Millions of Strange Shadows
The appearance of new books by Anthony Hecht and Ted Hughes raises the question of the merits of two kinds of writing, the poetry of limits and the poetry of extremes. Hecht makes a good representative of the one, Hughes of the other. The poetry of limits depends on form, on gradations of tone, on language that is deliberate, obviously selected. The poetry of extremes depends on deep, often shocking, images, on sudden leaps in mood, unpredictable reversals of tone, on language that sounds uncalculated. The poetry of limits suggests clarification emerging from uncertainty; the poetry of extremes suggests mysterious emotions in conflict.
The difference between the two is not one of subject. A poetry of limits may reveal intimate facts about the poet, as Snodgrass does. It may convey horror, like Auden’s “Gare du Midi.” It may respond to a holocaust. Milton’s sonnet on the Piedmontese Massacre deals concretely with genocide but is written in an exquisitely controlled form. The poetry of extremes handles emotions which are not only intense but in open process and left clashing with one another, as in Ginsberg’s “This Form of Life Needs Sex.”
The actual source of such emotions may be limited indeed. It may be a quarrel between lovers (Snyder, “To Hell with Your Fertility Cult”) or a minor accident (Plath, “Cut”). But the response is formidable or even frenzied. The appropriate figure of speech is hyperbole.
In the poetry of extremes the author usually implies that he does not avoid the rending emotions, that to do so would be hypocritical or cowardly. As an artist he implies that by exposing oneself to such strains, one becomes a true poet. To suffer them unflinchingly is a power that separates insight from bland conventionality. The poet may even sound like a martyr, sacrificing his peace of mind in order to confer on humanity the benefit of his art: Berryman touches this note.
On the other hand, the poetry of limits can deal with pathos, tragedy, misery—the most painful of human situations. But in dealing with them, the poet establishes a distance between the self that suffers and the self that creates. His usual method of doing so is formal: careful syntax, to suggest that he is a reliable narrator; definite form, which provides a stable frame for the changing emotions; gradations of tone, to maintain continuity of discourse and make us feel the same person is speaking throughout. Wilbur’s “The Agent” is a subtle but frightening account, in blank verse, of a spy betraying a friendly people to their ruin.
Anthony Hecht certainly practices the poetry of limits. Yet he often handles obnoxious subjects: a description of the rotting corpse of a monkey (“Alceste in the Wilderness”), the horrors of war (“Christmas Is Coming,” “Drinking Song,” etc.), the destruction of the Jews (“Rites and Ceremonies”), the Lisbon earthquake. One of his least forgettable poems tells of the capture, humiliation, torture, and flaying of the Roman emperor Valerian (“Behold the Lilies of the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.