Monday, March 23, 2015

`A Statement in Words About a Human Experience'

I have a soft spot for songs and poems that tell a story, which is one of the reasons I like good country music. Much recent fiction has given up on storytelling and replaced it with workshop posturing and linguistic filigree. On Saturday I tried reading a story by a much-touted young-ish American writer, and couldn’t work up the gumption to finish a mere twelve pages. There was no story or character, little thought or emotion, and no incentive to keep reading. The same goes for this guy’s recently published, blurb-crusted collection of essays. It’s reassuring to know that some poets, following Homer’s lead, have picked up the narrative impulse (Yezzi and Mehigan come to mind). By story I don’t necessarily mean a heavily plotted web of events. A story can be elliptical and still carry narrative heft, more Chekhov than Dickens. I’m reminded of Yvor Winters’ definition of a poem as “a statement in words about a human experience.” Here is “I.M.E.M.,” the second-to-last poem in The Darkness and the Light (2001), Anthony Hecht’s final collection: 

“To spare his brother from having to endure
Another agonizing bedside vigil
With sterile pads, syringes but no hope,
He settled all his accounts, distributed
Among a few friends his most valued books,
Weighed all in mind and heart and then performed
The final, generous, extraordinary act
Available to a solitary man,
Abandoning his translation of Boileau,
Dressing himself in a dark, well-pressed suit,
Turning the lights out, lying on his bed,
Having requested neighbors to wake him early
When, as intended, they would find him dead.”

It’s a technical marvel, of course, a grammatically flawless, eighty-seven-word sentence, but more than that.  It’s about mortality, dignity and self-reliance, a variation on a human experience all of us will face.

1 comment:

sunt_lacrimae_rerum said...

Thank you for publishing this wonderful reflection by Anthony Hecht. He always had an admirable ear and an exquisite style. His "narrative impulse" is brilliant throughout his career--even his earliest poems have the heft of both magnificence and "relatability"--even his comic poems have weight and his poems such as "The Book of Yolek" and "Sarabande on Attaining the Age of Seventy-Seven" have great elegance of diction and narrative heft.

He is in my top ten list of poets born in the 20th century. I typically do not like "top-ten" lists because they tend to reduce greatest to a popularity contest but when one has to choose what to reread, such a list can be an aide de memoire.

Thank you.