Louis Dudek

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 457

Daryl Hine's The Devil's Picture Book … may or may not illustrate Northrop Frye's dictum: "Poetry can only be made out of other poems." It either proves that Professor Frye's nestlings are true eagles or that poetry made out of other poems is in fact no poetry at all.

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I am impressed by the book, by how much it is a piece of ventriloquism in which seventeenth century corpses are made to speak again, or in which Auden in wax is made to babble for Hine, but I miss the fresh sensual delights of poetry. This is cold marble, the "Cold Pastoral" of Keats' Grecian Urn, romantic idealism carried to excess, to the very extinction of poetry.

In Daryl Hine we have an amazingly capable poet for whom poetry is not a mimetic art, whose eye is not in a fine frenzy rolling, who does not overflow with powerful emotion, who does not feed and water the passions, who is not an original, or a legislator, or a man speaking to men—in fact none of the things that poets and critics have always insisted is true poetry—not even an objective correlative—not even complex in an instant of time—but a poet for whom poetry is a series of extremely recherché, abstract, contrived word-forms, containing oblique and ambiguous philosophical essays and meditations. He loves villanelles, sestinas, and other formal metrical rhyme schemes that he can send spinning into the heights of philosophical outerspace. Like James Reaney's A Suit of Nettles and Margaret Avison's Winter Sun, this kind of poetry—however admirable it may seem—contains a peculiar vice of "this age of hard-trying": a desire to excel in some direction completely irrelevant to poetry, an excess setting art above ordinary men and even ordinary poets, a kind of culture-mania that began in 1910, but that in Canada we associate particularly with Toronto.

Daryl Hine's poems are almost faultless, but they are also without a tremor of excitement, like a seismograph on the moon. I doubt whether this perfection will prove an enduring virtue. When he approaches reality, he writes his one deplorable verse:

           A definition of depravity:
           What the imagination's sauvity
             Can devise
             Otherwise
           Than the simple need to fill a cavity.

Obviously what he wants is pure eternity. But the footnote to Keats is that if you want eternity it must be reached in the midst of reality, the figures and actions on the Urn; i.e., through life forever renewed, not through the contemplation of Platonic ideas in artistic repose. (pp. 153-54)

Louis Dudek, "Three Major Canadian Poets—Three Major Forms of Archaism" (originally published in Delta, No. 16, November, 1961), in his Selected Essays and Criticism (© Louis Dudek and The Tecumseh Press Limited 1978), Tecumseh, 1978, pp. 153-56.∗

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