Monday, April 11, 2005

Of Past Professors and Poetry

The double dactyl, a fun and demanding poetic form, was invented by Anthony Hecht and Paul Pascal. Anthony Hecht later published a book of double dactyls together with fellow poet John Hollander.

Why am I talking about poets and double dactyls all of a sudden? you may ask.

Twenty years ago Anthony Hecht was my writing professor at the University of Rochester. I just found out that he passed away in October 2004 at the age of eighty-one. I never saw him again after his writing course ended, but I thought of him often and I’m sad that he’s gone. Barukh dayyan emet.

I felt a bit intimidated by Professor Hecht (as I still think of him even twenty years later)—he was, after all, one of the “big guns” in contemporary American poetry—but I used to love to hear him read aloud. He had a gorgeous, deep voice, and I can still hear him quoting from an ancient Greek tragedy in the perfect diction that held just a hint of his Brooklyn roots: “The best of all fates is never to have been born. ...” He had a fine wit and enjoyed challenging his students. I was delighted when I responded successfully to one of his challenges and managed to raise my grade a little at the same time. Heaven knows I needed the boost. Prof. Hecht was a tough grader.

His final exam was a bit unusual. At the beginning of the semester, Prof. Hecht gave us a list of poems to memorize, saying that if we wanted to write good poetry, we must have good poetry already in our minds. (With all respect to Prof. Hecht, in hindsight I am not sure this test was fair. I was lucky because memorization is easy for me, but I remember one student who was, and probably still is, very knowledgeable and an excellent writer but had difficulty memorizing text.) Since I memorize more easily by ear than by sight, I prepared for the exam by reading all the poems on the list into a tape recorder and playing the recording in my dorm room at regular intervals. In the end I did reasonably well, though I still felt a bit intimidated by Prof. Hecht, who was at one point the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress—in other words, the Poet Laureate of the United States.

It’s been a long time since I had much to do with poetry. But today I happened to be browsing Elisson’s blog and found the poetry he has been writing for National Poetry Writing Month. (If you haven’t visited Elisson’s blog yet, go there. He is an excellent writer and his poetry is fantastic. Funny, too.) Feeling a bit nostalgic for my former writing professor and also feeling a bit impish, I suggested that Elisson try a double dactyl. (That was unfair, I admit, since I’ve never written one myself.) Elisson responded by sending me a link to the double dactyls he has already written. I responded by pointing out pedantically that while the poems may be double dactyls in a technical sense, they don’t conform to the specifications set by Hecht, Pascal and Hollander.

So Elisson of the abundant poetic gifts and sparkling intellect promptly blew me away by writing one that did. Especially for me. By his kind permission, I include it here:

Yiddeldy fiddeldy,
Raheleh Jaskow, she
Skritches those kittycats
Each chance she get.
Cats in Jerusalem
Are not enough for her.
Surfing the ’Net!

Wow! I think this is the first time anyone has ever written a poem for me. And me with a birthday coming up, too! (And a pretty significant one at that.) Thanks, Steve!

And thank you, too, Professor Hecht. Rest in peace.

UPDATE: I just wrote my first double dactyl today, inspired by and in honor of Ellison. Here it is:

Kittery cattery,
Steve of Blog d’Elisson
Writes double dactyls with
Sparkle and will.
Humor aforethought, he
Blows us away with his
Consummate skill.

(I even included an indirect allusion to his beautiful cats, Hakuna and Matata, in the first line. Just so they won’t be jealous.)

My first double dactyl. I hope it gives Professor Hecht a chuckle, wherever he is.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated. If you're a spammer, don't waste your keystrokes. If you're a real, honest-to-goodness commenter, welcome!