12 December 2013

Poetry Thursday - An Old Malediction by Anthony Hecht

"the saline latitudes of incontinent grief"? (...perhaps not...) (via)

Ode 1.5 imitated by Anthony Hecht (1980)

An Old Malediction

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 sublet? For whom do you
Slip into something simple by, say, Gucci?
The more fool he who has mapped out for himself
The saline latitudes of incontinent grief.
Dazzled though he be, poor dope, by the golden looks
Your locks fetched up out of a bottle of Clairol,
He will know that the wind changes, the smooth sailing
Is done for, when the breakers wallop him broadside,
When he's rudderless, dismasted, thoroughly swamped
In that mindless rip-tide that got the best of me
Once, when I ventured on your deeps, Piranha.

(from vroma.org/~bmcmanus/hecht.html; analysed here)

In 101 Sonnets, edited by Don Paterson, in which I first encountered this poem, the subtitle is: (freely from Horace). The rather ranting style reminded me of Ginsberg (who, admittedly, I haven't read since the 60s) and the cynicism brought to mind Edna St Vincent Millay's "I, being born a woman" poem. But how does it imitate an ode by Horace? Reading ode 1.5 reveals much - it's been translated in time as well as in language, using Horace's images wryly. (Milton's translation appeared in 1673, and it seems to be a popular exercise in Latin studies.)

The story of Pyrrha is part of a Greek creation myth, and she herself is described as red-haired - whereas we all know that a piranha is an omnivorous fish with big teeth.

Anthony Hecht (1923-2004) was extraordinarily euridite.  It's been said that: "Hecht's voice is his own, but his language, more amply than that of any living poet writing in English, derives from, adds to, is part of the great tradition." 

Born in New York City, he was drafted into WW2 and his division helped liberate a concentration camp, an experience used in break-through volume, The Hard Hours (1967): "The often unsettling and horrific insights into the darkness of human nature told in limpid, flowing verse that characterize the poems in the collection would become Hecht’s trademark." He was professor of poetry at Rochester University and taught elsewhere, won many of America's most prestigious poetry awards, and was a critic as well as a poet.

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