Poets and Pedestrians

Two poets, well versed in the ways of Houston, reflect on the city’s effect on lives and letters.

RICHARD HOWARD AND EDWARD HIRSCH ARE among the most important poets in the country. Both have lived in Houston for about ten years; but, except for six lines in a poem by Howard, no clear mention of Houston or Texas appears in their poetry. In fact they live much more like European intellectuals than it would seem possible in Texas. Since neither their poetry nor their interests derive from Texas, and since Texas seems to go along without thinking much about poets, it’s natural to ask, “What are these guys doing here?”

That was among the questions I asked as the three of us sat talking in Hirsch’s home in Houston. To my surprise the conversation reminded me of conversations with investors and entrepreneurs in the seventies, when Texas was just beginning to boom. Poetry and commerce are suspicious of one another, but they find a home here for the identical reason—opportunity.

Hirsch lives near the Menil Collection in the midst of the community of artists and writers that has made that pleasant neighborhood its own. Richard Howard lives in the same neighborhood. At 66 Howard has a round body and a round face with a light beard. He wears large green eyeglasses. He has published ten books of poetry, one of which won a Pulitzer prize, as well as a volume of criticism, a critical anthology of poetry, and more than 150 translations from the French. His translation of Baudelaire won an American Book Award. He is also an illuminating critic of music and art and the poetry editor of the long-lived and influential literary quarterly The Paris Review . His work has been compared to that of Robert Browning. He uses narrative more than most contemporary poets do, and his poems often take the form of dramatic monologues or letters to and from people real and imagined. But his formidable erudition is generally on display. The letters, for instance, frequently concern incidents in the lives of European artists and intellectuals from decades past.

Physically, Edward Hirsch is as different from Howard as he could be. He is twenty years younger, tall, athletic, dark, and angular. He has published four books of poetry and won a variety of awards. His poems and his criticism appear in The Nation , The New Republic , and The New Yorker . No less an eminence than Robert Penn Warren said of one of his books, “I am convinced that the best poems here are unsurpassed in our time.” He is somewhat more involved in popular culture than Howard is. Old rock songs like “96 Tears,” a speech by a football coach, and a description of a fast break down a basketball court have shown up in his poems. Nevertheless, when his work is not about living in Chicago or Detroit, where he taught before coming to Texas, then European history and culture and their manifestations here in America tend to be his inspiration and his subject. Among his newer poems there are titles like “Sortes Virgilianae” and “In Memoriam Paul Celan.” That latter poem concludes, “Lay these words on the dead man’s lips/like burning tongs, a tongue of flame. / A scouring eagle wheels and shrieks./ Let God pray to us for this man.” Hirsch even continues the European tradition of writing in cafes, a habit he learned years ago in Europe when he sat in cafes to avoid his cheap and dingy lodgings. Now, he says, “When everyone else goes to work, I go to work too.” After his wife is off to her job and his son off to school, Hirsch heads to whatever coffee bar or fast-food outlet has captured his fancy and writes.

Hirsch and Howard came to Houston because of Donald Barthelme. Barthelme grew up near Houston, left for New York, and in the sixties became an eminent fiction writer as a result of a number of highly original short stories he published in The New Yorker . Like Katherine Anne Porter, he was a writer of short fiction from Texas who did not seem to be from Texas at all; Barthelme returned here in 1981 to help establish a writing program at the University of Houston. The school has developed into one of the strongest professional schools of any kind in the state, with a long list of graduates with important publications and a faculty with an international reputation. Barthelme, who died in 1989, attracted Hirsch to Houston in 1985 and Howard shortly afterward. With others on the faculty, they set about creating a program in poetry. Now there are about 45 poetry students in the program, which takes three to five years and leads to a Ph.D.

But how can you teach poetry?

Howard: “Well, you teach the reading of poetry. As for writing, many of our students would like to have written , but they don’t really like writing itself. They probably won’t write again after they leave here. Others will write no matter what as time goes on. But American students even at the graduate level are not prepared for a life in literature. They come with talent, but their material for their poems is just the landscape, the weather, and their own bodies. They have no familiarity with the universe of poetry that is available to them. They are aware of how needy they are, and part of our enterprise is to work on that.”

Hirsch: “The students are aware that their literary educations have been deficient. They know they need to know more. They haven’t thought very hard about what they are participating in as writers and what that demands. So it is the nature of our program not to teach just writing, because when you are writing you are participating in an activity that goes back in time and is also very widespread. You need to know the other writers in history and around the world. So that allows us to teach what we love and to enlarge their horizons.

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