They are almost “conversation” poems, but they offer too many explanations, the sorts of explanations of who the speaker is, of what they speaker refers to and knows; a conversation poem assumes familiarity with an audience. What makes Hecht’s poems seem so nearly conversation pieces is the fact of their being lyric expositions and narrations, rather than lyric dramatizations. The showing and telling, hearing and overhearing distinctions can only carry us so far; anytime something is shown, it tells us something, and anytime something is overheard, we are also hearing it. But when someone tells, and when someone assumes an audience should be hearing, the qualities of the verse are altered. They become more “rhetorical.”
Criticism is often helpless before the word; but it does point to something about what poetry is doing, and even about what poetry it is; it tries to identify a set of assumptions, inherent in poems, about how poetry communicates. There is a sense in which it is less active in English poetry than in the poetry of other European languages; Baudelaire’s apostrophes and self-dramatizations have Racine’s Phedre and Andromaque behind them. But Baudelaire’s dramatic rhetoric is only one form that rhetoric may take. Nearer to the rhetoric found in Hecht’s poetry is the rhetoric of his question: “Have you ever noticed that the coffins of old women resemble those of children?” There, he is telling us something and speaking with the assumption that we are hearing his words, whether we would or no.
One great advantage of rhetorical poetry, poetry that tells and explains and knows it will be heard by an audience that is not as familiar as that in a conversation poem (a conversation poem being, for instance, Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight”), is that it has to have–for lack of a better word–decent manners towards it’s readers: it cannot assume that we are interested, that we know who is speaking, or that we are willing to share in their bliss, despair, or whims. To be clear, the best of the modernist tradition that rejected or suspected some of the assumptions and standards of rhetorical poetry as I will describe it, as Hecht manages it, does not fail for lacking manners: it does not proceed by a model of poetic communication in which manners have any place at all; it does not want us to share in anything. A poet like Elizabeth Bishop alternates between the rhetorical and the modernist/symbolist traditions within single poems; it’s difficult at times to make the leap with her (which is why we find both Montale and Yeats in her verse). A poet like Frank O’Hara reinvents the conversation poem for the American century, rejecting both modernism’s symbolist assumptions and the rhetorical tradition; but he writes with good manners: he does not treat a general audience like a conversation partner and so readers do not feel that they are other than strangers to the very personal conversation; it is genuinely over-heard, the pleasures vicarious. The most nauseating contemporary poetry is conversation poem to a strange public, the mauling confessions of a lonely man or woman in a supermarket deciding which coffee to buy and happening to alight on the same brew as the poor soul to their side.
Hecht’s rhetorical poetry can be characterized by a handful of habits and techniques, which fly in the face of Pound’s modernist strictures: 1) A narration of the lyric experience so that there is a clear separation of the speaker from the experiencing subject of the poem, without the irony afforded, say, Eliot in the early poems; we are told about the insight, told what led to the insights, told about what he felt; but the poems do no commit themselves to presenting them immediately before us without the mediation of a narrator; 2) Erudition with explanation or else specificity of description and names designed to more fully situate the reader in a coherent reality at a given time; 3) A proliferation of adjectives, perhaps outweighing concrete nouns and verbs; the adjectives are asked to carry a burden of significance that assumes something about shared standards of judgment, and which puts to the forefront the narrator’s recollection of the lyric moment, rather than the lyric moment, its conditions or occasion.
There are risks to all of these techniques, habits, and indulgences: that the poems will recede from distance; that their muscles will be larded by inconsequential markers of impressions in which we cannot share, or in which we do not believe; that they will condescend in their explanations, bore with their pedantry; that in respecting the general audience that they assume, they presumptuously take for granted their own relevance beyond a select few. The poems might feel like memoirs written by a man who has convinced himself that he is a public figure, though he has done nothing public in his life except peddle poems.
But the upside is tremendous, and difficult to find elsewhere: it makes for a poetry that does something distinct, and that Hecht describes in a beautiful mid-length narrative poem; a poem that, like others of its kind, recounts and reflects upon the arrival of a moment of lyric intensity, without becoming a lyric poem:
Of course, the familiar rustling of programs,
My hair mussed from behind by a grand gesture
Of mink. A little craning about to see
If anyone I know is in the audience,
And, as the house fills up,
A mild relief that no one there knows me.
A certain amount of getting up and down
From my aisle seat to let the others in.
Then my eyes wander briefly over the cast,
Management, stand-ins, make-up men, designers,
Perfume and liquor ads, and rise prayerlike
To the false heaven of rosetted lights,
The stucco lyres and emblems of high art
That promise, with crude Broadway honesty,
Something less than perfection:
Two bulbs are missing and Apollo’s bored.
