Signs of Genius: John Barton in Conversation with Evan Jones about the Late Daryl Hine

Daryl Hine

Daryl Hine was born in British Columbia in 1936 and began studying Classics at McGill in 1954. After a period of wandering that took him to Europe, he moved to the United States in the 1960s. He eventually made his home in Evanston, Illinois, where he obtained a PhD at the nearby University of Chicago. Editor of Poetry (Chicago) from 1968 to 1977, he received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1986. The author of fifteen books of poetry and six works of verse translation, Hine completed A Reliquary before he died on August 20, 2012. This new book of poems will be published by Fitzhenry and Whiteside in 2013.

Evan Jones, Daryl Hine’s literary executor and editor at Fitzhenry & Whiteside, was born in Weston, Ontario, and has lived in Manchester, U.K., since 2005. His first collection, Nothing Fell Today But Rain (Fitzhenry and Whiteside 2003), was a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for Poetry. With Todd Swift, he co-edited the anthology Modern Canadian Poets (Carcanet 2010). His latest book of poetry is Paralogues (Carcanet 2012).

To mark Daryl Hine’s passing and his lasting accomplishment, The Malahat Review dedicates its Winter 2012 issue to his memory. Five of his last poems are found inside the issue, including several that will appear in A Reliquary. One of these five, “Sleeping and Waking,” is a sterling example of Hine’s finesse as a poet.

The Malahat Review’s editor, John Barton, interviewed Evan Jones by email in December 2012.

How did you come to know Daryl Hine? What was he like as a person?

In the early 2000s, Daryl had a website, a blog of sorts, on which he swore never to work with a publishing house again. The site was full of poems, translations, updated regularly, and there was a contact address if I remember rightly. In 2005, working with Richard Teleky on his poetry debut, The Hermit’s Kiss, I asked if Daryl might possibly write a blurb for him. Richard had worked with Daryl when he was editor at Oxford University Press, publishing Daryl’s Selected Poems in 1980. I had an address, I just needed a reason to write. Richard was hesitant—they’d lost touch. But I went for it. And a few weeks later I had a reply. Daryl sent a blurb via email, and at my urging promised to send manuscripts.

Daryl could be very suspicious—especially in the early days when we didn’t quite know what to make of each other. Just before Recollected Poems appeared in 2007, I began to interview him by email for the U.K. poetry journal PN Review. He was keen at first, but as the process wore on he began to respond with one-word answers and to be more and more short with me. I remember that we had a bit of a tiff about politics. I was trying to get something out of him, something stronger than the “poetry is so much more interesting than politics” spiel he was throwing around. He was after all the editor who had published the only openly political issue of Poetry in its hundred-year history (“Against the War” in September 1972). But Daryl wasn’t having it, wouldn’t be pushed and wouldn’t go further. We got over the tiff and I think he was happy with the final product, but it was pulling teeth all the way through. I think now this had to do with me taking him away from his poems, from his own writing. I know another recent interviewer had the same problem.

So, as a person? Reluctant, withdrawn, grumpy, frustrated, and even frustrating, yes, at first. But as the years passed we became friends. His caregiver, Will Finley, told me Daryl would wait by the phone for me to call. Will teased Daryl about it. Phone calls were the basis of our overseas friendship. We would work on a manuscript, chat about the news or some recent review in the TLS—and we would gossip about poets. Daryl had stories about Auden and Bishop, Dudek, Layton, and Purdy. He had known Anne Wilkinson briefly and even met Dylan Thomas once in B.C. in the fifties. (Thomas offered him a “ciggy,” the butt of which Daryl kept with him for years.) I found amid his papers this past September a poem he wrote for me, before we met in person, which happened just once in May 2011. I’ll keep the poem to myself, but like many of Daryl’s poems for others it’s really more about him than me.

I began to correspond with Daryl in 2004, while assembling Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Male Poets (Arsenal Pulp, 2007). As you’ve already mentioned, with exception of his translations from Greek and Latin, the majority of his work was then out of print—to my amazement. Your characterizing him as being frustrated is affirmed by the tone of some of his replies to my emails. I got the impression that he felt neglected. How can it be that a poet of his stature, a MacArthur Fellow and former editor of Poetry (Chicago), would find himself in such an odd situation? What do you think were the primary reasons for this?

A couple of critics have argued about his neglect—both in Canada and the U.S.—and I think there’s some truth to this. In the U.S., he was a resident alien, in Canada part of the brain drain. He didn’t fit anywhere, wasn’t classifiable beyond his formalism—which everyone seemed to argue was out of fashion. But Daryl was proud of this, even titled one of his collections Resident Alien, which is to say he knew what he was. He didn’t plan to leave Canada, didn’t plan to settle in Evanston—but that’s where life took him. What more can one say? But there are others factors. It’s important to remember that he was villainized by many during his editorship of Poetry (this despite the fact that he published early work by, among many others, Margaret Atwood, Seamus Heaney, William Logan, Michael Schmidt, Ron Silliman, Charles Simic—even an early version of John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”!). He was the man in charge of keeping the fashion. Perhaps he sought neglect after being on the runway for more than ten years—he wanted to step away from the arguments and be known instead for his work.

