Frivolous Flesh and Stoical Bone: Daryl Hine

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For the last 10 or 20 years—until now—one needed to excavate the poet Daryl Hine in order to read him. Most of his work was out of print, almost forgotten, like an ancient Greek poets who exists only in fragments. But these two new books—Recollected Poems: 1951–2004 and &: a Serial Poem—brush the dust off Hine’s career, and a remarkable, bronze-shining corpus begins to emerge.

Hine studied classics and philosophy as an undergraduate at Columbia University and traveled widely after graduation. In his very funny and weirdly page-turning autobiography-in-verse, In & Out, Hine recounts a youth of religious longing and sexual frustration, which culminated in a stint (thankfully brief) in a Benedictine monastery. To date, the poet has published sixteen volumes of verse, one novel, a book of travel writing entitled Polish Subtitles, and has translated from Hesiod, Theocritus, Ovid, the Homeric hymns, as well as selections from the Greek Anthology. He was editor of Poetry magazine for eleven years, and remains perhaps the most hated editor of them all.

Despite the title, Recollected Poems: 1951–2004 is a “selection” rather than a “collection” of the author’s work. Hine has eschewed chronology and instead arranged the poems according to subject, collected under the four banners of Art, Love, Place, and Time. It is a decision that, though clever, makes it impossible to get a sense of any development or direction over the course of his career. But it does fit Hine’s own model of poetry as “a verbal object capable of giving a specific pleasure in itself,” rather than a historical confession. His most immediate poetic precedents are found in the conceits and craftsmanship of Carew and Lovelace, Gongora (whom he addresses in a witty sonnet) and Dryden, the sensuous, decadent voyages of 19th century French verse.

Apart from a brief autobiography, the poems in this book are mostly a-historical: if history does appear, it is as a grand backdrop of associations and images. Hine is an urbane sampler of cultures, and when he travels, it is to “your language if not your native land,” as one poem puts it. What one critic called his “Roman impulse” has been apparent from his earliest books. A masque in an early poem pitted the stoic philosopher Seneca against the fanatical Saint Paul—but Hine’s Rome is the city of art; it is the home of Seneca, Virgil, and Ovid, absent marauding Gauls or imperial bloodbaths.

While so much of contemporary poetry takes the form of earnest (if one-sided) heart-to-heart talk, Hine’s formal polish and ironic distance is often reproached as insincere or overcooked. “Highly stylized politely describes bright eyesores,” he quips. Hine associates his own work not with “unmediated experience,” but with experience’s distillation to “spirits.” He is intoxicated by formal rules that squeeze the imagination into complex patterns, and sometimes makes a joke—or lament—of his own coolness. In one poem, Hine identifies with the cold, anonymous eroticism of spawning trout, assuming his “cold-blooded avatar, the fish.”

The impression one gets of Hines through the poems is that of a poet unflappable and immune to criticism. Indeed, he seems to take most criticisms as a form of compliment. One review condemned him as a “poetic machine of superb delicacy and subtlety,” built to “produce rolls of exquisite wallpaper or lengths of tapestry.” Hine, like a modern Lucretius, probably approves of such mechanical comparisons, would even make a rueful joke of it. Here he both celebrates and laments the breakdown of that bodily machine in impeccable style:

Seeing the body must remain its subject,
Itself at once both predicate and verb,
An organic calculator
Living a life unprogrammed by the mind,
Transmitting messages nobody it thinks will understand,
Many intercepted by the reader,
Receiving in return a few laconic orders.
O that your every wish were my command!

In the introduction to his translation of Theocritus, Hine closes with a line that could easily sum up his own poetical character: “if the shepherd is often an unhappy lover in Theocritus, he is always a triumphant poet.” Desire, grief, time, and change are his material poetica. Memory constantly shows us where “remote, a sensual world extinct was found,” echoing Proust’s observation that “the only paradises are those we have lost.” Emotions here are not recollected in tranquility, but wrenched and refracted through puns, conceited allegory, verbal games and play:

What at the time was called an accident
Can be seen in retrospect as fatal,
Passionately predetermined,
A calamity perhaps unwanted
Happening because it had to happen,
Heartbreak’s catastrophic pattern
Like the random particles of atomic
Theory, part of an unimaginable plan.

