Sunday, March 11, 2018

`A Literary Mount Rushmore'

I have never seen a copy of Aesopic, subtitled Twenty Four Couplets by Anthony Hecht to Accompany the Thomas Bewick Wood Engravings for Select Fables with an afterword on the blocks by Philip Hofer. It was published by the Gehenna Press in an edition of five-hundred in 1967 and today sells for as much as $960. To my knowledge Hecht never reprinted its contents, though in The Hard Hours (1968) he includes a suite of nine couplets titled “Improvisations on Aesop.” The editor of The Selected Letters of Anthony Hecht (2013), Jonathan F.S. Post, quotes one of the Aesopic couplets, “The Nightingale,” in a footnote to the letter Hecht wrote to Ashley Brown on April 18, 1978:

“What is it to be free? The unconfined
Lose purpose, strength, and at the last, the mind.”

Brown had used the lines as an epigraph to his essay “The Poetry of Anthony Hecht,” published that year in Ploughshares.  In his letter, Hecht relates “The Nightingale” to his frequent allusions to King Lear. His poems and Shakespeare play, he writes, “both touch on not so much madness as the fear of madness.” Hecht had his own Johnsonian anxieties about his sanity, but the couplet also suggests something about the composition of poetry and, by implication, all the arts. An “unconfined” poem is likely to be self-indulgent, flabby, atonal and dull – that is, like most contemporary poetry. An artist needs something to press against; namely, form. The best poets press hard and avoid tedium by devising unexpected variations in their formal patterns.

In a letter written two months earlier, Hecht replied to John Benson, who had lettered the word AESOPIC (OED: “of, relating to, or characteristic of Aesop, a semi-legendary Greek fabulist of the 6th cent. b.c.”) on the title page. Benson had asked whether Hecht would “consider writing lapidary inscription for a `group of standing stones.’” Hecht says he finds Benson’s letter “flattering and bewildering,” adding, “After all it isn’t every day I’m invited to become part of a literary Mount Rushmore, or given the promise of such marmoreal perpetuity.” Hecht treats the offer with politely ironic detachment, noting that such engraved texts – “the pious platitudes on post offices and court houses, or else the mortuary inscriptions `That teach the rustic moralist to die’” – generally adhere to the “convention of their sentiments.” Hecht might have cited Dr. Johnson in the Life: “In lapidary inscriptions a man is not upon oath."

Hecht here reminds me of my involvement a decade ago with an American poet who died a few years back. Let me explain. He was renowned for drunken, online tantrums which often, in a morbid sort of way, were more interesting than his poems. I received several of his overheated emails, written in varying states of coherence. All smelled of Smirnoff’s. In his final collection, The Darkness and the Light (2001), Hecht included a two-part poem titled “Lapidary Inscription with Explanatory Note.” Here is the first part:

“There was for him no more perfect epitaph
Than this from Shakespeare: `Nothing in his life
Became him like his leaving it.’ All those
Who knew him wished the son of a bitch in hell,
Despised his fawning sycophancy, smug
Self-satisfaction, posturing ways and pig-
Faced beady little eyes, his trite
Mind, and attested qualities of a shit,
And felt the world immeasurably improved
Right from the very moment that he left it.”        

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