Thursday, October 20, 2016

`As Mild and Unemphatic as a Schwa'

Consider these lines from George Herbert’s “The Forerunners”: “Lovely enchanting language, sugar-cane, / Honey of roses, wither wilt thou fly?” And this from Robert Herrick’s “Upon Julia’s Voice”: “Melting melodious words to lutes of amber.” Each pleases the mouth and ear. Each is a pleasure to say aloud and to hear, and pleasure is among the chief reasons we read. Herrick could have written “She sings real good,” and no one would have listened. Citing these lines by Herbert and Herrick, Anthony Hecht writes: “When I consult my own ear, I can claim that certain lines have come, over the years, to be cherished largely for the quality of their music.” The observation comes from the chapter titled “Poetry and Music” in On the Laws of the Poetic Arts (Princeton University Press, 1995), a book that started life at the National Gallery of Art as the Andrew W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts for 1992. Hecht begins this section with a dash of witty common sense:

“It must surely have been someone French who remarked that the most beautiful words in the English language are `cellar door.’ What, one is disposed to wonder, would be the choice of a Swede or an Indonesian? Each language has its own music; or, more properly, its own varieties of music, for at one time or another the following more or less incommensurate poets have all been held up as model practitioners of the musical component in poetry.”

Hecht assembles an unlikely and incompatible parade of nominees: Swinburne, Poe, Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, Keats, Spender, Milton and Tennyson. This suggests that what we mean by “musical” in poetry is an amorphous notion. Likewise, one reader might swoon to Swinburne’s lines while another falls asleep. Easier to identity without training or critical rigor is the unmusical, the flat, flaccid, toneless and grindingly conversational that dominates poetry today; in short, prose. Hecht makes a useful distinction:

“Poetry as an art seems regularly to oscillate between song (with all the devices we associate with musical forms and formalities) and speech as it as it is commonly spoken by ordinary people. The problem presented by these alternatives ought to be evident; song and the artifices of formality lead in the direction of the artificial, the insincere, the passionless and servile mimicry of established formulas. But speech as a goal leads to chat, to formless rant and ungovernable prolixity.”

Critics have caricatured Hecht as a robotic formalist. The charge is laughable and baseless. He never proceeded as though form = poetic quality. In the passage just quoted Hecht acknowledges the risks implicit in empty formalism, but implies that writing good poems without form is possible but extraordinarily difficult. Hecht never published a poem, even when young, without some redeeming gesture of wit or musicality. By the time he reached poetic maturity, in the nineteen-sixties and -seventies, he was an American master, a peer of Dickinson, Robinson, Eliot and Frost. Listen to the music and thought in these lines, a time-lapse view of evolution, from what I judge Hecht’s finest poem, “Green: An Epistle” (Millions of Strange Shadows, 1977):
“Whole eras, seemingly without event,
Now scud the glassy pool processionally
Until one day, misty, uncalendared,
As mild and unemphatic as a schwa,
Vascular tissue, conduit filaments
Learn how to feed the outposts of that small
Emerald principate. Now there are roots,
The filmy gills of toadstools, crested fern,
Quillworts, and foxtail mosses, and at last
Snapweed, loment, trillium, grass, herb Robert.

Hecht was born in 1923 and died on this date, Oct. 20, in 2004.

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