The Australian poet A. D. Hope (whom Hine admires) complained that in comparison to the rich, multifarious ecology of verse-forms in earlier centuries, the standardized free-verse lyric had come to dominate the poetic landscape like a fast-growing weed. Like an arresting rock formation on a dull plain, Hine throws up the epistle, the sestina, the villanelle, baroque mutants of poetic form. On the level of minute particulars, no poet exploits puns and verbal games more skillfully. He must be the most taxing formalist English has produced this century, more so even than Auden or Merrill:

As celibate and selfish as a cell,
Artless, heartless euphemisms spell
An apocryphal synoptic gospel,
Autumn’s allegorical farewell.

But what’s a body meant to make of this
Bleep interpolated in a kiss?
By emended arias into thesis
Bliss titters on the verge of the abyss

This continues on for another twenty-four highly adept stanzas. In another sequence based on the alphabet (this time, Green Linear A), we have:

In the beginning is the syllable.
The rebus-writing of the universe
Puzzles our palaeographer until
He deduces it must be [free] verse.
The vatic instinct is [in]fallible
Be[gin or be]ing, while the wo[rk is te]rse
Show]s what a demiurge is capable
Of: a sow’s [ear out of a] silken purse.

Here we have Hine at his most dazzling, so bright that it is sometimes hard to take in, though that weakness may be as much of the reader as of the poet. Yet, although Hine’s work is difficult, this is not obscurantism: every difficulty can be worked through and made coherent as part of poetic argument. There are no impenetrably personal symbols or references, no non-sequiturs. Every aspect is comprehensible.

II

Readers are not usually impressed by poets’ revisions of their own work, but Hine is a rare exception to that rule. There is no better example of this than in his reworking of a well-know early poem, “The Copper Beech.” This is the conclusion of the original, which to my ear sounds slightly precious:

When pleasure and reality occur
Is there room for extra contemplation
Or the lyrical promenade? It is enough

To know (and this is surely recognition)
That the world is spherical and perfect.
Now I wish to introduce the copper beech
We saw on our walk, English and native here as I am,
Whose shade is not the green of contemplation
But the imagination’s rich metallic colour
Wherein, under libido, we live.

Thirty-six years later, Hine remakes this into “The Copper Maple,” one of the best poems in the collection. The final stanzas give way to secular epiphany and central statement of the relation of poetry and life.

The rule of our semianchoritic order
Does not distinguish work from prayer,
Except insofar as prayers do not work.

Sufficient the momentary recognition
Of the world as anomalous and perfect
As this emblematic copper maple,
Alien yet rooted here as we are,
Whose green is not the shade of contemplation
But the imagination’s fierce metallic color,
Bronze, an aegis under which we flourish.

The world is recognized, but also re-cognitized poetically. Andrew Marvell’s “green thought in a green shade” here gives way to “the imagination’s fierce metallic color,” not a retreat to Marvell’s contemplative garden but a theory of poetry that becomes a theory of life, a tough endurance. These are lines that fully represent the poet Hine: his exile (“alien yet rooted here”), eroticism (if we remember the original which these lines bury) and imaginative stoicism (“an aegis under which we flourish”). The poem, not the prayer, becomes the natural attention of the soul.

Another of Hine’s splendors included in the selected edition is “Elemental Alchemy,” the finest poem of its kind since Donne’s alchemical conceits. Where Donne is rugged, Hine is all smoothness and elegance:

Seasons, every way they turn,
Remind us of their precedents;
Each leaf unseasonably torn
From the book of life presents,
Illegible and taciturn,
Tainted, tarnished evidence
Of our future decadence
Which we are bright enough to burn.
Illuminated documents
As if by alchemy return
To their old-fashioned elements,
Of which tradition taught that there
Were four, though some imagined one.
Water is the Spring’s affair,
Whether it will stand or run;
Earth, a spin-off from the sun,
Grows exuberantly fair
Under summer’s benison;

. . .

