‘Without Saying’ by Richard Howard
“Life As It Is Actually Lived On Earth”
First-most, The Simpsons is the greatest American satire of the last 25 years. And Carl Matheson wrote a fabulous essay, “The Simpsons, Hyper-Irony, and the Meaning of Life,” in which he addresses the show’s “quotationalism”—its use of subtle literary, scientific, political and pop culture references that a viewer will or will not “get” based on his or her own experience and education and so forth.
For example, in an early episode, infant daughter Maggie is dropped off at a daycare that astute viewers will notice is called the “Ayn Rand School for Tots.” Inside, there is an assertive headmistress teaching self-reliance, and there are signs on the wall proffering propaganda like “A is A” and “Helping is Futile.” The way these notions are woven into the plot provides broad richness and depth to a 22-minute show; the entire scope of Ayn Rand’s egoistic baggage weighs upon a few minutes of programming. If you get it. If someone doesn’t “get” the reference, s/he might still be entertained; if s/he does “get” it, all the better.
This happens all the time in poetry. Does Frank O’Hara’s staple “The Day Lady Died” lose substance if you don’t know about Billie Holliday? Does and does not. Does the Elizabeth Bishop classic “Crusoe in England” lose something if you haven’t read Robinson Crusoe? There are always depths to people, things, depths we never see or understand. Arguments could be made on both sides, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t somethings in these pieces for all readers. Ditto for Richard Howard’s new book, Without Saying.
In Without Saying, Howard frames revelatory poems around a broad spectrum of characters, some real, some fictional: Henry James and L. Frank Baum, Princess Medea and her mother Queen Ediya, Castor and Pollux, Constantine Cavafy—even Marcel Proust, by way of translation. He also lends gravity to private fictions—to his narrator’s “Family Secrets,” to the “Fifth-Grade Class of Park School.” Each serves as a launching pad for Howard’s imaginative ventures; each provides an implicit depth that could be considered either necessary or supplemental to one’s experiences with the poems.
Howard’s charm’d urbanity and syllabic fortitude are present as ever, shining brightest in “Ediya: an interview *”. Our poet is an ironic delight from the start; the poem title is footnoted thusly:
*Interviewer has deleted his questions so that Queen Ediya’s remarks, on the thirtieth anniversary of the Princess Medea’s departure from Colchis, might be more readily comprehended by readers unfamiliar, so long afterward, with the incidents involved.
Ediya then recounts her feelings about the saga of Medea. But the saga itself is almost a footnote, because the queen’s own attitude and personality are most interesting. From her, there’s the absurd premise of the reporter’s “tape recorder” (“What is / a tape?” she asks), and there’s opinionated reflection:
Medea’s too mean to die, she’ll always be…
admired: for what she is. Not like me, oh no!
A woman in my position’s admired
for what she’s been, and for what she’s been through.
Here, I’m reminded of Keats and the Grecian Urn; from Ediya’s perspective, Medea is. She exists outside the confines of time, as do the folks engraved on Keats’s urn. In a moment of self-pity, Ediya is a mere mortal, passing through time, defined by experiences, sure to die:
has only one lesson to teach about life,
one secret: life is an erotics of absence…
Her reflection isn’t unlike that of Robinson Crusoe in Bishop’s poem. Howard’s fertile imagination captures, humanizes, reinvents a queen in her golden years. “The compulsion / to repeat,” she says, “has replaced / the impulse to remember”; “Usually we don’t recognize happiness / until afterward.” Her learned wisdom is a treat, and is a useful example of what Howard does best in Without Saying; he shows how guarded people can be. He is both critic of human personality and champion of our weaknesses and idiosyncrasies.
Children are not exempt from this equation. “School Days” is a grower, as peculiar and flighty as it is tough to forget. The students at Park School address their principal about any and all concerns; they experience death, horror, violence. Afraid of living, they propose a science project that will investigate whether humans can procreate without having to engage in sexual intercourse; wary of death, they determine the importance of studying “Life As It Is Actually Lived on Earth.”
To know Ayn Rand’s literature is to provide greater depth and understanding when it comes to an episode of The Simpsons. Likewise, knowledge of Henry James helps at the onset of Without Saying, when the notion of a lunch meeting between James and Oz-master L. Frank Baum takes center stage. It helps with the book’s final poem, too, as it engages Edith Wharton’s ill-fated attempts at securing James a Nobel Prize. But there is also so much to find in the very mood of these poems, in the personalities of their characters, in the ways that these characters interact. To meet any person is to have no comprehension of the depths that comprise that person. A lot of things go without saying–which is to suggest, it is up to us to intuit them.