. photo/Matthew Valentine
Poets are supposed to fizzle out when they get older — at least that’s the standard literary narrative.
William Butler Yeats, whose flame burned brighter in his last years, is held up as the exception that proves the rule.
Spokane poet Christopher Howell, born in 1946, is one of a growing number of American poets whose work suggests that the standard narrative is old hat.
Howell, the author of 10 full-length poetry collections, will read from his newest book, “Gaze,” at Open Books, 2414 N. 45th St. in Wallingford, on Friday, March 9, at 7:30 p. m.
Howell’s work has received many honors, including two Washington State Book Awards. Since 1996, he has taught creative writing at Eastern Washington University, where he served as director and senior editor for the respected Eastern Washington University Press, which closed due to budget cuts in 2010.
He is also director and principal editor for Lynx House Press.
“Poetry, for me, is the only means of reconciling the objective, everyday world with the inner life, the ego with the self,” Howell has said. “In that reconciliation, that enactment, it seems to me very like worship…. If I felt otherwise, it would not be worth doing.”
In 2001, his gifted daughter, Emma, an Oberlin College student, died in a swimming accident off the coast of Brazil. Her poems were collected in “Slim Night of Recognition,” admired by a growing coterie of readers.
Howell’s work can be funny and biting; at other times, his gaze, ever-sharp, falls as if through a glass darkly. Here’s one of his best-known poems, which Garrison Keillor featured on his “Writer’s Almanac.”
The poem is set in Rome in 1821: English poet John Keats, 25, is dying of tuberculosis, attended by his friend Joseph Severn:
When Keats, at last beyond the curtain of love’s distraction, lay dying in his room on the Piazza di Spagna, the melody of the Bernini Fountain “filling him like flowers,” he held his breath like a coin, looked out into the moonlight and thought he saw snow. He did not suppose it was fever or the body’s weakness turning the mind. He thought, “England!” and there he was, secretly, for the rest of his improvidently short life: up to his neck in sleigh bells and the impossibly English cries of street vendors, perfect and affectionate as his soul.
For days the snow and statuary sang him so far beyond regret that if now you walk rancorless and alone there, in the piazza, the white shadow of his last words to Severn, “Don’t be frightened,” may enter you.