Fire that purrs, feline and furry,
Domesticated in the stove,
Freed becomes a frantic fury.
Whole auto-da-fe of love,
Adept as which refining, fiery
Furnace ardent martyrs move,
Ablaze in an autumnal grove
Colors kindled by the fairy
Gold and conflagration of
Fall, whose tragic transitory
Riches Winter will remove.

Puns, allusion, and conceit are stitched seamlessly together. The final stanza links the Heraclitean fire of change to the old image of “the fires of passion,” producing a brilliant, mournful blaze.

III

But why, in spite of his magnificent and accomplished verse, and his role as editor of Poetry magazine, is Hine not better known today? Part of the reason must be that Hine, like Irving Feldman—another neglected master—has never gone in for the business of review writing or interviews, the manifestos and controversial remarks that generate publicity. Surrounded by noisier contemporaries, Hine’s is the erudite and ironic voice drowned out by bardic howling, loud grievance, and publicly open wounds.

On another level, Hine runs afoul of a critical sensibility that equates poetic artifice as heartless and brittle, exemplified by Dr Johnson grumpy put-down of Milton’s “Lycidas,” that “where there is leisure for fiction there is no grief.” In this vein, one critic spiritedly attacked his early verse as a series “of extremely recherchè, abstract, contrived word-forms … a kind of culture-mania that began in 1910, but that in Canada we associate particularly with Toronto.” But I think Hine would probably retort that a person crying does not make an elegy anymore than a series of rhyming lines makes a poem, and that instead “a poem is programmed to mean what it says and will seldom/ Say what it means” (this comes from his epilogue-in-verse at the end of the Theocritus translation—the major omission of Recollected Poems).

Having not published a books of poems in twenty years, it is fitting that Hine should return with a long poem. &: A Serial Poem is a sequence of three hundred and three ten-line stanzas, three thousand and thirty lines in total. Each stanza is a ten-line block of accentual verse, which vary greatly in length, but never deviate from the same intricate rhyme scheme. Hine attempted a long biographical poem In & Out more than thirty-five years ago. &: A Serial Poem is a more abstract step away from—or perhaps above—the ironic confessions and storytelling of that earlier book, in which Hine might have felt he had pushed that form as far as it could go. Abandoning the narrative possibilities of hypotaxis (conjunctions like “when,” “while,” “then”), the poem’s stanzas are linked only by an implicit “&,” the ampersand of the title, which specifies no exact relation other than progression. If In & Out read like an older voice recalling passionate memories in tranquility, then & assumes the form of—as oppose to actually being—a private diary. Too oblique and plotless to be called autobiographical, but with too many recognizable allusions to the life and works of Daryl Hine to seem anything other than confessional, & exists somewhere between both. The poem opens with a cryptic image of the dawn and a Latin tag meaning “not all omens are in the mind”:

What if one waited & it never came,
Save for an illumination in the East,
A faint illumination that increased
Till the expected day flared into flame,
& what was yesterday today became
The unalterable alter of an immoveable feast,
As if through a narrow opening one saw
Everything changed and everything the same,
Not yet unremembered because not yet deceased.
Non omnia omina in anima.

The sequence follows the changing of seasons, formed of the residue of dreams. One section broods over a desktop computer, another eavesdrops on shouting neighbors. Some are miniature essays in verse, wittily riffing on a philosophical problem or dissecting an old cliché. Many of them could belong to 17th century emblem book, where the poem accompanies a sketch of the heavens or mythological scene, and finds in them a little moral or parable. The poet is a kind of domestic oracle, finding omens in the scattered equipment of daily life. If the ampersand explicates no clear relation between events, the reader is left to interpret the gaps, becoming emblematic of the poem’s larger concerns with how life is interpreted and made coherent by the imagination.

