Hecht, diction, verse, fiction.
By Daniel Bosch.
The bowtie is theirs, in case you ever wondered.
– John Updike, “A & P”
ANTHONY HECHT’S “THE Venetian Vespers” is spoken by a nameless, expatriate, first-generation American of Lithuanian descent living his last days in Venice, where he is supported by a mysterious annuity and
A project that seemed allied to Architecture,
The unbuttressed balancing of wooden blocks
Into a Tower of Babel. (TVV, Part IV, ll. 41-44)
“A shy, asthmatic child” (TVV, Part IV, l. 11), abandoned at age one by the man he was told was his father, apparently orphaned at age six, Hecht’s speaker has no patrimony but his word bank and his manner of seeing (or as he puts it, “misbelieving”) the world, both of which he built from the not-quite-privacy of a burlap sack-laden divan behind the counter of his uncle’s A&P franchise, “where I could lie and read and dream my dreams” (TVV, Part IV, l. 14). Hecht’s speaker’s metaphors construe an evaluation of his inheritance: he recalls—with a curious mixture of pride and shame—how his acquisition of words took place, perversely, in the temple of comestible things, and thus yielded him an “unbuttressed…Tower” of babble, an edifice of arcana such as the fact that the “…names Lea and Perrins figure// Forty-eight times” (TVV, Part IV, ll. 36-36) on a well-read bottle of Worcestershire sauce.
The circumstances of the speaker’s upbringing, elliptical as they are (immigrant struggle; early loss of one parent, then another; sickliness; substitution of bookish for commercial gains), are offered as an explanation for his lack of advancement in the world and for his decline (Section Eight discharge from the army, a penchant for high-brow artistic references, secular appreciation of religious painting), the implication being that if only his ostensible parents had stayed together, if only he had not been short of breath as a boy, if only the American dream had not brought his mother all the way from Lithuania to stack lettuce in Lawrence, Massachusetts, he might have been able to carry a rifle (rather than a stretcher) in the Second World War, to become not an effete intellectual but the kind of manly man who sees things as they are and who inflicts pain rather than remembers it, and, as witness rather than actor, pores over it again and again (“I’ve made a sort of bottle of my life,// A frangible and transparent failure” (TVV, Part Vl. 29-30).
But reflect he must. The speaker of “The Venetian Vespers” has chosen his end-point, Venice,
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx…for its light,
Its lightness, buoyancy, its calm suspension
In time and water…(TVV, Part II, ll. 139-141)
and from its vantage he looks through high art and back into his own origins, asking, repeatedly, if place can determine person. The answer is obvious, if negatively, and, I will argue, ironically conceived: the first line of these vespers is, “What’s merciful is not knowing where you are.” Late in the poem, trying again to restart the narrative that matters more than his descriptive digressions, the speaker conjures a metonymic vision of the A&P at the center of his family’s American lives.
xxxxWhere to begin? In a heaven of gold serifs
Or smooth and rounded loaves of risen gold
Formed into formal Caslon capitals
And graced with a pretzeled sinouous ampersand
Against a sanded ground of fire-truck red,
Proclaiming to the world at large, “The Great
Atlantic and Pacific Tea Co.”?
The period alone appeared to me
An eighteen-karat doorknob beyond price.
This was my uncle’s store where I was raised. (TVV, Part IV, ll. 1-9)
Though a homophonic “guilt” resounds in the speaker’s tales, the store’s marquee is painted gold, not gilt; the ground is painted down-to-earth fire-truck red (which might as well be blood-red.) The lettering rises, so the speaker recalls, like bread to be stocked on A&P shelves, or like hot twists of dough, ready for salt and mustard from A&P crocks. So the language rises under Hecht’s direction: it is expertly “formed into formal,” patterns such as assonance combined with alliteration in “Caslon capitals” and “period alone appeared.” Hecht at his descriptive best, as here, paints memory so vividly it seems plastic. The passage is not only fresh and musical, its metaphorical density is acute, as when the speaker punctuates the sign described above with an “eighteen-karat doorknob,” implying a threshold with a value so liquid he may never approach it.
