Unheard: Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry
To my knowledge, there are few scholarly articles written on his poetry in Europe. The article I published in 1999 may serve as bona fide proof of my past albeit short interest in his work as a poet. However, reading his critical essays today is an appalling experience. Melodies Unheard: Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry seriously undermines whatever interest I may have had in Anthony Hecht's poems. The recognition that the practice of poetry has theoretical implications inscribed in the materiality of the poem has led me to wonder to what extent the theoretical models mobilized by Anthony Hecht's reading of other poets also underwrite his practice of poetry. Indeed, underlying his critical discourse are an essentialist epistemology, a theory of values, and a conception of the poetical self, which I find indefensible.
The innocent reader who may happen on Melodies Unheard: Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry in a Barnes and Noble's should know that this is not the primer in poetry it purports to be. Back cover claims to sublime writings from Mark Strand, Richard Wilbur and Stephen Yenser are meant to confirm the glorious status of this new handsome-looking volume. They are included in the web reviews of the book and they performatively turn a backhanded compliment from The New York Times ("Melodies Unheard is a defense of rhyme and meter by a poet who has long stood his ground against modernity.—Dinitia Smith") into a positive statement. Anthony Hecht's resistance to modernity is a proof of his enduring quality and genius. In contrast, I will put Melodies Unheard, Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry in a different perspective, that of a well-known conversation with Gertrude Stein in which she elaborated on disruptive, heterodox artworks whose relevance to their time was their raison d'être.
In the field of criticism Melodies Unheard: Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry is such a schizochronic piece that puts the reader in a horse-and-buggy time. It is nostalgic and sentimental. What I see as its damning flaw is that it overlooks or ignores the most valuable artistic and conceptual contributions over the last century in and outside the U.S. Anthony Hecht's "resistance" is too virtuous a term for a less worthy voluntary disregard for or blindness to the evolutions of the twentieth century. My point here is not to guess whether this disregard for XXth century criticism stems from a refusal to grow with one's time, from a narcissistic concern with one's self, or from lavish praise bestowed too early and too long in a career. I will keep away from the word reactionary just now. The use of such ideologically loaded terms as reaction versus progress usually sidetracks into ascribing desirable and undesirable political values to critical and aesthetic stakes. That is why I chose Gertrude Stein's comments that art is art when it renews past art to make it clear that criticism is akin to art in that they share the same concern for renewal. This pointedly encompasses an awareness of critical and poetical lineages. It does not promote their ignorance. However, the fact that criticism also belongs in an epistemological context means that the job of literary criticism is to help account for the contemporary relevance of works of art. Each period has specific ways of receiving and accounting for works of art. Seen in our present-day light, Anthony Hecht's "resistance" covers up a methodological inability to explain works of art with the theoretical tools of his time. The present review will account for the methodological flaws, which seriously invalidate the scholarly value of this book.
First, Melodies Unheard: Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry does not deem it necessary to learn from other critics' readings of the works under scrutiny unlike scholarly research, which makes a point of keeping up with new developments in the field. Very few references to scholarly works are made in 304 pages. Footnotes are conspicuously rare. No bibliography and no index are included. Anthony Hecht does not claim any indebtedness to critics or theoreticians only to peer souls, "Donne and Herbert" or "Hopkins" [p.15]. He at times mentions conversations with colleagues. He gracefully thanks one who confirms his "feelings" and mocks the other for her meretricious "careful scholarship" [p. 280]. This is about the sum total of his "old-fashioned technique, or craftsmanship" [p. 15]. This anti-professional stance is either a proof of blatant narcissism, Anthony Hecht candidly admitting to reading insulated from other scholars, or a proof that his book is not meant for scholarly use but rather aims for the pretty coffee table, which is indeed one of the social functions of any book.
The consequence is that whenever analysis is neither cumulative nor other-oriented, the critic ends up looking at himself reading poetry. This is the case when Anthony Hecht looks at himself reading Shakespeare and the Sonnet, The Sonnet: Ruminations of Form, Sex, and History, Sidney and the Sestina, Henry Noel Gaze Not on Swans, A.E. Housman, G.M. Hopkins The Wreck of the Deutschland, Robert Frost The Wood-Pile, Elizabeth Bishop The Man-Moth, Wading at Wellfleet, Richard Wilbur, Yehuda Amichai, Charles Simic, Seamus Heaney. The alternative posture is that of the critic looking at himself re-reading what he once wrote a long time ago about WH Auden, Melville's Moby-Dick, St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians. Another version is that of the critic looking at himself lecturing On Rhyme and The Music of Form. Such a "mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest reader of us all?" posture is not appropriate to scholarship.