And then the cool, drawn-out anticipation,
Not of the play itself, but the false dusk
And equally false night when the houselights
Obey some planetary rheostat
And bring a stillness on. It is that stillness
I wait for.
Before it comes,
Whether we like it or not, we are a crowd,
Foul-breathed, gum-chewing, fat with arrogance,
Passion, opinion, and appetite for blood.
But in that instant, which the mind protracts,
From dim to dark before the curtain rises,
Each of us is miraculously alone
In calm, invulnerable isolation,
Neither a neighbor nor a fellow but,
As at the beginning and end, a single soul,
With all the sweet and sour of loneliness.
I, as a connoisseur of loneliness,
Savor it richly, and set it down
In an endless umber landscape, a stubble field
Under a lilac, electric, storm-flushed sky,
Where, in companionship with worthless stones,
Mica-flecked, or at best some rusty quartz,
I stood in childhood, waiting for things to mend.
A useful discipline, perhaps. One that might lead
To solitary, self-denying work
That issues in something harmless, like a poem,
Governed by laws that stand for other laws,
Both of which aim, through kindred disciplines,
At the soul’s knowledge and habiliment.
In any case, in a self-granted freedom,
The mind, lone regent of itself, prolongs
The dark and silence; mirrors itself, delights
In consciousness of consciousness, alone,
Sufficient, nimble, touched with a small grace.
Then, as it must at last, the curtain rises,
The play begins. Something by Shakespeare.
Framed in the arched proscenium, it seems
A dream, neither better nor worse
Than whatever I shall dream after I rise
With hat and coat, go home to bed, and dream.
If anything, more limited, more strict—
No one will fly or turn into a moose.
But acceptable, like a dream, because remote,
And there is, after all, a pretty girl.
Perhaps tonight she’ll figure in the cast
I summon to my slumber and control
In vast arenas, limitless space, and time
That yield and sway in soft Einsteinian tides.
Who is she? Sylvia? Amelia Earhart?
Some creature that appears and disappears
From life, from reverie, a fugitive of dreams?
There on the stage, with awkward grace, the actors,
Beautifully costumed in Renaissance brocade,
Perform their duties, even as I must mine,
Though not, as I am, always free to smile.
Something is happening. Some consternation.
Are the knives out? Is someone’s life in danger?
And can the magic cloak and book protect?
One has, of course, real confidence in Shakespeare.
And I relax in my plush seat, convinced
That prompt as dawn and genuine as a toothache
The dream will be accomplished, provisionally true
As anything else one cares to think about.
The players are aghast. Can it be the villain,
The outrageous drunks, plotting the coup d’état,
Are slyer than we thought? Or we more innocent?
Can it be that poems lie? As in a dream,
Leaving a stunned and gap-mouthed Ferdinand,
Father and faery pageant, she, even she,
Miraculous Miranda, steps from the stage,
Moves up the aisle to my seat, where she stops,
Smiles gently, seriously, and takes my hand
And leads me out of the theatre, into a night
As luminous as noon, more deeply real,
Simply because of her hand, than any dream
Shakespeare or I or anyone ever dreamed.
There is, in the flutter of questions at the open of the last verse-paragraph, the imitation of the consternation as the play transforms before Hecht’s eyes; but those questions are not intended to retrieve the intensity of the moment. Instead, they gesture towards it, miming rather than portraying.The present tense of the poem does not collapse time, but reinforces its distance, a historical present that makes the present feel past, rather than the other way around. Nobody feels this way as they feel.
What’s more, the lines between the phrases “Before it comes” and “a small grace,” the bulk of a verse-paragraph, totter with an indecorous investment in decorum: “I, as a connoisseur of loneliness” is heavy-handed, and creates a rime riche; “habilment” squeals with priggish aesthete delicacy; “as at the beginning and end, a single soul,” proffers spirituality with unearned certainty; “all the sweet and sour of loneliness” reduces a state of feeling to a bon bon.
One temptation would be to lean on the word “connoisseur,” to see in it Hecht’s self-exculpation: all of the delicacies that ensue are efforts at self-presentation, making himself out to be a connoisseur of a particular type. Another temptation would be to read these phrases as instances of irony in the person of the narrator, adopted from Eliot’s early poetry, and shifted into the person of the raconteur. I am not satisfied with either answer, because I do not see the narrator’s self as constituting the poem’s center of gravity, and because I do not see the upshot from filling a role (connoisseur) that is never scrutinized. He really is a connoisseur and is fine with that.
