Interpretive Imagination: Jonathan S.F. Post’s A Thickness of Particulars

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Jonathan S.F. Post
A Thickness of Particulars: The Poetry of Anthony Hecht
Oxford University Press, 2015, $35

Jonathan S.F. Post approaches Anthony Hecht’s varied oeuvre with a combination of meticulousness and vision. A scholarly humility, paired with a willingness to venture broader claims about Hecht’s poetic evolution, makes A Thickness of Particulars not just essential criticism of Hecht’s work (not to mention the first comprehensive study), but an elegant illustration of how careful close readings are not just compatible with—but are indispensable to—acts of interpretive imagination. In his preface, Post imports Hecht’s phrase “A thickness of particulars” from his well-known poem “The Transparent Man” as an invitation to think with particular precision about the nuances of individual poems, and as “a call, a credo, applicable to poet and critic alike, and also, of course, a warning about the difficulty of getting things right.” It seems very clear to me that Post’s scrupulous and discerning readings of Hecht’s poetry have gotten it right.

Post situates his book within the wider context of Hecht scholarship, while making a case for its singularity and timeliness. Although he cites frequently from Hecht’s letters and from biographical insights gleaned from Anthony Hecht, in conversation with Philip Hoy (1998), Post is direct about the scope of his task: his is a book, first and foremost, about how poems function, how they beguile us, move us, and change us. Paying tribute to the biography of Hecht currently underway by David Yezzi, Post sets his sights instead on “an introduction to the poetry, attentive to its particular riches, with an eye toward the whole career.” This granularity won my trust. I would hazard that all poets want to be read so attentively. For Post, criticism “seeks to argue for a new understanding of the truth of the work itself.” Understanding this “truth” begins with grassroots analysis, with the specifics of particular poems. Beginning with the truism that “poetry lives in the details,” Post sees his contribution as “a book ultimately about poems: trying to hear them right, to think their thoughts, to read them as part of a life fully engaged in their writing throughout the second half of the twentieth century.”

Post succeeds at his goal: his book dwells in the particulars of poems rather than trafficking in abstractions about poetry. But what makes this work such a valuable, illuminating, and ambitious study is its eagerness to wrestle, also, with broader artistic and philosophical questions. Post glides from the microscopic to the macroscopic with grace. Unsurprisingly, it is Post’s penchant for particulars that lends his book’s more rhetorical moments greater authority. Of course I didn’t agree with every claim, but I was impressed by how Post buttresses his arguments. When he, for example, describes “the habitually dialectical quality of Hecht’s thinking,” I find his generalization compelling, not only because it rings true from my own reading of Hecht, but because it is thoroughly earned.

Post’s study moves, for the most part, chronologically through Hecht’s career, although not formulaically so—he devotes considerable space to a series of close readings of important poems. Given the density and allusiveness of Hecht’s work, Post’s ability to shift from the minute to the panoramic is very useful. Some of Post’s larger observations, that we see in Hecht a “mid-life shift toward writing longer poems of a dramatic character”; that Hecht’s poetry, under the influence of Auden and Lowell, becomes increasingly personal and direct, even as he never loses the “highly polished, stylistically inventive” quality of his first volume, A Summoning of Stones (1954); and that Hecht demonstrates an “increasing interest, after A Summoning of Stones, with exploring the psychic attributes of the delusional” helped me to understand better Hecht’s aesthetic trajectory. Post’s first chapter uses the poet’ss Holocaust sestina “The Book of Yolek” to frame Hecht’s abiding interests in both moral questions and innovative formal gestures. One of the later chapters is consecrated entirely to Hecht’s long poem, “The Venetian Vespers.” But most of the chapters take a volume (and often an accompanying poetic friendship) as a lens through which to understand Hecht’s aesthetic evolution, his influences, and his interactions with contemporaries, including Auden, Merrill, Lowell, Sexton, Wilbur, and Bishop, among many others.

To my mind, the richest and most thought-provoking chapter focuses on The Hard Hours (1967) and on Hecht’s tangled relationship to suffering. This chapter makes one of Post’s more ambitious—and I think justified—generalizations: that with this second volume Hecht ushers in a new era. Post writes: “It is the difference between writing poetry and writing poems […] that are profoundly situated in a locale or landscape at once personal and dramatic.” I should mention that although Post writes about Hecht’s experiences witnessing, experiencing, and surviving trauma during World War II, he never loses sight of Hecht’s verbal playfulness, a kind of puckish exuberance that readers and critics often overlook. In a chapter on Hecht and ekphrasis, Post does a beautiful job of showing how Hecht’s “devotional celebration of the natural world” often leads him to moments of joy, even ecstatic awe. Post is in his element analyzing Hecht’s ekphrastic poems; a carefulness of vision, which Hecht learned in part from Bishop, is a skill Post himself brings to his detailed close readings. Hecht was at home moving among many art forms, and by supplementing his readings of Hecht’s ekphrastic verse with color reproductions of paintings by Renoir and Matisse, Post allows us to close read not just Hecht’s poems, but the paintings themselves. He is keenly aware of how central ideas about vision and perception are for Hecht, of how seeing things clearly—perceiving “a thickness of particulars”—is foundational to engaging with any piece of art. Hecht expects us to pay attention and rewards our efforts. He approaches visual art with commensurate respect for the painters’ visions. And it is that same brand of attentiveness that makes Post such a nuanced guide into Hecht’s poetic world.

Post is not afraid to take on Hecht’s critics, and even does so humorously: “The main knock against Hecht is that he is or can be ‘too poetic,’ and odd criticism to make of poetry when you think about the alternative.” That said, Post concedes that Hecht’s work can verge on overwrought, particularly in some of the early poems. The arc Post traces is one where poems gain gravitas, power, and vision across Hecht’s career, but sacrifice little of his early pyrotechnics. Post puts this evolution in its broader cultural context: “In the early 1950s, it would not have occurred to Hecht (or to many east coast poets at the time apart from the emerging Creeley-Olson circle) that an interest in formal variety would, in fact, lead him to be later ‘typed’ as a ‘formalist,’ which in turn would be used to reduce him, in the eyes of some, to ‘a specialized talent.’” One way to think about this: Hecht should not have to make a false choice between formal virtuosity and emotional authenticity. Analogously, Post’s book does not choose between close reading or broader critical observations, many of which will guide beginning readers of Hecht and help reframe the interpretations of his most loyal readers.

Any critical study, necessarily, will invite disagreement. Post’s readings and generalizations on the whole are very convincing—he backs up larger claims, as I have said, with precision and seriousness. I will say—and this could be because of my own tendency to fall in love with language and consequently to overuse it—I do find some of his phrasing (a chapter is called “Shechtspeare,” for example) a little precious. There were a few indulgent moments; in his otherwise excellent analysis of Hecht’s early poem “Clair de Lune,” Post characterizes Hecht’s writing as “masculine in its persuasive force.” I am a pretty traditional reader and writer who is suspicious of calling things dated, but I do think phrasing like that is outmoded for good reason. Readers who are used to critical studies that are less evaluative may be disoriented by Post’s eagerness to offer what he thinks is so good about Hecht’s poetry, what he loves. I think this is a strength, however, which lends the book a refreshing, critical honesty, even if it leads to occasional rhapsodizing rather than letting a poem speak for itself. But these are minor quibbles about a major work.

Post’s book is an illuminating contribution to Hecht scholarship, one that I hope will continue to inspire twenty-first-century readers to study and delight in a poet of such aesthetic variety and moral intelligence. Future criticism of Hecht will have to contend with—and define itself in relation to—this monumental achievement.