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Review-a-Day
The New Republic Online
Thursday, September 6th, 2001


 

by

Decorum

A review by Adam Kirsch

One of Anthony Hecht's best and most characteristic poems is "More Light! More Light!," which appeared in 1967, in his book The Hard Hours. It is an anecdote of the Holocaust:

We move now to outside a German wood.
Three men are there commanded to dig a hole
In which the two Jews are ordered to lie down
And be buried alive by the third, who is a Pole.

Not light from the shrine at Weimar beyond the hill
Nor light from heaven appeared. But he did refuse.
A Lüger settled back deeply in its glove.
He was ordered to change places with the Jews.

Much casual death had drained away their souls.
The thick dirt mounted toward the quivering chin.
When only the head was exposed the order came
To dig him out again and to get back in.

No light, no light in the blue Polish eye.
When he finished a riding boot packed down the earth.
The Lüger hovered lightly in its glove.
He was shot in the belly and in three hours bled to death.
When the Pole offers a glimmer of resistance, the Jews willingly become his executioners; his momentary bravery saves nobody, and it results in his own murder. The exclusion of moral light from this episode is insistent: versions of the phrase "no light" are repeated four times. But what makes the atrocity especially dark to Hecht is that it occurs just outside Weimar, the "shrine" of Goethean humanism, and represents the denial of Goethe's dying plea.

The same irony is employed in another of Hecht's poems about the Holocaust, "Rites and Ceremonies":

Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde,
But for years the screaming continued,
night and day....
The line from Goethe's tranquil poem "Wandrers Nachtlied II" means simply "The little birds are hushed in the wood," but to Hecht the poem and the literature it represents are cancelled by the "screaming" of suffering Jews.

This is the familiar dramaturgy of culture versus barbarism, which can lead to the error of believing that German culture was the most significant of Germany's victims. The fact that the massacre takes place near Weimar is certainly ironic; but it is not what makes the massacre tragic. Yet this theme has a double irony in Hecht's poetry, for at the same time as he reflects on the shattering of humanism, his own language continues to pay homage to it. Hecht's regular meter and rhyme, his formal diction ("Much casual death"), and his clear expository sentences betray none of the hesitation that his subject seems to demand. The means of expression are not called into doubt by the horror of what must be expressed. Quite the contrary. Hecht insists on still greater decorum and rigor when his theme is darkness and chaos. He is like the courtier of a deposed monarch, punctually attending the shrunken levees of reason.

Through seven books and nearly five decades, Hecht's poetry has maintained this disciplined disjunction between form and subject. He writes very often of the forces of dissolution — evil, chaos, lust, slovenliness — but always in a decorous style, as though these subjects were explosive chemicals that can only be handled with tongs. "Goliardic Song," a small poem about sexual desire (in the form of "Venus Pandemos"), deliberately exaggerates this decorum to the point of archness:

We, who have been her students,
Matriculated clerks
In scholia of imprudence
And vast, veneral Works,
Taken and passed our orals,
Salute her classic poise:
Ur-Satirist of Morals
And Mother of our Joys.
This is donnish and comic. In Hecht's new book, however, the poem "Elders" is an earnest portrait of the sources and consequences of lust:
As a boy he was awkward, pimpled, unpopular,
Disdained by girls, avoided by other boys,
An acned solitary. But bold and spectacular
The lubricious dreams that such a one enjoys....

And so it went year by tormented year,
His yearnings snarled in some tight, muddled sensation
Of violence, a gout of imperiousness, fear
And resentment yeasting in ulcered incubation.
It is characteristic of Hecht that this description, however personal its source, is meant to apply to one of the "elders" in the biblical story who watched Susanna bathe. The self-disgust of the poem is tamed by giving it a respectable frame, by turning it into an allusion. And the language itself conspires in this taming: the rhyme scheme, the rhythm, the Latinate diction all ward off any real violence of feeling.

Nor is such violence attained even when Hecht's language is deliberately coarse:

I have been in this bar
For close to seven days.
The dark girl over there,
For a modest dollar, lays.

And you can get a blow-job
Where other men have pissed
In the little room that's sacred
To the Evangelist.

This might be a monologue by any pimp or drunk, but in fact it is spoken by "The Man Who Married Magdalene," from The Hard Hours. To most of Hecht's readers, the Magdalene is not a vital religious symbol, but merely an allusion. One does not feel that the poet himself is really trying to imagine her or her husband. Her presence serves instead to make a low scene more palatable. And while there is a moment of genuine scabrousness in these lines — the suggestion that the prostitute's mouth is "where other men have pissed" — other elements work against such a shock. There is the odd use of the word "lays," which is usually not transitive; there is the far-fetched joke about the Evangelist (the "John"). These things work to separate the cultivated author of the poem from its degraded speaker.

