PRODUCED, Directed and edited
by Alan Berliner
Widely known as a translator and critic, Edwin Honig’s importance to American letters stands with his poetry, best represented by the compilation of his 12 previously published books, Time and Again: Poems 1940-1997 (2000). The early poetry in the collection suggests an expansiveness, the “roving magnitude” (61) reflected in Honig’s often anthologized tree-shaped poem saluting Walt Whitman’s determination to continue “quixotically alive against / the hoax of sin & dying” (61). Towards the end of the volume, however, Honig speaks of a darker persistence as he hovers between natural and man-made space. In a late poem, “Chapter in the Life Of,” he depicts himself ironically as “still perched comfy / On the ledge unready as ever / for the blunt-edged bang of things to come.” (574). The progression in those lines from the “comfy perch” through the internal rhymes that connect “ledge” to “edge” suggests that the physical lassitude derives from a metaphysical anxiety, an “edginess” that results in immobility. No longer projecting himself as flowing seamlessly into a Whitmanesque nature, the poet hangs on even as he hangs back because “things to come” are haunted by the memory of things gone by: the “blunt-edged” century of violence he has witnessed.
Born on the day the Versailles treaty ended World War I, in September of 1919, Honig came of age in the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Drafted into the army infantry, he served on the battlefields of Europe from 1943-1946, endured the disquietude that most intellectuals felt during the McCarthy inquisitions and the Vietnam war and is still living in the aftermath, and writing about, the cold war period. He was Briggs-Copeland Professor at Harvard and, from 1957 until he retired in 1982, taught at Brown, where he formed the creative writing program and founded Copper Beech Press.
Twice a recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship and awards from the National Endowment of the Arts and Humanities, Honig traveled extensively, particularly through Spain and Portugal. Perhaps the greatest influence on his own writing was the immersion, facilitated by those voyages, in the work of poets—unknown to English speaking audiences until he made them available—from the Iberian Peninsula. The first to have translated the modernist Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa (1971), Honig also wrote the first critical study of Federico García Lorca (1944). His translations of six Calderón plays (1994) and, jointly with Alan Trueblood, Lope de Vega’s Dorotea (1985) are considered the definitive English texts of those Spanish Renaissance writers. Additionally, he has rendered English versions of the poetry of Miguel Hernández (1990), García Lorca (1990), and of Cervantes’ Interludes (1964). As a practitioner of the art, Honig published a series of interviews with fellow-translators, The Poet’s Other Voice (1986). For his translations, Honig was knighted by the President of Portugal in 1986 and similarly by the King of Spain in 1996.
Like García Lorca and Pessoa, who were drawn to (and wrote about) Whitman’s quest to become the “body’s prime / reunionist (61),” Honig anticipates the recoveries celebrated at the end of the first section of his own long poem in four parts, the 1972 Four Springs: “High noon. It’s time to get up—jump into my pants, / Run out and dance / In the foggy streets of Providence, play God / Maybe bring out the sun” (214). The expectations of reculer pour mieux sauter infuse his early and mid-career poems. The desire to attach—to grandparents, parents, wives, selves, even houses—is part of the Whitmanesque pattern of his poems, what he calls “the body’s unthinking lunge towards survival,” p. 213. But, also like Lorca and Pessoa, Honig steadily questions whether the unifying project (“all men himself alone,” 62) Whitman proclaimed in naming his poem “Song of Myself” could withstand the disintegrative pressures of twentieth-century experience.
Though the collection begins with a poem commemorating the pleasure of diurnal return—the magnificent squibs of sunset in New Mexico (“A horse turning turquoise in twilight,” 24)—and ends with one expressing the hopeful dawning of “full light. . . . for the life that lifts awakened,” 600), the sense of déjà vu in the title, “Time and Again,” typifies Honig’s ambivalence. The repetitions inherent to rhythmic timing underscore an original separation anxiety: “it has happened before,” 179. Often his poems are organized around fractures: the migrations from Spain and Israel of his father’s family before the wars, the traumatic death (for which he was blamed) of his three-year old brother under the wheels of a Mac truck when Honig was five, the divorce of his parents, the death of his first wife, Charlotte Gilchrist, and the subsequent remarriage to, and divorce from, Margot Dennes. On a geopolitical scale, the sense of a more frightening pattern of inevitable recurrence in “and again” comes from a feeling that one catastrophic historical event simply laid the groundwork for another. In that sense his work is postmodernist, casting a previous poetic generation’s angst as the outcome of long-ago planted cultural and societal seeds.
