Tuesday 18 January 2022

Daryl Hine

Daryl Hine 1936-2012

I had not heard of Daryl Hine before reading Northrop Frye’s review of his 1957 book, but I now realise that he was an ambitious poet and that his career is one of the most complex in the history of literature in North America. I do not have the plan of describing that career, and to be honest his books are hard to get hold of as well as numerous. The secondary sources suggest that he made radical breaks but they were not wholly successful. At this point I am looking at what you might call typical Hine. Hine, who came from British Columbia, produced a book in 1957 at the age of 21. This is astonishing, but as the cover reminds us he had previously published Five Poems, so he had probably released teenage poems. Over-rapid learning in the Fifties made it unlikely he would un-learn it as precocity faded into something else. We are thinking of over-internalisation, and the flowering of the time was formalism, light verse, indifference to abstractions, fascination with decoration to the exclusion of real beauty. It was a few years later that Marcuse defined affirmative culture, but it was the 1950s he was thinking of, and that un-nourishing sweetness did not go away after that unless the individuals expert in it repented and found a new tune. Hine fits into that category all too cleanly. Suave? got suave. Pretty? got pretty. Sociable? got sociable. Lighter than air? got lighter than air. Hine saw the light during the formalist era and absorbed its ideals almost too much. He continued to write formalist poetry all his life, as the poetry world moved on. The objections to his work apply to formalism in general, and reflect the thinking of the great majority of poets born after 1936. They are familiar. However, that way of writing was peculiarly suited to Hine’s talent, and arguably he took it further than anyone else – where it favoured virtuosity, he was more of a virtuoso than the others. It has been called artificial, but it was evidently natural to Daryl Hine.
The title of his 1957 book is The Carnal and the Crane. The title is that given to an English carol, 23 verses long in at least one version, which is supposedly a dialogue between two birds, one of which is a carnal (otherwise unknown but at a guess could be “corneille”, a crow). They tell a tale of the very first Christmas, and Herod is the central character. He says that if he is wrong, and what the Wise Men say is true, the cockerel which they have just cooked and served up for dinner will get up and crow. Of course it does that; the theme is resurrection (what the birth of Christ brought to mankind). The cock soon freshly feathered was
    By the work of God's own hand
And then three fences crowed he
    In the dish where he did stand

(fences – times) The crowing is an echo of the cock which crowed three times for Peter to deny Christ; Christ's coming back to life is a repeat of his incarnation, in Bethlehem. The carol is raw folklore and its very creativity suggests ignorance of learned tradition (and the absence of theologians who had read all the patristic texts). One possibility is that the carnal is so called because crows eat red flesh (including that of humans, sometimes), whereas the crane eats fish; this refers to sacrifice and to purity (embodied in whiteness). But really we don’t know; the carol may be based on legends which the world had forgotten, and its text may be the product of multiple forgetting. The title excepted, I could not find any allusion to the carol in Hine’s book. The signature of ‘Carnal’ is that most of the poems are about Christian myths but Hine’s level of interest in the doctrines is sketchy. He slips into the sequence of poems about Herod and the Wise Men a gay poem. It is about Alexis and Corydon, gay shepherds in Vergil’s Georgics. That poem has long been connected to the New Testament, since a prophecy within it was connected to the birth of Jesus. “Novus ordo saeclorum”, etc. Also, at least one of the Gospels definitely has shepherds in it. But, nobody with any belief in Christianity would slip a gay love poem into the Gospel narrative about the birth of Jesus. The myths are inherently significant, if you believe in them but Hine’s poems are merely decorative because his level of sincerity is so low. It is as if the audience of the time, sophisticated and affluent, dreaded sincerity; as a threat to decorum and gracious living. This poetry is secular in the same way that a department store at Christmas is. It is hard to explain why Hine would devote 13 pages to the story about King Herod and the Wise Men if he has no sincere belief in any of it. In ‘Carnal’, the turning of heavy religious themes into mere décor is intriguing but the ability to dissolve significance away is also a trap. It may leave art as a repetitive set of theatrical decors. The threat is that the decor will be as flimsy as the costumes – and like religious motifs painted on teacups.

