Tuesday, August 28, 2012

`The Never Forgotten & the Undeceased'

Daryl Hine, the Canadian poet, classicist and former editor of Poetry, died Aug. 20 at age seventy-six. A gay friend introduced me to his work thirty years ago, saying Hine’s poems were “gay but good.” What he meant was, there’s no need to make allowances or qualifications. He’s an exceptional poet, regardless of partisanship. Sure enough, his poems reminded me of Anthony Hecht’s in wit, linguistic exuberance and formal mastery. The same friend introduced me to Barbara Pym’s novels. 

The customary complaint against Hine involves his technical deftness, his elevation of form over substance; the charge that, with great skill and cleverness, he says nothing. There’s occasional justice in this, as Bill Coyle notes in a fine appreciation of Hine published last December in Contemporary Poetry Review. But as Hine matured as man and poet, he grew more comfortable and skilled at transmuting his life into verse without sacrificing the dazzling technique. Hine’s poems are seldom desultory exercises in filling in forms, like completing a crossword puzzle. One senses in Hine a limit-loving gift. Form is freedom. He feeds off boundaries. Hine writes that he has “seldom been able to begin a poem until [he] knew what shape it would take.” He has translated Theocritus, Ovid, the Homeric Hymns, Hesiod and selections from The Greek Anthology.

Consider his career-spanning fondness for morning, daybreak, sunrise – a boundary of sorts, a turn in a cycle. In the title poem from Daylight Saving (1978) he writes: “Nothing original save the break of day, / Precious eleemosynary light, / Your illumination of the ordinary.” And in “Aubade” (Postscripts, 1991): 

“The port of dawn, reluctant to receive your
Freight of dreams, declares them contraband:
What night divulged as everyday behaviour
The a priori light of day has banned.” 

Hine’s final collection, his first new book of poems in twenty years, is &: A Serial Poem (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2010), a long poem in 303 ten-line stanzas with an ABBAABCABC rhyme scheme. See what he does with sunrise in the book’s opening and closing stanzas. In the first he writes: 

“What if one waited & it never came,
Save for an inflammation in the East,
A faint illumination that increased
Till the expected day flared into flame,
& what was yesterday today became
The unaltered altar of an immovable feast,
As if through a narrow opening one saw
Everything changed & everything the same,
Not yet remembered because not yet deceased.
Non omnia omnia in anima.” 

In a note, Hine translated the Latin: “`Not all omens (signs or portents) are in the mind or soul.’ See concluding stanza for affirmative, O omnia omnia in anima.”  Here is the 303rd stanza, a funhouse mirrored image of the first: 

“Save for an illumination in the East,
As the expected day crept into flame,
Nothing changed & everything seemed the same,
Like the stale leftovers of an incredible feast.
Darkness dwindled & and the stars decreased,
& what was overnight at once became
The tintype of an obscure camera.
What if I waited till at last you came,
The never forgotten & the undeceased?
O omnia omnia in anima!” 

[Go here for a review by Eric Ormsby of Hine’s Recollected Poems 1951 to 2004.]

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