One of the best things I’ve read lately about a poem – not poetry, not poets, not “poetics” – is this interview with Phillis Levin devoted to “The Transparent Man,” the title poem of Anthony Hecht’s 1990 collection. Levin is a poet and possesses a rare critical gift for pinpointing quickly and without self-indulgent folderol a work of art’s essential accomplishment:
“One of the curiosities of the poem is that the speaker, this young woman, is not interested in reading books any more. And I think that is one of the reasons the poem is so interesting: Anthony Hecht, a consummate master of poetry, a great reader, a great aesthete, a great lover of the arts—he knew a lot about music and painting, as well as literature—takes on the persona of a young woman who would rather look out the window at trees than read another book.”
This has always been among the great attractions of dramatic monologues, whether Browning’s, Frost’s or Hecht’s – the opportunity to shed self and project a voice into someone unlike the poet. It’s a fiction writer’s gift, I suppose. To appreciate Hecht’s achievement, imagine almost any other recent poet adopting the persona of a woman dying of cancer. Imagine the indecent sentimentality. Then consider Hecht’s stringent realism:
“Though they mean only good,
Families can become a sort of burden.
I've only got my father, and he won't come,
Poor man, because it would be too much for him.
And for me, too, so it's best the way it is.
He knows, you see, that I will predecease him,
Which is hard enough. It would take a callous man
To come and stand around and watch me failing.”
“Predecease,” an obituary writer’s euphemism, is a word no one would ever naturally utter, and is used perfectly. Levin is good on Hecht’s virtuosity with blank verse. It looks so simple but the failings on both sides – prosy dullness or excessive artificiality – are daunting to navigate. Either way, the subject – in this case, a young woman who knows she is soon to die – would be compromised and the poem would fail as a poem and a human document. In the following passage, Levin as critic does something rare: She rises, through an act of empathetically close reading, to a level of insight worthy of the poem:
“The underlying metrical pattern, which is the frame, is an abstraction. Think of Mondrian. As Mondrian develops, his work grows more and more abstract; he formulates a geometry. But if you look at a landscape, or if you look at a painting by Cezanne, you see a landscape, and you see its geometry. You can say here you have this abstraction, which is the blank verse, and then you have the living speech pattern. But the poem slowly unveils a young woman who is dying, who is going to be a skeleton, and underneath it all is the skeleton of the blank verse: you have the abstraction, you have the pattern. Abstraction has a kind of eternity to it, but it's also a kind of death because it's separated from the organic, living, pulsing moment. And you have the pulsing moment in her speech patterns and in the variation, the deviation from the pattern.”
Hecht died almost six years ago, on Oct. 20, 2004, of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and he would have approved of Levin’s reading and been grateful.