First Impressions Last


Inner Voices, Richard Howard
[428 pp, 14.95, Carcanet ]


Yes, 428 pages. And a beautiful cover image from a Gustav Dore painting. I open this with trepidation and enthusiasm. A quick flick though and I start reading.  I continue reading, drawn along by the rhythmic narratives. And to my surprise this happens again and again. I say surprise because I'd not expect to be particularly drawn to either the subject matter or the formal nature of the writing itself. But here is a writer whose playful, witty and erudite poems flow and engage. Despite myself, short dips become longer and more absorbing.

For a Selected Poems
covering a forty year period, there is little information about the poet himself, only a brief synopsis of distinguished credentials. Given the volume of work here and the range of subjects what a pity not to have a little scholarly help in setting it all in context. But I suppose the quality of the writing must drive the reader's curiosity to make sense of it for himself.

These Inner Voices
are largely imagined soliloquies, conversations, letters and observations on, by and between writers, artists, musicians or their companions and protagonists. If you had to categorize the writing I suppose you might call it 'C20th Browningesque'. The subjects are wide ranging, historical and contemporary: the dancer Martha Graham, Milton and his daughters, Henry James, Mrs Morris, Ruskin, Wagner, Wilkie Collins, Bonnard, Isadora Duncan, Tarzan, King Kong etc etc. Most of the poems are substantial in size and scope, carrying within them a wealth of reference, ideas and detail.

A tetchy Walt Whitman prepares for a visit by Bram Stoker:
 
               Stoker was born Abraham, and he should be
          Abraham still - has the breath of humanity in it,
                          and Lincoln too. Can't Abraham write
                 fiction as well?
                                                         ['Infirmities']

Gladstone's secretary describes his employer in retirement, Telemachus meets Helen while seeking his father and hears

          'You'll find him, don't worry,
          you can't lose a man like that. Of course you can lose
              yourself and you will:
          that's what finding a father means.'
                                                       [Telemachus']

In one series of poems literary masters consider movies made after their time, (Rudyard Kipling on King Kong, Joseph Conrad on Lost Horizons). With a quote from Lewis Carrol for an epigraph, 'Move Still, Still So' concerns a woman consulting a therapist over sexual difficulties while flashbacks reveal a childhood pose for a creepy photographer. Mme Millon prepares to sell Bonnard paintings to the occupying Germans. A student writes of a visit to a New York dinosaur museum, asking a teacher back home for help:
 
               'explain to us about Time - about
               those millions of years,
          and Dinosaur-chicken in the Diner, and
          chicken-size Dinosaurs in the Great Hall, and
                                                         where they really are.
                                                       ['Our Spring Trip']

The longest poem, 'The Lesson of the Master', extending to 22 pages, consists of a conversation between Mrs Edith Wharton, American novelist, friend and contemporary of Henry James, and a young male chaperone appointed by Henry James as they travel by car to the cemetery with the ashes of her dead lover. Now that's just the crudest outline.

Their dialogue explores identity and loss and is rich with comment on writing, sexuality, love and the values of the society they inhabit, while a dramatic tension develops between them. The poem seems to encapsulate the tone and values of a particular era and social group:

          A trivial society gains significance
                    from the life it gags...
          If I was a failure in Boston because
          I was thought too fashionable to be serious,
                     in New York I failed
          because I was feared to be too serious
                     to be fashionable.

while producing passages that are universal,

                   I became what is called an author.
          Not a poet, like Swinburne. Poets write something,
          authors write about something. My dear young man,
          whatever we manage to do is merely
               a modification
          of what we have failed to do. So when we fail,
          it is only because we have given up.


While I can go along with the endorsement on the back cover  'a unique poet whose work instructs by delighting and delights by instructing', my sense is that to appreciate this poem fully would require considerably greater knowledge and sympathy with the literary times and milieu being referred to than I could ever acquire. And hereby hangs the reader's dilemma. A certain amount of help is at hand aboard the good ship Google, (where I learn learn enough to place Mrs Wharton more firmly in her world) but that is no substitute for the breadth of Richard Howard's scholarship, imagination and inventiveness.
 
However, if the poet's allusions and references run the risk of excluding the reader, the actual writing does the opposite. He sets out to entertain and enchant and what Anthony Hecht describes in his endorsement as 'his incomparable copiousness' enables him to create character and atmosphere with writing that is always polished and thoughtful. A lack of factual knowledge on the reader's behalf or an inability to 'get' references and clues leaves you in the hands of the writing itself where so often and consistently the poet himself speaks through the characters and situations he describes rather than the other way round. And here the real subject matter of the work is to be found, what I'd describe as the sweep of human emotions underneath events or behind the affectations the characters adopt, a sweep tinged with ironies and a delight in the details of human affairs both great and small. There's a predisposition to undermine human posturing and the illusion of success ( in 'Homage' he quotes Luke: 'woe unto you/when all men shall speak well of you.'). The poem 'Success' describes an art  dealer throwing a Christmas party with its atmosphere of smugness and self-conscious preening. The the main decorative feature is a Roman male nude sculpture with

                      a pure
                pelvic arch indeed denuded
          of the usual embellishment, so that

          all that met the eye was a shadowed empty
               socket, the mere embouchure
           where once unstinting paraphenalia

          must have lodged. 'Very fragile things, penises,'
               she mused, and for a moment
           no one there succeeded in saying a word.
                                 
 ['Success']

The poet is clearly enjoying himself in so many of these poems. Puns and anagrams are commonplace, while memorable descriptions and pithy observations occur like raisins in a fruit-loaf:

         
         'It has nothing to do with love, jealousy,
                     it is only passed around
          at the same time, like pepper with the melon,
          for people who happen not to know better: 
                                ['On Hearing Your Lover Is Going To The Baths Tonight']


Transience and mortality seem to underpin it all. Towards the end of the book there are a number of elegies (he himself is getting older) and a final poem eschews narrative for lyricism:

          And when we aspire to be clad in fire
          (for who would not put on such apparel?)

             the flames only pass us by -
          it is a way they have of passing through.
          But earth is another matter. Ask earth

               to take us, the last mother -
          one womb we may reassume. Yes indeed,
          we can have the earth. Earth will have us.
                                    ['Elementary Principles at Seventy-two']
     
Of course a few brief quotes are inadequate and the poems themselves are too long to take any one as a whole. Browsing through once again I find fresh pieces I've not come across before and for a moment wonder if, without reference to them, I've done justice to the work. But that would be beyond me. In some ways this is a daunting book. You couldn't sit down comfortably and read it in a few sittings. It needs to be returned to and savoured piecemeal over time, a long time perhaps, for too much at once might become tedious. But you could return to it again and again and always encounter something new, open a page and find yourself drawn in.

          Mike Barlow 2007