Friday, October 20, 2017

`Relapse Supinely into Self-Contemplation'

“Poetry, being normally short, cannot deal with too many lives at once, but at least it can present a variety of characters in different situations and different dramatic circumstances, and not relapse supinely into self-contemplation. That I find irritating.”

Much of Anthony Hecht’s poetry is a critique of solipsism, not in the technical philosophical sense but in the commonplace sense as defined by the OED: “excessive regard for oneself and one’s own interests, to the exclusion of others.” Our public and private lives – and book shelves -- are littered with such people. The passage quoted at the top is from an interview Hecht gave in 1998 in which he praises novelists, almost enviously, for “the amplitude of their imagination.” Some of Hecht’s finest poems are dramatic monologues, in which the speakers are sovereign characters, not mouthpieces for the author. Take the opening lines of “Green: An Epistle” (Millions of Strange Shadows, 1977):

“I write at last of the one forbidden topic
We, by a truce, have never touched upon:
Resentment, malice, hatred so inwrought
With moral inhibitions, so at odds with
The home-movie of yourself as patience, kindness,
And Charlton Heston playing Socrates . . .”

Self-deception is an irredeemably human trait. No one is immune. We forever rationalize and make ourselves look good, at least inside our skulls. In a 1970 letter to L.E. Sissman, Hecht discusses the poem and says: “There is, however, a sense of universal human corruption that is intended to embrace the reader along with everyone else. How can we recognize evil if we are untainted with it ourselves? Who is not tainted with it; and who, in the end, can be a reliable witness?”

Seventeen years later he writes in a letter to another friend, Harry Ford, about “Green: An Epistle”: “It is more precisely about the familiar modes of self-deception that almost everyone employs. It is therefore about illusion or delusions, and it consequently borrows the allegorical myth of Plato’s cave, transformed into a modern movie theater.” The dramatic monologue offers the potential for escape from solipsism and the deformations of character that follow. Consider the title poem in The Transparent Man (1990), spoken by a thirty-year-old woman in the hospital, dying of leukemia. Her thoughts, inevitably, turn inward, but she remains engaged with the world:

“Now all the leaves are down, you can see the spare,
Delicate structures of the sycamores,
The fine articulation of the beeches.
I have sat here for days studying them,
And I have only just begun to see
What it is that they resemble. One by one,
They stand there like magnificent enlargements
Of the vascular system of the human brain.
I see them there like huge discarnate minds,
Lost in their meditative silences.”

The speaker works hard not to bore or offend her visitors. There’s something heroic about her efforts to defy solipsism. I was jolted recently by a remarkably stupid reference to Hecht made by August Kleinzahler in a remembrance of Allen Ginsberg:

“The self-satisfied, conspicuously elegant poet Anthony Hecht, who was much admired in academic circles and the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, visited our high school in 1966—on what was called Careers Day, a day put aside for distinguished alumni to speak to men in the senior classes about their vocations. I was quite definite about wanting to be a poet by the time I was sixteen or so. Mr. Hecht, with his vaguely English elocution (acquired in the Bronx?) was definitely not what I had in mind.”

 You should be so lucky, August.

Hecht died on this date, Oct. 20, in 2004 at age eighty-one.

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