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A Neglected Master in Our Midst: Bill Coyle on Daryl Hine
Posted By Bill Coyle On December 19, 2011 @ 7:38 pm In Reviews,This Month | 2 Comments
Recollected Poems by Daryl Hine. Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 2009. 246 pages.
& by Daryl Hine. Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 2010. 112 pages.
When Daryl Hine’s Recollected Poems was published in 2009 it marked something of a comeback for a poet who in the mid 1990s had turned his back on the publishing industry and begun posting his new poems on a website, through which he also accepted donations. It was hard, at least for those of us who have grown up in a book culture, not to see this as a comedown. A poet’s poet, and an unfashionable on at that, Hine had never been exactly famous, even by poetry standards. Still, he had published for decades with venerable houses like Athenaeum and Knopf, established himself as a leading translator of the classics, spent ten years as editor of Poetry, and, in 1986, been given a MacArthur “genius” grant. Those apologetic quotation marks, by the way, are unwarranted in this case. Daryl Hine is, I believe, a genius. And as Recollected Poems made clear to a new generation of readers, he is one of the most gifted poets alive.
Those gifts manifested themselves at an early age: “Lines on a Platonic Friendship,” the earliest piece included in Recollected Poems, was published when the poet was fourteen. How many fourteen year olds can write lines like these?
Virtue was the sunset creeping in the grass
Or fireworks supplied with paradise;
But surely the day has come and gone,
Like regal chestnuts burning in the ice,
When you could hold my face in the burning-glass
And flash a whole to china through my flesh.
The poet’s sophistication and mastery of verse technique are already evident; as Eliot said of a piece of Tennyson’s juvenilia, “A young man who can write like this has not much to learn about metric.” Hine’s meaning here is obscure, at least to me, but that’s atypical of his early style and likely has as much to do with what he later revealed to be the poem’s subject—his love for another boy—as with his aesthetic tastes. The general drift of the formalist poets who debuted in the fories and fifties—those who didn’t abandon meter and rhyme altogether, was toward greater simplicity—witness the later work of James Merrill, Richard Wilbur and, to a lesser extent, Anthony Hecht. Hine has by and large taken a different route. His early poetry was conspicuously learned, to be sure, but it was often a model of restraint, especially by contrast with what came later:
On the water, far as eye can see,
Monuments to brief felicity:
Churches, prisons, palaces and towers
That waves as unavoidable as hours
Support, indulgent to their brevity.
An architecture, here incredibly,
(where art exists it has no right to be)
Seems to grow—grows, in fact, and flowers
On the water.
Venice raised like Venus from the sea,
As mortal and as mythical as she,
(The sea divulges and the sea devours),
Poses in her emblems and her powers,
With beauty’s price and her futility,
On the water.
(“On the Water”)
There is another, more extravagant side to Hine’s poetry, and since the early seventies, at least, it’s this style, fireworks firing, amp-turned-up-to-eleven, that has come to predominate. The poems in this style are by no means uniformly successful (more about that in a minute), but they resemble no other poet, living or dead. And when they do work, they’re thrilling:
Anatomy of a mistake,
The structure of affairs is uniform,
Part of the pathological mystique
To which romantic accidents conform.
Infatuation’s formidable physique
And infant physiognomy confirm
The pattern of attraction, one unique
To fantasy’s Elysium.
Thus enfranchised of that funny farm,
Unfortunate affection seems a freak
Of feeling, the inevitable form
That fatal fascination had to take.
How often out of nightmare do we wake
Beside the one whom we were fleeing from?
(“Arrondissements: VIII” )
How many Creative Writing principles does this one poem—this one, fairly characteristic section of a much longer poem—violate? It tells rather than shows. The form is about as far from invisible as one can get—if it were any more prominent, it would eclipse the content. Yet it works—in part because the trapeze act that the poet performs in moving from rhyme to rhyme is so brilliantly executed, in part because the language, if abstract, is so information rich it’s practically giving off sparks. Last and not least, it works because Hine knows when to leave off the abstractions and move, in the last two lines, to the poem’s one concrete, heartbreaking image. Hine is sometimes classified as a Gay poet, but to my mind he is simply one of the best poets of Eros and of the wonder, touched with fear that it can provoke:
Smoothed by sleep and ruffled by your dreams
The surface of the little lake
Fed by unconscious tributary streams,
Unbroken by the breezes nightmares make,
Like your face looks fathomless and seems
Bottomless till light or noises wake.