A third point is that Antony Hecht refuses to draw the line between the reader as critical category and the reader as the individual, idiosyncratic Anthony Hecht. He does not aim towards analysis, he generalizes from his own feelings and the ones he projects onto poems. One example should suffice to show how Anthony Hecht slips from "readers" to "we" then to "I." The question asked is, who reads Shakespeare's Sonnets ?
I hesitate between ascribing this to a severe case of pathetic fallacy or to a college sophomore's inability to distance himself from personal experience in order to reach the required level of analytic reading. Does one need to say that The Sonnets do not have any transparent atemporal "truth content," that a poem is not a masterpiece because it expresses a "human experience" ("Something of the deep risk of all mortal attachments is expressed" [p. 28], or that contextualizing poetical works does not mean telling the story of "poor Elizabeth Bishop's unhappy childhood" [p. 34]? It hardly need be said that Coleridge's and T. S. Eliot's are duly quoted ("the poet has, not a 'personality' to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality" [p. 33]) but Anthony Hecht still positions himself against and prior to the Modernist creed of impersonality.
Pinpointing the implicit theoretical model that underwrites such statements is going to read like a crash course in Am Lit and Poetics since the 1950s. The lyrical voice is systematically compared to the human voice and is considered transparent and non-mediated. Poetry is defined as unrestrained self-expression ("the immediate and spontaneous overflow of strong emotions" [p. 53]) and the poem is said to translate consciousness and emotions into words. As for the poet, one may expect him to be recollecting somewhere in tranquility and hoping for the grace of accuracy:
The Romantic claim for the lyricized self's universality, the neo-Romantic concern for originality and invention, the fantasy of emotional transfer through the poem, the view of poetry as the locus of an emotional build-up, the ideology of expressivist emotion and motivated signs, the metaphysics of presence have not been questioned. No awareness of the illusory surface of texts leads to a debunking of the process of affective projection and identification. And the notions that writing is a self-differential act of representation, that consciousness is textualized or that the poet's presence is a metaphysical assumption have not registered yet. This results in such unfortunate statements:
Anthony Hecht often mentions New Criticism with nostalgia but New Critics would never have confused characters with persons, the poetic voice with the poet's voice. As for the reader's task, one may wonder if the word analyze has not been forgotten in this threesome, "read, evaluate, enjoy" [p. 50].
Such a discourse in bondage to such discredited modes of analysis found a publisher nonetheless. Since Anthony Hecht mentions what he considers to be his dismally ignorant classes, I can't help thinking of my own students who eagerly learn in first year that there is a difference between spontaneous enjoyment when reading and the kind of scholarly reading which Roland Barthes called "une lecture lettrée." The literary reader's craft was long ago clarified by Stanley Fish's 1970 landmark article, Literature in the Reader: Affective Stylistics. I mention him of course because Anthony Hecht is also an admirer of George Herbert. The same choice of favorite authors need not result in the same critical discourse :
The fourth issue is that of the literary canon and the conventional format of lineated poetry propounded by Melodies Unheard: Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry. Anthony Hecht selects a pantheon of masterpieces and sets up a reading list of worthwhile poems. He knows "Which poets shall live" (Rothenberg). Hence, the constant hierarchical value judgments made about "the best" poems enshrined in a Hall of Fame. Whole movements are expectedly left out. A reader trusting to Anthony Hecht's choice for a general survey of poetry would be left in total ignorance of the Modernist poets (save T.S Eliot, e e cummings mentioned once in passing [p. 257], Marianne Moore [p. 271], William Carlos Williams [p. 292]; in total ignorance of the Objectivist tradition (Charles Reznikoff, Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Lorine Niedecker, Basil Bunting); in total ignorance of "Language" poets or of contemporary innovative poetry (sound poetry, visual poetry, concrete poetry etc.). One might vainly peruse the essays looking for the names of poets like David Antin, Charles Bernstein, Susan Howe, Bob Perelman, Ron Silliman, Black-Mountain poets like Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan or Charles Olson. Naturally, the selection claims to be representative of the poet's personal tastes but his limited perspective proves self-limiting. It bears on the way his beloved poets are read. Two examples might suffice.