But there is no need to feel averse to decorum when it is honest, affectionate, warm, as Hecht’s lines are; his decorum is the mannered rhetoric of a poet speaking to a general public. But the decorum is also at the level of diction and syntax: the subject matter is not effected. It feels like a decorum that will not turn away from what was or is embarrassing, and that will not hide behind propriety to evade a blush; it is decorum vulnerable to embarrassment. That vulnerability is felt in the ease by which the subjects of the poem are discussed: the fearlessness by which Hecht says what poetry is would, in many poets, it is not difficult to imagine, be accompanied by portentiousness, by self-important urgency, or by smug gnosticism; or else it would not be fearless at all, but would be ironic, shuffling, self-deprecating, meretriciously provisional.
The adjectives are crucial to establishing a decorum open to embarrassment: registering impressions, they are liable to objection and disagreement; they betray, as few other words do, the misjudgment of the speaker or the idiosyncratic nature of that judgment. Also crucial to the effect: the willingness to explain–first, to not only say what he feels, but to explain what he feels and how he feels. His decorum is not that of the gentleman, then, whose manners are the carapace of stoic masculinity; he explains decorously and openly what is exquisitely sensitive, feminine in the gendered norms of the long poetic tradition in which Hecht regularly places himself.
Further, when Hecht explains himself, he does not explain himself away, but instead reveals more beliefs, more of his past, more of who he is; all of which count as more grounds by which a reader might dismiss him. No second-rate politician would proceed in such a manner (though the first-rate would). The most astonishing moment comes when he says what counts, for him, as poetic work: the self-discipline that issues in “something harmless,” “governed by laws that stand for others laws.” Here we might reflect that decorum itself might be considered a law that stands for other laws; Jane Austen would have seen it that way.
“Peripeteia” ends with a performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, subject to subtle discussion in Hecht’s 1992 “Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts” (the poem “Peripeteia” was published in 1977), On the Laws of Poetic Art. I will end by considering decorum in relation to what Hecht says there. Concluding, Hecht returns to his initial object of discussion, “the elaborate architectural elements of the masque” that lie behind the construction of Shakespeare’s play: The dream to which we so yearningly return is of paradise, ambiguously either a garden or a wilderness: but also possibly a city of human and civic habitation as represented by the elaborate architectural elements of the masque. These are created, as is much else in this play, by art, which, as I earlier declared, is power chastened and restrained by love. And love itself is both the exalted passion and also the taking of infinite pains. Such pains are evidenced in the ordeals, the deprivations and mortifications, voluntarily undertaken by Ferdinand and Miranda, or imposed as a penance upon others. The disciplines of art are a just analogue for the chastening powers of love, and the self-discipline required of those who, having learned to govern themselves, are proved suitable to govern others.
“A city of human and civic habitation” is a city of laws, and these for Hecht are represented by an artistic creation that is itself by a power “chastened and restrained by love,” where love is exalted passion and “the taking of infinite pains.”
Hecht, in a poetry of decorum, does not eschew passion but is happy to display his taking of infinite pains; these are the disciplines of art and love. But the pains are, as he explains, not pains taken in self-defense, but pains of “deprivations and mortifications,” imposed or accepted; and so the pains of decorum in Hecht’s poetry must be open to the vulnerabilities of mortification, in its more common modern sense.
There is finally, behind Hecht’s decorum, a full realization of that phrase “taking pains”: it is a decorum that not only accepts the pains of self-exposure and self-mortification, but a decorum that is motivated, as the best decorum is, by an unwillingness to give pain to others. The “chastening powers” of Hecht’s poetry are powers that would chasten without harming. One of the worst deformations of decorum is insensitivity; the mask of propriety becoming a blinder. Hecht does not so much combat that deformation, or guard against it, as refuses it entirely: for Hecht’s poetry is most deeply the awfulness of humans as they cause pain to others, the ease with which pain is brought about in the lives around us; his decorum offers strength to regard that pain, while standing firmly opposed to any impulse to vicariously participate in, or collusively imagine, violence that others inflict and suffer.
The fourth and final movement of Hecht’s greatest poem, “The Feast of Stephen”:
Out in the rippled heat of a neighbor’s field,
In the kilowatts of noon, they’ve got one cornered.
The bugs are jumping, and the burly youths
Strip to the waist for the hot work ahead.
They go to arm themselves at the dry-stone wall,
Having flung down their wet and salty garments
At the feet of a young man whose name is Saul.
He watches sharply these superbly tanned
Figures with a swimmer’s chest and shoulders,
A miler’s thighs, with their self-conscious grace,
And in between their sleek, converging bodies,
Brilliantly oiled and burnished by the sun,
He catches a brief glimpse of bloodied hair
And hears an unintelligible prayer.
The horror is accentuated by “self-conscious grace,” “sleek, converging bodies/brilliantly oiled and burnished by the sun.” The restraint and elevation and delicacy of diction is not ironic; it takes pains to suggest all of the good that may go towards giving pain. It chastens the warped misapplication of the laws of beauty, desire, and love that stand for other laws, also warped, more grievously misapplied.