NOT KNOWING WHERE one is may, as the speaker says, be a blessing. In TVV, Hecht’s imaginative recreation of this psychological condition is lucid and powerful, and by cumulative effect, convincing—by far the poem’s finest accomplishment. But as readers of literature we can and often do know where we are, and the Venetian-ness of these vespers and the scope of these late ruminations by Hecht’s speaker are diminished by comparison to Mann’s Death in Venice or to Calvino’s Invisible Cities, or even to Brodsky’s Watermark. Set, as a fiction, alongside such precursors, Hecht’s “The Venetian Vespers” raises the questions, What is the nature of the “mercy” afforded an artist when readers don’t seem able to acknowledge where he is, literary-historically, across genres? And what is at stake in the maintenance of a vacuum-tight seal between verse and prose when it comes to evaluation of crucial basic poetic techniques and strategies?
For Hecht, in the case of TVV, such a “mercy” constitutes an unearned permission to proceed, in verse, into territories already well-staked out in prose, as if no comparison would or ought to be made to powerful competing fictions. By so proceeding, I will argue, in light of insufficiencies in his craft, Hecht asks us to believe—and the notion is common enough—that compositions in verse lie beyond the jurisdiction of criteria applied to prose fictions because they are in verse. Yet though this essay concentrates—quite critically—on Hecht, I mean to argue, most strenuously, for the utility of setting verse and prose accomplishments alongside each other for the purpose of sharpening our critical assessments. For prose readers, Venice is a literary touchstone, and any exemption of TVV from the kinds of judgments we commonly make about fictions—judgments concerning, for example, credibility of character, or the referential range of diction choices and syntactical maneuvers—should make legible some very clear and reasonable doubts about what is or is not within Hecht’s scope as an artist.
Corollary to any such exemption runs a claim that strong achievement in verse lines and stanzas—extraordinarily graceful handling of line breaks, for example, or consistency in measure that promotes breaks in consistency as significant, or subtle musical effects that give the text texture, tropes which Hecht builds not only into TVV but into all of his work—is sufficient in itself to compensate for shortcomings in the fundamental qualities of a narrative (or an achronological series of narratives, such as TVV.) But fictions in verse have not only frequently met the highest standards in the past, verse is where the standards of strong fiction were established. When we appreciate a fiction in verse for its author’s handling of lines or for the cleverness of its author’s word play, we ought very well to know that we are in a realm of secondary literary appreciation, the purview of the connoisseur for whom recognition of a supposedly “higher” artistry has displaced recognition of more fundamental human concerns to be found in art.
In the passage like the one above, about growing up in the A&P, Hecht’s speaker, anxious about what he may or may not grasp, transforms the gold-colored full stop that completes the contraction of the word “company.” (For the A&P, the use of “Co.” is an economizing gesture that saved money on the sign, but for Hecht’s speaker the contraction is worth its make-believe weight in confectionary gold.) In the same way, the poem’s author resorts to an exaggerated vocabulary that draws attention to Anthony Hecht and by so doing reduces the scope and power of the work’s fictional world.
IT’S A SWEET verse move. But in order to begin to more completely evaluate it, it must be set against some greater literary historical context, and the history of the 20th century American short story will do. For readers of American short stories understand the degree to which a fictional A&P can be powerful, and not a mere confection, which is the degree to which an A&P can be bodied forth with greater control and less self-referential troping. Such readers know this because we know the great precursor fiction of aisles 1 through 20, because we know Sammy, the 19-year old protagonist of John Updike’s short story “A & P,” who has for going on fifty years been the North American Vice-President ex officio of that fictive literary realm “the grocery store.” It may be called a Piggly-Wiggly or a Grand Union, a Shop-Rite or a Safeway, but if its aisles gleam in an American fiction, it’s Sammy’s eye that has framed the vantage points, and it’s his voice that directs readers to sale items in frozen foods. Sammy’s permanent sinecure in American literature is ironic, given that “A&P” is the story of the moment he quits his job. He doesn’t explicitly say so in the story, but one of the main reasons he lays down that “apron with ‘Sammy’ stitched in red on the pocket,” having just witnessed the expulsion of the store’s “Queenie,” is that he has seen and heard everything in that realm: to stay any longer, to keep ringing up products and prices without doing anything, Sammy knows, would entail a descent from hyper-lucidity into madness. His departure is not at all quixotic; nonetheless we know more than Sammy does that it is time for the Knight of the Really Sweet Can to give up his local linguistic mastery for challenges and adventures that await him beyond the electric eye that has just winked goodbye to his Dulcinea and her entourage.
