Richard Howard, acclaimed poet-translator, dies at 92

NEW YORK — Richard Howard, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet famous 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 the age of 92.

Howard, a professor emeritus at Columbia University, died Thursday at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in New York. Her husband, David Alexander, told The Associated Press that he has dementia.

Over a period of 50 years, Howard’s poetry, essays and translations totaled more than 200 books and established him as an essential literary creator, commentator and performer. He won Pulitzer Poetry in 1970 for “Untitled Subjects” and was a National Book Award finalist in 2008 for “Without Saying.” His translation of Les Fleurs du mal by Charles Baudelaire won the National Book Award (then called the American Book Award) in 1983.

Through “Les Fleurs du mal” and other English editions, Howard became instrumental in expanding the American audience for French writers. His projects included modern and classic French books, from the memoirs of Charles de Gaulle to the experimental novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet to the philosophy of Howard’s friend Roland Barthes. In 2000, his edition of Stendhal’s 19th century novel “La Chartreuse de Parme” was a surprise bestseller.

“I first translated for myself and friends,” Howard told the Center for Translation in 1982. “I had read books that I knew I liked and wanted to share them with my friends who didn’t know not read French. My friends would come and I would cook dinner for them and after dinner I would read aloud. The pleasure of translating these books was only equaled, I thought, by the pleasure of communicating them.

A bald man with a light, musical voice, a penchant for monocles, and a French bulldog named Gide, Howard has been praised for the wit and elegance of his translations and his ability to make French authors accessible. As a poet, Howard mastered a fluid, rhymeless style that was both scholarly and conversational, guiding readers on an intimate and informal tour of Western art and culture.

Instead of personal confessions, he channeled the voices of Penelope and Ulysses from “The Odyssey,” the daughters of “Paradise Lost” poet John Milton, and Edith Wharton and Isadora Duncan. He imagines Henry James as a film critic and composes odes to portraits by photographer Nadar 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 maker William Morris addresses his unmarried middle-aged daughter.

“Save it all, don’t you know

the value that things will have until

the world darkens around you, and your business

– as doubtful in the changing light,

things are what you got

left. And everything 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 elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1983 and for years served as editor of The Paris Review. A compilation of his essays and reviews, “Paper Trail: Selected Prose, 1965-2003”, was published in 2004.

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

Her love for French didn’t start in a classroom, but in a car. On a childhood road trip from Cleveland to Miami, he sat next to a Viennese cousin who decided to fill the long hours by teaching the language. By the end of their trip, Howard had “amassed a tremendous vocabulary of nouns and even a rudimentary stock of verbs.” Decades later, De Gaulle will ask him how long it took to understand the language. “Five days, General,” Howard replied.

Howard was an undergraduate and graduate student at Columbia University, where he met Allen Ginsberg and befriended his classmate Robert Gottlieb, later a prominent literary editor who published the translation de Gaulle by Howard. Prior to joining the Columbia faculty, he taught at the University of Cincinnati and the University of Houston.

Howard has been openly gay for much of his adult life. His collection of poetry “Fellow Feelings” was a tribute to artists such 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 a backstage wait with WH Auden at a poetry reading in the 1960s. They were about the poet Bernie Weinbaum, who had a history of anti-gay and anti-Semitic slurs. Howard explained that since he was “those two things,” he was not a fan of Weinbaum.

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