The lack of significance reminds us of postmodernism. This was not around in 1957, when ‘Carnal’ came out. I don’t think it helps us. The 1980s had to face some of the problems which emerged in the 1980s as people gave up on theology. A revived interest in politics, society, government, social change, made those problems go away.

It is possible that the formalist atmosphere of 1957 reflects admiration for Dylan Thomas as well as Auden. Clever metrics were apparently the way to out-compete everybody else, at the time. I mention this because Hine’s exuberance suggests a link with Thomas – that virtuosity which was the opposite of spontaneity and spasmic release of unconscious material. Hine is almost too much in control of his material; he is not compulsive. Again, we may consider Christopher Fry and Eithne Wilkins as the most direct comparisons in the world of Forties English poetry. But the echo of Auden is altogether too strong. Of course that is Fifties Auden, with no element of documentary or of interest in politics, just suavity, fluency, and a layer of generalisations that sound wise and mean almost nothing.

The poems conduct arguments but their outcomes do not seem to matter. We are not moving from dark to light. Rather we have a steady state and the exits are neatly closed off. The classical poet whom Hine resembles is Marvell – at least, this is what I seem to be detecting. That just underlines how little interest Hine has in the arguments he constructs.
Evan Jones said “I think Recollected Poems is an excellent introduction, but In and Out and Academic Festival Overtures are Daryl’s masterpieces. […] My own favorites, in addition to those noted above, include “Don Juan in Amsterdam,” “Copied in Camoes” “Patroclus Putting on the Armour of Achilles,” “Letting Go” and “A Conceit,” poems that have moved and impressed me in equal measure.” I have not read the long poems, but three of the poems which Jones mentions are in the 1980 Selected Poems, which I do have.
I was more interested by the two poems, at the end of Carnal, about the Fat Boy entering Paradise. Their message is less obvious and their optimism more chequered. It is frustrating that he does not explain who the fat boy was when alive or what he is feeling when losing his way in Paradise.

Within his head a rank and silent fortune
Gestured slowly. On the silver screen
Papier-mâché herds of buffalo
Pursued a cowboy over endless prairie,
While down his cheeks the glittering orbs of sorrow
Ruled their separate tracks to final ruin.
What password did his virtues and his powers
Whisper, that he awoke within the gates,
Preserved against his enemies the hours,
While we who, like the vultures near the towers,
Live at the expense of those who die of boredom,
Enchained by the strait enchantment of their longing,
Must pitch our camp beneath the walls of Sodom,
Detained within the sweet preserve of time?
(from ‘A Bewilderment at the Entrance of the Fat Boy into Eden’)

What difference does it make that he is fat? Does that disqualify him from entering Eden? I must say that I am really not clear what this stanza means. What is the connection between Eden and Sodom? Why are they outside the walls of Sodom? Are they struggling to get in? Why is the fat boy sitting in a cinema? Is that a form of paradise, or is it somewhere else? Is a fortune gesturing within his head because his head is a misfortune, so that the sight of his face is rank and silent, part of a role which must remain silent? In the cinema, his face is invisible. Does “rank” mean “overgrown and undesirable”, like a plant, or is it a noun describing his social status, in parallel with his fortune? Rank was the biggest film company in Britain at this time, maybe not so big in Canada. Why does the sight of buffalo make him cry? Why are the buffalo pursuing the cowboy and not running away, as their allotted role as prey would seem to propose? In this way the poem seems unfinished and we don’t find out who the fat boy was. At one level, the stanza describes frozen time (as in death) versus the world of transience (which has some unclear link with Sodom). Google suggests that the name Baldar, which appears twice, is a spelling variant of Baldr or Baldur, a Norse vegetation god who was killed by a dart of mistletoe. That refers to vegetation myth, the dormancy of plants during the hard winter months. That would explain why the protagonist is dead, but why does he appear as a vegetation god? The poet seems to be so fluent that the poem fills up before it tells us what it really has to tell us. The drink turns to froth, it expands and expands but there is no wine left to drink. I like these poems but they are also a point where you realise that Hine is not properly in control of his own fecundity, that he does not focus enough on the essential point of his poems.

