George Szirtes is a poet and translator. His book of poems Reel (Bloodaxe 2004) received the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2005 and his New and Collected Poems (Bloodaxe 2008) was named by The Independent as Poetry Book of the Year. His new book, The Burning of the Books and Other Poems (Bloodaxe), will appear in September and is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. George has also won various prizes for his translations from Hungarian. Here he writes about Anthony Hecht's The Venetian Vespers.
George Szirtes on The Venetian Vespers by Anthony Hecht
Anthony Hecht died in 2004 at the age 81. Born of German-Jewish parents in New York he had fought in the infantry in Europe and helped liberate Flossenbürg concentration camp. That memory remained with him all his life and runs like a dark stream under an often dandified poetry that owes most to Auden and Shakespeare.
I discovered him late, in 1980 when The Venetian Vespers appeared. By that time his reputation was firmly established with three earlier books that came out at long intervals – these were A Summoning of Stones (1954), The Hard Hours (1967) and Millions of Strange Shadows (1977) – but I came to them later in the two volumes of Collected Poems in 1990.
Getting to the heart of Hecht is difficult because his style, while it can be comic and colloquial, is essentially a touch lordly, even disdainfully, ironically superior in a way that seems to put you in your place. And yet what magnificent control and disdain! It is as if Byron had teamed up with Auden. Not a cuddly pairing on the whole.
I had The Venetian Vespers for review and it knocked me out. It still does. Though Hecht's verse is generally formal, the poems' complex patterns are handled with fluent muscular ease. My review copy has long fallen to pieces, marked, however, at such poems as are not in high baroque form but in a kind of unrhymed Wordsworthian narrative verse or Browningesque dramatic monologue. They are in effect like short stories boiled down to the core and half-sung, half-spoken. There is, for example, 'The Grapes', voiced for a maid in a slightly run-down holiday hotel in France, who is in love with the bell-boy at the smarter sunnier hotel on the other side of the valley. She knows she has passed beyond being attractive to him, a realization borne in on her one day when examining a bowl of grapes in the hotel lobby:
... green grapes, or, rather
They were a sort of pure, unblemished jade,
Like turbulent ocean water, with misted skins,
Their own pale, smoky sweat, or tiny frost.
She watches the light reflected off them falling on to her arm and thinks about the rich patrons and their lives. She reads about them in old copies of Time magazine also left in the lobby. Suddenly the grapes become clustered planets...
... that leaned their eastern cheeks
into the sunlight, each one showing a soft
meridian swelling where the thinning light
mysteriously tapered into shadow...
The planets are passing their zenith as is she. Briefly a shipwreck image floats past her, recollected without melodrama as an accident she read about in Time.
In another of those poems, 'The Deodand', we begin by considering a painting - presumably by Delacroix - of women in a harem, and that takes us on to the story of a young French legionnaire captured, shaved, made up as a woman and paraded in towns by his captors.
In a longer poem of this sort, 'The Short End', we see a couple in a failed marriage. We witness their humiliation at a sales conference at the beginning of the marriage, we see the wife at home with her collection of soft cushions, something of a lush by now, and then go with them on a car tour where they come across a sign advertising a man who has volunteered to be buried alive for a fixed period of time. The image is what comes back to haunt her when she is drunk, shortly before she passes out.
All three poems are to some degree about sex, but also about something more: the rise and fall of human hope and expectation.
Best of all is the long title poem. This is not Monteverdi or Cavalli. This is told in the voice of a modern man, someone like Hecht himself in his poems and personal history, in a manner that is a cross between Byron, Joseph Brodsky, Humbert Humbert without Lolita, and Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander. There are six vespers. The first begins:
What's merciful is not knowing where you are,
What time it is, even your name or age,
But merely a clean coolness at the temple -
That, says the spirit softly, is enough
For the mind to adventure on its half-hidden path
Like starlight interrupted by dense trees
Journeying backwards on a winter trip
While you are going, as you fancy, forwards...
So the memory theme is set and we move, carnival fashion, through a series of recollections about childhood and relatives, to the army, to the world of Venetian art. One of the most marvellous descriptions of rain you will ever find ends section IV. Here is how it starts:
Like a whisper of dry leaves, the rain begins.
It stains the paving stones, forms a light mist
Of brilliant crystals dulled with tones of lead
Three inches off the ground. Blown shawls of rain
Quiver and luff, veil the cathedral front
In flailing laces while the street lamps hold
Fixed globes of sparkled haze high in the air
And the black pavement runs with wrinkled gold
In pools and wet dispersions...
The section ending:
To give one's whole attention to such a sight
Is a sort of blessedness. No room is left
For antecedence, inference, nuance.
One escapes from all the anguish of this world
Into the refuge of the present tense.
The past is mercifully dissolved, and in
Easy obedience to the gospel's word,
One takes no thought whatever of tomorrow,
The soul being drenched in fine particulars.
But the past is the subject of the poem. It runs under it all, a savage world, a savage flowing. The war, the losses, the melancholy bourgeois comforts of New York life, the oddities and disasters of desire, all twist and turn out of each other.
And the book itself ends with those translations of Joseph Brodsky that ensured Brodsky the Nobel Prize for Literature, magnificent poems like 'Lagoon' and 'The Lullaby of Cape Cod'.
It is perhaps a somewhat mannered enrichment of life (though not less mannered than Nabokov's prose), an enrichment not at all at ease with our light, brisk, often more consciously endearing attempts at substance. It maddens some but it cuts deep because of all it knows under the glittering surface that is its wounded fancy dress. It is in effect deep music. I think some of it is great poetry.