The only purpose of creating such a speaker, of course, is to allow the poet to express a similar part of his own nature. Hecht is never prudish or self-regarding when dealing with vices; the man we come to know in his work is highly prone to lust and anger. "Poppy," in his new book, identifies anger as another powerful foe of the light:

It builds like unseen fire deep in a mine,
This igneous, molten wrath,
This smelting torture that rises with the decline
Of reason, signifying death.
But at the same time the man who suffers these vices is usually divorced from the poet who writes about them. This is the cost of Hecht's defensive posture with regard to the values of civilization. He has identified form with reason and reason with goodness, so that his poems, even when they are about evil and degrading things, are always formal, reasonable, and good. But this means that they cannot really express evil and degrading things. They do not allow such things to rise to speech, only to be spoken about.

The allure of such strictness is easy to understand. Hecht's writing life — his first book was published in 1954 — has coincided with a universal abandonment of formal strictness, not least in the poetic sphere. In an essay on Richard Wilbur, Hecht writes of "this poetic era of arrogant solipsism and limp narcissism — when great, shaggy herds of poets write only about themselves, or about the casual workings of their rather tedious minds." In such times, an erudite, sensitive, and earnest poet such as Hecht might well feel that Apollo demands much, too much, of his powers, since the rest of the world has gone over heedlessly to Dionysus.

In the new book, "An Orphic Calling" finds a symbol of Apollonian clarity in the music of Bach, which is compared to the currents of a stream:

And from deep turbulent rapids, roiled and spun,
They rise in watery cycles to those proud
And purifying heights where they'd begun
On Jungfrau cliffs of edelweiss and cloud,

Piled cumuli, that fons et origo
("Too lofty and original to rage")
Of the mind's limpid unimpeded flow
Where freedom and necessity converge....

An Orphic calling it is, one that invites
Responsories, a summons to lute-led
Nature, as morning's cinnabar east ignites
And the instinctive sunflower turns its head.
The metaphor of the stream rising from turbulent depths to purifying heights might seem like an orthodox account of sublimation. Yet Hecht extends the logic further, and so reverses it: the stream itself began as rain from the "piled cumuli" of heaven, the depths began in the heights. "The mind's limpid unimpeded flow" is the beginning and the end of art; but this means that the terrestrial world is only a way station.

The myth of Orpheus is treated in a similarly one-sided fashion. Hecht has in mind the Orpheus who awakened Nature with his song, not the Orpheus who descended into Hell. The "Orphic calling" is that of Orpheus to the plants, not that of Eurydice to Orpheus himself. And the poem's refusal to acknowledge this second, more famous Orphic myth is so complete that it returns with all the force of the repressed, reminding us of what is missing from such a conception of art.

As "An Orphic Calling" suggests, Hecht's idea of the beautiful is of something brachiated, gemmed, baroque. His poems abound in such golden descriptions, as in "Somebody's Life":

He gazed down at the breakneck rocks below,
Entranced by the water's loose attacks of jade,
The sousing waves, the interminable, blind
Fury of scattered opals, flung tiaras,
Full, hoisted, momentary chandeliers.
Or again, in the new book, "A Certain Slant":
Etched on the window were barbarous thistles of frost,
Edged everywhere in that tame winter sunlight
With pavé diamonds and fine prickles of ice.... .
Perhaps because the human world is corrupt, Hecht turns to this sort of inanimate splendor with a religious attentiveness, as he explains in "Devotions of a Painter," from The Transparent Man:
Cool sinuosities, waved banners of light,
Unfurl, remesh, and round upon themselves
In a continual turmoil of benign
Cross-purposes, effortlessly as fish....
I am an elderly man in a straw hat
Who has set himself the task of praising
God For all this welter by setting out my paints
And getting as much truth as can be managed
Onto a small flat canvas. .
As the lines themselves acknowledge, there is a limit to the truth that can be captured in this way. Poetry is a poor tool for accurate observation; language drives toward abstraction, and in spite of itself makes what is seen into a symbol. It is hard to distinguish one description of light from another. This fact presents less of a problem to a poet, such as Dante, for whom light is explicitly symbolic of the Divine. For such a writer, it is less necessary that we see the light than that we understand it. But Hecht, like many contemporary poets, professes a Flemish-painting spirituality, in which the detailed observation of nature is itself a kind of prayer, a way of "praising God" for the sheer fact of existence. And in this form of attention, whose whole reason for being is detail, the inability of poetry to capture visual detail is a more serious problem.

