Excerpts from reviews of David Howard’s poetry collections
In the First Place (Hazard Press, 1991)
What brings David Howard’s poems together is a finely textured sensibility. His reading is wide and he often works his ‘transformations’ on European models. For all that, his voice is his own and unmistakable, and his love poems with their often surrealistic edge have a quality rare in New Zealand poetry.
His poetry is energetic, winningly acrobatic in the way it leaps from reference to reference, engagingly robust in the way it juggles ideas. This strong sense of physical carries over into the imagery. The body is used over and over as a unit of measurement. It is the Golden Mean, and David Howard also displays a sculptor’s concern for the placement of things in the world, their solidity, their tactile values.
Holding Company (Nag’s Head Press, 1995)
David Howard’s poems in Holding Company demonstrate an admirable economy of means. The poems are built up precisely, each word is given due weight and heft….His poems push out, explore, try to express – in the manner of the romantic lyricist – the inexpressible….The guiding aesthetic is beauty – beauty as a kind of spiritual emanation. Poetry itself is treated as a form of prayer, both sacred and profane, but rife with little idiosyncrasies, sudden switches of pace, tone and meaning so as to create an ambiguous haze, almost at times an erotic reverie….As you puzzle over ambiguities in poems you begin to be aware of a network of correspondences and adaptations. This is a writer who works with parody and pastiche too….He’s an elliptical story-teller: no closures, no endings, though sometimes poems are circular….His words are soft, smudged, usually more urban pastel (with trick perspectives) than pastoral musings about the Muse; and they are written in lines limpid as the Avon River that runs through his home town of Christchurch….David Howard takes his own thoughts for a walk and sometimes arrives in unexpected places and we end up there with him, marvelling and puzzling all at once.
One of my tests for a poem is whether or not I pause when I finish reading it, or go straight on to the next in the volume. David Howard scores highly on this count. Poetic inspiration arises from many sources; what helps turn it into poetry is craft. Howard’s craft is that he expresses emotions through a background of thought-provoking ideas and images. He composes something rare in New Zealand, metaphysical love poetry….
Shebang: Collected Poems 1980-2000 (Steele Roberts, 2000)
Shebang! What a wonderful title. Let us consider the whole structure, the poet seems to say, the structure not only of our intimate lives but of the state, even of the universe. And why not? Isn’t this the poet writing? Isn’t he contemplating, assessing, describing, even prophesying? Let him write. Let him take on – the whole shebang. And he tries, this important New Zealand poet who, in short stanzas and incisively written lines, actually looks at his world of choice, and writes.
Howard’s work . . . pitches itself less in the land of his country, its atmosphere, and its customs. He reads more as an accomplished poet writing in English coming strongly out of WH Auden so that it can be startling that he seems very fond of Fernando Pessoa (less strange his interest in Paul Celan). There is little reference to that Maori culture that the poet Alison Croggan has said persists ‘so much more strongly in New Zealand’ than in her own Australia. But this may be the result of Howard’s work as Tour Supervisor (SFX) for international performers such as Metallica and Janet Jackson. The forthright zing of the lines and indeed his intellectual rigor resemble to this reader less a native New Zealand poet than someone like the English DM Thomas.
Despite the whole shebang that the writer wills as his subject, it is the love poems that seem to this reader the most successful. Howard’s love poems have a kind of contemporary lyricism, that is, a lyricism that avoids excess but yet exudes tenderness and desire even as it questions their endurance, even their power. He himself has described his writing as ‘gnarled, metaphysical poetry which fosters rather than forbids tenderness.’ Is this ‘gnarled’ poetic effect the consequence of the poet’s always in evidence formidable intellect even in his love poetry? Or the skepticism of the contemporary lover?
Howard is a poet whose interest in the visual arts is as wide as his interests in the international poetry scene. And it is no wonder since his eye is always engaged. His images are sharp and inventive. It is not strange, therefore, to read references to painters throughout his poems. He has even written a series that he calls ‘The Portrait Gallery’ where there are poems to Vincent Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Egon Schiele, Mark Gertler, Mark Rothko, etc. A varied group, and the writing is not boringly descriptive. Here is the brief poem called ‘Mark Rothko 1903-1970’:
Harriet Zinnes (The Denver Quarterly, Winter 2002-03)
How To Occupy Our Selves (Wellington, HeadworX, 2005)
Howard’s poems remind me of flipping through a photo album. The movement from image to image is not necessarily linear or logical, but there is a story in it. And even when Howard is being weird, he is not wilful; conversely, the domestic, in his hands, is not humdrum.
Each image gets enough attention and detail to form as a reality in the reader’s mind. At the same time, Howard is not afraid to add a little twist to heighten the tone with more abstract ideas like ‘the West you never won,’ or a glare that ‘invents the end.’ The knotty music of ‘nostrils understand incense,’ or ‘glasses onto Carrara marble / polished by butcher’s cheesecloth,’ grounds the poem so that the directive nudges to the reader don’t feel overdone.
What is extraordinary about this writing is the number of tensions it sustains without quite resolving, between the foreign (defamiliarised) and familiar, the present and the remembered, the soft and the hard, the fleeting and the permanent.
This has been a difficult book to review, I think because it simply doesn't allow one to feel that one has settled into a confirmed reading. I'm suggesting then, that it be approached as an opportunity for prayer, but only in the context of seeing belief systems as radically capable of being rewritten through acts of imaginative attention and deference to the prophetic voices of our own times, like Lou Reed. Buy one, and take it with you next time you slip into a place of worship.