Yet if Sammy is ready to become an actor rather than a word-generator, it’s his unverbalized verbal mastery that we delight in during our brief visit to what seems like his A&P, where words intensify sensory experience into commercial and sexual allegory. Indoors, Sammy’s keen vision and audition zero in on details that conjure the A&P, its employees, its stock, and its customers with amazing veracity and economy. (Does fluorescent lighting, as Sammy claims, make the object world more accessible? Or is it his position of power in the “check out” lane?) Outside, there’s “the glare,” but inside, a girl “in a plaid green two piece…her feet paddling along naked over our check-board green-and-cream rubber tile floor,” plays Aphrodite to Sammy’s Paris. Sammy’s diction is acutely attuned to tactility and sound. In his description he practically fondles the “little nubble all over” Queenie’s suit. And if she could have heard, via a mental loudspeaker, his account of the disposition of her bathing suit’s shoulder straps (“They were off her shoulders looped loose around the cool tops of her arms…all around the top of the cloth there was this shining rim.”), she would have had to run over and slap him. He doesn’t know it yet—he’s only nineteen—but for Sammy work is play, in a way it will never be again, once he frees himself and steps past those automatic doors and into that vast parking lot, adulthood. In the A&P, his wordplay and imagery is so sensual, so evocative that it vies with actual boxes of Hi-Ho crackers for his (and our) emotional investment. In Updike’s heightened, ludic narration, the sounds of Sammy’s cash register register as both mechanically accurate and as a childlike musical accompaniment to the empty discourses required by real-world business: “Hello (bing) there, you (gung) hap-py pee-pul (splat)!” When Sammy’s voice records “the punches, 4, 9, GROC, TOT,” it’s not only what happened in the story, it’s a deliciously elemental ditty that emphasizes the infantile nature of Sammy’s urges.
Yet if he is still partly a three-year-old “tot” banging away at a red and yellow plastic Fisher-Price toy in his playroom, that part of Sammy is in tension with a maturity Updike’s diction occasionally projects. Midway in the story, Sammy will say that he can’t tell the difference between himself and Stokesie, his counterpart at the next register, who is twenty-two “with two babies chalked up on his fuselage already.” But Sammy has already laid claim to worldliness and mastery he does not truly possess, even if he does wear the company bowtie. In the fourth sentence of the story, in his first bravura description, he nails “a chunky kid, with a good tan and a sweet broad soft-looking can with those two crescents of white just under it, where the sun never seems to hit, at the top of the backs of her legs.” The range of nouns available to Sammy (and to Updike) for naming that portion of the girl’s anatomy just above those moonlit places where the sun don’t shine includes ass, bottom, bum, butt, buttocks, derriere, fanny, gluteus maximus, moon, posterior, rear, rump, tuckus, tush, and tushie. Yet Sammy’s casual, off-handed use of “can” is perfectly apt for the era and the setting (Sammy and Stokesie not only check out, they handle cans all day.) “Can” is succinct and slightly derisive; with its cool compactness, its obliquity, and its implication of his commercial expertise, it gives the lie to Sammy’s lack of mastery with such “goods.”
The tension between Sammy’s imaginative and verbal control over the world of consumption and purchase price and his actual inexperience with “cans” and other attractive options must come to a head. At the end of the story, Sammy rejects the self-infantilizing production of mental imagery and interior language. (“Infant” means, at its root, “unable…to speak.”) Now Sammy speaks up, gallantly, imagining that he’s defending and impressing the already-departed girls. When Sammy finally utters words, rather than letting them flow in his head (“You didn’t have to embarrass them,” is all he manages—it isn’t exactly a witty retort), the manager’s response (“It was they who were embarrassing us”) causes Sammy to ejaculate a bit of diction he’s inherited not from the movies or from the pulp novels that used to instruct a boy in how to be a man—but from his grandmother, whom he imagines, in the retelling, “would have been pleased.” All of the taut strands of Updike’s intense verbal play and character and narrative construction have led up to this moment of conflict, the moment where the protagonist’s projected self has to say, but cannot say—out loud—what needs to be said to accompany his first performance of adulthood. Thank goodness, for Sammy, actions speak louder than words. At the moment of truth, he “…started to say something that came out ‘Fiddle-de-do.'” From its fricative initial consonant to its alliteration to its long final vowel, this utterance defines the limits of Sammy’s maturity (polity has gravity and Sammy the Knight Errant hasn’t yet attained escape velocity.) The right sounds are latent, inside Sammy, but only the man Sammy aspires to be could have said to his manager: “Fuck you.”
