it was that—the drama of the speaker revealing more than was known or suspected—that appealed very strongly. I was a very sneaky little boy, and it was a way of getting what I wanted. I continued, and the poems that I think of now usually have this double impulse of saying one thing and meaning something else. Or perhaps meaning one thing and saying something else. That’s been a powerful inducement to the project.
SONTAG: When I think that we’ve been talking almost forty years, I can’t believe that we’ve never had this particular conversation. You’ve taken the thing that I started with one step further because I realize as you are talking that when I first thought about becoming a writer, I thought of trying to write in almost every form, but poetry is the one form that I found, and continue to find, extremely daunting. Despite my involvement with and admiration for your work, I thought of poetry as first person, as the lyrical mode, the poet always speaking in the voice of the poet, whereas prose fiction is for me the thrown voice, the impersonation, the portrait. It never occurred to me, actually, for myself at any rate, that one could use poetry in that way. I always thought of poetry as the direct lyrical I—
HOWARD: —I think we all do—
SONTAG:—and by and large it is. Yes. So that is the originality: you are doing something which is absolutely poetry insofar as any kind of sharp distinction can be made, and yet it adopts, as its method, one that is much more characteristic of prose than of poetry—namely, impersonation, what I call the thrown voice. Or, to use another image, portraits. You not only are very visual and have a very intense involvement with the visual arts, but many of your poems could be described as portraits, portraits of other people. “My Last Hustler,” for instance, is clearly a portrait. One thing is to say it’s an impersonation, another thing is to say it’s a portrait—really two different images, but I think they both describe what you’re doing.
Another thing that I wanted you to talk about, and know you’d like to talk about, is the project of the relation to the past, of poetry or literature as a way of honoring or continuing to explore, or keeping alive certain complexities that one finds perhaps more easily in the past, if only for the obvious reason that there’s more of it than there is of the present. This is something that interests me very much because of the more ambitious fictions that I’ve been writing. I’ve found a greater freedom in setting them in the past rather than in the present . . . So, let’s say you are more likely to make a portrait of the Goncourt brothers than of Ronald Reagan.
HOWARD: I am fascinated by the way you put it. Judging now from some fifteen years of experience teaching, I don’t think that in the minds of most young people, certainly most writers, especially poets, there’s more of the past than the present. I think that for them, as I’ve come to know them, and respond to their work, and work with them, there is more of now than there is of then. You are absolutely right, it has been my project to work in another mode and to suggest that then is more copious, more various, and in a sense more responsive to the dramas of the self than now. I am also responsive, as you said, to what has been made in terms of image by painters and photographers. I now discover that if you add up the work, a great deal of it is responsive to imagery, especially painting and photographs, and I think that is also a little suspect. It is regarded as if there were something wrong with poetry which moves upon its purposes with the sense that there is already something there to which it is addressed, and I am aware of that, and I think my discomfort stimulates me to do whatever it is I do.
SONTAG: I’m surprised you talk about discomfort. Don’t you feel, on the contrary, belligerent in your espousal of these discredited riches that you are continuing to evoke? I remember years ago when you were doing some of your first teaching, you told me you were amazed that your students in the poetry workshop didn’t want to be assigned poems to read. They wanted to work on their own poetry, and if you suggested that they read Emily Dickinson or John Donne or Tennyson, they felt indignant, as if you were asking them to compromise their originality, or their individuality.
The presumption was that they had nothing to learn, that they had only their own self to explore, and maybe you might give them a few tricks or techniques, but the material was already there, it just had to be put in a slightly more shapely way—or maybe not. Maybe they just wanted you as reader. I’ve had a similar experience. I haven’t done as much teaching as you, but I remember years ago while teaching a fiction workshop at Brown, I said the most obvious thing. The most obvious thing in the world you can say while teaching a short-story workshop is “read Chekhov.” What could be more obvious? It’s so obvious that you might almost be embarrassed, but it’s of course absolutely the thing to do to introduce your student writers to perhaps the single most admired writer of short stories that we know. And lots of my students said, “Well, why would I want to read somebody else?” They were willing to read each other, of course; they were willing endlessly to circulate the work of and read the work of other students. But they didn’t want to read somebody from the past, certainly not somebody who might be better than they, because that might make them feel bad.
