by James Pollock
Excerpt from Feature Review
Daryl Hine. Recollected Poems: 1951-2004. Toronto: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2007.
“Criticism,” writes Helen Vendler, is “the revenge of the student who once, perforce, sat silent while things that seemed untrue were said unrebuked, and poets who loomed large in the mind were ignored in the classroom.” So many untrue things have been said for so many years about Canadian poetry, and not just in classrooms, that it is hard to know where to begin to take one’s revenge, if that is the right word. But fortunately the recent publication of Daryl Hine’s Recollected Poems: 1951-2004 gives us a chance to reassess our most unjustly ignored poet, and to fill in–or begin to fill in–one of the most forlorn and gaping holes in our literary history.
There are, as far as I can tell, five reasons for Hine’s neglect. First, our poetry’s puritanical devotion to sincerity and authenticity. At a time when many poets are loyal to the facts of their own perception and experience–even, or especially, when such facts conflict with the claims of art–Hine has been a shameless, even ruthless, artist. For Hine, the purpose of poetry is not self-expression, or even self-fashioning, but pleasure. As he puts it in the introduction to this career-spanning selection of poems, with its characteristically punning title, “For me a poem is a verbal object capable of giving a specific kind of aesthetic pleasure in itself. As such it is like a painting or a sculpture.” This aestheticism has manifested itself in Hine’s work in a variety of ways–each of them, alas, another brick in the wall obscuring Hine from critical view in this country.
Second, Hine practices a brand of classicism which, for all its mastery, is unfashionable. He studied classics and philosophy at McGill, and comparative literature at the University of Chicago, and has published five excellent volumes of translations from ancient Greek and Latin, including Hesiod, Theocritus, the so-called Homeric Hymns, and some of the more obscure poems of Ovid. In all but the most cosmopolitan milieux, such interests would be unusual, rarefied even. But in Canada, outside of university classics departments, they are positively esoteric. (By contrast, consider Anne Carson’s translations of widely-read poets like Sappho, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides; where Carson’s is a Romantic classicism of the sublime, Hine’s classicism is secular and Hellenistic–and the same may be said of his own poetry.)
Third, his highbrow homosexuality. Puerilities, for instance, is his translation of pederastic lyrics from the Greek Anthology. Such books don’t go over well in a country where a lot of male poets have tended to be very touchy not only about their straightness but also about any whiff of refinement that might waft unsuppressed from their pages (a fear which used to lead many of them to pad their book-jacket bios, defensively, with evidence of manly labours).
Fourth, his highly sophisticated prosodic imagination. Nothing has proven more off-putting to free verse confessional poets and the avant-garde alike than Hine’s formalism (though apparently Canadian formalists have never heard of him; you will find nary a poem by Hine in the anthology In Fine Form: The Canadian Book of Form Poetry, though you will find bp Nichol and Fred Wah.) In his introduction, Hine suggests his formalism is simply an aspect of his poetic temperament, “not a matter of deliberate (let alone political) choice, but an involuntary and, to me, natural style of composition, as natural if not normal as my sexual predilection.” One imagines him saying this with a smile; it may come naturally to someone who has been writing this way for more than 50 years, but it is impossible to read Hine without feeling one is in the hands of a technical virtuoso.
And finally there is the matter of Hine’s long-term residence in the United States during an era of fervent nationalist anti-Americanism in Canada. While many Canadian writers of his generation were feverishly devouring (not to mention penning) nationalist manifestoes like Lament for a Nation and Survival, Hine was busy teaching comparative literature at the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois, and Northwestern, publishing his books primarily with American publishers like Atheneum and Knopf, and serving as editor, from 1968 to 1978, of the storied American literary journal Poetry. Over the years he received a number of awards from American institutions, including Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellowships and a medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He also attracted enthusiastic critical responses from American poetic luminaries, including poet-critics like Richard Howard, John Hollander, and Anthony Hecht. (Hine himself, who was born and grew up in British Columbia, points out in his introduction to the present book, which was published in Canada, that his “alien residence” in the United States was never a matter of “national preference,” but of personal circumstance, and adds that he always remained a Canadian citizen.)
In short, one could hardly have invented a poet less likely to be celebrated in Canada in the second half of the 20th Century. It should go without saying that, aside from his formal mastery, none of these things is relevant when it comes to judging the quality of his poetry. But alas, such a thing does not go without saying.
It is clear to me that if we are ever going to judge Hine fairly, we must learn at last how to read him properly. Let me say, before I turn to his poems, that there is more variety in Hine’s oeuvre, even leaving aside his published prose and translations, than I can possibly deal with here. He has written in nearly every form, from epigrams and sonnets to extended sequences and book-length narratives, and in every kind of verse, from free verse to anapestic metre. He has written elegies, love poems, ars poeticae, satires, travel poems, diaries, dramatic monologues, homages, meditations, confessions, arguments, riddles, alphabets–you name it–and has written on an extraordinarily wide range of subjects, from tidal waves to high art, from Oscar Wilde to serial killers. It is impossible for a single essay or review to reveal Hine entire; all I can do is start.
see issue for the rest of James Pollock’s full review of Daryl Hine’s Recollected Poems: 1951-2004.
|an Arc Feature Review [read more reviews]
Published in Arc 61: Winter 2009