Barbara Howes and the Eminent Sorority

A review of Collected Poems: 1945-1990, by Barbara Howes.

Barbara Howes
Barbara Howes
Although Barbara Howes’s new and selected poems, A Private Signal, became a finalist for the 1978 National Book Award, the book received little other attention. Fewer than half a dozen reviews appeared, most of them very short. Even the book itself proved hard to get. I still remember searching Manhattan’s literary bookstores before admitting defeat and placing the volume on special order. Later, reading through the book with growing admiration, I was surprised to learn that not only did my literary acquaintances not know Howes’s poetry; none of the younger ones even recognized her name. A Private Signal had turned out to be very private indeed. The volume had confirmed Howes’s reputation among the small group of writers who had previously championed her work, but it had failed to win her new readers. It also conspicuously failed to accomplish what a selected poems should do–provide both critics and readers the opportunity (if not the obligation) to survey the breadth of a poet’s work and to assess its permanent value. Now nearly twenty years later Howes has published her Collected Poems: 1945-1990, and I fear the process of coterie celebration and public neglect will repeat itself.

Howes’s current obscurity is difficult to understand. Before A Private Signal, she had published five books of poetry, each of which met with a very favorable reception: The Undersea Farmer (1948), In the Cold Country (1954), Light and Dark (1959), Looking Up at Leaves (1966) and The Blue Garden (1972). Her admirers constitute an impressive club that has included Richard Wilbur, Stanley Kunitz, Carolyn Kizer, Robert Phillips, Robert Penn Warren, and Katherine Anne Porter. Reviewing her second book, Louise Bogan called her “the most accomplished woman poet of the youngest writing generation—one who has found her own voice, chosen her own material, and worked out her own form,” an opinion she repeated in subsequent reviews of Howes’s work. Yet over the year Howes’s reputation has not grown. She has become a poet known mostly to other poets of her own generation.

Certainly Howes’s lack of interest in promoting her own career has not helped to broaden her reputation. Once she stopped editing the distinguished quarterly Chimera in 1947, she gave up literary journalism. She has never taught or lectured and has written virtually no critical prose. Beyond her own poetry, her only literary projects have been four short story anthologies, most notably The Green Antilles (1966) one of the earliest collections of modern Caribbean literature. For the past forty years she has lived in rural Vermont, spending part of the winter in the Caribbean. Removed from public literary life, she has become the kind of substantial poet who tends to be ignored—the quiet writer who belongs to no schools and pays little attention to cultural fashions. Perhaps this independence has contributed to her lack of appeal to academic critics. She illustrates no trends in contemporary poetry. She speaks for no one but herself. Nor does her work contain either the surface difficulty or the topical interest that attracts the kinds of attention critics have given to poets such as Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.

In most ways they are modest, even self-deprecating writers, but, in matters they deem important, they are bold and self-assured.Reading the Collected Poems, one sees Howes very clearly as a woman writing in one of the oddest but most important traditions of American poetry. Howes stands with Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and ultimately Emily Dickinson in a lineage of women writers passionately committed to the independence and singularity of the poetic imagination. (To this group one might also add Louise Bogan, Julia Randall, May Swenson, and Josephine Miles). They form an eccentric but eminent sorority. In most ways they are modest, even self-deprecating writers, but, in matters they deem important, they are bold and self-assured. They are also quirky writers —alternately erudite and innocent, intimate and reserved, humorous and wistful. They are all temperamentally private artists, but their introspective genius expresses itself matter-of-factly in everyday, even domestic, images. Perhaps what unifies them most obviously is the affirmative quality of their vision. In an essay on Josephine Miles in The Hollins Critic (June, 1980), Julia Randall linked several of these poets by saying, “They seem to seek (Bishop) or find (Miles) what women, and I suppose other human beings, most desire: being at home in the world.” It is precisely this ability to accept the world as it is that separates them from other, usually more popular women poets who long for some sort of spiritual or personal transformation. When one contrasts the poetry of Moore to that of her contemporary, Edna St. Vincent Millay, or the work of Bishop to that of Adrienne Rich, the fundamental differences become obvious. Their dissimilarities are not merely matters of style but of assumptions about life and poetry.

Without claiming that Howes’s literary stature is equal to that of Moore or Bogan, I would maintain that her work does not suffer by being compared with theirs. Her verse shows the same precision, integrity, and originality that distinguish their poetry. I would even suggest that Howes’s work curiously combines the contradictory achievements of her two mentors—Bogan the abstract lyricist and Moore the verbal pyrotechnician. With her contemporary, Elizabeth Bishop, Howes stands as one of the most original women poets of her generation, one of the handful whose total oeuvre seems identifiably individual.

