Sunday, July 15, 2012

`She Reads the Same Books I Do'

I own two copies of Anthony Hecht’s Collected Earlier Poems (1990), one a mint-condition hardcover first edition I bought for fifty cents at a library sale. The other is a beat-up paperback found years earlier in a used-book store. The volume gathers Hecht’s four previous collections and includes “Green: An Epistle” from Millions of Strange Shadows (1977) and the title poem from The Venetian Vespers (1979), two of the great American poems of recent decades. For some reason, the previous owner of the paperback annotated and “corrected” all of the poems from Hecht’s second volume, The Hard Hours (1967), but none of the others. Some book vandals display enviably elegant penmanship. This guy’s scrawls are sprawling, angry and frequently wrong. His handwriting is worse than mine. Across the title of “Three Prompters from the Wings,” composed in flawless trimeters, he writes “Not trimeters” followed by the crank’s trademark, double exclamation points. 

“The Dover Bitch” is helpfully labeled “Parody!!,” with the Arnoldian footnote added: “--- ----- Beach.”  The poem’s last line is crossed out and beside it is scrawled, somewhat inconclusively, “Sexist?!” At the bottom of “`More Light! More Light!’” our scholar writes: “We are now forced to watch” and “Like I’m Walter Ralegh (Scott).” I keep the book despite the defacement because I love Hecht’s work and like to think the late poet would be amused by the delusional emendations. Our anonymous editor is a bush-league Kinbote, reading phantom poems never written by Hecht. In Issue 12 of Umbrella, a poet previously unknown to me, Jane Blue, published “The Secret Editor”: 

“She marks up library books with a number 2 pencil,
thick with disdain. She corrects British usage
to reflect what she considers proper, that is,
American. She crosses out typos, adding letters
and schoolteacher exclamation points. She reads
the same books I do, but seems to take no joy in them.
She is the type of person who sees grammar lapses
as personally affronting. But language is glorious,
like people, in its variation and its flaws.
In a novel about Daphne du Maurier the author
refers to `the azalea-scented handkerchief’
and the secret editor inserts a question mark,
an upside-down caret, and the words,
`azaleas have no scent.’ But I remember,
in southern Oregon, being overwhelmed
by the cloying smell of wild azaleas
even before I saw them, as I came up over the hill.”

The presumption of would-be editors, living off the flesh of their betters, is a parodic allegory of much literary criticism. Blue’s best line: “She reads / the same books I do, but seems to take no joy in them.”


Gary of East Africa said...

Thanks for highlighting those two longer poems of Hecht. Such longer poems receive so much less attention; the lack thereof makes me wish for an anthology of great longer poems.

George said...

I believe that paperback copy of John Crowe Ransom's poems upstairs has a couple of dim note in the margins. A volume of Adams's history of the US came with a few--a "which" turned to "that", and the obsolescent past form "eat" corrected to "ate".

zmkc said...

lines 7 and 8 have me worried.

Taxmom said...

I have a copy of Paradise Lost in which someone has helpfully corrected mention of seven celestial orbs (sun and moon and five then visible planets, am I right?) to nine.