from Anthony Hecht: Selected Poems, edited by J. D. McClatchy
For every poet there are defining experiences: certain people and books, certain losses and sorrows, certain landscapes and themes that are compulsively revisited over the course of a career. One theorist would claim such experiences are unconscious, happen in one’s earliest years, and haunt the writer ever after. A second theorist would insist there are inherent mythic patterns that shape a life, and the art made from that life. A third critic would contend that every writer struggles with his literary ancestors, desperately trying to overwrite them. Theories abound, and are always too narrow to contain the full scope of a poet’s art. Still, any reader of Anthony Hecht’s poems will sense that, for all their variety, they circle a few crucial preoccupations, and use their technical skill to speak about these in an especially charged and commanding manner.
An imaginary map of Hecht’s sensibility would most certainly note how, as it were, Germany and Italy border each other. His experiences as a combatant in World War II and later as a sojourner in Italy were central for Hecht as landscapes over which deeper issues were deployed. When he deals with the Holocaust—as in “Rites and Ceremonies” or “Persistences” or “The Book of Yolek”—it is in a ritualistic or subdued manner that will allow him to address horrifying matters. And when he refers to his time in combat, it is usually a memory of utter isolation—far removed from the carnage and chaos, noise and camaraderie of actual warfare. In “Still Life,” the poet is describing a lakeside just at dawn, and after talk of liquid leafage and glittering cobwebs, the poem pauses:
Why does this so much stir me, like a code
Or mufﬂed intimation
Of purposes and preordained events?
It knows me, and I recognize its mode
Of cautionary, spring-tight hesitation,
This silence so impacted and intense.
As in a water-surface I behold
The ﬁrst, soft, peach decree
Of light, its pale, inaudible commands.
I stand beneath a pine-tree in the cold,
Just before dawn, somewhere in Germany,
A cold, wet Garand riﬂe in my hands.
We know from other poems that this scene strangely duplicates scenes described from Hecht’s childhood, where we ﬁnd the lonely boy staring blankly out of the window, or standing paralyzed in front of a hill in winter. In other words, his wartime memories—of sickening fear or helplessness—serve to focus earlier, deeper memories, and the way they each recall and reinforce the other is part of the force of a Hecht poem. Even more telling is the contrast between such memories and the unexpected places they recur. In “A Hill,” for instance, standing in a busy Italian piazza, the speaker is suddenly stricken with a memory of childhood. The extravagance of language used to describe the scene yields suddenly to a ﬂat, stark speech. How often the gilded, luxuriant aspects of Italian landscape, architecture, or high art are lovingly rendered, only to be pulled like a sumptuous rug from under our feet. “My instinct for contrast and dialectic,” he once explained to an interviewer, “is almost always at work, as a dramatic element of the poem, so that any ﬂamboyance is likely to be confronted or opposed by counter-force directness, elemental grit.” These counter-forces were at work throughout his career, and give his poems their dramatic momentum and fascination. Description and psychology pull against each other, ﬁnely observed textures can be suddenly ripped through like a stage backdrop. The diction in any one poem will veer giddily from high to low (in one poem, “Evangelist” is rhymed with “pissed”).
“In each art,” the poet Richard Wilbur has written, “the difﬁculty of the form is a substitute for the difﬁculty of direct apprehension and expression of the object.” This accounts for the seeming contradiction between the subjects and shapes of many of Hecht’s poems. Each of his books is stalked by occasions of madness, paranoia, hallucination, and dream; there are exile, plague, miscarriage, murder, genocide. Yet they are dramatized in stanzas of intricate construction and often grandiloquent diction. Form is meant as the long looking-glass, as a way of seeing the detail, the quaking heart, in the very midst of the muddle. He wants simultaneously to see the world and tell the truth. If Keats’s urn is to be believed, and beauty is the whole truth, then the ravishingly beautiful stanzas of a Hecht poem—so intricately plotted, so lavishly detailed, their rhythms such that form and speech are a single pulse—would be truth enough. But a Hecht poem has always been something more. His is a responsible art, an art that responds to history, to political and domestic tragedies, with an awareness of personal accountability. The beauty of a Hecht poem, the very skill by which its material is revealed, often throws into an even stronger, more pathetic light the desolation of the human condition that is his subject. His poems are most moving when they offer their art to their subjects, when the poet ﬁnds words for the unspeakable, gives images and dramatic life to the inarticulate—a servant girl or battered child, a young woman dying of leukemia or a concentration-camp internee. The words and images he offers them, of course, enable the reader to share both the victim’s forlorn aloneness and the poet’s speculative freedom, both the bafﬂed suffering of humankind and the consoling wonder of language.