As we have seen, the A&P is a realm wherein an elaborately hyper-sensualized diction and imagery provide sublimatory compensation for actions Sammy is not ready to take. When Sammy unties his apron and walks out, he’s scared: “…my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter,” and he ought to be. But one optimistic reading of “A & P” allows us to believe that once he has left the store (for what Updike cannily names the “hereafter”), Sammy’s interior uses of language and his actual behavior in the world will gradually converge. His aesthetics might someday arrive at an ethics. Imagine the precision, gorgeousness, and vivacity of Sammy’s interior verbal life translated into deeds.
I have told the tale of Updike’s narrator at such length for four reasons:
- Whether Hecht knows where his fictions are situated literarily, or not, Updike’s Sammy dominates the ground into which Hecht’s narrator was born;
- Updike’s Sammy is an antithesis (if not a nemesis) to the speaker of TVV;
- Updike’s treatment of diction—especially his control over what to what his most noticeable word choices ultimately refer—provides a stark contrast to Hecht’s compulsive use of notable words, a compulsion that does not body forth a complex inconsistency in a fictional character, but rather makes it impossible to believe—and for this reader, even to “misbelieve”—the stories Hecht’s poems try to tell and the lessons he would have them impart;
- most important, I want to begin to demonstrate how powerful and relevant prose fictions can and ought to be used to generate more consistent and more accurate evaluations of the accomplishments of verse story tellers.
IN HECHT’S MATURE work, in editions such as Collected Later Poems, such diction is used in predictable, tic-y tropes that signify a pleasure Hecht took in special words and special combinations of words, a pleasure Hecht could not resist even when it cost him the plausibility of his fictions. Reading the passage about the A&P sign in isolation, it may be possible to hear such spelling bee teasers as “Serif,” “Caslon,” “sinuous,” and “ampersand” as delicacies authentically introduced by a former champ on his last wet legs in Venice and just about to change channels for good. But in “The Venetian Vespers,” as in the bulk of his mature work, Hecht uses so many words of such high caliber—always “friable” or “frangible” when “crumbly” would do—that the words cease to refer to the fictional world he is ostensibly at pains to create. Reading Updike’s “A&P,” we know Sammy knows the word “fuck,” and we appreciate as verisimilitude his involuntary ejaculation of the less sophisticated “Fiddle-de-do” because it supports and deepens his character—as diction, “Fiddle-de-do” functions as a “fact” of the character’s upbringing. In Hecht’s A&P, and consistently, throughout his late work, on the contrary, the speaker’s diction prevents a reader’s investment in the poems’ fictions because it keeps referring to an extra-fictional “fact”: the extremely large vocabulary of Anthony Hecht.
This is so, I believe, even (or especially) when the diction choice in question is otherwise absolutely impeccable, as, in the case of Hecht, it almost always is. For Hecht seems incapable of using a word incorrectly; he’s a genius at using precisely the right word that is precisely the wrong word. Consider the opening twenty-one lines of “The Venetian Vespers,” where a gorgeously modulated pentameter very nearly transports us:
What’s merciful is not knowing where you are,
What time it is, even your name or age,
But merely a clean coolness at the temple—
That, says the spirit softly, is enough
For the mind to adventure on its half-hidden path
Like starlight interrupted by dense trees
Journeying backwards on a winter trip
While you are going, as you fancy, forward,
And the stars are keeping pace with everything.
Where to begin? With the white, wrinkled membrane,
The disgusting skin that gathers on hot milk?
Or narrow slabs of jasper light at sundown
That fit themselves softly around the legs
Of chairs, and entertain a drift of motes
A tide of sadness, a failing, a dying fall?
Or the glass jar, like a dry cell battery,
Full of electric coils and boiling resins,
Its tin Pinocchio nose with one small nostril,
And both of us under a tent of towels
Like child conspirators, the tin nose breathing
Health at me steadily, like the insufflation of God? TVV, p.39.