You move and murmur and almost awake.
I admire but do not wish to enter,
Like any wanderer beside
Moonlit water in midwinter
Who as a simulacrum for the tide
Casting a pebble into the calm centre
Watches the circles spread from side to side.
I wait for you and morning at your side.
Such sources feed the mirror of your mind,
I dare not touch the surface of your sleep.
But to love by ignorance resigned,
Infatuated guardian, I keep
Watch beside a fountain where I find
No image, for images too deep,
Above your breathing regular and deep.
This deserves a place in any selection of modern love poetry in English. As a technical aside, note the exact rhymes, or rime riche, that conclude each stanza. Guides to versification routinely class this type of rhyme (much valued in French) as unsatisfying or clunky in English. Here the effect is subtle and perfect.
And Hine is equally good—perhaps even better—at depicting the disillusioned self-knowledge with which the lover is left when the god and his avatar have departed:
Time the pathetic arms were laid aside
That have proved so ineffectual,
Patience, courage, kindness, prudence, pride,
All obsolete before the secret, sexual
Weapons you had on your side,
Those whiles whereby intellectual
Defeat was deified,
As over all the ravaged countryside
Memory imposes fare and wide
The desolation of the actual.
This last passage is so well turned that it’s possible to miss the risks Hine runs. In a poem of such serious sadness, he really shouldn’t be able to get away with those trisyllabic rhymes—particularly not intellectual, not when Byron’s hen-pecked you all springs so readily to mind. When Hine is writing at his best, though, it’s as if the limitations that English imposes on most writers—its linguistic cosmological constants—are suspended. If these were physical, as opposed to verbal, objects, they would fall up in the presence of a gravitational field, or move faster than the speed of light.
And Hine’s accomplishment extends beyond the short lyric. His two long autobiographical poems from the 1980s, In and Out and Academic Festival Overtures (both now out of print) are among the most readable long poems from a decade that saw the publication of James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover and Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate. What’s more, in each of these poems, Hine broke new ground in terms of English verse technique—no easy thing to do at this point. In and Out is written in unrhymed running anapestic trimeter, Academic Festival Overtures in rhymed syllabics, Alexandrines to be precise. These would be mere historical curiosities, displays of endurance and erudition, if Hine hadn’t managed in both cases to marry a plausible speaking voice to emotionally charged subject matter: In the first case his years in grammar school in British Columbia, when he first became aware of his homosexuality, in the second of his ill-fated attempt, while attending McGill, to escape his sexuality by joining the Catholic church.
I looked forward, then, to &: A Serial Poem, Hine’s new book-length work. Though perhaps I should have been alerted by the faintly sinister ring to the term “serial” poem: it sounds as if the poet were a madman who had to be stopped before he wrote again. And really, if you were trying to have Hine committed for graphomania, & would be your smoking gun. Unconstrained by the narrative structures that characterized his earlier long poems, and without anything particularly startling to say or very much concrete to report, Hine puts all his trust in his wit and metrical facility, with results like the following:
Reexamined, the inestimable present
The present intended presently to present
As if some unpresentable presence had sent
It, suggests an expensive yet unpleasant
Putrescent scent together with omnipresent
Emptiness, no content to content
With; when opened there is nothing in it
Except repentance, which prevents all pleasant
Second guesses, wherever the sentiment
Went whose absence is measured by the minute.
The passage of time and the near impossibility of being content with what one has when one actually has it is still a valid topic, of course, but it’s hard to see how the above adds anything to what each of us already knows too well, or helps us to face that knowledge more fully. Or this:
There are certain things which one would rather have done
Than have to do, & not a few that you would be glad to have not,
Not only in foolish foresight but in futile afterthought,
Marathons anyone else might have liked to have run
You would hate to run; laurels effortlessly won
Will be forgotten, unlike the failures one never forgot.
The perfect future remains unfinished because
No future perfect undertakings will have been begun.
What one ought not to have done eclipses all that one ought.
Regret is merely envy of a self that never was.