This is part of a larger picture: a certain arrogance, a certain smugness. We have all kinds of names for it: barbarism, philistinism (though philistinism is sort of beyond imagination), but above all, the idea, which I think we both agree is not the point, that literature is a question of self-expression. It’s a kind of autotherapy. And what you’re doing, of course, is expressing your feelings or something like that. Of course your feelings are part of your material, needless to say, but they are not the point. Because if you want to just express your feelings, literature would be a very roundabout way to do it. As Samuel Goldwyn, I think, is supposed to have said—it’s one of those legendary, wonderful phrases—when asked about the message of a movie he had produced, “If I wanted to communicate a message I would send a telegram.” If you wanted just to communicate your feelings, many other things would be much more correct. I mean a tantrum, an assault . . .
HOWARD: A caress . . .
SONTAG: A caress. What literature is about now has taken second place to various notions of the primacy of the expressive self, to put it politely, and I think that here you are going even more against the grain. Of course there is a continuity with your work, it isn’t as if each time you become an entirely different writer (obviously I can recognize a Richard Howard poem—any important poet has a signature), but you change. The idea is not simply or only to express yourself—and that already seems somewhat illegitimate. Would you agree?
HOWARD: That’s certainly my sense of the discomfort, and perhaps the illegitimacy, of the project, but it is also the pleasure of the project and, as I like to remark in my classes, your job is to express the poem and not the poet. I work quite hard to do that and I’m happy to be engaged in that process. I think the self comes through no matter what, but the poem is what has to be produced and worked at. That is the madness of art, as Henry James said, and I’m happy to be engaged in that folly. One more thing about the past: Obviously there are so many pasts, and the richness of the past is such that one makes choices. I do not write, for instance, the same poems about the past that I wrote twenty-five years ago; it’s another past and I have another present. I think that has been one of the surprises of this enterprise, this life. It wasn’t as if I had found my mode and could therefore exploit it. It changed as I changed, and the poems are no longer quite what they were. When I was looking at poems to read tonight, I found that I was enormously dissatisfied with the ones that I sort of suspect might be what you would call the signature poem, and I wanted to think about the ones that I have written recently, or have yet to write—
SONTAG: You were going to read a Wilkie Collins poem but decided not to. Is that something that you found yourself dissatisfied with?
SONTAG: Talk a little bit more concretely about which past and how it evolved. Again, very superficially, a number of your subjects are French, or English, and from the nineteenth century. You make a very special selection from the past . . .
HOWARD: It began with the books that were in the library. It began by my responding to the voices that I had read there, and the Americans were not in it. My grandfather didn’t find those books attractive. There were not sets of the American writers, there were sets of the European writers. One of them was a large turquoise set of volumes, turquoise leather. I was, as I say, a little boy, and I was struggling with this set of books, and each volume was stamped in gold with the phrase “Masterpieces of George Sand.” I didn’t know who Mr. Sand was, but apparently these were only the masterpieces. Thirteen volumes of masterpieces. And I was very attracted by that. And I read them, or as many of them as I could bear, and there were those voices and those representations to work upon, so that, initially, once I had found that there was this method of a sort of ventriloquism, the voices that were produced were from a certain era or realm, and it was Victorian, the world of my grandfather and the world that he recognized as of his grandfather. I think the earliest original pieces were from the middle of the nineteenth century, someone like Macaulay, and on through about the beginning of the twentieth. That has changed, and I now write voices that are much more nearly contemporary with my parents’ generation at least, and a different past has become available.
SONTAG: But it’s still more focused on the nineteenth century, would you say?