In lines like “Its tin Pinocchio nose with one small nostril,” and “Full of electric coils and boiling resins,” Hecht is vivid and precise: the substitutions resist any dull tromp of iambs; the imagery’s simplicity and clarity mitigates the high probability of reader confusion due to his depiction of a dated health technology. I’m sure you know this already, but it’s “insufflation” that takes my breath away. I will grant that the word is entirely apt, semantically. (Hecht has cribbed his phrasing from the Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation for the word; it’s from “Genesis” in Ainsworth’s Annotated Pentateuch, 1621.) I will admit that I take delight in its onomatopoeic quality—the slight sniffle in “insuf-” could warrant the word’s use in a disembodied non-fiction or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poem. But Hecht’s use of “insufflation” in a contemporary poem that depends on creation of a character that is only a voice (and the poem’s only voice) is a deal-breaker. As one of my students might put it, “insufflation” blows. Wonderful as the word is (or was), I would argue that Hecht should have known better, should have resisted it, and that his inability to do so is a symptom of a greater lack of artistic control with regard to diction.
BEN YAGODA, IN Style and Voice in Writing, defends the use of “good adjectives whose meaning more familiar ones can’t get at,” for they indicate “the cast and character of the writer’s mind.” Yet Yagoda emphasizes that pulling “the right doozy out of the hornbook is a feat better appreciated for its rarity.” Even a virtuoso writer of critical prose, Yagoda cautions, should not attempt the maneuver more than twice in an article or chapter: “Any more than that, and you look like an exhibitionist.” Advising the Pisos family about the composition of dramatic poems, Horace warns that sometimes one’s fictional Peleus “must give up// His haunting high heroic words and use// Instead the language of common speech,” for “If you// Desire to hear (the audience) weep, you must truly grieve…//But if your words don’t suit your circumstance// Then I may laugh at them—or fall asleep” (“Ars Poetica”.) As good a verse writer as he was (and I think “The Ghost in the Martini,” The Dover Bitch,” and “The End of the Weekend” are masterful poems), Hecht was an exhibitionist in this regard, and readers who are not pre-disposed to approve of his penchant for showy diction in general and his reliance on piled-up adjectives at the close of poems in particular will, reading Hecht’s Collected Later Poems, laugh themselves to sleep.
I’m not talking about style. It’s not style to offer, instead of a compelling fiction, a poem as a display case for verbal gems. Nor is it style to prefer high diction—to present only faceted stones, never dirt clods—in the way Hecht’s speakers so often do. (Hecht abjures nonce words, as if they are below him, or as if he’s conscious that no one is keeping score for words that aren’t in dictionaries.) If you’ll recall our first A&P, not the one in Lawrence, Massachusetts, but just a bit further north and toward the coast, over by Ipswich, you’ll recall that Sammy’s local linguistic mastery is consistent with Updike’s commitment to the creation of two plausible worlds—one interior and psychological, the other a realistic grocery store—and in neither of these worlds do we or John Updike exist. Part of the excitement of reading “A&P” is the experience of realizing things about Sammy that he doesn’t yet know himself. The linguistic mastery of Hecht’s speaker in “The Venetian Vespers,” however, refers to the world’s biggest thesaurus and to a man who at some point pored through it. The fiction is infused with Hecht’s diction, and the infusion is inauthentic. It is impossible to imagine that I know anything about the speaker of “The Venetian Vespers” that Hecht hasn’t already looked up. A positive result of this circumstance is that it generates an ambiguity about what is the “truth” in the speaker’s world (especially about whether or not his uncle was in love with and had an affair with his mother.) But such a gain is tiny compared to what Updike offers us in our relationship with Sammy. Everybody’s got ambiguities; in life we usually have too many. Why should I trade my ambiguities for Anthony Hecht’s, or for those of a fictional speaker who’s got Hecht’s vocabulary? Ambiguity, too many writers forget, comes with any and all language use. It’s a bigger accomplishment, as a writer, to make up a credible character who doesn’t know all the words we know, and it’s a greater artistic generosity to put readers in a (fictional) position of certainty and power. Two of the greatest pleasures in fiction include feeling—even for a moment—what it is to know, and feeling, intensely, what it is to be almost completely unsure.
I’ve hung a claim about the price a Hecht poem typically pays because of his over-valuing of big words on a couple of swatches of lines (several of which I like) and one archaism that sounds a bit like a runny nose, all from “The Venetian Vespers.” I have also been comparing the diction use and the fictional qualities in a verse monologue to those in a masterful short story, and I’m sure that this will strike early twenty-first century readers as unfair or illegitimate—even if that short story is arguably the leading fictional representation of a cognate site in the poem—because we have become used to thinking of fiction as the concern of prose writers, as if verse writers do need not need to negotiate, respectfully, story-telling concerns like credibility.