The chain of reasoning is easy enough to follow, and the sense easy enough to paraphrase—provided one takes the time to actually read the words, rather than letting oneself be batted from rhyme to rhyme like a pinball. There’s tremendous linguistic energy on display here, and, indeed, throughout the poem, but it’s typically out of proportion, almost, at times, in inverse proportion, to what he is trying to say. It’s difficult to convey, and I feel a bit churlish for trying to convey, how numbing this is in the long run. Read in isolation, many stanzas, even the two above, charm and impress with their sheer brio (brio, like sprezzatura, pops up often in reviews of Hine’s work, the reviewers, in extremity, having resorted to Italian). Even now, after two disappointed readings, if I dip into the book at random, I’m immediately swept up, carried along from line to line, stanza to stanza. It doesn’t last, though. After seven consecutive stanzas (this appears to be my limit, your own may be higher or lower), all that lightness comes to feel positively leaden.
There are reminders throughout & of just how entertaining, and how funny, a poet Hine can be: “As air is the heir of the air, the sun is the son / Of the sun”… “You scan the rhyme scheme, marginally impressed / Waiting for the other foot to drop”…” in this hotel (nor are we out of it)”… “Theogony & the ecstacy”… “The shy, crescent shaped, and not quite unsung young moon…” And on and on. Granted, that pun on the name of the founder of the Unification Church is utterly irrelevant, but all of these are tremendous fun, and the first combines wit and profundity in a way that would do Shakespeare proud. (Genius he may be, learned he indisputably is, but there’s no pun that’s too low for Hine, and it’s one of the things I like about him. His poem “Total Immersion” begins, “Believe in it? I’ve seen it!” lifting the punch line from my favorite Baptist joke ever.)
Here and there, the barest outlines of a plot reveal themselves. The poet is suffering from depression and writer’s block, both related to age and to the waning of an erotic life that by his own account provided the inspiration and sustaining energy for his earlier poetry. He has lost the love of his life, (“Sam,” one of the &’s two dedicatees, the philosopher Samuel Todes) and is living at some distance from his new love (and the poem’s other dedicatee, the resonantly named “Will”). The poet does little but try, often unsuccessfully, to sleep, and, when awake, contemplate the passage of time and the workings of his own mind and heart, workings that turn out to be, at least in the expression they are given here, far less interesting than I’d expected.
As for the world outside the poet’s mind, it exists not to be illuminated, described or memorialized, but as scrap paper to be scribbled on:
Bright before my eyes, a surprise white-out
Amid winter light outside, in the glary glow
& pallid penumbra of the purblind snow
Draws a blank after a white night out
On the inner passage. Why not light out
For the territory where no frozen rivers flow,
A country of precognitive conditions,
Absolutely nowhere, out of sight, out
This window, where suicidal blizzards blow
& space & time exist as superstitions.
Some readers may find this a provocative blurring of inner and outer weather. I find it numbing. The world is transformed, not into memorable speech, but into an indistinguishable, and ultimately undistinguished, haze. Hine provided what seems in retrospect like a justification for this approach in his introduction to Recollected Poems,
For me a poem is more or less than an emotional effusion or a vehicle of opinion, let alone information, a verbal object capable of giving a specific kind of aesthetic pleasure in itself. As such it like a painting or a sculpture, more than merely representational, yet employing at times the fictional device of representation. At the same time I deplore the strenuous efforts of some poets to reproduce a visual effect, since that is not what language is best suited to. Language mirrors language or thought (are not the two synonymous?) rather than physical phenomena.
If he doesn’t quite deny the link between word and world here, his recent practice, as exemplified in &, suggests that link has become tenuous indeed. It’s difficult to see how he can go much further in this direction and still make sense. In an essay review of Recollected Poems, Eric Ormsby noted perceptively—and approvingly—that “At certain moments, in reading [Hine], one has the startled sense that language has arrived at a kind of impasse which only a quick scintillation of wit—in the form of a sly rhyme, a subtle pun or an extravagant rhetorical flourish—can grace, if not elude.” This is a fine description of what happens in the best that Hine writes in his more extravagant mode—the section quoted earlier from “Arrondissements” is a case in point—but it applies equally well to the worst.
