Thursday, May 20, 2010

`Where the Meanings Are'

Anthony Hecht, the foremost American poet of his day, died of lymphoma, age eighty-one, on Oct. 20, 2004. Less than two weeks later The New Yorker published his final poem, “Motes,” and here is one of its five octaves:

“They wandered out of gloom
Into some golden shaft
Of late-afternoon light,
Those tiny filaments
That filled me with delight,
Lifted by an updraft
Or viewless influence
There in the living room.”

Eight lines of iambic trimeter, one sinuous sentence with the concision of poetry and naturalness of good prose. The first echo, at least to old-fashioned common readers, is the title, Matthew 7:3: “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” Even dust is not negligible. It glows – one thinks of light bulb filaments – and they fill the speaker with delight (from the Latin delectare, “to allure, delight,” spelled in English “delite” until the sixteenth century, “when it changed under influence of light, flight, etc.”) Then, of course, Emily Dickinson:

“There's a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.

“Heavenly hurt it gives us;
We can find no scar,
But internal difference
Where the meanings are.

“None may teach it anything,
'Tis the seal, despair,--
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the air.”

“When it comes, the landscape listens,
Shadows hold their breath;
When it goes, 't is like the distance
On the look of death.”

Her poem has trained us, I suppose, to attend to afternoon sunlight, those slowly swirling bars of glowing dust. It “oppresses” though “When it comes, the landscape listens...” The last word is “death.” Hecht, a newly dead poet, watches motes in the “living room.” In his final collection, The Darkness and the Light (2001), Hecht includes a poem with the Dickinsonian title “A Certain Slant”:

“Etched on the windows were barbarous thistles of frost,
Edged everywhere in that tame winter sunlight
With pavé diamonds and fine prickles of ice
Through which a shaft of the late afternoon
Entered our room to entertain the sway
And float of motes, like tiny aqueous lives.
Then glanced off the silver teapot, raising stains
Of snailing gold upcast across the ceiling,
And bathed itself at least in the slop bucket
Where other aqueous lives, equally slow,
Turned in their sad, involuntary courses.
Swiveled in eel-green broth. Who could have known
Of any elsewhere? Even of out-of-doors,
Where the stacked firewood gleamed in drapes of glaze
And blinded the sun itself with jubilant theft,
The smooth cool plunder of celestial fire.”

In a note to “A Certain Slant,” Hecht writes “The poem had its origin in a sentence in a story called `The Boys,’ by Anton Chekhov.” I wrote about the story, titled “Boys” in Constance Garnett’s translation, here.

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