“Extravagance is a legitimate feature of poetry,” Anthony Hecht remarked in an interview, and it’s extravagance that thrills me in “A Birthday Poem.” No mere occasional lyric, the poem praises love within time’s passage. It layers references to visual arts, acknowledges bleak historical moments, engages Shakespeare’s sonnet #53 on the question of substance versus appearance, and risks imagistic whimsy. Its dull title is a mask: the poem hides the book’s flamboyant name within it, in lines borrowed from the sonnet. (How better to emphasize the play between appearance and matter than by cloaking extravagance in bland dress?) The poem’s music darts and shifts, its dozen sestets interlacing five-stress lines with shorter lines of three and four stresses. While many lines are iambic, there’s an ease in the number and placement of lighter syllables that, combined with the rhyme pattern, gives brio. All together, the poem enacts what Hecht described in the same interview as his “rejection of the sort of ‘lyric’ that aims at a single effect or a single emotion.”
To borrow one of its rhyme words, “A Birthday Poem” might be read as a vivid “overplus” of Hechtian tropes. It opens with three similes for the “loose community of midges” whose optical properties the speaker considers. A summer birthday, a bright noon, the air full of humming life…what could be more festive? And yet, do these midges perhaps faintly echo Keats’s gnats in wailful choir? They are eerily likened to a “hovering ghost” and the dots in a “sick child’s” puzzle. They fly through noon light that casts the “summer trees in a golden dazzle.” Still, noon is the balance point of the day, and while the trees are brilliant, they’re not “green-gold,” but almost autumnal-sounding. And that date in the epigraph: June 22, the summer solstice. Or a day past it. We don’t know which age is being celebrated here, but we might suspect it is one nel mezzo del cammin.
It’s not surprising that Hecht, a master of ekphrasis, would include descriptions of visual art. What abundance, though! And what a strangely-curated collection. Within its 72 lines, the poem gestures towards two specific paintings, then a genre, then photography. While the “Flemish distance” seems cheerful enough, the two almost-named works by Mantegna and Holbein are oddly grim to invoke on a birthday. Perhaps important in a poem concerned with shifting perspectives, the paintings are inversely visually striking. Mantegna’s “Crucifixion” foregrounds the death scene against minute details of a background city, drawing our eye deeper into the picture plane. Holbein’s “The Ambassadors,” the most famous anamorphic image of the renaissance, pulls our eye into the middle ground with its rich detail of the two men. It then kicks our focus back out: a large hovering skull disrupts the picture plane and can only be seen properly if we radically adjust the angle of our view. Death is in front of us, as it’s in front of the ambassadors; it’s what divides those two men painted in 1533 from us. Yet we can only visualize it obliquely.
Two stanzas then shift our attention from artistic renderings of mortality to its philosophical and historical frame. Hecht brings Spinoza together with modern scholars casting their cold-eyed Zeiss binoculars on military massacres. Part of Hecht’s extravagance has always been his allusive wit. “Those kingdoms come/To nothing,” the scholars archly remark.
It’s not until the eighth stanza that the speaker’s “eye” attaches itself to a particular heart and throat and personal pronoun. What has occasioned this materialization of the speaker, his “birth” as a singular person in the poem, as it were? In the same sentence that introduces the “I,” we meet the engendering source, the “you” whose face —unlike natural phenomena, artistic works, and historical disaster —is “inexpressible.”
When the speaker describes a snapshot of the “you,” aged four, we see why mortality has been so present. The beloved’s face is changed over time, and is cherished now both for its mutability and for the constancy of its “gladness without stint.” This picture of a child in sneakers isn’t just sentimental detail (or, it’s not only that); I think Hecht is creating a dialogue between photography and Shakespeare’s sonnet. “Shadows,” “shade,” and “counterfeit” are crucial words in the sonnet. They also appear in early writings on photography as its status wavered between science, magic, and art. “Secure the shadow ‘ere the substance fade,” reads one popular advertisement for the daguerreotype. (That bit of Victorian morbidity is almost a response to the sonnet’s third line: “Since every one hath, every one, one shade.”) Photographs are time capsules; they hold an instant while reminding us that we’re speeding away from it. Hecht suggests this gently with his mention of the “vanished camera of somebody.” Like cameras, of course, somebodies also vanish. But the speaker has, today, the “live imprint” of the beloved’s smile; it may be her birthday, but he’s the one who’s received that gift.
One last extravagant turn closes the poem. If, as Helen Vendler suggests, the last line of sonnet #53 is really a propitiatory gesture urging its “you” to constancy, Hecht shifts focus, spinning the gesture back toward himself in a birthday wish, or prayer.
click below to read "A Birthday Poem" by Anthony Hecht: