The poet the CBC and Partisan both missed
by Brooke Clark
AS PART OF their celebration of Poetry Month, the CBC recently presented a list of “10 classic poetry collections every Canadian should read.” Partisan then responded with its own list of “11 Canadian poetry classics.” Both lists contained some fine poets—Peter Van Toorn and Alexandra Oliver stood out for me on Partisan’s list. But both also missed Daryl Hine, Canada’s most accomplished and least-known poet—a remarkable trick to pull off. Has there ever been another Canadian writer who rated an obituary in The New York Times but not in The Globe and Mail?
Hine died in 2012. Beyond the loss to Canada—and Canada was a place Hine had firmly departed from decades ago—the English-speaking world lost a writer unique in his ability to create artful English versions of classical poetry as well as intricate, philosophical lyrics and accomplished autobiographical narrative verse. That list alone sets Hine apart—how many other poets could point to such a diverse range of accomplishment and, at the same time, an oeuvre in which the author’s consciousness is always present, whether speaking in the voice of a two-millennia-old Greek epigrammatist or a contemporary human confronting insoluble conundrums of life and death?
WHEN I FIRST heard of Daryl Hine, his books were mostly out of print and almost impossible to find. Trying to read him amounted to the pursuit of an elusive fugitive. I can even tell you where I was when I stumbled across many of his books:
Ovid’s Heroines (1991) and The Homeric Hymns (1972) —a second-hand bookstore in Kingston, the two of them side by side in the poetry section, long parted from their dust jackets. One tall, slender and blue-black (the Hymns), the other shorter and stouter and a faded red (Heroines), they made an oddly matched but irresistible couple.
Academic Festival Overtures (1985)—in Ottawa, at one of those ugly discount book sales that occasionally spring up in temporarily vacant retail spaces. Harsh fluorescent light, cheap folding tables, the books arranged spine-up and tilting against one another at the sort of angles one associates with ancient ruins—which, in a way, they were. In the midst of a scant collection of POETRY (so marked on white cardboard with a black magic marker), there it was: an oddly tall and narrow paperback. I stared at it for several seconds before I registered the author’s name. It still has the little orange 2.99 sticker on the cover.
In and Out (1989)—the Ottawa Public Library. A friend of mine had dropped a Toronto library copy of Hine’s translation of Theocritus under a streetcar, and it was so damaged—spine cracked, pages almost impossible to pry apart—that the librarian told him to keep it. I considered engineering a similar fate for this copy of In and Out, but, Ottawa having no streetcars, the question of how to inflict enough injury to get the book without making it unreadable defeated me. I returned it late.
Puerilities (2001)—oddest and perhaps most memorable because I found it without effort, new, in paperback, in a Toronto bookstore, sitting there coolly in the poetry section as if to ask, “Where else would I be?” I picked it up nervously, as if it were a mirage that would dissolve at my touch. But it remained solid. I have it still.
Things have changed somewhat since then: Fitzhenry & Whiteside has done readers a great service by bringing out Recollected Poems (2007), as well as Hine’s last two books, &: A Serial Poem (2010) and A Reliquary (2013). Some of the classical translations are available through American university presses. The narrative poems remain on the run.
FORMALISM CAN BECOME a cage that traps the writer, or it can degenerate into mere mold, where content exists only to provide the plasticine. The strongest poets master forms and make poems that feel new; the weaker merely reiterate old ideas in borrowed shapes.
Hine was never just a formalist. He identified types of poems not being written—and then wrote them. Certainly he produced his share of personal lyric, the genre of choice for the latter half of the twentieth century. But he also produced two book-length autobiographical poems in narrative verse; a book of homoerotic epigrams; epics and a mock epic; hymns in English dactyls; and epistolary verse in heroic couplets.
Partly this was due to his background in classical literature. But it takes a remarkable kind of courage, and also a powerful humility, to shape your thoughts into a form that is, for most people, dead.
Some may object that many of these formal experiments took place in Hine’s translations, and not in his original poetry. This is true, but also misses the point. It was precisely his refusal to make the poetry of antiquity fit into the contemporary idea of what poetry looks and sounds like that made his translations so remarkable. To read a translation of the Iliad by Fagles or Lattimore is to read an essentially contemporary poem; the ancient content is present, but the formal qualities that have left Homer echoing through the mind of the ages have been excised to make the poetry accessible to a modern audience. In fact, by about Book III, this sort of translation can make readers wonder why there’s so much fuss about Homer; Fagles’ Iliad is a marvelous (visual) adornment to any bookshelf, but it’s almost by definition one of Ezra Pound’s “unopened, unopening books.”