The voice in Hecht’s poems is like none other. Even so, he learned to speak in his very individual way by listening closely to earlier poets. Among his immediate forebears, two poets were crucial inﬂuences. One was T. S. Eliot, whose example helped shape not just Hecht’s style but his sensibility, which, like Eliot’s, is marked by a melancholy in the gloom of collapsed beliefs, occasionally startled by ﬂashing glimpses of redemption. The other poet who helped Hecht toward his characteristic tone of voice was W. H. Auden, whose conﬁdence in the mind’s capacities resulted in a brilliant lexicon, a restless invention, an intellectual rigor, and an inclusive gaze. At the heart of both these poets’ achievement is their way of confronting a loneliness of spirit that can be a curse or a blessing but is an inevitable concomitant of human life. Hecht’s voice—whether we know it is a dramatic character’s or presume it is his own—echoes that same loneliness: words piled against a vacancy, longing pitched against despair. Eliot and Auden were what we would call mid-Atlantic poets, straddling the two cultures, British and American. But both looked primarily to older English poets as muses, and Hecht did too. George Herbert, John Milton, and above all William Shakespeare were the poets he most admired, and each had a different distinction. Hecht liked Herbert’s calm perfection of phrasing, Milton’s architectonic rhetoric, and Shakespeare’s breathtaking imagery and dramatic virtuosity. What all these poets share, of course, is the Biblical language that is the true heartbeat of traditional English poetry. In Hecht’s work, the cadences and gravity of the King James Bible are everywhere. The dark visions of certain Old Testament books—Ecclesiastes, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Job—as well as the raptures of the Psalms and the narrative power of Matthew are intrinsic to his imagination.
To say that Anthony Hecht was a literary poet is only to claim for him what is important to every great poet. His style is a composed one, enriched by allusions to history and the literature of the past that he expects the reader to take notice of because they serve as an echo chamber within which his own poems’ themes gather weight and resonance. In the same way, he often turned to traditional verse forms—sonnet, sestina, villanelle, and their kin—in part to pledge his allegiance to the continuity of English poetry. Any account of this aspect of his work, of course, implicates the far larger ambitions of the making and meanings of a poem. Hecht’s “Peripeteia” memorably bows to this when a poem is described as “Governed by laws that stand for other laws, / Both of which aim, through kindred disciplines, / At the soul’s knowledge and habiliment.” The rules of prosody, in other words, are moral principles meant ﬁnally to reveal the structure of human dilemmas and sympathies. Verse forms are one attempt at that. The sonnet’s template or the villanelle’s refrains are ways to shape the music of speech, and Hecht uses both received and invented forms as bracing structures inside which an argument unfolds. If the tone of his lines seems elevated, that is because all poetry is language heightened, and should sound out of the ordinary. If the texture seems complex, that is because he is acutely sensitive to the harmonies and dissonances of the line, to the syncopation of rhythms, to the way rhymes will manipulate and satisfy our expectations. “A serious and durable work of art, whatever its medium,” he once wrote, “will make the sort of demands upon us that invite repeated experiences that will fail to exhaust the work.” With each fresh reading, a Hecht poem reveals itself to be a prism, new facets mirroring new depths.
His books ﬁrst appeared after long intervals but had an immediate authority. How did they change over the decades? A Summoning of Stones was published in 1954, when the poet was thirty-one years old. That his poems had been appearing in literary journals for seven years before the book came out is a sign of how fastidious he was about making a formal debut. He had long since sought out the teachers—John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate—he thought would encourage the best in him, and his apprenticeship coincided with the heyday of New Criticism, a way of reading and writing poetry that favored irony, wit, dexterity, constraint, and subtlety. Those qualities are all on display in his ﬁrst book. There is a gallantry of formal design, and an almost baroque excess of poetic language and learning. There are few short poems, because from the start Hecht preferred to dramatize, digress, and slowly divulge. His motifs—a fountain, say, or a cat—are moving objects in an intricate balance or a controlled disorder. And lurking behind most of the poems is a sense of mortality, the ﬂesh as the skeleton’s carnival mask.
