Monday, October 20, 2014

`At the Beck and Call of His Memory'

My eyes were opened to the sensitive world of contemporary American poetry at a party in Albany, N.Y., in the mid-nineteen-eighties. I was new in town and had acquired a reputation for being a “bookworm,” so my hosts, two fellow newspaper reporters, wanted me to meet the lone poet among their friends. People assume that readers and writers go together like a horse and carriage – one glows, the other reflects his splendid luminosity. It didn’t work out that way. True to type, the poet was drunk and getting drunker, and more interested in attracting female attention than in having a literary conversation with a male. 

I have no problems with that. Trouble started when he proclaimed the predictable countercultural brand-names – Ginsberg, Olson, Kerouac, Creeley – and I countered with, among others, Larkin, Bowers, Justice, Hecht. He had never heard of Larkin (who, at the time, was still alive) but the last name incensed him. By this point he was ranting at the center of a very crowded party, attracting both male and female attention. The particulars are hazy but he was certain that Hecht, a Jew who as a combat infantryman helped liberate the death camp at Flossenb├╝rg, was a fascist. That’s when I left the party. 

Why Hecht? Why the spit-spraying vituperation? Why the kneejerk resort to an all-purpose, slanderously inappropriate political epithet? I suspect the intensity of the drunk’s tantrum was directly proportional to Hecht’s gift. Hecht was a technical wizard besotted with the Western tradition of literature and art. He brooded over evil and more mundane human failures, and wielded a fierce satirical wit. He was, in short, a civilized man, something our would-be renegade couldn’t abide. He would never recognize himself in “Green: An Epistle,” “The Venetian Vespers” or “The Transparent Man.” For him, and for millions like him, poetry was a lifestyle choice, like being a vegetarian, not a dedication to craft. In a brief statement on poetry and children titled “Beginnings,” Hecht writes: 

“There's not a good poet I know who has not at the beck and call of his memory a vast quantity of poetry that composes his mental library. Sometimes this is undertaken in desperation, as when Osip Mandelstam’s wife committed all his poems to memory in fear that both he and his poems would be destroyed by Stalin. Always, in any case, it is done out of love.” 

The word that cinches it here is not “love” but “good.” The shelves in the mental libraries of most lousy poets are empty, though being well-read and equipped with a capacious memory is no guarantee of being a good poet. That takes a refined ear, a willingness to sweat and a lot more reading. Hecht died on this date, Oct. 20, ten years ago, in 2004, at age eighty-one. David Yezzi is writing his official biography, and the poet’s Selected Letters appeared last year. Most of his poetry can be found in Collected Earlier Poems (1990) and Collected Later Poems (2003). He was the greatest of postwar American poets.

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