At his most successful in the sequence, Hine is less an oracle than a high-energy technician. A recurring metaphor is nuclear fusion—its poetic procedures putting mundane, household elements under graceful pressure until they fuse together into a new substance, dense and glowing in contrast to their prosaic ingredients. By allowing himself the extra space of variable line-lengths, Hine is able to avoid grammatical contortions and awkward phrasing in maintaining his intricate rhyme scheme. The best passages achieve a perfect high pitch, when Hine’s formal mastery runs parallel to cognitive grace:

The earth subsides, the immutable sea changes
Forever, as the heavens never rest,
While reigns as transitory as the rain
Fall and rise…

Cold fingers those depleted trees that will
In autumn’s paradox appear to smoulder
Flamboyantly. Tomorrow will feel colder
Still than yesterday & Wednesday until
The overheated world begins to chill…

If life were like a sitcom, it might envision
the trials of grace & well, where each competes
As to which will prove the momentary master.
So old age mimics late night television.

But while there are heights, there are also decidedly flat sections, and even the occasional bathetic crater:

What if there were no life beyond the stars,
No further folderol but cosmic dust
Among the planet’s destined wanderlust,
No gas stations and no go-go bars
Where Venus, Saturn, Mercury & Mars
May hang out, who move because they must…

In & Out remained vital throughout twelve thousand lines by being perpetually refreshed by the drama and characters it reflected. In &: a Serial Poem, the mirror of art has been made to reflect itself, with less of the real world intruding: at certain points the effect is like looking down the endless hall created by two mirrors placed face-to-face. While only a quarter of its predecessor in length, & somehow reads as if it were much longer. One stanza puts it better than I can when it announces: “Too many rhymes! so many coincidences!” Hine is so expert at thinking in verse that the poem at times sounds over-determined, almost claustrophobic. Everything in this cosmos is so thoroughly domesticated (if only, as he points out, by illusions of figurative language and sentiment) that occasionally the reader longs for some genuine wilderness or confusion in this poem where everything can sometimes seem “reduced to the status of a souvenir.” But one feels ungrateful when encountering stanzas as dark and accomplished as this:

Empty as the inside of a vase
When the flower arrangement has fallen apart,
Or an abandoned grocery cart,
Meaningless as a disqualifying clause
Or an audiences perfunctory applause
At the pointless pyrotechnics of performing art,
Nothing seems so vacant as an unoccupied dress,
Unless than in interstellar space there never was
Any vacuum so total as a devastated heart,
The human epitome of emptiness.

Or one of the many fine passages that lie on the edge of sleep:

This image, water flowing over stone,
Came unbidden on the brink of sleep.
Smooth was the stone; the water, clear but deep,
Washed over me as I lay sleepless, prone
Above the chasm of myself alone,
Knowing as I do that stones can weep
Tears that will not improbably be kept
Like dead voices on a grammar phone,
Like the arbitrary images that used to seep
Into my watery, rocky soul before I slept.

Particularly in the last mournful quarter, the book moves from strength to strength. It finishes, like it begins, with an image of dawn, but with a subtle difference:

Save for an illumination in the East,
As the expected day crept into flame,
Nothing changed & everything seemed the same,
Like the stale leftovers of an incredible feast.
Darkness dwindled & the stars decreased…

Whereas the first rising sun of the first stanza seemed an emblem of inspiration streaming out of the literal dark, the concluding dawn arrives to mean the very opposite, as if the harsh light of truth had come to burn away the fanciful night.

Searching for a fitting description of Hine’s work, one thinks of Pope’s famous description: “what oft was thought but never so well expressed.” But the poems here seem more than the apt expression of thought, more than wit wedded to elegance. In their confident, understated way, they often achieve an exulted music, an “eloquence of right,” to borrow a phrase from Wallace Stevens. In its skeptical, imaginative searchings for inward-knowledge, as well as in its lucid interrogations of the false wisdoms—religious doctrine, literalism, and cliché—Hine’s unique voice sometimes sounds like wisdom itself.

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About Alexander Lewis

Alexander Lewis is a student at the University of Melbourne.