What's His Face

Derek Webster on James Pollock's Essential Daryl Hine

Daryl Hine

Daryl Hine

WHO? YOU KNOW—sophisticated formalist from New Westminster, BC, award-winning translator of the classics, editor of Poetry magazine for ten years, McArthur “Genius” Award recipient, author of over a dozen books of poetry—you know. One of the most brilliant poets Canada accidentally produced. The one hardly any Canadian knows about, let alone reads. What’s His Face.

Are we getting any better at perceiving and celebrating our best? The absence of Daryl Hine from our national literary conversation, for almost fifty years, reflects the dike mentality that has characterized our low-lying cultural landscape since before Confederation. For complex, frustrating, and understandable reasons, we’ve built defensive walls into our laws against relentless incursions of American culture from the south. When that didn’t succeed and the kids started reading comic books and playing baseball, we doubled down and started building those same low walls in our minds. So it’s no surprise to read that “Daryl Hine’s long residency in the United States has problematized his connection to Canada for many critics,” as Modern Canadian Poets editors Evan Jones and Todd Swift wrote five years ago. The old lesson is clear: if you live elsewhere, the door may close behind you. We cannot afford to extend Canadian culture beyond our borders. We may forget you. The fact that Hine himself didn’t seem to care either way probably made this process inevitable.

In his essay “Daryl Hine Recollected,” poet and editor James Pollock broadens the geographical assessment and finds five reasons for Hine’s neglect north of the border:

1) Canadian poetry’s “puritanical devotion to sincerity and personal authenticity” (Hine is a highly ironic aesthete and formal virtuoso)

2) Hine’s particular brand of classicism is unfashionable—even to classicists

3) Hine’s “highbrow homosexuality” put him beyond the pale (until recently) for any but the most enlightened readers (Margaret Atwood, thankfully, perceived the value of Hine’s oeuvre very early on, and included him in her important 1983 anthology of Canadian poetry)

4) Hine’s sophisticated rhetoric (what Pollock calls his “prosodic imagination”) puts off readers used to plainspoken free verse and/or an opaque avant-garde

5) Hine lived in the USA from the 1960s onward, during the rise of Canadian literary nationalism

The old lesson is clear: if you live elsewhere, the door may close behind you.

But there’s a crack in everything. With the 2007 publication in Canada of Recollected Poems: 1951 to 2004 (Fitzhenry & Whiteside), followed in 2010 by &: A Serial Poem (finalist for the Governor General’s Award that year), people started to notice, including Pollock and the aforementioned Jones and Swift, and the result has been a quietly building chorus of poets writing and talking about Hine with the respect and sense of overdue recognition that he deserves. Early adopters can now experience the supreme delight of having their taste confirmed.

Regretfully, I was not one of those people. As an MFA student in St. Louis, Missouri in the late 1990s, I was aware of Hine from his translations of Ovid’s great-lady monologues, the Heroides, but most of my encounters with his poetry involved individual pieces in magazines, anthology selections or books I picked up then quickly put down. Hine’s poems didn’t open up for me. As I remember it, not all the poems I read were good. No doubt my struggles had something to do with my own immaturity as a reader (and impatience) and the fact that it’s hard to get a feel for a sophisticated rhetorician like Hine from a handful of poems. I remained attracted to the idea that there was an unknown Canadian poet-translator living in neighbouring Illinois, but Hine mostly stuck in my mind because I couldn’t quite believe a Canadian could have been editor of Poetry magazine for ten years without my knowing it. And when I visited home, my experience of Daryl Hine was similar to Pollock’s as he describes it in recent blog posts for the Porcupine’s Quill and AGNI: no one I knew in Montreal (except for Robyn Sarah) was familiar with Hine. He had been forgotten. His whole career seemed more curious than real.

Early adopters can now experience the supreme delight of having their taste confirmed.

But Pollock has done Hine and all of us latecomers a great service that, if we understand and absorb the gift, could be hugely influential in the coming years. Why? Because Pollock has set a high standard—the standard of Hine’s own best work—and included only those best poems in this volume, which taps out at a trim 64 pages. The Essential Poets is the name of the series, and this book should be essential reading for aspiring Canadian poets. There is a larger book of Hine’s best work available (Recollected Poems), which started the process of rejuvenating Hine’s reputation eight years ago, but numerous mediocre works included in that compendium confuse the issue and obscure just how good Hine could be. Poets tend not to be the best judges of the value of their own work. It takes a great editor to shape a vision of another poet’s work that is both their own and true to the author; Pollock has done that here. The Essential Daryl Hine makes it obvious that the boy from B.C. really is one of the best we have. I don’t think it’s too great a leap to say that in Pollock, Daryl Hine has found his ideal editor. We should all be so lucky.