And I pray that &, fascinating though it is in some ways, is the worst. All too often Hine falls into the trap of writing poems that are too clever by half, and far too obviously at the mercy of their own formal strictures. The most imposing example of this, prior to &, is “Vowel Movements,” from the 1975 collection Resident Alien (1975), mercifully retitled “Yucatan” on its inclusion in Recollected Poems. In thirteen twelve line stanzas, all but the last of which assonates on a single vowel sound, and the last of which combines the first lines of each of the preceding stanzas, the poet muses on, well, everything under the sun:
If civilization isn’t a silly gimmick,
Is it the wit to wish, the will to make it stick?
The mathematical vision which built this system
Figures the width of a minute within an inch.
Primitive physics, a sophisticated fiction,
Insists that in principle everything is fixed.
Visitors picnic amid pretty Chichèn Itzá
With its sacrificial pit, artificial hills
And cricket pitch wherein the winner is the victim.
To think an instinct like iniquity exists!
Hidden riches fill big individual middens;
In the Wizard’s Pyramid little lizards live.
This sort of thing can be fun in small doses, but over the course of 156 lines, it’s maddening. More than thirty years ago, John Hollander argued that that “Hine’s virtuosity is such that it knows where to leave off, as well as where to overwhelm.” Hollander, genius and polymath that he is, really isn’t the best judge of this, though. He was right when he characterized “Vowel Movements” as “brilliant,” but wrong in thinking this meant the same thing as “successful.” A more realistic view, or at least one more in line with the experience of the elusive common reader, was taken around the same time by Mary Kinzie, who, in the course of a positive review, warned of “a virtuoso stubborn streak in Hine that will bind him to the completion of a project more engaging, perhaps, in the conception than in the execution.”
Which is putting it charitably. Here are the first three stanzas of “Lector Difficilior” an ABCderian poem. Each letter of the alphabet is represented by a four line stanza, each line of which begins with the appropriate letter. The first, second and fourth lines of each stanza rhyme with each other in the conventional sense (cell /spell / farewell), while the third line rhymes with the others, but on an unstressed syllable (gospel). Ready? Go:
As celibate and selfish as a cell,
Artless, heartless euphemisms spell
An Apocryphal synoptic gospel,
Autumn’s allegorical farewell.
But what’s a body meant to make of this
Bleep interpolated in a kiss?
By emending arsis into thesis
Bliss teeters on the verge of the abyss.
Coming attractions: pandemonium
Cavorts upon the private screen, but some
Characters, while capable and handsome,
Cannot by magic be compelled to come.
There are two quatrains devoted to the letter K, by the way. Maybe these encode the initials of the poem’s addressee? (K.K. Downing, co-lead guitarist for Judas Priest? It seems unlikely, somehow…) Or maybe Hine simply couldn’t stop. “A poem,” said William Carlos Williams, “is a small (or large) machine made of words.” “Lectio Difficilior” is poem as Rube Goldberg machine—a lot of clinking and clanking of the very elaborate gears, and at the end we get
Zero gravity: the zippy pen
Zig-zags down the page from now to then,
Zapping hermeneutic systems open.
Zen masters zanily begin, “Amen.”
Now, there’s nothing wrong with a poet sitting down to write an ABCderian poem, a sestina, a villanelle, a sonnet, or any other form (though to hear some poets talk, including some so-called formalists, you’d think that this degree of calculation is inimical to inspiration). And certainly the current demand that even the most demanding form be invisible, or rather inaudible, has been taken to an extreme. What puzzles me is not so much that Hine would include poems like “Lector Dificilio” and “Yucatan” in Recollected Poems—though they’re far from his best work—but that he would do so while at the same time omitting a piece like “Coma Berenices”—a piece that was included, incidentally, in his Selected Poems of 1981, and which Kinzie, in her review of that volume, singled out for praise. Here are the final two strophes:
Faint spark, you were a part once of the darkness,
About to be absorbed into the sun
Shining in intolerable witness
As landmark of love’s perihelion;
As my passion for you glows and crumbles,
A fading coal that used to be a flame,
A nightmare neither one can alter,
Nor, even if we wanted to, relive,
Remoter every parsec, out of range
Before you disappear,
You leave me little to forgive
Beyond the familiar’s becoming strange,
Everything that seemed quite near, or dear,
Reduced to the status of a souvenir.