But there are other factors: breakdowns, his declining health through the 90s, and the deaths of his partner Samuel Todes and his friend James Merrill in 1994 and 1995 respectively. I think Daryl lost a big part of his support network with those two men and he never recovered. Merrill was someone who kept him afloat in many ways, connected him. Away from Poetry’s editorial board, away from his friends, sick and withdrawing, why should anyone have helped him? He had nothing to offer but poetry. I suppose that’s where I came in.

Several obituaries I’ve read since Daryl died describe him as poet striking out on his own path aesthetically, that his faithful application of traditional prosody gave him a distinctive voice many might have found out of sync with their own sensibilities. Do you feel this is a fair assessment?

Evan Jones

Evan Jones

There are very few critics capable of judging Daryl’s work as a whole—formally, aesthetically, referentially. And those few who have or had the skillset all spoke highly of him: Northrop Frye, Harold Bloom, John Hollander, John Fuller, Eric Ormsby, Rachel Hadas. I could go on. So, how can it be that he was thought of as out of sync? And yet he was. He connected himself to a larger tradition, didn’t take to the Poundian economy almost every other poet has struggled with over the past hundred years. Any joe without any sense of history or prosody can write a free-verse poem. Daryl wasn’t any joe, he was a master, not elected or decided upon but talented and determined. That makes him sound out of reach—and he could be—but his best poems are just that because they have something working beyond the surface, a tension underneath that the reader has to grapple with. It’s not easy, but it is rewarding.

Though he was born and raised in British Columbia and studied at McGill, Daryl spent most of his adult life living in the United States, during decades when Canadians and Canadian writing became ever more nationalist. Do you think he felt estranged from Canada? Or did he become so immersed in his life in Chicago and in his literary relationships with American writers that he seldom if ever put much thought into this?

No, not estranged—not any more so than he was from the Beat-y, free-verse world in general. It wasn’t choice that took him from Canada, but life. And love—Sam Todes took on a position at Northwestern in the early sixties and Daryl followed him there from New York. A number of people tried to bring him back to Canada over the years. One of the first was Margaret Atwood. They were friends for a time. She was teaching at UBC in the mid-sixties and arranged for Daryl to read—his first trip to the province and the first time he had seen his father since leaving to begin his BA in 1954. (I found a letter from Daryl’s father written to “William” amid his papers, which might start to say something of their relationship.) But then he started a PhD at the University of Chicago and then Henry Rago asked him to edit Poetry and so there he was. Through all that he held onto his citizenship, never became an American. And I think that he suffered some in the U.S. because of that—wasn’t eligible for certain prizes and grants. I do know that &: A Serial Poem being short-listed for the Governor General’s Literary Award made him very, very happy—the first time he had been a finalist for an award in Canada. He bought a badly needed new laptop with the prize money.

You have been Daryl’s editor at Fitzhenry and Whiteside for many years. In my opinion, Fitzhenry and Whiteside deserves enormous credit for bringing Daryl Hine more into the spotlight on both sides of the border, initially with the publication of Recollected Poems in 2007, the first major survey of Daryl’s poetry since Oxford published Selected Poems in 1980, and then with the publication of &: A Serial Poem, in 2010, a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry that year. Can you shed some light on what it was like to work with him and how the publication of the two books affected him?

I had very little input on Recollected Poems—besides suggesting Daryl write an introduction. He sent me two manuscripts in 2006—one of new material, Apart from You, and Recollected, which incorporated much of the former. Both were complete and I took them to Fitzhenry. It was decided to give the latter a go. Publishing a selected or collected in Canada is a difficult proposition. There are funding limitations on republished material in Ontario—which is one of the reasons why there are so few selected and collected editions of Canadian poets. So, I was surprised by the decision, but we all knew it was the more important project. I remember that a member of the sales staff had the book on a table at one of the big U.S. trade shows and she told me someone saw it, stopped, said, “You have this?!?” and ordered a copy on the spot.

I was much more involved in &: A Serial Poem. We were closer—perhaps it even built our friendship—and so that book I edited with him. Daryl sent me a mess of poems, over 350, the result of more than ten years writing, roughly in the arrangement in which it was published. A number repeated earlier lines and motifs, some were near-complete copies of other poems, and some were just dismissible. The final count was 303 ten line poems in Daryl’s homegrown & form. He enjoyed being edited and told me no one had approached his books in the way I did. I think his only “editor,” ever really, was James Merrill, who helped with all of Daryl’s Atheneum books. Having said that, for Daryl, either a poem was working or it was rubbish. If I had a problem with one line, say, he either ignored the criticism or cut the poem.

