Hecht, Wright, Simic
As from some attic of my youth
I gaze out at the distances
That contrast renders almost white,
Like frocks of garden-party girls
I once knew or desired to know
from "A Love for Four Voices"
That last line does what meter's meant to do, which is to say play the pattern of stress that defines the line against the pattern of speech, which is a different thing. The line is itself, and may be told to be such by the preceding and subsequent lines, to be perfect iambic tetrameter: I ONCE knew OR deSIRED to KNOW. But of course that doesn't sound right. I ONCE KNEW or deSIRED to KNOW more closely matches the typical emphasis a speaker will lend the words. So this tension between the colloquial and the stress pattern (I'm parroting a bit what's been going on in class this past week) is what energizes the language as poetry & not prose.
Hecht in a larger sense is a valuable poet to read for the way he melds tradition with modern subjects and conditions. "Humoresque," also from The Transparent Man, is a fine example of this:
From sewage lines, man-holes, from fitted brass
Sphincters and piston chambers, from the dark
Gastro-intestinal corridors of hell,
Deep among wheels and oil underbellies
Of Wagon Lits emerge these screeching ghosts,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,
Erupting here and there in baggy forms
That cloud, occlude and spirit away the luggage...
That suspension of the subject, which produces the initial (and further ups with each successive syllable) tension, plus the metrical verve and linguistic invention ("brass sphincters"? Let's hear some deafening applause, eh?) are Hecht's great goods. I have a notion that his work can be made to stand as a sort of Colossus-ish forebear to the post-postmodern urge in poetry, taking as proof this poem in addition to "The Transparent Man," the title poem in that volume. That poem is in the most immediate sense an elderly, ill woman's deathbed monologue to a friend of hers. One of the chief aspects of the poem is the woman's reflection that the bare trees outside her window are "like magnificent enlargements / Of the vascular system of the human brain." Lots of excurses and narrative detail follows; it's quite lovely and sad. Then after 25-30 lines there's this: "But this last week it seems I have found myself / Looking beyond, or through, individual trees / At the dense clustered woodland just behind them." The clarity of Hecht's diction & idea equals a clarity of sentiment: a tree becomes figured as an isolated singular consciousness, and the references to a "clustered woodland just beyond" applies to the idea of a larger unity toward which the speaker, she realizes, is heading. Now. These means are not modernistic, but the end result appears to be. The means by which the poem introduces and develops the figure of the trees employs formalism & traditional homage but is not merely formal, is not merely tradition applied to the latter 20th Century. This introduction and development is a particular brand of figura that, as it is couched within a consistent narrative voice, roots the poem in the notion of the speaker's mortality, but which hems and haws and makes an apparent mess in the way that the mere figura poem typically won't. The speaker thanks the addressee by poem's end for letting her "rattle on this way," but she's hardly been doing so - she's inadvertantly (and Hecht has very very vertantly) run a thread through the poem's expansive (& otherwise diffuse) monologue. So Hecht here directs both the energy and potential of formalism & of the coherent narrative voice and the techniques of image-jumping to postmodernishly leap from the figure of the trees-as-mind to the speaker's dim epiphany of the greater world/mind she'll be joining soon. This combination of leaps in subject and a trustworthy, narrative voice is something new. It's not modern: the end meaning is clear but the means are not modernism's. It's not post-modern: the meaning and the means are both far too organized and accessible to be so. And it's not formalism/traditionalism - a sort of 20th Century "My Last Duchess" - although formal elements certainly are going happening & well: there's too much of an, I don't know, expansive quality to the monologue to count. (This is probably the most indictable thing I'll write tonight.) It constitutes, I think, a proto post-postmodern approach to composition and meaning.
This quality of Hecht's voice is absent from James Wright in The Branch Will Not Break, and from Charles Simic's Dismantling the Silence. They are, however, accomplishing something similar with jumps between images. This is the whole tack of the Deep Image poets - allowing metaphor to work in its most elemental form. Here's "The Jewel" by Wright:
There is this cave
In the air behind my body
That nobody is going to touch:
A cloister, a silence
Closing around a blossom of fire.
When I stand upright in the wind,
My bones turn to dark emeralds.
That's it. And there's a lot there. Here's Simic's "A Thousand Years With Solitude":
When it stops snowing
Our homes rise
High above the earth
Into that soundless space
Where neither the bark of a dog
Nor the cry of a bird reaches.
We are like the ancient seamen:
Our bodies are the ocean
And the silence is the boat
God has provided
For our long and unknown journey.
These are fine, fine poems. They're little geodes in which you can see metaphor shining at its most simple and unchanging. "My bones turn to dark emeralds" and "Our bodies are the ocean", fine and vivid lines, are the sparks that arc from the poem to the reader and give her a zap of insight. And I don't mean to imply in my gracious-a-little-too-gracious lead-in to these poems that such zaps and pleasures are too minor - the zaps are real. Still, I have to confess a suspicion that while the poems achieve genuine statement, and even may be said to convey Wright's and Simic's voice, the oomph each poem packs is going to be small and passing, perhaps because the poems are so short, perhaps because the zaps are solitary. (Billy Collins, I believe in the poem "Haiku," refers to one such poem he's been rereading as like "one small, perfect grape I eat again and again. That's nice, and that's true.) The lack of excess is admirable, but it's also a hand that turns down the volume to a background level. Under my own metaphor, I should say, "Well listen harder, Mack!" Well, yes. And I do so listen, and will continue to so listen - I love these poems. I only mean to chart the ways in which they function and the ways in which they do not: there is a much louder, longer song on the radio if you find the right frequency - it uses some of the same instruments, but more than those, and it's longer than "Sister Ray" and "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" and "Night Falls on Hoboken", and it whispers, soars, and enacts further verbs too; it is not Miltonicly wedded to indexing a whole culture, it might not be epic, but it's big, very big, and gorgeous a la Sigur Ros: every song a history of hues and shades, lulls and peaks, coming through the static but using the static too.