One of Howes’s early poems, “The Triumph of Time,” illustrates her particular strengths as a poet. The poem presents a series of allegorical figures who portray the seasons. Part of it runs:

Valleys the snow has leveled sink with spring
And hills start upward on a wave of green,
Warm winds sweep down on fallow pastures … How
Easily summer conquers: liberal,
It broods upon the world as a trapeze
Hangs poised above its long trajectory.
Autumn: a crazy hunter comes to poach
Inflaming all upon a zigzag path
Magenta, tangerine —the woods are torn
Asunder. Soon an old man whose mackintosh
Flaps about narrow flanks, will quit the house
And, hourglass in hand, check the sundial …

This brilliant passage, rich and self-assured in its details as a Dürer print, shows two of the ways in which Howes’s work is so distinctive. First, a Howes poem usually presents striking, unexpected, and yet weirdly appropriate metaphors. Here summer is a trapeze, autumn a crazy hunter, and winter an old man “whose mackintosh/Flaps about narrow flanks.” In other poems, the Sirocco is a toad and cicadas are Singer sewing machines. Viewed in isolation, those metaphors may seem far-fetched, but in the poems they force the reader —as poetic metaphors should —to see familiar things in a new way. This passage also illustrates the dynamic syntax characteristic of a Howes poem. Lines and sentences tumble on as both the prosody and syntax push the poet forward towards a climax. Compared with the syntax in many of her poems, this passage is very restrained. Quite often a poem is composed of one long, complex sentence spilling over the lines, linked by semicolons and dashes.

Howes’s later work has come to rely increasingly on syntax as the unifying force of the poem, and understanding how this syntax operates is the key to reading this work with full appreciation. Using both free and metered verse with equal ease, this poetry counterpoints a restless, driving syntax against formal stanza patterns, meanwhile using images in an almost lapidary manner to fill out the lines. This uncompromising and original style may cause some readers difficulty until they see how this poetic form is determined by the content.

As Robert Phillips has pointed out, Howes’s vision is essentially metaphysical in that it characteristically investigates the relation of the spirit to the senses. Her later poems often focus on experiencing the natural world and understanding her modest place in it through these experiences. The poem often starts as a swirl of particularized images. Observation is piled on observation, image on image, as the syntax flows from line to line with few or no full stops, until at last the poem comes suddenly together in one final visionary moment that links the poet with her world. The complex syntax is therefore not an eccentricity of style. It is an essential formal device, a dynamic means of communicating the epiphany the poem describes. The syntax does not embellish the central visionary experience, it recreates and validates it.

“Leaning into Light,” with its formal stanzas patterned around the repetition of one central word, shows this distinctive use of syntax in Howes’s work:

Our Hibiscus, Larch
Marjoram, cork tree,
Dandelion seek
A dull day
Has them listless, olive-
Green, no sap running,
As I in a bad
Time am in shadow,
Uncertain. But then
Like a prophet,
Calling them forth
To grow in the sun’s great
Eye —as wisteria
Climbs toward day—
They revive; I have known
Too, a presence
One turns round to face,
Leans into and joins.

Howes also has a fascination with poetic form, especially French forms, and she has written some of the best modern villanelles, sestinas, rondeaus, triolets, and ballades. But Howes’s interest in form goes beyond working in traditional stanzas. Her oeuvre is full of poems conceived in original forms based on both visual and aural patterns of repetition. In another early poem, “For a Florentine Lady,” the two halves of the poem, each in a different tense, echo all of each other’s words and images:


At death’s door: how is it —
On the edge of that old mountain, looking out
Through windows of a darkened villa
On and on, far across Florence? Mist —
Insatiable and dull —
Hoods the ground, and those
Loved and clean-cut forms go shapeless,
Dim. Dear Lady,
Can we then help you move
Through realms of mist
By seeing you so clear,
Who greeted us erect and sure?


At death’s door: how was it —
From the final edge of suffering, looking back.
On all the sunlit, terraced years,
Back and back, far across Europe? Death —
Insatiable and cruel —
Stabbed the air, and those
Loved and clean-cut forms went shapeless,
Fell. Dear Lady,
Could we have helped you move
Through realms of dark
By seeing you so clear,
Who greeted us erect and sure?

Howes’s later work is more openly personal than these brilliantly contrived early pieces. Her characteristic tone is quiet and affirmative, as in the short poem “Looking up at Leaves,” in which she carefully leads the reader into a surprisingly extended simile that resolves itself in a haunting final line:

No one need feel alone looking up at leaves.
There are such depths to them, withdrawal, welcome,
A fragile tumult on the way to sky.
This great trunk holds apart two hemispheres
We lie between … Like water lilies
Leaves fall, rise, waver, echoing
On their blue pool, whispering under the sun;
While in this shade, under our hands the brown
Tough roots seek down, lily roots searching
Down through their pool of earth to an equal depth.
Constant as water lilies we lie still,
Our breathing like the lapping of pond water,
Balanced between reflection and reflection.

But Howes can also be frightening, as in “Light and Dark,” which begins:

Lady, take care; for in the diamond eyes
Of old men is figured your undoing.
Love is turned in behind the wrinkled lids
To nurse their fear and scorn at their near going.
Flesh hangs like the curtains in a house
Long unused, damp as cellars without wine;
They are the future of us all, when we
Will be dried-leaf-thin, the sour whine
Of a siren’s diminuèndo …

Howes’s work has undergone many changes in the forty-five years covered by this new volume, but from beginning to end her poetry bears a personal stamp. A reader never mistakes her poems for the work of another writer. Her early verse occasionally indulges in a touch of Auden or Moore, but her voice was and remains remarkably original–remarkable in that she creates a personal style without resorting to anything idiosyncratic or outlandish. Instead, she achieves originality in the most difficult way, by knowing exactly what she should write about and saying it exactly in her own way. Collected Poems: 1945-1990 contains the lifework of one of America’s irreplaceable poets.

First published in The Dark Horse (No. 2/1995).