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Anthony Hecht's Elegies.

Hecht's poetry has striking images and ambitious themes, penetrating intelligence and (as he said of George Herbert) considerable learning. Critics have praised his brilliant formalist technique, his sophisticated tone and language, his intricate metrics and rhymes. In a kind of controlled disorder, Hecht's art makes coherent a chaotic world. His allusive, witty and poignant elegies on four friends form a distinctive part of his oeuvre. The three poets and one critic of poetry all died prematurely: L. E. Sissman of cancer, David Kalstone and James Merrill of AIDS, and Joseph Brodsky of heart disease. "To L. E. Sissman, 1928-76" and "In Memory of David Kalstone" appeared in The Transparent Man (NY: Knopf, 1990). "For James Merrill: An Adieu" and "A Death in Winter: In Memory of Joseph Brodsky" appeared in Flight Among the Tombs (NY: Knopf. 1996).

A child prodigy and Harvard graduate, Sissman was a successful advertising executive as well as a prominent poet. Hecht's strict and formal quatrains, rhyming the first and fourth, second and third lines, allude to Robert Frost's famous aphorism, "writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down." His poem, which quotes two lines from Sissman, takes place in the Harvard Yard. It mixes the names of seventeenth-century English poets: Vaughan, Quarles and Donne, with contemporary people and cars: Kissinger, Ford and Chevy, as well as both Wallers, the poet Edmund and the jazz musician Fats. The theme is ars longa, vita brevis (art is long, life is short), the feeling is conservative, the tone satiric. Hecht declares that Sissman's well-crafted poems will endure and outlast all the perishable contemporary fads: "bra-less, liberated, cool co-eds," Mod fashions, spontaneous Happenings, Little Leagues, Edsel cars, Frug dances, the dim wit of Raquel Welch and (quoting Sissman in the last line) the deluded "connoisseurs of California wines."

David Kalstone (1933-86)--professor of English at Rutgers and author of books on Sir Philip Sidney and on modern poetry--was a homosexual friend of Merrill ("J. M." in the poem) and Edmund White. Hecht's poem has six quatrains, rhymed on the second and fourth lines. It begins with a contrast between Kalstone enjoying the rich meal made by Hecht's wife and the "poor generous ghost" who can no longer enjoy food. Hecht describes Kalstone as lively, funny, intelligent, kind, and as the author of three excellent books. Opposing Rosalind's statement in As You Like It that men do not die for love, Hecht-equating sex with love and alluding to Herod's Slaughter of the Innocents in Bethlehem--asserts that AIDS, the plague from Africa, "wiped out ... the whole crew / Of innocents." Like Igor Stravinsky and Ezra Pound, who'd found their last resting place in Venice, a friend (possibly Merrill) scattered Kalstone's ashes "upon the calm Venetian tides ... [that] whirl and eddy through / A liquified Palazzo Barbaro" that's reflected in the shimmering water. Built in 1425 on the Grand Canal, the Palazzo had a rich artistic and literary heritage, and was associated with Browning, Whistler, Monet, Henry James, Sargent, Wharton and Berenson. Hecht's conclusion was inspired by Proust's famous account of dipping a biscuit in a cup of tea to summon up memories of the past: "the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea" (Swann's Way, trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff, NY: Modern Library, 1956, p. 66). Echoing his description of Kalstone as "a faint blurred absence," Hecht concludes:
   That mirrored splendor briefly entertains
   Your passing as the whole edifice trembles
   Within the waters of the Grand Canal,
   And writhes and twists, wrinkles and reassembles.

The image of the Palazzo takes shape and grows solid in the still waters just as the memory of Kalstone remains in the minds of his living friends.

Hecht's elegy on Merrill (1926-95) begins with a charming Renaissance epigraph from Edmund Bolton's "A Palinode": "As fadeth Sommers-sunne from gliding fountaines," to suggest how Merrill slipped quietly out of life in the month of February and, as Auden wrote "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," "disappeared in the dead of winter." Evoking Merrill's skillful wordplay and "elegant, serious banter," and alluding in "Sandover's sunlit end" to Merrill's ambitious poem The Changing Light at Sandover, Hecht compares Merrill to "master illusionists" like Shakespeare's Prospero and Harry Houdini. Like Merrill, these magicians suddenly vanish in the middle of their act and leave the stunned audience with no explanation of what happened. Quoting Milton's hope in Paradise Lost that his epic poem a "fit audience will find, though few," Hecht generously places Merrill in a literary Elysium with the great authors he most admired. Using a musical metaphor, Hecht writes that Dante, Rilke, Mallarme and Proust will now rejoice "In the rich polyphony of their latest friend, / Scored in his sweetly noted high keys."

Though deeply wounded, Hecht generously forgave Joseph Brodsky (whose Russian poems he expertly translated) for condemning his poem "See Naples and Die"--a "severe blow," though not inspired, he felt, by malice or ill-will. Since he "was reeling with bewilderment and dismay for quite some time" after reading what Brodsky had written (Hecht, Selected Letters, ed. Jonathan Post, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2013, p. 234), Hecht's elegiac tribute is especially moving. His author's note to "A Death in Winter: In Memory of Joseph Brodsky" explains his allusions to Macbeth, King Lear, Donne's "Valediction," Henry James on the Piazza San Marco, and the references to statues in the Luxembourg Gardens and to the hawk and snow in the poems of Brodsky (1940-96). Hecht's elegy is closely modeled on Auden's elegy of Yeats. As the earth mourns the death of the poet, Auden's "instruments" become sensors and scanners that register the movement of tectonic plates, the shock and tremors of the quake that are recorded on the Richter scale. The "power surges and ebbs, who's in, who's out" suggest the draining of the poet's vitality as he moves from life to death as well as the subsequent adjustment, in his absence, of poetic reputations.

Brodsky had to make the difficult change from Nevsky Prospect in Leningrad to Prospect Park in Brooklyn and, writing in different languages, also changed from the Cyrillic to the Roman alphabet. In Auden's poem, "By mourning tongues / The death of the poet was kept from his poems"; in Hecht's poem, "Time itself mourns ... Looking for something lost, a loss untold, / Greater than many of us understand." In Auden, the poet "became his admirers"; in Hecht, "He now dwells in the care of each of us." Recalling the persecution and imprisonment Brodsky had suffered in Russia, Hecht observes that he was the "survivor of show trial, of state oppression, / Exiled from parents, language, neighborhood." Auden had directly addressed the poet; Hecht addresses the reader and commands him to live with the poems. Brilliantly condensing Brodsky's essential technique and punning on "strain," he concludes: "Underneath / Their gaiety and music, note the chilled strain / Of irony, of felt and mastered pain, / The sound of someone laughing through clenched teeth."

Jeffrey Meyers, FRSL, Berkeley, CA
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Author:Meyers, Jeffrey
Publication:Notes on Contemporary Literature
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2013
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