I started on 50s Canadian poetry because I was interested in the theme of personal myth. With Hine, it is the opposite – he takes public myths which he has almost no interest in. His next book “The devil's picture book” is almost free of Christian themes– they have just been jettisoned. It is a less interesting book than “The carnal and the crane”. His poems seem like goods shining under the high-key lighting of the department store rather than objects within somebody's home.

Hine, up to his death in 2012, represented the legacy of the 1950s. Auden had become extremely affluent in the 1950s, partly on the strength of having said farewell to communism and partly on the basis of his having access to lost and pre-modern funds of indigenous technical knowledge with regard to metrics and gracious living. This is the 1950s which the 1960s churlishly spurned. Daryl Hine never spurned it. The style had a sixty year life inherent in it once it was clarion enough to capture someone in their teens. The terms affluence and affirmative linger around him and it is only if you find them irritating that you would want them to disperse into a more cool and hi-anxiety environment. It is impressive how at 21 he has assimilated Auden, probably the most prestigious English-language style of the moment, and taken that merely as a point of departure. That might seem like a merely public ambition, but Hine has seized it with a peculiar accuracy and confidence. At that point any recovery of the 1950s is going to shed lustre on Hine. Maybe anxiety and the ways of transforming it always were the central issue. Hine certainly does transform it even if we find his result a bit like Christmas music in a department store. The verbal fluency is a form of affluence. You have to get the package – I mean, youth, effortlessness, virtuosity. It is fabulous and it really is churlish not to enjoy it. But he has difficulty with deep notes – with gravity. Marzipan is not a meal. The top film genre of the 1950s was the musical and Hine has some of the same delight in sheer skill – in the disappearance of the restraints, of realism or even of gravity. In his poems, the costume designer seems to have free hand and the dramatist to have disappeared on a long weekend.

Is this gay poetry? Well, there are 1000 ways of being gay. You can argue that a social or legal atmosphere which imposed permanent anxiety on the gay milieu elicited a response in which nothing is ever made explicit and anxiety never arrives to spoil the party. That comes out rather like a heated-up version of affirmative culture: gracious living simply expands to cover everything with its peculiar gloss and wholesomeness. It is not essentially different from any other affirmative culture – if we are going to recover the time, we have to recover the motives for that gloss, for the wish that cooking would never go wrong and that people mingling socially would always like each other. Pervasive anxiety and social rejection in adolescence could be one of the motives for wishing for sweetness in adult life. He does the generalisations about how great life is. A good example is in a poem, published under different titles, but here as “The copper maple”:

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

(from ‘The essential Daryl Hine’) The affirmative generalisation is the key message. The maple must be a reference to Canada, so this is even a patriotic poem– although another version of it was called “The copper beech”. What I miss is the transition from anxiety to freedom from anxiety. His poems don’t seem to open on anything – the threat is not allowed to be present so there is no open ground to advance into. The world it recounts has no negative side. He is interested in behavioural beauty but in terms which confine it to behavioural prettiness. I guess the anxiety might be latent in the verbal grace which might trip at any point. But we don’t really expect a formation dance in “Seven brides for seven brothers” to be interrupted by a mistake; and after a while we don’t expect emotion to interrupt Hine’s dazzling cadences. The opening of this poem is a magic moment:

After 10 am in Evanston
The leaves droop as if tired in the heat
The sky has put on that etiolated pallor
Which protests that it cannot absorb more light.
Colorless as paper. In the paper
Those who affect to predict the weather say
That it will be over 90 again today.

Evanston is where Hine lived for many years and the poem must almost certainly be taken as one about happiness in marriage, gay marriage in this case. The leaves are emblematic of a desirable suburb, an agreed symbol for settling down and enjoying life together. This is a great poem but not great all the way through. The differences between the two versions are fascinating but may also be a distraction. But, we can also offer ourselves the feeling that he could have written ten different versions, all good – that what you get with Hine is that sense of fluency, where he can go in any direction and any path he offers is going to be equally decorative, equally vivacious, equally undemanding.