That love of which you were the incarnation,
Which could not even really spell its name,
Idle, illiterate and infantile,
Still, in the sky of my imagination,
Burns with an unmitigated flair,
Like a lock of Berenice’s hair.
This gives every indication of having been prompted by a particular occasion and deeply felt emotion. Whether that’s actually the case or not is beside the point. At least in this reader’s experience of “Coma Berenices,” that sense of occasion, and those feelings of thwarted longing and nostalgia are very real. I think it is a great poem, one in which the commonest of experiences is illuminated by the twin lights of classical learning and modern astronomy and given inspired expression. “Lector Dificilio” alas, seems inspired by little more than the poet’s realization that he has yet to write a ABCderian poem. The editorial decision to include the latter and omit the former—and the back cover of Recollected Poems tells us that the selection is Hine’s own—together with the fascinating disaster that is &, only serves to confirm my suspicion that the poet has increasingly come to mistake his weaknesses for strengths.
If I seem to have spent an inordinate amount of time on Hine’s failures of taste in what I ultimately mean to be a commendatory review, it is not out of some oedipal need to diminish a poet I deeply admire. Too many times, I have had the experience of recommending Hine’s work to readers essentially in tune with his esthetic, only to have them report back that they find him remote, cold, mandarin to the point of unreadability. In distinguishing between those poems of his that contain an embarrassment of riches and those that are so rich as to be indigestible, then, I’m not so much trying to establish a Hine canon as assure new readers that such distinctions can profitably be made. My own favorites, in addition to those noted above, include “Don Juan in Amsterdam,” “Copied in Camoes” “Patroclus Putting on the Armour of Achilles,” “Letting Go” and “A Conceit,” poems that have moved and impressed me in equal measure.
Because honestly, Hine is able to work miracles. Recollected Poems concludes with imitations of parts of Ovid’s Tristia that Hine has cast entirely—and I would have thought foolhardily—in rime riche couplets, even, at one point, rhyming Narcissi with sissy. Damned if he doesn’t make this work, though:
What less than exile that an exile bears:
Here the Getes like their remote forebears
Brew beer, and god knows what outlandish tribes
Besides; from here I mail my diatribes
To all and sundry, and ferment a sour wine
Where marshy mosquitos also dine and whine…
In this hell-hole to be inexplicably called Costanza
Where I compose any old elegiac stanza,
Taking interest if not delight in all I saw,
Incorporating many an ancient saw,
Like, “You may drive out Nature with a dung-fork, but
She will bounce back to kick you in the butt
(IV, xix: Ad Flaccum)
Because Daryl Hine is one of the best poets writing in English, one who deserves to be more widely read, studied and (by those forewarned of the dangers) assimilated. The lack of substantive criticism of his work is almost certainly due to the fact that each sympathetic critic who comes along—Hollander, Ormsby—feels duty-bound to make the case for the poet afresh, with just enough space left over for those so inclined—Kinzie, or more recently Jason Guriel—to distinguish between Hine’s best work and those places where his genius, to revise Hollander, doesn’t know where to leave off. There ought to be a volume of sympathetic essays devoted to his work, but at this stage there simply isn’t enough variety of opinion or focus to make such a volume worthwhile. There ought to be at least one book length critical study of the poetry and translations, but given the poet’s current neglect by the academy, who would buy it?
In this context we should be especially grateful to the Canadian publishers Fitzhenry and Whiteside for bringing out Recollected Poems and, for all its faults, &. Reading the former book, in particular, brought back fond memories of the first time, more than twenty years ago, that I first encountered Hine’s work, in the essay review by John Hollander that I referenced earlier. I’ll close here with one of the examples that Hollander quoted, “Memo to Gongora,” because this poem to Hine’s great Spanish predecessor still takes my breath away, as it did then, with its sheer panache, and with its vision, and its particular realization, of the possibilities of poetry:
To your language if not your native land,
Which is a tongue when all is said
That’s done, perverse, gold, standard, and
Curiously conservative, as dead
As anything Amerigo invented,
I pilgrim with my accents in my hand
And your conceits unequalled in my head
Through volumes of rock and canticles of sand.
Like paradise, you are a promised land
Aflow with ilk and money, brine and wed-
lock, secrets that like circumstances stand
Unalterable, maps to be misread.
Were we translated here and now, instead
Of reading we might understand.
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