Hecht's best and most exciting work has not been his still lifes, but his long dramatic monologues, especially those in The Venetian Vespers (1980). The title poem of that book, spoken by a dying man in Venice, is the height of Hecht's art, and it is surely one of the best poems written in the last thirty years. Here his elevated language, slowly unrolling in blank verse, is entirely appropriate to the atmosphere of elegance run to seed. Hecht's Venice, which is the sordid city of Mann's Aschenbach, provides adequate symbols for the moral darkness that the poet usually has difficulty in evoking:

Returning suddenly to the chalk-white sunlight
Of out-of-doors, one spots among the tourists
Those dissolute young with heavy-lidded gazes
Of cool, clear-eyed, stony depravity
That in the course of only a few years
Will fade into the terrifying boredom
In the faces of Carpaccio's prostitutes.
Playing the role of narrator in "The Venetian Vespers" allows Hecht to observe and to communicate the evils he often feels compelled to isolate and oppose. One can see the difference by comparing this convincing description of the "dissolute young" with the lampoon of them in his poem "To L.E. Sissman, 1928-1976," from The Transparent Man:
Dear friend, whose poetry of Brooklyn flats
And poker sharps broadcasts the tin pan truths
Of all our yesterdays, speaks to our youths
In praise of both Wallers, Edmund and Fats,

And will be ringing in some distant ear
When the Mod-est, last immodesty fatigues,
All Happenings have happened, the Little Leagues
Of Pop and pop-fly poets disappear...
Here, the younger generation, its fashions and behavior, are irritably dismissed in a way that sounds close to old-fogeyism. Of course, this is a smaller, more jocular poem. But there is generally a distinct souring of Hecht's tone when he is defending, in his own voice, the old against the new. In the new book, the poem "Rara Avis in Terris" is similarly marred by its unbecoming attacks on English-department feminists:
The ladies' auxiliary of the raptor clan
With their bright cutlery,
sororal to a man.
And feeling peckish, they foresee
An avian banquet in the sky,
Feasting off dead white European males,
Or local living ones, if all else fails.
Generally, the further Hecht moves from the propria persona, the better his poetry. This makes him exceptional among contemporary poets, whose excursions into narrative are usually failed experiments. In The Darkness and the Light, there are no poems on the scale of "The Venetian Vespers," but "A Fall," "A Brief Account of Our City," and "1945" are in the same category. "1945" tells of another incident from World War II, in which a French family seems willing to sacrifice their son's life to keep their bicycle hidden from a German officer. As in "More Light! More Light!," Hecht is calling our attention to human evil, and his remote, objective tone is that of a judge admitting an exhibit into evidence:
It wasn't charity. Perhaps mere prudence,
Saving a valuable round of ammunition
For some more urgent crisis. Whatever it was,
The soldier reslung his rifle on his shoulder,
Turned wordlessly and walked on down the road
The departed German vehicles had taken.
This narrative is especially strong in contrast to the other two parts of the sequence, "Sacrifice," to which it belongs. These are monologues by Abraham and Isaac about the sacrifice of Isaac, averted by God at the last minute. The story is so well known that it demands some original interpretation or striking new idiom to make it live again. But Hecht's language here is sedate and literary:
Youthful I was and trusting and strong of limb,
The fresh-split firewood roped tight to my back,
And I bore unknowing that morning my funeral pyre.
The diction ("bore," "pyre") and the inversions make this sound unlike the speech of any actual person or period. It is a middle register of refined poetic diction, pleasing in its way, but not a sensitive medium for recording experience. Similarly, "Haman," another short biblical monologue, makes the obvious comparison between that Persian enemy of the Jews and their modern German enemy. But the malice of "Haman the Hangman" is swaddled in an idiom remote from contemporary speech: "Let the Jews tremble," "ridding the world," "chastening penalty," "hanker after."

This sort of refinement is a persistent temptation in Hecht's verse, the hazard of his desire to defend and to continue a tradition, for it is always difficult for a poet to be sure when he is renewing a tradition and when he is only echoing it. For similar reasons, allusion is problematic in Hecht's poetry. His work is saturated with reference, especially to Shakespeare, but the effect is often to make it seem as though texts have replaced things as the objects of thought. In "The Witch of Endor," another biblical monologue, he writes:

I had the gift, and arrived at the technique
That called up spirits from the vasty deep....
The second (and rather famous) line is a version of Glendower's in Henry IV — "I can call spirits from the vasty deep" — but this association works against the present context. Glendower's claim is meant to be vain and boastful, quickly parried by Hotspur: "But will they come when you do call for them?" Yet Hecht does not seem to wish to undermine the Witch's powers. It is rather that his mind moves so much in the Shakespearean realm that the idea of conjuring immediately calls forth this quotation. And this marks a separation between the poet's mind and that of the Witch whose voice he is attempting to assume. Allusion becomes another way in which the poet keeps his subject under quarantine.

The Darkness and the Light confirms rather than extends the domain of Hecht's art. His gifts are of a kind rare today-seriousness, intelligence, formal discipline — and he has expressed as skillfully as any writer of the last fifty years the anxiety of the civilized mind facing the large and small barbarisms of the age. But that very stance is also what sets a severe limitation to his poetry. It is not necessary for a modern poet to take chaos as his theme; but if he does, it may be necessary for him to accede to that chaos, to allow it into his very speech, as Lowell and Berryman and Plath did in their various ways. It is to them, rather than to Hecht, that future readers will turn for a sense of what it was like to live, and suffer, in our time.


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