Part of the success of this volume is the careful selection of the opening six poems. These are a wistful elegy (“In Memory M.D. 1872-1962”), a playfully tense conversation with the dead (“The Ouija Board”), a near-perfect elaboration of a painting (“Lady Sara Bunbury Sacrificing to the Graces by Reynolds”), an introspective return to a site of unrequited love (“Les Yeux dans la Tête”), a meditation on art, freakishness and the junk of life (“The Marché aux Puces and the Jardin des Plantes”), and finally the brilliant “Noon,” wherein two bored peasants who wander in and out of Louis XIV’s Versailles are recast as Adam and Eve. These six pieces display a range of subjects, moods and times, a fine awareness of artifice, sincerity and death’s presence in life, and use language that is both direct and rhetorically complex. All of which lays the ground for readers to appreciate the seventh piece, Hine’s great poem “The Trout.” A natural anthology piece, “The Trout” starts out to my ears like a lot of postwar poetic fictions, full of artifice and portentous metaphor. But because of the previous poems, I’m already a fish in water, so to speak: the highly conscious nature of the poem doesn’t bother me. “The Trout” gathers all the concerns that the previous pieces touch on, elaborates them in a much more dramatic monologue (yes, it’s a singing trout) and tells us something important about life, dying, the compulsion to create art, and the meaning of home, myth and identity. And those are just the main currents.

And shifting into that toggled perspective, surprisingly, is the key to entering and staying in the wistful paradise of Daryl Hine. Once inside, lines start to release their evocative etymologies (“Phoenix Culpa”), whole philosophies gather and tip out within a single poem (“Clepsydra”), and all sorts of poetic meters become part of a single changing but recognizable voice. There are poems of such subtle beauty here (“Summer Afternoon,” “Palinode,” the selections from “&”) that one stops for long moments at a stretch, thinking, blinking… is that what I’m feeling?  Mercurial longer poems that begin catty and grumpy (“The Copper Maple,” “A B.C. Diary”) soon turn into deceptively light-hearted meditations. Has anyone written a better poem about women’s magazines—with their deep conventionality, careful edginess and masked editorial identity—than “The Man who Edited Mlle”? I like both the intensely introspective poet of “Palinode” and the later, more light-hearted lover in “What’s His Face.” Reading this selection, it's possible to tune into Hine at the wavelengths on which he was broadcasting. The experience, for me, is tremendous, exquisite and heartbreaking.

I wish there were more commentary and/or notes from Pollock, and a longer introduction. It would have been nice, for example, if Pollock’s essay on Hine, which can be found in his landmark essay collection You Are Here, could have been adapted in some fashion here. And there are references to events in Hine’s life, including a manic episode of bipolar disorder that preceded his resignation from Poetry (“A friend later described his ‘florid manic episode’ as involving ‘his taking off his clothing (à la St. Francis) and singing religious songs in public’”) that make me cry out for a biography of Hine.

If we’re ever going to free ourselves from the hell of opaque thoughts, bumptious meters and laughable bleakness, we need more examples of poets who have done so.

I said earlier that Hine’s “gift” could be hugely influential for Canadian poets, and I’d like to explain that a little. Becoming a Canadian poet remains a self-taught vocation. The primary way that poets flourish is by reading other poets’ best work—writers with whom, for myriad reasons, one forms a vital connection. When composition problems arise—and they always do; uncertainty is part of the creative process—the vexing questions follow hard and fast. Is this any good? How do I make it better? Where does it fit? What should I do? At such times it’s those reading experiences that light the way out of darkness. The cure for bad writing is good writing. If we’re ever going to free ourselves from the hell of opaque thoughts, bumptious meters and laughable bleakness, we need more examples of poets who have done so. Canadian poetry (to borrow from Roethke) has taken its waking slow. Hine’s best poetry shows us where we have to go. 

DEREK WEBSTER is the founding editor of Maisonneuve magazine. His first book of poems is Mockingbird. He lives in Montreal.

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