But the diction problems in Hecht’s work—adjectival overload, for example, the likes of which we wouldn’t let a high school sophomore get away with—are not isolated cases. Hecht’s attraction to certain kinds and formulations of words is too common to be insignificant, yet not frequent enough to constitute some sort of radical aesthetic challenge to institutional norms. Something bigger is going on when Hecht pulls out a doozy, or three doozies, something bigger than his urge to describe well or to tell a good story. These outbursts are about him, psychologically, and ultimately, such self-referentiality weakens not only each work individually but, as I will demonstrate, Hecht’s work as a whole. The question is, to take my cue from “The Venetian Vespers,” “Where to begin?”
A GOOD ANSWER is endings. In The Venetian Vespers (1979) and Collected Later Poems (a 2003 volume collecting poems from the three books published after TVV), Hecht reached for final closure (wrote the final sentence of a poem or the final sentence of an independently-numbered section of a poem-in-parts) 143 times. In twenty-one of these sentences—one in seven—Hecht used three or more adjectives to modify a noun. Once he even went as high as five adjectives; a few times he combined hitting a “triple” with hitting a “double” in the same sentence, so that the sentence amounts to an adjectival spree. He even managed to sign himself this way in translations of Baudelaire and Goethe, when the original French or German writes him no warrant for such a pile-up. These twenty-one instances are gathered below, with the relevant modifiers in bold. Hecht’s strengths as a line- and stanza-maker are amply displayed in these excerpts—his attention to measure, the subtlety of his sound play, his keen ear for slant-rhyme and internal rhyme—all are skillfully deployed. But note the preponderance of high, archaic, or extravagant modifiers used by Hecht as he attempted to bring a poem to its conclusion. The tripling and quadrupling of adjectives occurs all over his poems, to be sure, but the number of times and the predictability with which Hecht insists on such a pile-up betrays a lack of confidence, if not a lack of skill, at the end-game:
The Carsons were made to feel laughably foolish,
Timid and prepubescent and repressed,
And with a final flourish of raised glasses
The “guests” were at last permitted to withdraw.
xxxxxx“The Short End,” TVV, pp. 9-21, end of part III, ll. 68-71
…the last thing she will ever see:
The purest red there is, passional red,
Fire-engine red, the red of Valentines,
Of which she is herself the howling center.
xxxxxx“The Short End,” TVV, final lines, p. 21
As in a water-surface I behold
The first, soft, peach decree
Of light, its pale, inaudible commands.
xxxxxx“Still Life” TVV, p. 29, penultimate sentence, ll. 25-27
Yet here they are, these chipper stratoliners,
Unsullen, unresentful, full of the grace
Of cheerfulness, who seem to greet all comers
With the wild confidence of Forty-Niners,
And, to the lively honor of their race,
Rude canticles of “Summers, Summers, Summers.”
xxxxxx“House Sparrows,” TVV, p. 33-34, final lines, ll. 31-36
…he’s rudderless, dismasted, thoroughly swamped
In that mindless rip-tide that got the best of me
Once, when I ventured on your deeps, Piranha.
xxxxx“An Old Malediction,” TVV, p.35, final lines, ll. 11-14
Something profoundly soiled, pointlessly hurt
And beyond cure in us yearns for this costless
Ablution, this impossible reprieve,
Unpurchased at a scaffold, free, bequeathed
As rain upon the just and the unjust,
As in the fall of mercy, unconstrained,
Upon the poor, infected place beneath.
xxxxx“The Venetian Vespers,” TVV, pp. 39-65, end of part I, ll. 153-160
And when these dimples are covered with a glaze
Of molten glass they are prisoned air-bubbles,
Breathless, enameled pearly vacancies.
xxxxx“The Venetian Vespers,” TVV, p. 48, end of part II, ll. 164-166
Better get dressed as quietly as possible
And slip out for a cold, long, sobering walk.
xxxxx“A Love for Four Voices,” CLP, pp. 43-58, end of part III, ll. 38-39
From the skilled legerdemain of those adept,
Tapered, manicured, bejeweled hands.