Fitzhenry and Whiteside will be publishing a posthumous book of Daryl’s poems, A Reliquary, in the spring of 2013. (The Malahat Review published the title poem in its Spring 2012 issue). Can you tell us about this new collection and how it came together?

Daryl sent me the manuscript of A Reliquary last Christmas. It is composed entirely of poems written since the publication of &. We began working on the editing early this year. Daryl was in and out of hospital through the winter and he was worried. He knew it would be his last book and told me as much. I tried to brush this off, I suppose, because his health was always up and down, but he was anxious and so we set to work. Within two months of the arrival of the manuscript, he sent another two dozen poems. He was always prolific, but never more so. When we had finished the final edits, he wrote to say he was already at work on a new translation of the Argonautica—from the point of view of the ship, naturally. He never finished this, but I have the beginning of it.

By May, Daryl was stable and we spent that month and the next talking weekly about the book. He gave me instructions as to the cover, added dedications to Jay Macpherson and Virgil Burnett—important friends who had passed away. He was funny about some of the poems. “An Expiation,” for instance, has some lines that echo from an earlier poem, “The Wasp,” published in the New Yorker in 1963 but left out of Recollected. When I asked about that he gave me an “Ah, well,” and changed the subject. I don’t think he had forgotten that he had already written the lines, it was more of a desire to see them used again. Perhaps he wanted the continuity.

As Daryl’s literary executor, you are the custodian of both his published work and his papers. Have you yet found a home for the latter? Do you anticipate there being future posthumous books by Daryl Hine, and if so, what might they be? Do you believe that someone will eventually write his biography?

I was very happy and relieved when in mid-November the University of Chicago Library collected Daryl’s papers. The house on Ridge Avenue in Evanston where Daryl lived for more than forty years is to be sold and likely demolished, and there was some question as to what would become of his archive. That is now settled and I am grateful to Alice Schreyer, Assistant University Librarian, for taking on the project.

I have a couple of future projects in mind. Daryl and I had discussed a selected translations, and even a collected shorter prose. But I think next should be a complete poems. There were unpublished things in his office at the house, which I visited in September: a playful novel about the Scottish historian and humanist George Buchanan, on whom Daryl wrote his PhD; much of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in translation; the aforementioned Shipshape; and many uncollected poems, including a couple from the Apart from You manuscript. As soon as there’s a moment I’ll begin going through to see what is publishable.

As for a biography, nothing would make me happier. Daryl’s life was colourful and dramatic and there are stories to be told. He himself started telling those stories with In and Out and Academic Festival Overtures, but there’s much more to him than the adolescence which he is prized for.

In an interview he gave to The Paris Review, Conrad Aiken said we isolate our greatest artists either by excessive praise or by ignoring them, but that this isolation is perhaps our greatest gift to them. If he indeed felt isolated, do you think Daryl Hine put this isolation to good use?

Yes. Isolation, especially in the final few years, meant that Daryl had nothing to do but work and go back and forth to the hospital near his home. In one of our conversations earlier this year he told me how bored he was, how all his friends were dying or had moved away. But then he wanted that isolation, too. When I arranged a reading in Chicago for &, Daryl cancelled at the last moment; he grew bored with an interview an American poet was working on and called it off. Anything that took him from work bored him before too long.

I realize this is an unfair question, but what do you consider to be key to Daryl’s legacy?

The dialogue with poetry in Daryl’s work goes back thousands of years, beyond the English language, really. And he made that seem a natural progression—which of course it isn’t. Poetry was inherent in him, a life-long connection developed through reading, writing, and translating. He went from wunderkind to alte meister. How many can say that?

To those unfamiliar with Daryl Hine’s work, where would you recommend that they start?

I think Recollected Poems is an excellent introduction, but In and Out and Academic Festival Overtures are Daryl’s masterpieces. It’s not just the skillfulness, but the maintaining of that skillfulness over a book-length work that reveals the real marvel of his intelligence and craft. Fitzhenry had plans to republish those two books, but economics has made it impossible for the moment. Of his translations, the most accoladed—and rightly so—is Theocritus: Idylls and Epigrams (1982), published in Canada by McClelland & Stewart, and well worth searching out. With Daryl, you can’t help but wonder—how did he do all of these things? But that’s the sign, isn’t it, of real genius.

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Soon after Daryl Hine’s death , a number of obituaries were published in Canada and elsewhere. What follows are representative:
Quill & Quire

The Poetry Foundation

The New York Times

John Barton

John Barton