Poetry Professor Richard Howard Celebrates a Life of Teaching at 80

Special from The Record

Nov. 6, 2009Bookmark and Share
Richard Howard celebrated his 80th birthday with former students at the Teatro at the Italian Academy on Oct. 13. [Image credit: Eileen Barroso / Columbia University]
Richard Howard celebrated his 80th birthday with former students at the Teatro at the Italian Academy on Oct. 13.
Image credit: Eileen Barroso / Columbia University

The 80th birthday of poetry professor Richard Howard (CC'51) called for more than your average celebration.

So on Oct. 13, 170 of his friends and current and former students gathered in the Teatro at the Italian Academy on the Morningside campus under an intriguing premise: Howard would read his poetry, and six former student poets he handpicked from his decades of teaching would read their own.

The perennially dapper Howard is no stranger to accolades. During his career, he has won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry and a MacArthur Fellowship. He has been the poet laureate of New York state and poetry editor of The Paris Review, among many other achievements.

The format of the evening was Howard’s idea, but there was another intellectual twist—after each former student read a poem, Howard would provide commentary on it, turning what happens in a writing workshop into a public performance. “I wanted to know from [the poets] a little bit, and I hope they will answer me in the spirit of the question, about whether they thought there was some opportunity in being in classes in which one was apparently going to be taught to be a poet,” Howard said.

Howard and his former students took their seats on stage at a long conference table, the breadth of the octogenarian’s teaching career flanking him. Lucie Brock-Broido, Howard’s student at Johns Hopkins in the late 1970s, read first. She received her M.F.A. in poetry from Columbia University School of the Arts in 1982—not under Howard’s guidance—and is now director of the poetry concentration for Columbia’s graduate writing program. Another poet, Joseph Fasano, graduated from Columbia’s School of the Arts Poetry Program only a year ago. The four remaining poets on stage were Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Tom Healy, Julie Sheehan and Craig Morgan Teicher, all graduates of Columbia School of the Arts’ Writing Program during Howard’s 10 years on campus.

Brock-Broido prefaced her reading by saying that “one is not Richard Howard’s student for two years, but for life.” Other poets recited from memory the guidance he had given them years ago, and they stressed his frankness with his students. Healy, a one-time art dealer, came late to poetry. Healy had sold his gallery to pursue writing poems, and when Howard read some of his early attempts, he was blunt; “Dear,” he said to Healy, “these are not poems. Would you like them to be?”

Throughout the night, Howard’s commentary tended toward the reflective and explanatory, providing brief biographies of his students and his pride at where their poetry had gone since his tutelage. “One discovers on their own that they can do it and that they can do things I never dreamed of,” he said. “That has been the most startling and I think appealing revelation of the entire pedagogical career.” When it was Howard’s turn, he read several pieces. In Close Encounters of Another Kind, Howard reminisced about the first time he met his friend, poet James Merrill.

Howard brightened as he read, inflecting and acting out and losing himself in the poetry. Fittingly, his poems closed the night. Howard’s guests had their poetic appetites sated, but one question lingered. Binnie Kirshenbaum, chair of the Writing Program, answered it. “We’re not going to sing,” she said. And that was just fine by Richard Howard.

—by Nick Obourn

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