To begin with, The Sonnet: Ruminations on Form, Sex, and History and Sidney and the Sestina wonder about the form of the sonnet and that of the sestina [pp. 51-85] and present them as "surviving" forms, resilient but unjustly forgotten heirlooms in the repository of past "received forms" [p. 296]. Resisting oblivion is therefore the posture of the critic as self-appointed archivist or savior of relics, in the words of Jerome Rothenberg, the "critic as Covering Angel" and "Exterminating Angel." But such an outmoded Defense of Poetry does not look into the existing alternative ways of relating to fixed forms and formality. In contrast, reading other poets outside Anthony Hecht's genteel tradition helps one discover poets who discard external modes of discrimination (cadence and rhyme) and opt for a controlled manipulation of form. They do not define the poem as the psychological exploration of the self in the world but redefine it in terms of formal choices. Not only has poetry ceased to be the genre of individualistic self-centeredness and self-expressivity, but fixed forms have also been challenged and revisited by an awareness of the larger range of possibilities opened by formality. If one conceives poetry as "an invention of form" (Hejinian, 301) rather than as an "exercise of formalities," a "filling out of forms," relic or fixture, one opens up the poem to constraints in language. Poetry is no longer a programmatic form but a language construct. Sonnets, sestinas or even "double dactyls" [p. 275] are presented by Anthony Hecht as part of an almost dead lineage preserved by the heroically true, faithful believer. This need not be so. Other creative poets offer an alternative perspective when they see formality, constraint or procedure as part of an Unending Design (Joseph M. Conte) in contemporary aesthetics. Turning away from poetry as a programmatic form and opting for poetry as an activity, a process or a compositional construct guides the reader towards the constraint, which generates content rather than merely contains it. This incidentally confirms an understanding of the poet as "a desire to create the subject by saying" (Hejinian, 55). And judging from contemporary creations by artists like George Perec, John Cage, Lyn Hejinian, Jackson Mac Low or Jerome Rothenberg, formal creations are anything but dead.
The other example is that of a passing comment made about Elizabeth Bishop's works :
Why should "The Key Of Water," "Along Galeana Street," "The Grove," "January First," "Objects and Apparitions 'translated from Octavio Paz'" be excluded from the Complete Poems without explanation while Elizabeth Bishop herself insisted on including them in her book? I would argue that this exclusion results from the same conservative model of poetry as the original expression of subjective feelings and of style and images as the marker of individual genius. What this exclusion seals off is a whole body of twentieth century artistic creations, which span from Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, George Braque, to Joseph Cornell, Robert Smithson, Jerome Rothenberg and Rosemarie Waldrop. They all address art as appropriation in some way or other. A conservative view of poetry neglects the fruitful genre of found poetry or found art, of recycling as an art form. They are in Elizabeth Bishop's own terms:
She referred to Joseph Cornell's boxes but her lines encompass appropriating a textual heritage or a palimptext in the words of Michael Davidson. Appropriating past writing has been part of the modernist and post-modernist textual strategies so that "inter-glossing" is not limited to a quaint Montaigne quotation. Good poets do steal. But this aspect of Elizabeth Bishop's creation is swiftly overlooked by an act of "exclusionary criticism" (Rothenberg) at the expense of the very poet Anthony Hecht wishes to promote. So, Anthony Hecht may well claim, "I see poetic gifts of a very high order passed by and neglected while other poets no more than unclothed emperors, are widely honored for their fine tailoring and natty style,” his self-serving critical agenda turns out to be a self-defeating agenda.
