Places Never Explained
- BuyThe Selected Letters of Anthony Hecht edited by Jonathan Post
Johns Hopkins, 365 pp, £18.00, November 2012, ISBN 978 1 4214 0730 2
In January 1945, as she was preparing her collection North & South for publication, Elizabeth Bishop wrote to her publishers to say she was worried that she had written nothing about the war:
The fact that none of these poems deal directly with the war, at a time when so much war poetry is being published, will, I am afraid, leave me open to reproach. The chief reason is simply that I work very slowly. But I think it would help some if a note to the effect that most of the poems had been written, or begun at least, before 1941, could be inserted at the beginning, say just after the acknowledgments.
Vol. 35 No. 16 · 29 August 2013
Colm Tóibín makes two contentious claims for Anthony Hecht (LRB, 8 August). One is that Hecht ‘is unique among poets in the English language who fought in the First or Second World Wars because of the intensity of his struggle’. If Tóibín has in mind the struggle of coming to terms with his war experiences, surely David Jones’s In Parenthesis is at least as intense a work as anything by Hecht. And then there is Louis Simpson. Tóibín claims that Hecht’s ‘tone, the calm controlled cadences, belonged to him as much as the well-wrought technical wizardry’. But it was Simpson who originated this tone, a kind of near-hallucinatory matter-of-factness which first emerged in his great ballad ‘Carentan O Carentan’ (published in 1949 in The Arrivistes) and is developed in the collections that followed. Tóibín quotes from Hecht’s ‘The Man Who Married Magadalene’, but doesn’t quote the epigraph, ‘Variations on a Theme by Louis Simpson’.
Colm Tóibín confuses the victim with an accomplice of the assailant in his interpretation of the fourth sonnet in Hecht’s poem ‘The Feast of Stephen’. In Tóibín’s reading, horseplay ‘moves into dreadful and deliberate violence against “a young man whose name is Saul”’. In fact, the poem depicts Saul urging several other ‘burly youths’ to their ‘hot work’ of beating a victim who is unnamed but is obviously the titular St Stephen. The hooligans have ‘flung down their wet and salty garments/At the feet of a young man whose name is Saul’, obligingly watching over their clothing as they accomplish the murder. The biblical reference is Stephen’s sermon and stoning in Acts. Stephen, a Christian convert ‘full of grace and power’, preaches a sermon to the Israelites accusing them of being ‘stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears’. The Jewish mob is outraged and stones Stephen. And, as reported in Acts 8:1, ‘Saul approved of their killing.’