xxxxx“See Naples and Die,” CLP, pp. 25-39, end of part II, ll, 107-108
xxxxxxxxxxxxx…a floating mist,
Gray, neutral, passionless, and modified
xxxxxx“Poem Without Anybody,” CLP, p. 73, final sentence, ll. 26-27
Once out of nature, they have settled here
In this blue room of thought, beyond the reach
Of the small brief sad ambitions of the flesh.
xxxxx“Matisse: Blue Interior with Two Girls–1947,” CLP, p. 154, ll. 31-33
xxxxxxxxxxx…Never to win
Their countless and interminable races
Was the merry, garish, mirthless carousel.
xxxxxx“Circles,” CLP, p. 167-168, final sentence, ll. 33-35
The smooth cool plunder of celestial fire?
xxxxxx“A Certain Slant,” CLP, p 180, l.16
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx…the small price
Of an old scapegoated and thicket-baffled ram.
xxxxx“Sacrifice,” CLP, pp. 194-199, end of part II, ll. 23-24
Who spoke a terrible otherworldly curse
In a hollow, deep, egastrimythic voice.
xxxxxx“The Witch of Endor,” CLP, p. 200, final lines, ll. 13-14
On all the bustling who in their bustling err
Consciences of a pure and niveous white.
xxxxx“Indolence,” CLP, p. 201, final lines, ll. 15-16
The vacant Seine embankments as the old,
Stupefied, blear-eyed Paris, glum and resigned,
Laid out his tools to begin the daily grind.
xxxxx“The Ashen Light of Dawn,” (Baudelaire),
xxxxxCLP, p.203, final lines, ll. 24-27
Duly bathed and cooled, his mind,
Ardorless, will utter
Liquid song, his forming hand
Lend a shape to water.
xxxxxx“The Plastic and the Poetic Form,” (Goethe),
xxxxxxCLP, p. 204, final lines, ll. 9-12
And then brims over, dying
In swoons, faint and inert,
And drains to the silent, waiting,
Dark basin of my heart.
xxxxx“Le Jet D’Eau,” (Baudelaire), CLP,
xxxxxp. 207, end of stanza 3, ll. 21-22
Something in the blood-chemistry of life,
Unspeakable, impressive, undeterred,
Expresses itself without needing a word
In this sea-crazed Empedoclean Strife.
It is a scene of unmatched melancholy,
Weather of misery, cloud cover of distress,
To which there are not witnesses, unless
One counts the briny, tough, and thorned sea holly.
xxxxxx“Witness,” CLP, p. 214, stanza 3 and final lines, ll. 9-16
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx…all its weight
Turned light, in a glittering, loose, but stopped cascade.
xxxxxx“The Road to Damascus,” CLP, p. 221, end of stanza 3, ll.17-18
Surely such adjectival excess (Egastrimythic? Niveous? Empedoclean?) is partner with the impulse that led Hecht to offer “insufflation” a revenant’s life in the twentieth century. Could such lavish use of modifiers imply—a deep paradox—that for this lover of the mot juste there is actually no right word?
Consider the last sentence of “House Sparrows,” above, where Hecht not only constructs a quadruple play, but repeats the word “Summers” as a translation, into English, of the sounds birds make. Technically, this tripling up at the end of a poem is the same ploy used by Robert Hass in his popular and philosophically lax piece “Meditation at Lagunitas,” which was written at about the same time as “House Sparrows,” and which I feel Hecht would have objected to as being in a too-free verse, too easy to compose. (All that distinguishes the poems’ specific end-tropes is that “blackberry” in the Hass poem is italicized.) Maybe in the mid-seventies there was something in the air. Certainly Hass’s poem has more imitators; it became a rite of passage, in late twentieth century American poetry, to publish a poem that ended with substantive, identical, italicized triplets. Yet Hecht’s closure is more convincing than Hass’s, in part because it is blatantly artificial. Hass’s poem is coy about its fictions; the end of “Meditation at Lagunitas” translates into English the sound Americans make when they want to consume something as compensation for a lack of understanding it. Hecht’s poem is not only better-constructed as verse, it doesn’t pretend to speak from the heart the way Hass’s poem does.
