The Venetian Vespers

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

There are several hard ways to mastery of the poetic art, and no easy ones; but in pursuing a stable academic career, and in publishing at a relatively leisurely pace—four books of poems since 1954—Anthony Hecht might be thought to have evaded many risks of the trade. Yet reading through his work provides an opportunity to see the effects of brilliance backed by tough determination. Hecht’s first book, A Summoning of Stones (1954), is a marvelous assortment of highly wrought poems in the neoclassical manner, almost mandarin in their exquisite stasis. Developing the skill to produce such poems is a demanding, time-consuming business, and several poets who have come close to such mastery have been content to stick with it, repeating earlier successes. Hecht, however, without abandoning the formal brilliance that distinguished his early work, has relaxed his hold somewhat, so that his more recent poems break out of cut-glass motionlessness to carry narrative, character, recollection, and even, on a few occasions, something like what has carelessly been called confession.

As a collection, The Venetian Vespers is perhaps less satisfactory than The Hard Hours (1967) or Millions of Strange Shadows (1977); it is much more uneven and less unified. But a few of the poems in this book are better than anything Hecht has done before. This is a large book which contains a small number of poems. Thirty of its eighty-five pages are taken up with four translations and nine poems of ordinary length; the remaining fifty-five pages are accounted for by only one translation and two poems. It is these long pieces which give the book its extraordinary power.

As if to introduce the new direction in which his recent explorations have taken him, Hecht opens the collection with two blank-verse poems—a dramatic monologue and a meditation—which are noticeably different from the symmetrical stanzas for which he is best known. “The Grapes” and “The Deodand” are leisurely in pace and wonderfully evocative of detailed settings; they make a fine warm up for “The Short End,” the first of the two long narratives.

It is a very long way from “The Gardens of the Villa D’Este,” one of Hecht’s lushest early poems, to the world of Norman and Shirley Carson; the poem, again in blank verse, opens with a twenty-two-line sentence describing Shirley’s large and astonishingly vulgar collection of souvenir pillows. The first of the poem’s five sections continues to set the scene: in late middle age, Shirley is a drunk, and her husband is the disillusioned owner and operator of an automobile-body shop. He has long since given up on Shirley’s drinking; he comes home, empties ashtrays and thinks about staleness, and goes to bed long before Shirley does:

She would sit up till late, smoking and drinking,Afloat upon a wild surfeit of colors,The midway braveries, harlequin streamers,Or skewbald, carney liveries of the macaw,Through which, from time to time, memories arose.

“Of these,” the second section begins, “two were persistent.” Sections II and III detail the first, a wretched compound of nostalgia and humiliation, from the early days of the marriage when her husband was a traveling salesman. His company sends him to a convention in Atlantic City, and the couple treats the trip as a slightly delayed honeymoon. The second night, they are inveigled into a party by three other couples, who, when they discover that the Carsons are newlyweds, engage in a devastating round of vulgar toasts, songs, and suggestions. It is on this evening that Norman gains his lifelong nickname, Kit. Finally, when Kit and Shirley are released, it is made clear that they are the only married couple present, and that they have a lot to learn about conventions. The scarifying accuracy of Hecht’s narrative is amazing; it is suggestive of Thurber, though the humor of the situation is not exploited in the tone.

With the opening of Section IV, the second persistent memory is introduced; it is a bizarre item, like something out of Flannery O’Connor. This time, Shirley and Kit are somewhere south of Wheeling,

. . . driving through a late day in NovemberToward some goal obscure as the very weather,Defunctive, moist, overcast, requiescent.

Around a curve, they discover a long line of parked cars and a billboard announcing a live entombment. A smaller poster proves more expository, if not quite explanatory; in a coffin rigged...

(The entire section is 1963 words.)