The Punctual Muse

IN THE POPULAR mind, the image of the modern poet is derived from the flamboyant lives of writers like Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell and John Berryman. A poet, in this view, is someone who writes with the urgency of Mount St. Helens blowing its top, consuming vast amounts of liquor and displaying much unseemly behavior on the way. He has no qualms about sacrificing family and friends to his art. Often as not, he kills himself.

"A lot of poets think of themselves to this day in the most romantic cliches," comments Anthony Hecht. "It's just insupportable. In contrast, Auden thought of himself as being like a businessman. He worked all morning, most of the afternoon and then quit. He did this with punctual regularity. It had nothing to do with inspiration, nothing to do with being possessed by the muse."

It's an image that Hecht finds attractive. His own relationship with the muse is strictly seasonal: All his poetry (and, for that matter, other writing) is done during the summer, when he is freed from his duties of teaching Shakespeare and modern poetry at Georgetown University. The rest of the time, he says, "I'm completely engrossed in teaching my classes and correcting papers."

The risk here is that a poem which demands to be written in October no longer has a discernible pulse in June. On the positive side, it removes the possibility of slight or ephemeral poems -- something Hecht (whose most recent work is reviewed on page 1), has never been accused of. While an enthusiastic supporter of many younger poets -- he and Richard Howard are two of the most active blurbists around -- this is a style he confesses he can't abide.

"There's a certain poet who ought to remain nameless whose poems are at best candid snapshots or very pallid watercolor sketches. They are instant impressions -- this poet happens to think that anything of that sort is important because it passed through this great poetic mind. I think of them as just random jottings, but they have a very considerable audience."

The size of that audience, whether for good work or bad, is something in serious dispute among the poets themselves these days. Is it growing? Shrinking? Is this a Golden Age, a Silver Age or a slump? Thousands of people will cheerfully spend $500 for membership at a poetry convention, and in an '88 poll 24 percent of the adult population said they "write stories or poems."

"That's a very deceptive kind of statistic," Hecht believes. "Being a poet is for such people like deciding you're going to be a rock star. You buy your electric guitar, you learn a few chords and the next thing you know you're singing in a local coffee shop.

"For people like that, poetry is a kind of therapy. They write because they're troubled, or have fallen in love or somebody has just died -- whereupon they announce in loud voices that they are poets. No one would ever dream of deciding they're an Olympic track champion without having spent a lot of time preparing for it."

Hecht has lived in Tenleytown for the past five years, since he and wife Helen, the author of several cookbooks, moved here from Rochester, N.Y. In an earlier period, when he was teaching at Bard College, he spent weekends in New York City and hung out at Elaine's, the celebrity-writer watering hole. It's an image that doesn't fit -- you can't imagine an "Ode to Elaine's" among his dignified works -- but after all he was a single man then.

He doesn't miss it. "I don't think of a literary community as one in which everybody meets everybody else or even meets one another very frequently. But if you define a literary community as something that makes for a general intellectual life at a high level, I think that's here in Washington."

In any case, he says, "a poet doesn't need to have buddies around. There are people who live much farther away from cultural resources than the ones that are available here. Think of John Crowe Ransom living in Gambier, Ohio, editing the Kenyon Review and writing his own poetry and criticism for years and years. Gambier had a gas station and a hamburger joint, and that was it."

Thrills and Chills

DAVID AND ARABEL Martin live about five hours from Washington, D.C., in a West Virginia hollow that boasts a federal penitentiary as its most recognizable nearby feature. They don't have a satellite dish, and the hills preclude the normal sort of radio or television reception. Consequently, the Martins never know what's going on out there in the world. Their friends love them.

"Every time there's a national event like the San Francisco earthquake, we get a dozen calls," says David Martin. "We're the only people our friends know whom they can call and actually tell news, rather than just discussing it." Even when would-be Gerald Ford assassin Squeaky Frome escaped from the next-door penitentiary, they didn't know until Arabel's grandmother called from England.

"The problem is, everyone wants to be first," Martin says. "We have to tell our friends we haven't heard, because then the ones who are eighth or ninth won't be hurt."

Recently, he's had some news of his own. His psychological thriller, Lie to Me (reviewed on page 7), seems likely to be that sweetest of all publishing phenomena: a breakthrough book.