Hine never published a translation of Homer; he had, perhaps, the Alexandrian preference for shorter works—“fatten your animal for the sacrifice, poet, but keep your muse slender,” as Callimachus puts it. But he did translate Hesiod and the Homeric Hymns, which are in the same metre as the Iliad and Odyssey, and it’s remarkable how different they are from contemporary versions of Homer. Partly they're simply less familiar; but here the form (true dactylic hexameters in English) instantly alerts us to the fact that we're encountering something genuinely foreign. We can’t simply glide over the surface of Hine’s versions, as one glides over the surface of a free verse translation, or one that is “loosely iambic,” or whatever semi-formal term is chosen in the dreaded “Translator’s Introduction,” where shortcomings are strenuously reframed as virtues. Hine’s formal choices constantly remind us that these poems truly exist only in Greek and that you, the reader, are reckoning with a facsimile.
This practice refuses the reader the comfort of forgetting the complicated history of the text; it reminds us at every turn that a series of choices buoys every word on the page. Other translators abuse us with the flattery of false proximity, making ancient poets “sound” contemporary; through Hine we see the original in the distance. We see how far we truly are.
WITH A POET as various as Hine, it’s impossible to pick one book and call it “representative.” But In and Out seems to me a masterpiece of sharply drawn characters, swiftly changing scenes, gorgeous descriptions, and a precise charting of an awakening consciousness, culminating in a powerfully realized experience of love and loss.
He combines stasis and movement, blends the Horatian and the Homeric. He takes the intricate word order and complex thought patterns that give Horace’s Odes the quality of engineered stillness one associates with bridges or cathedrals, and combines them with the propulsive energy of Homeric narrative verse.
Hine’s fondness for puns and wordplay is evident right from the title, which could be taken to refer to his relationship with the Catholic church or his homosexuality (and also to the book’s printing history, though in that case, sadly, it has been more out than in). Further examples of wordplay are everywhere: “I accepted the gift with misgivings”, “‘Then there needn’t be reason’ he reasoned”, “I accused / myself idly of sloth”, “a schismatical spirit / induced us to split, to the street”, “I wondered if afterthought ever / could finish what forethought had never / begun?” He’s not averse to dropping references to other poets, either: “I slipped to my knees in the leafmeal / and wanwood surrounding the log” recalls Hopkins’ “though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie.” And yet, despite the verbal density, the narrative never stalls. Rather, what Hine calls his “ribbon of anapestic verse” has such brisk forcefulness that the story moves incessantly on while paradoxically charting every twist and turn of the author’s thought, every nuance of feeling, in language that can verge on the rococo:
The temptation to virtue, at times
irresistible, poses to passionate
natures the subtlest of snares
in the long run; the conquest of nature
becomes second nature, a habit
that hardens at last into rigid
self-righteousness. Wasn’t that just
the result, the reward for resistance
I coveted? Grappling with phantoms
(I felt) of delight had defiled me
like pitch from the pit. Although glad
that such matches were rare, and relieved
that I had not yet fallen, I wondered,
so shaken, how long I could stand?
In its combination of gorgeous intricacy and swift energy, In and Out is Hine’s finest achievement: the book where all his talents are expressed at their highest level, while less appealing qualities—chiefly a tendency to lose himself in his own thought—are kept in check by the speed narrative verse requires.
WHILE I ADMIRE Hine’s variousness, that very quality ultimately defeats me: there’s only so much Daryl Hine I actually like. Ovid’s Heroines (1991), his version of the Heroides, is a favourite; the Homeric Hymns (1972) are fascinating but ultimately less interesting. Puerilities (a translation of Book XII of the Greek Anthology, which is devoted to homoerotic poems) is strikingly brilliant, but do I overvalue it because epigrams (poetry’s bastard child, too embarrassing to be acknowledged in our current, self-serious era) appeal to my sensibility? Whatever Hine does, he does well. And yet the different works are so truly different they demand a mind as capacious and quicksilver as the author’s.
Hine followed a desultory Muse: when he died, obituaries reported he was at work on a version of the Argonautica—to be told from the point of view of the ship. It’s the sort of thing that one would like to be true—it has the right ring of creativity and perversity.
WE LIVE IN a moment of ephemera, where the value of a thing amounts to the sum total of its clicks, likes, and shares, and today’s “must-see” is forgotten by tomorrow. Countless people have written jeremiads against the ephemeral nature of online culture, and their jeremiads have been tweeted, liked, commented on, and forgotten—have, in essence, suffered the fate they decried. Can poetry find a place in this culture? We’ve already witnessed the phenomenon of the “viral poem,” with works like Michael Robbins’ “Alien vs. Predator” and Patricia Lockwood’s “Rape Joke” being clicked, shared, and commented on with as much excitement—well, almost as much excitement—as a double rainbow.
And yet Hine’s work, the product of another era, reminds us that some things still can, and do, outlast virality. It combines passionate intelligence and aesthetic excellence—and creates an enduring poetic achievement. It won’t bring the same instant gratification as liking a top ten list. It’s playing for keeps, the canon, the future. Ars longa.
BROOKE CLARK edits an epigrams website (assesofparnassus.tumblr.com) and writes about references to Canada in books by non-Canadians (wowcanada.wordpress.com). His work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Queen's Quarterly, Literary Imagination, and elsewhere.