The presumption of temporal instability prods the formation of a slippery self: “I wished that I could be . . . so firm a thing as Me or Mine, something / I’d never be.” 255. Those disconnections stem from the seemingly endless multiplication of personae, a habit parallel to Pessoa’s use of heteronyms: “I lie photographing / the self—myself, all selves . . . as once Mathew Brady, / in innocent camps / of suffering, snapped the tired grim lounging dying, / Blue and Gray” (199). The civil war simile itself is problematic, recording the equivocations of the divided self even as the objectively accurate photograph reflects an emptiness, a doubling at the core that exposes a disinclination for the connections fostering emotional ties: the “possibility to continue detached / is probably almost infinite” (407).
How does the “I” who seems never quite present (“being someone / between himself now / and himself to come,” 464) function poetically? Honig’s sense of betrayal by the past—mythically in terms of recognizing the destructive influence of his cultural heritage, psychologically in terms of having to write out of the permutations of loss, and creatively in terms of a fundamental distrust of his own impulses (“alone with my spoofer . . . demanding hopefulness” 571)—leaves him dependent on a new source of invention. “Reborn of inklings” (374), Honig’s indeterminate self derives from the variability of the poet’s own inscriptions. The intimations of life in “inklings” suggest that he supplies the medium of his own evolution as he casts himself in a series of Rorschach blots which even he has trouble deciphering. Each of the books in the collection is prefaced by one of Honig’s puzzling line drawings, impromptu squiggles—still other “inklings”—that shift among animal, human, and imaginary shapes as the viewer scrutinizes them from differing perspectives. But even in the long poems of the eighties, the ink sometimes dries out as Honig begins to doubt his capacity to enact the transformations he craves. In “Gifts of Light,” nature pulls the writer out of his sluggishness: “When the sleeper in his sleep / Cannot find himself / the light finds him” (455). In “Near the Pacific: Earth Dreams,” the elusive self is met by diminishing returns from the natural world. At the end, the poet is stared down by a mountain lion. The creature intrudes and then “melts in the thickets” (561), suggesting the unreliability of external sources for sustained inspiration: “where plenty is found / there it is lost” (559).
Honig’s recent work reveals his discomfort about living in the wake of the twentieth century and beyond the death of his friends. The trimmed lines reflect the reduced prospect of surviving past eighty: “Still sun regulates / The tempo of / Its inching shadows” (592). Rather than glorying in high noon, the poet feels acutely subject to time’s repetitive determination. “Inklings” (379) decline into “inching[s]” (592). No longer feeling that “the song [automatically] wells up again” (457), Honig writes of the attenuated power of words: “A primed hesitance / Of speech to say / What’s true” (590), a phrase reminiscent of Robert Lowell’s “why not say what happened” in the concluding poem of the 1978 Day by Day (127). Honig’s “what’s true” is, however, different from Lowell’s “what happened.” While Lowell’s question grants him license to open his private life to public scrutiny, Honig’s reluctance even “to say” reflects the simultaneous inadequacy and redundancy of words. Against the confessional flood (and even therefore against the impulse of his own longer poems), the poet lingers longingly in the hope of lesser “inklings.” Nevertheless, his expectation in the waiting—“a primed hesitance” (590)—implies a preparedness, like Hamlet’s “the readiness is all” (5.2.211), for the blank spaces ahead. But, as primal, last things derive from the same annihilative potential as the earliest. In contrast to Hamlet’s certainty that “the rest is silence” (5.2.347), Honig’s quiet is pregnant: “the unbroken / silence felt full” (470). Urging himself to build from the feared blankness, he writes, “You’re rich, you beggar / You’ve got a clean page / To start with” (569).
Selected Primary Sources, Honig, Edwin, Time and Again: Poems 1940-1997 (New York: Xlibris, 2000); translations—Calderón: Six Plays (New York: Iasta, 1994); Miguel Hernández: The Unending Lightening(New York: Sheep Meadow Press, 1990); Federico García Lorca: Four Puppet Plays; Divan and Other Poems; Prose Poems and Dramatic Pieces, Play Without Title (New York: Sheep Meadow Press, 1990); Fernando Pessoa: Always Astonished (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1988); Fernando Pessoa: Selected Poems (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1971); Lope de Vega: La Dorotea, with Alan Trueblood (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1985); criticism— Calderón and the Seizures of Honor (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1972) Dark Conceit: The Making of Allegory (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1959); García Lorca (New York: New Directions, 1944). Selected Secondary Sources: A Glass of Green Tea with Honig, ed. Susan Brown, Thomas Epstein, and Henry Gould (New York: Fordham UP, 1994); Daniel J. Hughes, “Edwin Honig,” The Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Poets Since WW2 Volume 1 (Detroit: Gale Research, 1980): 347-357; J. Clair White and James Chicetto, “Interview with Edwin Honig,” The Connecticut Poetry Review 7. 1 (1988) 1-12.
Barbara L. Estrin
An Edwin Honig Memorial prize was recently established at Brown University. It will be awarded annually by the Literary Arts Program to the best piece of creative writing (in any form).