Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Ephemera Everlasting

Anthony Hecht (1923-2004) is dead, but that is not what’s sad, for he has been dead for me too long, and he was probably never born into the consciousnesses of most in the first place. Hecht was one of America’s greatest living poets, if not a bit out of style, for he was a formalist foremost, a man as deft with iambic pentameter as modern English might allow. Indeed he allowed language more than we or it might expect, eager to have his meter and his mean way (consider the wit to work the following two lines: “The palaces decay. Venice is rich / Chiefly in the deposits of her dogs.”). Simply put, Hecht wrought beautiful verse about our ugly world and thereby made the words sing more sweetly and the hurt sting more true.

Somehow in college I fell under his poetic spell and tried to ape his works, but missed the point and didn’t bother to write in form, not that iambs fall trippingly from my tongue. Not that I had his erudition, either, the ease to craft lines like, “The mind at four AM / is a poor, blotched, vermiculated thing. / I’ve seen it spilled like sweetbreads, and I’ve dreamed / Of Byron writing, ‘Many a fine day / I should have blown my brains out but for the thought / Of the pleasure it would give my mother-in-law.’” The range in this brief run is staggering, from the purposefully fogged diction of “thing” to the dictionary-defying and precise “vermiculated” (crawling or creeping like a worm; hence, insinuating; sophistical); those sweetbreads two-ways, as a particularly ghoulish metaphysical menu might have it; and Byron making a decidedly modern appearance as a stand-up comedian.

But it’s all more than that, the weight, the wisdom, all the things poetry can bring to us that the our culture has seemed to have lost without lament. Upon reading of Hecht’s death it took me several days to get up the nerve to go back and read him, worried about difficulty. That’s sadder than his death and explains much as we barrel down upon November 2 and, what might be more important in our over-marketed age, a sweeps month for television.

For here is a man who saw horrible things and still spent his life shaking down language for beauty. The Times (London) obit contains the following about his military service in World War II (that, of course, sounds far too current to be comforted into the past):

“There is much about this I have never spoken of, and never will,” Hecht later said of his war service. He served in France, Czechoslovakia and Germany, often under heavy fire and inept command. He saw men of his company machinegun German women and children who were waving white flags, something that he said “left me without the least vestige of patriotism or national pride.” His division was also the first to discover the concentration camp at Flossenburg. Hecht, who spoke some French and German, translated the statements of the prisoners who could still speak.

"The place, the suffering, the prisoners’ accounts were beyond comprehension," he said. "For years after I would wake screaming."

On leaving Germany, he spent some time in Japan, generating news copy to portray the occupying American forces in a favourable [sic] manner. "It was quite shameless, hypocritical work," he said, "and therefore perfectly consistent with everything I had ever known about the Army."


With all that, even a numbskull nineteen year old, who still 22 years later has to reach for the dictionary to read him, was moved by his words. Now it’s your turn, if you haven’t read him, go find The Venetian Vespers and The Hard Hours and The Transparent Man and see who succeeded Stevens and Auden.

And some last lines from Hecht:

And the eye, self-satisfied, will be misled.
Thinking the puzzle solved, supposing at last
It can look forth and comprehend the world.
That’s when you really have to watch yourself.

Or, after a brilliant, tempestuous description of a storm, these lines:

To give one’s attention to such a sight
Is a sort of blessedness. No room is left
For antecedence, inference, nuance.
One escapes from all the anguish of this world
Into the refuge of the present tense.
The past is mercifully dissolved, and in
Easy obedience to the gospel’s word,
One takes no thought whatever of tomorrow,
The soul being drenched in fine particulars.


Post a Comment

<< Home

eXTReMe Tracker