There's a popular bumper sticker in West Virginia: "Crime doesn't pay, but neither does farming." That was more or less true of Martin's first four novels. They garnered some heady reviews ("its complications jump over humor and love to tell us something -- profound, hilarious, respectful . . .," the New York Times said of his second, The Crying Heart Tattoo) but less than impressive sales. Part of the change this time may be due to an enthusiastic publisher, but there's also the book's subject matter.

"I didn't intend to write a completely different book," Martin says. "I wanted a woman who has a powerful secret and a man who has a powerful ability to detect secrets. When you then have a crime, you need a detective. Go down that path and you're in the thriller category."

His first novel, Tethered, was a coming-of-age novel, so it got the Is It Autobiographical? question. The Crying Heart Tattoo was about an older woman and a younger man, so it got the same query all over again. Since tales of serial killers tend not to be rooted in the writer's early life, Lie to Me will get this: Did you put in the violence (which is never gratuitous but still vivid enough so a Book-of-the-Month Club editor couldn't finish it) just to make it sell?

No author is going to answer this in the affirmative, but Martin has a reasonable explanation as to why he didn't. "It's not because I'm pure," he says. "I can use a buck as much as most of us. If I could sit down and say, 'I'm going to put this violence in, and the sex in, not because I'm serious about it but just because I think it's going to sell,' I think I would do it. But the way I work, I can't write cynically and insincerely. Maybe if I were more skilled, I could."

Martin, now 44, worked for an education association here until three years ago, when the advance for Lie to Me helped the couple buy their 140-acre farm. They have 15 beef cattle and raise German shepherd puppies; Arabel also breaks thoroughbreds, specializing in those previous owners have given up on because they're too dangerous. "This," Martin notes parenthetically, "probably accounts for her success with me."

His desire to write a "very straightforward, freight-train" narrative did have one pre-publication result: The first chapter, in which an intruder stalks a wealthy Washington-area couple, was printed up as a booklet and distributed free in bookstores.

It isn't cheap to do this. "To have an impact in 4,000 or 5,000 stores, you've got to have a minimum of 25 per store. So you're talking about 100,000," says Random House marketing director Amy Rhodes. The cost approximates that of a full-page ad in the New York Times Book Review, or about $15,000. For Lie to Me, Rhodes believes, it will prove a very good deal.

Found in Translation

FOR ALL ITS high critical standing, Latin-American fiction has never been a big bestseller in hardback in this country. Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera was the biggest exception to that rule. In September Knopf will attempt to approach the success of that romance by issuing a huge number of copies of a more political novel, The General in His Labyrinth. An oddity about both titles is that neither was translated by the man whose superb efforts with Garcia Marquez's early works greatly helped bring him to prominence in this country: Gregory Rabassa.

"It's just a coincidence," says Rabassa. "I was going to do Cholera, but I was tied up with Jorge Amado's Showdown and they didn't want to wait." His skills, however, will be on display in another Garcia Marquez book appearing this fall: Collected Novellas, from HarperCollins. The works in question are "No One Writes to the Colonel," "Leaf Storm" and "Chronicle of a Death Foretold."

Rabassa is translating a new Amado work, but sounds more excited when he talks about Portuguese writer Joao Melo. "I think I've discovered a new Garcia Marquez, although he's a little closer to Faulkner than Garcia Marquez was. He's from the Azores, and his characters are these Rabelaisian, larger-than-life people." No publisher yet; in fact, Melo is still looking for an American agent.

In the Margin

THERE ONCE was a senator from Illinois, John Hamilton Lewis, who would prepare an envelope for mailing by first licking the envelope, and then applying the stamp. And then there was Philemon Herbert, a California congressman who shot and killed a waiter at the Willard who had refused to bring him breakfast. Have members of Congress always been (a) odd, and (b) dangerous when armed? Some clues are in the anecdotal Congressional Chronicles, written by longtime Capitol watcher Anthony S. Pitch and published by his Mino Publications in Potomac . . .

As a benefit for Literacy Volunteers, a New York organization that publishes material geared to adults with limited reading ability, Garry Trudeau has come up with The Doonesbury Stamp Album. Designed by Trudeau and George Corsillo, the album features 150 different stamps that recap the strip's history, like George Bush on the vision thing: "I see an America where I have 100 percent approval rating." The map of Doonesbury's U.S.A. is particularly nice, including the symbols for "24-hour gun store," "Perrier dump site," "Trump-free zone," "decent cup of coffee," "point o' light."