HOWARD: Well, it is an accent that I can manage, yes.
SONTAG: I can’t imagine that your grandfather didn’t have any Russian books in his library. He didn’t have any Tolstoy, for instance?
HOWARD: Oh yes—
SONTAG: But the Russian didn’t enter into this group of voices that you wanted to have a dialogue with, because it was too remote? Or because the language was one you were unlikely to master?
HOWARD: Well, I think I must have had some sense about translating, even then. And in any case, I was not at all moved by the Russians when I was a boy. It was something that happened much later. And although there are some Russian voices in the poems now, they are only there marginally and, you are absolutely right, I would never have thought of such a thing.
SONTAG: Years ago we had a conversation about writing being based on emulation. I didn’t have a grandfather’s library, but I was a very precocious reader and certainly any idea I had of writing started with being in love with literature, with what was not me—I mean that was the whole point, that it wasn’t me and it wasn’t about anything that was in my life. It was space travel, a flying carpet.
HOWARD: Yes, absolutely.
SONTAG: So when would you say that you first had the idea of writing? I know you worked as a lexicographer briefly when you were in your twenties. You had a very good literature degree—the heroic period of Columbia University, Lionel Trilling and so on. You began translating at a relatively early age and have amassed more books, French books, than I think any other translator. How did that all come together? And was poetry always at the beginning of it?
HOWARD: No, only reading was at the beginning of it. And it still is at the end of it. It has something to do with fetishism of the book, and with something that we used to do together, which was acquiring books—
SONTAG: Used to!
HOWARD: Well, we haven’t done it so much together, although I think we still do it on our own quite often. It was terribly important, not only to know about books, but to have them. And of course, there came a point where having them could be done by writing them. Disraeli once said, “A novel? A novel? When I want to read a novel, I write one.” The kind of poetry I want to read now is obviously something I have to write, but—
SONTAG: But yet, you’ve written so marvelously of poets who were not like you. As you know, one of my favorites among your essays is on Emily Dickinson, and you might say that Emily Dickinson is precisely not the thrown voice; it is the single voice, very much the single voice that is always herself saturated, hyper-saturated. There have been many other models and many other appreciations. It’s not as if you only want to read the kind of books you might want to write—
HOWARD: Not at all. There no longer is the kind of book I want to write. I have to do it. But there was once a sense that certain figures had achieved what I wanted, and that I wanted to emulate them. That is no longer the case, but it was there for many, many years.
SONTAG: Let’s go back, for a moment, to American literature, using the paradigm, which I suspect is ever so slightly fictitious, of your grandfather’s library making the borders of your original sensibility and projects. You weren’t tremendously interested in American literature and didn’t think, first of all, of portraits of American figures—with the vast, looming exception of Henry James, of course, and I wish you would speak of your relation to James because here we move away from poetry to a model of sensibility that has been decisive for you. James was a great, great writer who never wrote any poetry; certainly one would not think of him as a poet. Just tell me about the relationship to American Literature and if that has changed and why the European has loomed so large. American Literature is important, but not the center . . .
HOWARD: I don’t think what I’m going to say is going to be acceptable, but I think it’s because we were Jews, and we were a certain kind of upper class Jew. When I was a child, until 1935, the trunks always appeared in May and my mother and my grandmother and other relatives were always going to Europe. That was simply the way they lived. And I expected always to imitate them. In 1936, it was no longer possible. I remember the travel brochures for places in Austria, and we couldn’t go any longer, and instead my grandmother, who was a wealthy woman, and a somewhat responsible one, began bringing Jews from Europe to America. The word “affidavit” entered my vocabulary, and I discovered that one signed an affidavit in order to bring a certain kind of European to this country. Susan wrote an extraordinary piece about Thomas Mann and her encounter with him. That kind of encounter is sometimes decisive, though perhaps not in the way one might assume or hope it would be.
