Thursday, September 06, 2012

`Responding with Eloquence'

In the September issue of The New Criterion, John Talbot reviews three translations of The Iliad, two of them new and one a reissue of Richard Lattimore’s version from 1951. Talbot is a poet and classicist at Brigham Young University, and his review is pleasingly broad and digressive, even making room for the late Christopher Logue’s eccentric and highly readable adaptations from Homer. The history of Homeric translations into English is “an index of the state of the language,” he notes: 

“But the English of our day is not well-suited to formal modes, and few poets can manage anything like the confident and easy elevation you find in certain passages of Shakespeare or Dryden or Arthur Golding.” 

Not so much “the English of our day” as the people who use it. English remains as bountiful as ever. Rather, among many of today’s poets and other writers I sense a thriving failure of nerve, a reluctance to sound formal, authoritative, eloquent or even articulate. We see the same refusal of seriousness, of course, in the rest of the culture. Politicians, like poets, dare not risk sounding like grownups for fear of offending the children. But not all the news is grim. Talbot adds: 

“One reason for reading and cherishing Anthony Hecht is that he was one of the last poets in English who could achieve, elegantly but without affectation, a lofty rhetorical pitch. One of the reasons for reading the later poetry of Geoffrey Hill is to admire, in a more vexed way, his struggle to achieve, if only for a line or two, a pitch of language which resists the debased currency of demotic commercial English.” 

This is probably gratuitous in regard to Homer translations, but generous and inspired as an act of criticism. Hecht and Hill are rare bright spots in recent poetry. Take “Persistences,” Hecht's poem of thirteen four-line verses in The Venetian Vespers (1979). For the first six stanzas, the language is elaborate and measured, drawn from art and design – “foxed, Victorian lace,” “A silken Chinese mist,” “calligraphic daubs,” “An ashen T’ang of age.” At the poem’s midpoint, a hint of menace is introduced: “To whom some sentry flings a slight, / Prescriptive, `Who goes there?’” If we already know Hecht’s poetry, and know that he saw combat as an infantryman during World War II, we pay attention. The speaker, Hamlet-like, wonders if the spirits, the “ghostly equipage” he sees, are personal: “Are these the apparitions / Of enemies or friends?” The final two verses, culminating in the poem’s last line, brings the haunting into focus: 

“Those throngs disdain to answer,
Though numberless as flakes;
Mine is the task to find out words
For their memorial stakes 

“Who press in dense approaches,
Blue numeral tattoos
Writ crosswise on their arteries,
The burning, voiceless Jews.” 

Hecht was a Jew and some of his most powerful poems, including “More Light! More Light!,” “Rites and Ceremonies” and “The Book of Yolek,” deal overtly with the Holocaust. In the penultimate stanza, he formulates a sort of credo, “elegantly but without affectation,” for his poetic obligation: “Mine is the task to find out words / For their memorial stakes.” Think of another recent American poet with the linguistic tact and anti-Adorno audacity to address the subject. Lowell? Ashbery? Hardly. In Section XXXV of The Triumph of Love (1998), Geoffrey Hill writes: 

“Even now, I tell myself, there is a language
to which I might speak and which
would rightly hear me;
responding with eloquence; in its turn,
negotiating sense without insult
given or injury taken.
Familiar to those who already know it
elsewhere as justice,
it is met also in the form of silence.”


zmkc said...

'The refusal of seriousness' - you should patent that phrase and young historians will pay your children millions for the right to use it when they come to write the story of our times

Helen Pinkerton said...

Yes, yes, to zmkc's comment. But I'd add the next sentence:

"Politicians, like poets, dare not risk sounding like grownups for fear of offending the children."