POETS ANTHONY HECHT and James Dickey share many of the same subjects: memories of war and childhood, love, raising sons, delight in the landscape, a pleasure in translating other poets. Each has written splendidly in the past. Hecht received a Pulitzer Prize for his previous collection, The Hard Hours; Dickey was awarded a National Book Award for Buckddancer's Choice.
But here the similarities stop. Dickey has made himself into a public poet and man-of-letters, having written a novel (deliverance ), much criticism (Babel to Byzantium ) and a film script (the call of the Wild ), among other projects. He is by instinct a romantic overreacher, his poetry nonallusive and characterized by what he has called "peresntational immediacy." By contrast, Hecht has quietly achieved an elegant perfection on a less grandiose scale, publishing virtually nothing but poetry -- four slim volumes altotether, some lighe verse in a book called Jiggery-Pokery and a translation (with Helen Bacon) of Aeschylus' The Seven Against Thebes.
To my mind and ear, Hetch's recent book, The Venetian vespers, demonstrates again that he may be the most accomplished master of technique since Auden. The verse is musical, the diction precisely nuanced, the syntax smooth and conversational. There is never a jarring line, never a word out of place; everything fits together with the inevitable rightness of the classical poet. Hecht's predecessors, subtly acknoledged, are those reflective and witty poets of the compressed and sensual, chief among whom are Horace, La Fontaine, Poep, Byron, Baudelaire, the early Eliot and Stevens. Although the voice in his poems, many of which are reflective interior monologues, is indubitably right, always echt Hecth, one can still hear, playing in the background, the muisc of these earlier masters.
Listen, for instance, to Hecht's swing version of a famous ode from Horace: What well-heeled knuckle-head, straight from the unisex Hairstylist and bathed in Russian Leather, Dallies with you these late summer days, Pyrrha, In your expensive subject? For whom do you Slip into something simle by, say, Gucci?
But his vigorous vernacular can also modulate to the sefl-indulgent sweetness of the Prufrock like hero of "The Venetian Vespers": I am not young any more, and not very well, Subject to nightmares and to certain fevers The doctors cannot cure.
Hecht's wit -- ironic, self-deprecating and literary -- may be found woven through these poems about people confrondint a sense of failure in their lives. Sometimes it is a mere touch, as when he speaks of "golden serifs"; at other times it can be a more obvious pun -- Byron's household of servants and pets is described as "a menage that was in fact a menagerie." Wallace ystevens, more than any other, inspires the delightful excess of these lines describing clouds: "Giant confections, impossible meringues,/ Soft coral reefs and powdery tumuli / Pass in august processions and calm herds." But the humor of the following a description of a painting of God, is harder to place -- is it Auden or Byron? Behind The Altar He appears, two fingers raised In benediction, in what seems two-thirds Of the Boy Scout salute, wishing us well.
Though I stress the refinement and wit of Hecht's poetry, it does not neglect the blood and terrors of life. A poem as evocative of the autumn landscape as "Still Life" will end with a recollection of when Hecht held "a cold, wet, Garand rifle in my hands." The Holocaust and the disasters of war, which so vividly marked the young soldier, appear in allusions in other poems, although more prominently in the earlier collections, The Hard Hours and Millions of Strange Shadows. Hecht obvisouly enjoys juxtaposing the luscious and the obscene, the beauty of his language with the tawdriness of his subjects, as in "The Short End," which explores, sympathetically and humaely, the dreams of a fat, alcoholic woman. Hecht can chronicle her pillow collection -- but also her moments of transcendence -- with all the rightness of Nabokov catalouging motels in Lolita.
But the sensuous predominates in these poems, ranging from the opening interior monologue ("The grapes") -- which may have gotten its start from Eliot's line about "the damp souls of housemaids" -- to the final translations of two long poems by Joseph Brodsky, who sounds very much like Anthony Hecht. For example, here is a passage from Hechths "The Deodand." describing a Renoir painting in which 19th-century European women are dressing up in the Oriental costumes of a seraglio: Swathed in exotic finery, in loose silks, Gauzy organzas with metallic threads, Intricate Arab vests, brass ornaments At wrist and ankle, those small sexual fetters, Tight little silver chains, and bangled gold Suspended like a coarse barbarian treasure From soft earlobes pierced through symbolically . . . . The scene simers with Paris and women in heat, Darkened and airless, perhaps with a faint hum Of trapped flies, and a strong odor of musk. For whom do they play at this hot indolence And languorous vassalage? They are alone With fantasies of jasmine and brass lamps, Melons and dates and bowls of rose-water a courtyard fountain's firework blaze of prisms, Its basin sown with stars and poissons d'or, And a rude stable smell of animal strength, Of leather thongs, hinting of violations, Swooning lubricities and lassitudes. Baudelaire would be envious of such a passage, and of the rapid transition that follows: The poem concludes with the revenge of the Orient on the Europeans, when a French soldier is tortured by Algerian revolutionaries and made to parade around in drag -- dressed as Marianne, the symbol of France -- and beg for his food.
Such horrors might seem more appropriate to James Dickey who has written of men being decapitated, boys coupling with sheep, a stweardess falling from a plane without a chute. Unfortunately, none of the poems (or translations "from the UnEnglish" in The strength of fields measures up to "The Performance," The Sheep Child" or "Falling In recent years Dickey has forsaken traditional meter for a broken line using a "gap technique," somewhat reminiscent of late William Carlos Williams. At times he has employed it with splendid effect -- especially in "Butterflies" where his typographical fragments were able to mirror the flitting of butterflies -- but here it is overly ragged and abrupt. Read aloud, or even better, declaimed by Dickey himself, these story poems can generate great power -- "The Strength of Fields" was a huge success at President Carter's inauguration and "False Youth: Automn: Clothes of the Age" with its grand finale generally brings down the house.
Still another novelty in the later work is Dickey's increased regard for noun-compounds ("right-light," "moth-force," "death-mud," "stomach-pool"), which at best seem unnecessary and at worst unclear. Such broken lines and neologisms, embedded in an extremely convoluted syntax, recall the kennings and interlace patterns of Old English poetry. Indeed, Dickey almost invites the comparison with ancient skalds and bards, men who could do battle as well as sing of it. His themes are those of Beuwulf: memories of war ("Two Poems of the Military"), praise for a leader ("The Strength of Fields"), masculine comradeship ("Reunioning Dialogue"), paeans to a past champion ("For the Death of Lombardi"), athletic contests ("For the Running of the New York City Marathon"), boastful stories ("False Youth: Autumn: Clothes of the Age:) and the power of the minstrel("The Rain Guitar").
Regrettably, in this book Dickey fails to bring his language to life. He relies on tricks os syntax, rather than on the word that hits the heart like a bullet. Much of the time the verse offers ordinary conversation or the symbol-laden description of an action, tagged with a Wordsworthian moral. One feels that Dickey is more interested in ideas or memories than he is in words -- and this is fatal for poetry. Moreover, "The Strength of Fields" comes close to the kind of official verse Dickey himself condemned in Self-Interviews. Other pieces feel raw, imprecise. hHardly a line is memorable, though some of the poems in their entirety are rudely effective.
Dickey obvisouly cannot continue wrigint the same kind of poem, even if readers might like another "The Heaven of Animals." As a romantic, he must experiment and reach out to try new things, just as a classicist like Hecht must chisel deeper the angular perfections he has chosen. Like Whitman or Twain, Dickey seems in a characteristic American tradition, ever ready to light out for new territories. In his fifties, he is still a developing writer, who even in The Strength of Fields retains a strong and unmistakable voice.