In my case I was eight and one of my grandmother’s choices appeared, a European intellectual, and he came to Cleveland, where we lived, before taking up residence at Princeton in the Institute for Advanced Study. At the time Hermann Broch was merely a rootless European refugee émigré. The encounter with this rather alarming figure burned itself into my soul. I must tell it. He was interested in my mother, who was between marriages. I was accustomed to dissuading my mother’s suitors by questioning them rather nastily about subjects which, in Cleveland at least, I knew would not be easily picked up. My favorite question, which was always a poser, was “What’s your favorite Opera?” I had never seen an opera, but I had studied The Victor Book of Operas very carefully, and of course I had heard opera on the radio. (Every Saturday I listened to the Met.) Well, Hermann Broch, who had children of his own, listened to me rather charmingly, and he answered me, unlike my mother’s other suitors, with two syllables I had never heard before, and I fled screaming from the room, in tears. He said Wozzeck. It was a real defeat for me. But I think that sort of thing had something to do with my European commitment. I would like to think that I have now encountered American literature on attractive terms, and that I am interested not only in contemporary authors, but the authors of the American past, in a creative way, although it is only now that I can begin to hear those voices in my own work. And it is Henry James, of course, who is the pivotal figure—the swivel, as it were—for me. There was, by the way, no set of Henry James in my grandfather’s library.
SONTAG: I think people forget—you have to be as old as we are to remember—that Henry James wasn’t rediscovered until the 1940s. He was really quite forgotten from his death in 1916 until an issue of The Kenyon Review in 1944, an all–Henry James issue, which was the beginning of the revival. So if your grandfather’s library was amassed in the twenties and thirties, Henry James would not be there.
HOWARD: Joseph Conrad was there, and George Meredith—in other words, contemporaries of James. It wasn’t that he was modern, it’s that he was American—and there were other problems as well. When I got to Columbia, I fell in with the man who became my best friend and closest associate, and we became fanatical Jamesians together, Robert Gottlieb and I. We began accumulating those books, making tremendous expeditions to Fourth Avenue and other places in order to acquire those books, and we read all of James—which was a considerable achievement for a young person in those days. And we have continued to respond to that work and that solicitude for the verbal—for verbality at its most excruciating—ever since. Anything that James approached, from the point of view of language or verbality, he was all in it, whether he was writing a note thanking somebody for a present, or giving directions, or writing a text. James was the figure that Gottlieb and I, in college, found to be the perfect baffle and screen behind which we could conduct ourselves in any way we chose. He became the figure that governed my sense of what literature was. And it had nothing to do with agreeing with him, or wanting to be like him. He and Virginia Woolf were the people we admired the most, and knew would dislike us the most. But that had no bearing on the case, none at all.
SONTAG: One more subject, and maybe it will get you to read another poem. The future—future projects, the sense of going on. You do so much and you sponsor so much and at a certain point you know you don’t have unlimited time. Is there perhaps a feeling of having to choose this rather than that? Fewer translations, more essays, more poetry, different kinds of poetry?
HOWARD: Unfortunately, the system by which I am able to do anything at all consists of promiscuously doing everything. And it is so ingrained now, in the spirit, that I don’t think I could work by elimination any longer, but only by profusion and proliferation. It’s only by distraction that I can operate. So I translate and write essays and write poems and teach classes and attempt to get other people to publish what I think of as good work. Susan made a reference to our early collusion, and I can’t tell you how important that was to me in those years. We really did have a kind of subversive effort going there, where we tried to interest a lot of publishers—Susan had more control over that than I—but together we had a notion about what should be done. And we tried to do it.
SONTAG: There were two writers in particular that Richard and I had both read in French who were not translated at all. One was Roland Barthes and the other was Émile Cioran. Very early on in our friendship—it might have been the first night, actually—we said, they have to come into English, and of course Richard did the lion’s share because he translated all their books, and I helped get them published and wrote early prefaces and blurbs. We literally brought those two writers into English—and many others as well.