His joyful extravagance may at times justify his means, but ends were not Hecht’s forte. His struggle to write well at the end of a poem is clear in “Proust on Skates,” a lyric that is the title poem for the second part of Flight Among the Tombs (1996), and that happens to open, rather than close, with a egregiously redundant triple-play:
The alpine forests, like huddled throngs of mourners,
Black, hooded, silent, resign themselves to wait… (ll. 1-2)
The poem’s launching point is the mention, in a biography of Proust, of an alpine skating party. Hecht’s a-b-c-a-b-c sestets are beautifully made. And in spite of passages like the opening lines above, where three adjectives do, do, do the work of the noun they are supposedly modifying, his lines “perform their pas de deux,” (l. 20) with “a gaining confidence,” (l. 43) and in passages like “lacey branches of his bronchial tree” (l.37) Hecht metaphorically binds the physical landscape and the physical condition of the usually house-bound prose writer, facing the “fine-particled threat” (l. 38) of ice and air. The penultimate stanza is a perfect portrait of the artist:
On a subtle, long-drawn style and pliant script
Incised with twin steel blades and qualified
xxxxxxPerfectly to express,
With arms flung wide or gloved hands firmly gripped
Behind his back, attentively, clear-eyed,
xxxxxxA glancing happiness. (ll. 49-54)
Alas, Hecht could not leave his Proust there, at peril. He had to go on, to add another stanza and explain away the power of his subtle, clear image:
It will not last, that happiness; nothing lasts;
But will reduce in time to the clear brew
Of simmering memory
Nourished by shadowy gardens, music, guests,
Childhood affections, and, of Delft, a view
Steeped in a sip of tea. (ll. 55-60)
The triteness of the sentiment expressed in the first line of this last stanza cannot be excused, in this case not even by the demands of form. Here again Hecht prefers literary transfiguration to ordinary figures; both his allusion to Proust’s legendary deathbed comment on Vermeer’s “View of Delft” and his implied equation of tea-soaked painting with tea-soaked madeleine are tired. Worse, he commits an offense against the strength of his own diction: “glancing” was all we needed to hear in order to understand the nature of the delicate moment he’d so carefully depicted.
I have written elsewhere—following Joseph Brodsky—about how a paucity of vocabulary can result in physical violence, and about how when “bad” words are over-used, their powers to transgress diminish, and thus a speaker’s indulgence in such diction can impoverish them, can limit their options. Anthony Hecht’s speakers don’t have that problem. Rather they seem to know practically the whole English dictionary—all the “good” words, anyway—to the extent that they lack credibility. Too frequently, and especially at the end of poems—each is reducible to Anthony Hecht, who can’t resist peddling another sesquipedalian, who packs his lines with bling but in so doing misses the point of Keats’ admonishment to “load every rift with ore.” Hecht’s diction is too far from ore.
It would be silly to argue that the existence of a single short story spoken by a more compelling and more authentic character than the speaker of “The Venetian Vespers”—and one who also happens to be a denizen of an A&P—somehow negates the strengths of Hecht’s poem. And even if one could establish beyond any question that “Sammy” is a more compelling fiction than the narrator of TVV, and Updike somehow the better writer, such a comparison would hardly amount to a full assessment of the literary historical context in which TVV has lived, and been celebrated, for thirty years. Nor should a partial account of some palpably straining or less-good passages of verse from a poet’s oeuvre obviate that poet’s achievements in stronger and even more admirable poems. Nevertheless I would like to think that evaluations of contemporary verse should use the best of prose writing—on equal terms with and without apology to the best of verse writing—as a source of viable standards against which to measure the its quality. I think it is time to begin to acknowledge, in practice, and without equating the two genres, the good sense of Pound’s admonition that verse should be as well-written as prose. For it is not only in the case of “The Venetian Vespers,” nor only with regard to the work of Anthony Hecht, but rather in general, that criticism of verse needs the sharpness and clarity that cross-genre comparisons may afford—that when it comes to crucial fundamental artistic concerns like character, and diction, and conciseness, and verisimilitude, a double standard is in effect—we grant late 20th and early 21st century verse writers too much “mercy” about their sloppiness and the tendentiousness, and we too often call such faults a “style.” Truly great verse may be the rarer, but it has never needed to be granted any “mercy” when compared on the same ground to truly great fiction.
Daniel Bosch’s collection Crucible was published by Other Press in 2002. His poems, translations, and essays have appeared in The TLS, Poetry, The New Republic, The Artsfuse, and Slate. He lives in Chicago.