Dinitia Smith's article "Distilling the Music of Poetry," in today's New York Times, is a profile of Anthony Hecht: "that epitome of Formalism in poetry." There is a photo of the 80-year-old poet, who, true to his formalistically epitomal status, "wears a jacket and tie in the middle of the day," "his posture ... erect, his beard neatly trimmed." Later in the piece, Smith observes, "He sits very still. His accent is almost English." She writes that "The library where Mr. Hecht sits is an expression of the man and the work--serene, with fluted pilasters and a frieze around the ceiling with lines from his "Death the Poet," written in gold leaf." If Hecht were himself a poem, apparently, he would be a particularly fussy funeral elegy in tightly woven heroic couplets.
"For 50 years," writes Smith, "Mr. Hecht has been a bulwark against the invasion of contemporary poetry by the undisciplined, against the purveyors of free verse, the babblers of the spoken-word movement, the language poets with their brittle associations." It would be easy to poke fun at the ludicrousness of the "invasion" imagined in this passage, at Hecht's bigoted intolerance of any practice outside the most rigidly "traditional" formal process. But he is just a quaintly cranky elderly gentleman with what has to be an increasingly minimal amount of influence on anything going on in contemporary writing. His verse is generally nondescript even on its own formalist terms, never going much beyond the range of what might be expected from a precociously antiquarian undergraduate. He is a respectable scholar of traditional poetics, which is to say that he has an archival rather than a sensual apprehension of forms, or at best his sensitivity is limited to the appreciation of the already-fully-appreciated products of literary history. What is really troublesome is the Times' valorization of his retrograde and vacuous attitude toward experimentation.
When people still complain about the pernicious influence of "academia" on poetry, in America at least, what they are really responding to is the gross caricature of academia perpetuated by mass media. To read the Times or watch popular movies or browse the slick anthologies at chain bookstores, one would think that the literary establishment in the US is a vast room full of tweed-clad Poloniuses, harumphing and tush-tushing over their meerschaums at that disgraceful beatnik poetry of which the younger generation seems so enamored. Obviously, there are real problems with the treatment of poetry in academia, but eccentrically conservative formalists like Hecht are irrelevant both from the perspective of innovative poetics and with regard to the shapeless stuff that gets held up as a model in mainstream MFA programs.
Hecht asks questions whose incompleteness or short-sightedness is telling: "'One wants to feel in control,' he says of Formalism. 'If you are writing in free verse, what makes it a poem? ... It's as if someone says, "I thought of a butterfly," and it becomes a poem because it's sanctioned by their own brilliance.'" This is a fair question: what does make something written outside of traditional meters a poem? That some of the reasonable, readily imaginable answers do not occur to Hecht is directly related to his opening comment about feeling in control. His unwillingness to unscrew the training wheels and risk careening into a tree is what one perceives most strongly here. Again, he comes close to achieving a genuine insight when he remarks that the "butterfly" poem is "sanctioned" by the author's "own brilliance"; what Hecht cannot appreciate is the extent to which poetic effects do often take on their power as a result of contextual, contingent, and capricious factors such as the poet's own self-confidence.
What a wonderful poem! I wrote a couple of posts ago about the "unsettling" prospect of a condition in which no poetry seems bad; this condition is unsettling only in a parodic sense, of course, and what is parodized by such a panic is a Hechtian state of mind, one that cannot tolerate the destabilization of external standards. But such destabilization is indispensable to poetry. The risk one continually faces is the loss of the distinction between good and bad, complex and messy, elegant and crude, witty and inane. Without this risk, there would be no point in writing poetry, as opposed to, say, memos or court orders. And if the risk materializes as an actuality, well, then you have yourself some bad poetry that you can't really say is bad. Live with it.