Poets and Pedestrians

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

January 1996By Comments

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. If you go through our program and you do it right, you come out on the other end both with learning and as a better writer than you were before.”

What’s the relation between Texas and poetry?

Hirsch: “Some people have an idea of what Texas writing should be. I first saw this kind of thing in Chicago, where I grew up, and now I’ve run into it here. In Chicago it was all Carl Sandburg, the city of the big shoulders. But the Chicago I lived in was much different from that. That same kind of thinking would limit Texas writing to rural themes when Texas is a lot more than that. There are poets of place, and in Texas that means a certain kind of thing. I’m not against it, but it’s not what we do. It’s not just because I’m in Texas. I wouldn’t be a poet of place anywhere I lived.”

But you’ve both been here about ten years. What have you found that keeps you here?

Howard: “Just because I don’t write poems about Texas doesn’t mean that my artistic and imaginative life isn’t engaged here. There’s no difference, really, between my life and my work, and I can live the life I like here. I teach, I lecture, I create programs in the community. And in Houston there are two university libraries, a first-rate symphony, three art museums, and so on. I don’t feel any separation from this place. On the contrary, Houston has been very sympathetic and exciting.”

Hirsch: “We couldn’t have created the programs we have and developed the enthusiasm we have and attracted the kinds of students from around the country anywhere else. Look at Chicago. It has a rich literary heritage and a much longer history in the arts than Houston has, and it has greater resources. But everything is entrenched there. Here the community is open in a very generous Texas way, and that is particular to this place. You can’t come expecting to find something here. You have to come expecting to create something. When you do, you get a sympathetic response.”

Howard: “Houston created the environment and the opportunity.”

What do you miss here?

Howard and Hirsch together: “Pedestrians.”

Howard: “We walk because we’re from the East, but we are regarded freakishly. But you can’t meet people on the street. There is no such thing as an encounter. It’s just the nature of the place. The climate is such that even the automobile has to be closed. I guess that is the perfect metaphor for it.”

Here are the six lines about Houston by Richard Howard:

Fifty feet away, the buildings look
bullet-pocked, but closer to, each hole
turns out to be a scallop or a snail.
The walls are beaches then! a fossil shore
has taught the lesson of Old Main:
Thalassa! Thalassa! the Ten Thousand cried.

He is referring to buildings at the University of Houston. Anyone who has seen their limestone walls will recognize how accurate his description of them is. The italicized words are Greek for “the sea” and come from a famous passage by Xenophon; Greek mercenaries under his command come through a pass in the mountains of Asia Minor expecting to find the enemy only to see the friendly shores of the Black Sea. So the threatening walls of the university turn out to be the shores of enlightenment and salvation, not of battle. When else has a connection been made between modern Texas and ancient Greece that was as deft and as meaningful?

At the heart of Texas culture is the tension between provincialism and cosmopolitanism. That tension will never be—and should never be—resolved. Rejecting provincialism is rejecting our cultural individuality; rejecting the cosmopolitan is stunting that culture. Howard and Hirsch are clearly the forces of cosmopolitanism. They have changed Houston on a smaller scale but just as surely as Gerald Hines did when he built the Galleria or William Marsh Rice did when he left the money to found a university. Can it be true? Houston—the city with more poets than pedestrians.

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