Finally, a word ought to be said about the last two essays on form On Rhyme and The Music of Forms [pp. 253-299]. They take stock of the fact that rhyme and meter have ceased to be the sole and exclusive measuring rod of poetry writing and reading. I note they do not mention the challenge to lineated poetry. In this age of destructive poetics and mass ignorance, Anthony Hecht has the comfort of implying that lineation at least remains the undisputed bedrock of poetry. Of course, no one will doubt that meter and rhyme have been inherent in poetry for centuries but since the Modernist ruptures, even rebellious free verse has become a part of traditional diction. So how is the demise of rhyme and meter accounted for? We are told that whenever a poet's aesthetical choice is to keep away from rhyme and "the template of standard meter" [p. 279], he reveals "the blatant signs of poetic incompetence, which may be why some not altogether skillful poets avoid it" [p. 265]. This incompetent practitioner will also compound a desire for autonomy against heteronomy ("Procrustean barbarity" [p. 296] with "metrical numbness" [p. 276] or worse, with the foreign, non-English influence of "syllabic verse" [p. 277]. This is meant to cast a slur on rival poetics but it fails to make any point. The Revolt Against Meter has led to an acute awareness of the larger range of possibilities existing outside rhyme and cadence. New possibilites are found by poets who create patterns, serial repetitions, juxtapositions, rotations ("torquing" is a favorite term of Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian or Ron Silliman).
What is further indefensible is that when Anthony Hecht laments the prevailing contemporary oblivion of meter and rhyme, he exposes values which have little to do with the transmission of the culture which he claims is lost for ever.
His desire for meter and rhyme stems from a fallacious analogy of word with world, from a metaphysics of universal order and universal religion which are meant to ward off chaos in an almost Dostoievskian fear that "Without God, all is possible." This metaphysical stricture must be firmly contrasted with Lyn Hejinian's analysis in The Rejection of Closure, one of the most illuminating critical pieces for poetry readers. After defining the "open text" which rejects the writer's illusion of mastery over the text and reader, she stresses that when "[the] writer relinquishes total control and challenges authority as a principle and control as a motive," this leads to an inquiry into the process of composition:
Anthony Hecht takes chaos as a menace to art, law and order, thus expressing a desire for atemporality, stasis and immutability. Lyn Hejinian sees chaos as a fact of life and as a productive force in language. Like most contemporary poets, she is very much aware of the limits of language, which can only partially account for the opacity of an uncertain world. This humility in the questioning of form is light years away from the arrogance of Anthony Hecht who poses as a bulwark against decadence. I will end my point by turning to Robert Von Hallberg who pilloried this posture in the 1996 Cambridge History of American Literature:
Anthony Hecht is indeed exploiting reaction romantically. I trust that I made it clear that my rejection of Anthony Hecht's posture is not based on the assumption that experimental forms signify political opposition while traditional forms would be politically conservative. Such essentialist alignments of forms with extraformal values reflect biases inappropriate for reading poetry. I question Anthony Hecht's overlapping of form with order in a post-Auschwitz age, when the very issue of mastery and control has been a central philosophical and poetical concern.
To conclude, I notice that Anthony Hecht's essays were published by Knopf, Harvard U P and Princeton U P, and have benefited from the impressive publicity and distribution resources of these powerful publishing houses. Melodies Unheard: Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry is made up of essays already published in various journals [pp. 301-302] except for the last essay. Whether these critical insights deserved yet another publication with a publisher as prestigious as the Johns Hopkins U P is open to doubt.
Practitioners in the field know that the circulation of Anthony Hecht's poetry is low, that of his essays is even lower, the number of academic citations of his work is almost null compared to that of Charles Bernstein's. Any Library's Arts and Humanities Citation Index would provide this statistical intimation that Melodies Unheard: Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry will be left unopened on dusty back shelves.
Readers interested in current poetics and poetry already know that poetry is alive outside the Academy of American Poets. They do not need my mentioning other sources like EPC, SUNY Buffalo Electronic Poetry Center. Still, what I find striking is that both websites co-exist as two conflicting epistemological territories, lineages and canons. Since I started with Gertrude Stein, I will end up with one of her perceptive comments so as to illustrate the present position of Anthony Hecht's set of essays in American poetics: "A very bad painter once said to a very great painter, Do what you like, you cannot get rid of the fact that we are contemporaries' That is what goes on in writing.” (Stein, 151)
His epistemological choices are the contemporaries of other choices, which he willfully disregards instead of learning from them, or growing with them. This is why his essays "cannot be very exciting anymore," they clearly stand in favor of a "horse and buggy," schizochronic conservative reading of poetry today.
These are the reasons why the present reviewer would rather Melodies Unheard: Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry did not end up on students' reading lists, in public or academic libraries.