December 29, 2015
The Feast of Stephen by Anthony Hecht
The coltish horseplay of the locker room,
Moist with the steam of the tiled shower stalls,
With shameless blends of civet, musk and sweat,
Loud with the cap-gun snapping of wet towels
Under the steel-ribbed cages of bare bulbs,
In some such setting of thick basement pipes
And janitorial realities
Boys for the first time frankly eye each other,
Inspect each others’ bodies at close range,
And what they see is not so much another
As a strange, possible version of themselves,
And all the sparring dance, adrenal life,
Tense, jubilant nimbleness, is but a vague,
Busy, unfocused ballet of self-love.
If the heart has its reasons, perhaps the body
Has its own lumbering sort of carnal spirit,
Felt in the tingling bruises of collision,
And known to captains as esprit de corps.
What is this brisk fraternity of timing,
Pivot and lobbing arc, or indirection,
Mens sana in men’s sauna, in the flush
Of health and toilets, private and corporal glee,
These fleet caroms, plies and genuflections
Before the salmon-leap, the leaping fountain
All sheathed in glistening light, flexed and alert?
From the vast echo-chamber of the gym,
Among the stumbled shouts and shrill of whistles,
The bounced basketball sound of a leather whip.
Think of those barren places where men gather
To act in the terrible name of rectitude,
Of acned shame, punk’s pride, muscle or turf,
The bully’s thin superiority.
Think of the Sturm-Abteilungs Kommandant
Who loves Beethoven and collects Degas,
Or the blond boys in jeans whose narrowed eyes
Are focussed by some hard and smothered lust,
Who lounge in a studied mimicry of ease,
Flick their live butts into the standing weeds,
And comb their hair in the mirror of cracked windows
Of an abandoned warehouse where they keep
In darkened readiness for their occasion
The rope, the chains, handcuffs and gasoline.
Out in the rippled heat of a neighbor’s field,
In the kilowatts of noon, they’ve got one cornered.
The bugs are jumping, and the burly youths
Strip to the waist for the hot work ahead.
They go to arm themselves at the dry-stone wall,
Having flung down their wet and salty garments
At the feet of a young man whose name is Saul.
He watches sharply these superbly tanned
Figures with a swimmer’s chest and shoulders,
A miler’s thighs, with their self-conscious grace,
And in between their sleek, converging bodies,
Brilliantly oiled and burnished by the sun,
He catches a brief glimpse of bloodied hair
And hears an unintelligible prayer.
The Feast of Stephen
If you are interested in seeing the complete short film by James Franco based on this poem, it can be found at the following link: http://m.sinemalar.com/mobileweb/movieInfo/169207. It’s only 4 min. long and is quite interesting.
You may know of this poem if you are a huge James Franco fan. He used this poem as the basis for a student film he made in college. When he was at NYU, he made three short films based on the following poems: “The Feast of Stephen” (Anthony Hecht), “Herbert White” (Frank Bidart), and “The Clerk’s Tale” (Spencer Reece). Of the three poems, he said that this was the one that had the least character development. It has characters in it, and there is a progression, but until the last stanza, the characters are described as a group, rather than as distinct individuals. The first two stanzas, set in a locker room and a basketball gymnasium, describe boys coming into their new bodies. The boys are not differentiated. Sometimes there is subtle distancing from these boys, like the last two lines of the second stanza that seems to be describing the gym from a distance. Even when the boys are described as inspecting each other, it doesn’t sound as if the voice of the poem is their voice. It is too sophisticated, the metaphors are too advanced, the diction too high. There is another kind of consciousness present, even if it isn’t described within the actual substance of the poem.
In the third stanza, there is a sharp change in the development of the poem’s subject. The pubescent and exploring boys are now described as violent. They are compared to an SS officer and are at an ominous hangout where there are cracked mirrors and weapons like gasoline and knives. The members of the group are not distinguished from one another, but the group’s identification has changed. The boys have become evil and potentially destructive.
The last stanza finally differentiates some of the characters. The description recalls the martyrdom of St. Stephen, described by Luke in Acts 6–8. The character of Saul functions on two levels. In the context of the poem, he is the witness who observes and does nothing to stop the violence. Without Saul, the attack would unfold at a distance, with no possibility of outside intervention. To have him there but doing nothing places the reader there as well, asking us to consider occasions when we have stood by in the face of injustice. The boy who is being beaten is another new character freshly differentiated from the group. He is compared to a martyr. It is not clear why he is being beaten, although the first two stanzas lean heavily on homoerotic descriptions, suggesting that violence is homophobic in nature. If the first stanzas show the boys in a state of discovery and uncertainty, the later stanzas could be read as moments after the boys have decided that the innocent observations that took place in the early stanzas were wrong, that that kind of behavior should be punished.
One of the leading voices of his generation, Anthony Hecht’s poetry is known for its masterful use of traditional forms and linguistic control. Extraordinarily erudite, Hecht’s verse often features allusions to French literature, Greek myth and tragedy, and English poets and poetry stretching from Wallace Stevens to John Donne. Hecht, who died in 2004, was often described as a “traditionalist.” George P. Elliott contended in the Times Literary Supplement that “Hecht’s voice is his own, but his language, more amply than that of any living poet writing in English, derives from, adds to, is part of the great tradition.” Though his early work was often slighted as ornate or Baroque, his collection The Hard Hours (1967) is generally seen as his break-through volume. In that book, Hecht begins to use his experiences as a soldier in Europe during World War II. The often unsettling and horrific insights into the darkness of human nature told in limpid, flowing verse that characterize the poems in the collection would become Hecht’s trademark. According to Dana Gioia: “Hecht exemplifies the paradox of great art…He found a way to take his tragic sense of life and make it so beautiful that we have to pay attention to its painful truth.”
Anthony Hecht was born in New York City in 1923. Though a self-described mediocre student, he nonetheless counted his first three years at Bard College some of the happiest of his life. His college career was interrupted, however, when he was drafted into the army to serve in World War II. As an infantryman, he fought in Germany, France and Czechoslovakia. His division also helped liberate Flossenburg concentration camp. Ordered to collect evidence from the French prisoners, the experience marked him for the rest of his life. Hecht returned to the United States and finished his degree at Kenyon College where he studied under John Crowe Ransom. At Kenyon he also formed friendships with poets like Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Allen Tate and Randall Jarrell. Hecht’s first book, A Summoning of Stones (1954) displays great technical skill, but for some critics, the style seems mannered and dated.
A longtime professor of poetry at the University of Rochester, Hecht also taught at institutions such as Georgetown, Yale, Harvard and Smith College. He was the Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress from 1982-1984, and won many of America’s most prestigious poetry awards, including the Bollingen Prize, the Ruth Lily Poetry Prize, the Wallace Stevens Award and the Frost Medal. His collected poems were published in two volumes, Early Collected Poems (1993) and Later Collected Poems (2005). His death in 2004 was marked by a great outpouring of tributes and eulogies. In the New York Times, David Yezzi offered this praise: “It was Hecht’s gift to see into the darker recesses of our complex lives and conjure to his command the exact words to describe what he found there. Hecht remained skeptical about whether pain and contemplation can ultimately redeem us, yet his ravishing poems extend hope to his readers that they can.”