Thursday, August 11, 2011

`Homeless at Home'

Children and the mad lack proportion. Their sense of scale, of relative importance, is unreliable. An ant is a monster, an eighteen-wheeler a toy. With maturity (and sanity) comes discernment, a lens for properly sizing the world. The trick is learning not to mistake small for insignificant, or large for important. In 1763, when Boswell expresses a fear that his journal includes “too many little incidents,” Johnson replies:

“There is nothing, Sir, too little for so little a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery, and as much happiness as possible.”

Almost seven years after his death, Knopf has published the Selected Poems of Anthony Hecht. For old Hecht hands, there are no surprises, no previously unpublished or uncollected poems, but one hopes the new volume alerts new readers to the work of a very great American poet, and moves old readers to reread, as I’ve been doing. Included by the editor, J.D. McClatchy, from Millions of Strange Shadows (1977) is “Coming Home,” a curious poem for Hecht to write. In fact, it’s less written than assembled, deftly pieced together from passages in the journal John Clare (1793-1864) kept in July 1841.

Clare was often quite mad, once claiming to be Shakespeare. In 1841, he walked away from a private asylum in Essex. He wished to go home to be with his first love, Mary Joyce, to whom he believed he was married. In fact, she had died three years earlier and Clare had been married to Martha “Patty” Turner since 1820.

Hecht’s verse is the most elegant and intricate written by a major American poet in the twentieth century. Clare’s, often touchingly beautiful, is rough-hewn. Clearly, Hecht was touched by the plight of so gifted a poet and tormented a man. He arranges Clare’s prose, often naturally iambic, into lines, which moves the reader to listen carefully, to hear sound patterns, suggestions of rhyme and metrical variation.

I read the poem alongside Clare’s journal and confirmed that Hecht adds little but editing. It’s not an exact transcription but neither does it distort the text. I also noted the devotion to smallness, to seemingly insignificant details, in both poets. Compare the discovery of the gypsies’ hat as described in the first section of Hecht's poem with the corresponding passage in Clare’s journal (John Clare by Himself, 1996):

“On sunday I went and they were all gone—an old wide awake hat and an old straw bonnet of the plumb pudding sort was left behind—and I put the hat in my pocket thinking it might be useful for another oppertunity—as good luck would have it, it turned out to be so.”

The conclusion of Hecht’s found-poem is heartbreaking, but the journal passage is almost unbearably sad:

“…neither could I get any information about [Mary] further then the old story of her being dead six years ago which might be taken from a bran new old Newspaper printed a dozen years ago but I took no notice of the blarney having seen her myself about a twelvemonth ago alive and well and as young as ever—so here I am homeless at home and half gratified to feel that I can be happy any where”

On July 27, 1841, Clare wrote a letter to the now-dead Mary “Clare,” not cited by Hecht. It begins: “I have written an account of my journey of rather escape from Essex for your amusement and hope it may divert your leisure hours—”

Clare shared a publisher, John Taylor, with Keats and Hazlitt, and once met the latter at a party in London. He described Hazlitt as “a silent picture of severity.” In 1821, Hazlitt published one of his best essays, “On Great and Little Things,” in which he writes:

“We often make life unhappy in wishing things to have turned out otherwise than they did, merely because that is possible to the imagination which is impossible in fact.”

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