Friday, June 19, 2015

`Forcing an Owl Upon Day'

A friend is making his way through the Collected Earlier Poems (1990) and Collected Later Poems (2005) of Anthony Hecht, and judges “Dichtung und Wahrheit” (Millions of Strange Shadows, 1977) “one of the best poems written by an American after 1950. The poem is brilliant.” Not much argument here, but in the same volume he’ll find “Green: An Epistle,” a 151-line dramatic monologue written in 1970, and it, I would suggest, is Hecht’s supreme fiction – a moral meditation and damned good story. My friend goes on to attach a photo he took of “A Cast of Light” from The Venetian Vespers (1979), a poem that carries a sort of stage direction: “at a Father’s Day picnic”:

“A maple bough of web-foot, golden greens,
Found by an angled shaft
Of late sunlight, disposed within that shed
Radiance, with brilliant, hoisted baldachins,
Pup tents and canopies by some underdraft
Flung up to scattered perches overhead,

“These daubs of sourball lime, at floating rest,
Present to the loose wattage
Of heaven their limelit flukes, an artifice
Of archipelagian Islands of the Blessed,
And in all innocence pursue their cottage
Industry of photosynthesis.

“Yet only for twenty minutes or so today,
On a summer afternoon,
Does the splendid lancet reach to them, or sink
To these dim bottoms, making its chancy way,
As through the barrier reef of some lagoon
In sea-green darkness, by a wavering chink,

“Down, neatly probing like an accurate paw
Or a notched and beveled key,
Through the huge cave-roof of giant oak and pine.
And the heart goes numb in a tide of fear and awe
For those we cherish, their hopes, their frailty,
Their shadowy fate’s unfathomable design.”

Without Hecht’s italicized note, would we ever guess the poem concerns Father Day (this Sunday, June 21), the least consequential of holidays? Every year when my sons ask what gift I would like, my answer is the same -- peace and quiet – and every year I’m disappointed. Father’s Day is a good excuse for expressing my gratitude that not one of my three sons is boring or doltish -- a rare blessing in a world littered with dopes. Hecht’s final stanza expresses the ever-present anxiety known to every responsible parent. My friend writes of “A Cast of Light”:     

“To me, it’s the perfect Father’s Day poem. [It avoids] any taint of sentimentality, captures, it seems to me, the thoughts a father would have on a father’s day picnic when he looks at his family, especially a man with the sensibility of Hecht. It’s a `chancy’ world, the light reaching the `dim bottoms’ only for `twenty minutes or so.’ Hecht, having seen a lot of combat during WWII, suffering from PSTD, knows how quickly chaos can come. He knows firsthand how frail life is. And most of all, Hecht understands how little we know of our loved ones `shadowy fate’s unfathomable design.’”

Dr. Johnson was childless but like many men without sons or daughters, he enjoyed the company of children, sympathized with them and defended them against the neglect and abuse of the world. Boswell reports:

“It having been mentioned to Dr. Johnson that a gentleman who had a son whom he imagined to have an extreme degree of timidity, resolved to send him to a publick school, that he might acquire confidence; --`Sir, (said Johnson,) this is a preposterous expedient for removing his infirmity; such a disposition should be cultivated in the shade. Placing him in a publick school is forcing an owl upon day.’”

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