Daughter of Osborne and Mildred Cox Howes; married William J. Smith, 1947 (divorced); children: two sons
After graduating from Bennington College in Vermont, Barbara Howes lived in Italy, England, France, and Haiti; she lived the remainder of her life in Vermont, with frequent visits to the West Indies. She had two sons and was divorced. Howes was the recipient of many fellowships and awards. Her professional activities were literary rather than academic; she was editor of Chimera magazine from 1943 to 1947.
In her essay in Poets on Poetry, Howes discussed the poets who have influenced her, her interest in translation and in adapting Old French and other literary forms to contemporary concerns, her purpose in writing, the importance in her work of domestic subject matter and of place, and her distrust of the "snarling little ego," her aversion to writers who "give in to violence and spite."
The constants in Howes' poetry are a detached, restrained tone that carries considerable tight-lipped intensity; an intellectual concern with physical and human nature and with the patterns and principles that underlie and relate their behavior; and a technique that is flexible, controlled, and relatively traditional. Unlike so many contemporary postmodernist poets, she did not write social protest about the women's movement or the Vietnam War, and she was neither confessional nor surrealistic. Also unlike them, she manipulated rather than abandoned conventional prosody.
Howes chose many traditional subjects, such as still-life; mythological personages; objects d'art; specific persons ("To W. Howes Auden on His Fiftieth Birthday"), places ("On a Bougainvillaea Vine at the Summer Palace," "Views of Oxford Colleges"), and occasions; and nature interpreted by and for civilization: a deer in hunting season "dropped like a monument," a dead toucan described as "a beak with a panache / chucked like an old shell back to the Caribbean."
Howes' most insistent theme is that unrestricted emotion blinds and imprisons if allowed to dominate either life or art. In "The New Leda," Howes speaks of the woman dedicated to the god, whether Zeus or Christ: "Her / limbo holds her like a fly in amber, / Beyond the reach of life." In "For an Old Friend," she imagines the friend thinking " This hullabaloo about life / is not my forte"; in "Radar and Unmarked Cars," she writes, "our / Radar / Will hold us True: / We need / Love / At a constant speed." Her aesthetic credo matches the personal one in "Portrait of the Artist": "For dear life some do / Many a hard thing, / Train the meticulous mind / Upon meaning, seek / And find, and yet discard / All that is not of reality's tough rind / …To be / Ascetic for life's sake, / Honest and passionate."
The effect of this personal and aesthetic credo on her work is both her poems' strength and their weakness. In a poem like "Still-life: New England," the tone of restrained disgust and assumed indifference is deliberately and successfully used to create horror, the ironic opposite of indifference. But when, in "Dream of a Good Day," Howes puts all the action of the poem into conventional romantic dreams of sailing and discovering (i.e., making a poem), which are quite separate from reality, and then uses only the last line to state but not to experience reality ("Then in the colloquial evening to come back to love"), the poem suffers because the honesty is there without the passion.
Yet it was passion that made her such a disciplined craftsperson. Howes speaks of the need to train the eye to notice and the ear to listen, to recognize the necessity of form ("language must have discipline to have meaning"), and to distinguish between the forms of art and journalism. It is this disciplined passion that enabled her to make her poetry "a way of life, not just an avocation," a way in which "one orders and deepens one's experience, and learns to understand what is happening in oneself and in others."
Overall, Howes' poetry strongly continues the "Apollonian" strain of Eliot, Stevens, and Wilbur, rather than the "Dionysian" strain of Whitman and Williams. But though she has not quite Eliot's dramatic compression, nor Stevens's mercurial imagination, nor Wilbur's classical balance, her depth of perception, firm ironic tone, and technical control make her a worthy member of their company.
The Undersea Farmer (1948). In the Cold Country: Poems (1954). Light and Dark: Poems (1959). Looking Up at Leaves (1966). The Blue Garden (1972). A Private Signal: Poems New and Selected (1977).
Bogan, L., Selected Criticism (1955). Friedman, N., Contemporary Poets (1975). Nemerov, H., ed., Poets on Poetry (1966). Untermeyer, L., ed., Modern American Poetry (1962). Reference works: CA (1974). Contemporary Poets (1975).WA.
Choice (Apr. 1978). NYHTB (15 Nov. 1959). NYT (4 Apr. 1954). SR (19 Mar. 1949). TLS (10 Feb. 1978).