HOWARD: You remember how we met. Susan had written a review of a book I had translated. She didn’t know me, but she knew the book, which was called Manhood by Michel Leiris, and she wrote an essay in The New York Review of Books. She said, “Plumped down on my desk in translation is this book,” and then she said, “Translated by Richard Howard, whoever that is—”
SONTAG: I didn’t say that! I couldn’t have said that!
HOWARD: She did get a phone call from the translator saying, “Let’s do lunch,” and that’s when it started, right then. I can remember the day—
SONTAG: We had an incredible sense of complicity. I’m talking about the early sixties, a time that seems dazzlingly cosmopolitan compared to today, but still there was enormous indifference or ignorance—
SONTAG: And resistance to what was going on in Europe. I wrote the first essay on Godard! It’s hard to believe people didn’t love all this from the beginning, but it was fun, it was enormous fun, and we had a terrific time because we were so gloriously self-righteous, in the best sense. We knew we were promoting the best stuff and people were bound to like it and be influenced by it and care about it if only it were available to them. And that’s exactly what happened. It was, as crusades go, very innocent and very successful and very much worth doing. I wish we could talk longer about this relation to the past because I think it’s something that does influence us a lot—some feeling that one doesn’t want the past to be forgotten, to be oversimplified, one doesn’t want this kind of barbarism that reduces and flattens out all complexity, linguistic and otherwise, to prevail. And of course you have the sense that you’re in the minority, and yet there is, I think, a very real audience for other kinds of work, and it’s important to keep on supporting it through one’s passions.
I have a very different temperament from Richard—I function well not being promiscuous, being very, very focused, and I am constantly giving things up in order to try and do something better. But we are alike in that we feel the important job is not to attack but to promote and proselytize. I think it’s far more important to show people what they should be reading or seeing or thinking about than to write why this is trash and this is garbage and that’s not worth paying attention to, and I would say that’s true of you too. In one of your early books, an original and beautiful exercice du style called Alone With America, you found something positive to say about fifty poets. Not for a minute did you think that all these poets were of equal value, but you had something interesting and eloquent to say about each of them that illustrated certain larger ideas about the poetic project. You’re a master of the art of praise, and that’s a high compliment because the art of praise is the art of promoting and sponsoring and upholding certain values and standards against and above other values and standards. It’s very, very profound cultural work. People should read your essays, but I’m glad that we have talked some about the poems. Would you like to finish with the last poem in the book—or don’t you like it anymore?
HOWARD: No, I’d love to. This poem was written five years ago, and it was never published in a magazine. It only appeared in this book. It’s called “At Sixty-Five”:
The, tragedy, Colette said, is that one
does not age. Everyone else does, of course
(as Marcel was so shocked to discover),
and upon one’s mask odd disfigurements
are imposed; but that garrulous presence
we sometimes call the self, sometimes deny
it exists at all despite its carping
monologue, is the same as when we stole
the pears, spied on mother in the bath, ran
away from home. What has altered is what
Kant called Categories: the shapes of time
change altogether! Days, weeks, months,
and especially years are reassigned.
Famous for her timing, a Broadway wit
told me her “method”: asked to do something,
anything, she would acquiesce next year—
“I’ll commit suicide, provided it’s
next year.” But after sixty-five, next year
is now. Hours? there are none, only a few
reckless postponements before it is time . . .
When was it you “last” saw Jimmy—last spring?
last winter? That scribbled arbiter
your calendar reveals—betrays—the date:
over a year ago. Come again? No
time like the present, endlessly deferred.
Which makes a difference: once upon a time
there was only time (. . . as the day is long)
between the wanting self and what it wants.
Wanting still, you have no dimension where
fulfillment or frustration can occur.
Of course you have, but you must cease waiting
upon it: simply turn around and look
back. Like Orpheus, like Mrs. Lot, you
will be petrified—astonished—to learn
memory is endless, life very long,
and you—you are immortal after all.