When The Hard Hours appeared thirteen years later, a clutch of poems from A Summoning of Stones was reprinted at the end of the new collection, but the effect was less to remember an earlier achievement than to emphasize what an advance the new poems represented. The book opens with “A Hill,” one of his strongest poems, an eerie account of the long cold arm of trauma as it reaches into a man’s life. The contrasting panels of this poem—a sunlit clarity and a chilling shadow—are everywhere echoed in the rest of the book, but Hecht’s desire here is not merely to depict them but to understand their dynamics. His style has drawn closer to speech, and the dramatic appeal of the poems is more skillfully managed. The tone can be wry, but the gravity is more ﬁerce and compelling. Other poems in the book—“Third Avenue in Sunlight,” say, or “Behold the Lilies of the Field”—explore the borders of sanity, linking the history of humankind with the individual psyche, each an emblem of the other. Still other poems return to feelings elicited by his wartime experiences in Europe. “ ‘More Light! More Light!’ ” surely ranks with Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles” as one of the most disquieting poems of the century, their portraits of war all the more terrible for the restraint of the telling. The centerpiece of The Hard Hours is another poem that comes from the darkest hours in Hecht’s own life, his encounter as a battle-weary infantryman with the German concentration camps at the end of World War II. “Rites and Ceremonies” is unlike any other Hecht poem, and the reader is aware of the wrenching emotional cost to the poet as he put the pieces together: suffering, prayer, brutality, despair. Rather than the steady voice of other Hecht poems, this poem is a collage of Biblical and liturgical fragments juxtaposed with what seem black-and-white glimpses of a documentary ﬁlm about man’s inhumanity to man.
After a ten-year silence, two books appeared in quick succession, Millions of Strange Shadows (1977) and The Venetian Vespers (1979), and can be read together as the next stage of his poetic development. Now, his dramatic instincts dominate, and there is a remarkable new amplitude to these books, a hovering sympathy with thwarted desire. His tone can be sadly ironic, as in the chambermaid’s tale that gives “The Grapes” its pathos; or it can be more tautly heartbreaking, as in the masterful “Coming Home,” about the English pastoral poet John Clare’s attempted escape from a mental asylum, an escape that only leads him into a deeper confusion and loss. The profound sense of gratiﬁed love that animates “Peripeteia” is the obverse of the delusion and repressed rage that drive “Green: An Epistle.” Hecht’s virtuosity and range are at their best in these books. The longer narrative poems that anchor The Venetian Vespers provide exquisite evidence of this judgment. The title poem especially is a grand monologue, man at the end of his tether, the story of an empty life haunted by an unhappy childhood (Hecht himself once wrote that “for many complicated reasons my childhood was a rather bitter and lonely one”) and by a glistening, grimy, glorious beauty that swirls about him in a fabled city of wavering reﬂections.
His ﬁnal three books are a closing chapter. The Transparent Man includes two long poems—one of them, the spooky “See Naples and Die,” about a collapsing marriage, is included here—and, in the book’s title poem, one of his most eloquent dramatic monologues. But in general the poems in these collections are shorter, pungent variations on familiar themes. Hecht returns to an abiding source of inspiration, the masterpieces of the painter’s art. The idiom of composition and color always attracted him, and to listen in as he describes the effects of the brush is an enlightening privilege. Also, whether translating a chorus by the old Sophocles or revisiting episodes in the Bible, he writes here from the perspective of age. There is an achieved wisdom to many of these later poems, condensed rather than garrulous, sometimes sardonic, sometimes severe. “The Presumptions of Death” is a witty set of assumptions, the poet putting Death through his paces in order to dramatize the roles we play seeking to avoid the inevitable. Yet there is never the sense of lines engraved in granite. His wit and curiosity, the warmth of his affections, and the chiaroscuro rendering of his scenes, his ability to startle—all these remain. The late poems are quieter, reconciled, more accepting, and in poems like “Devotions of a Painter,” “Prospects,” “Proust on Skates,” “Late Afternoon,” and “The Darkness and the Light Are Both Alike to Thee,” the redemptive power of beauty is celebrated with a renewed urgency.
For over half a century, poets and readers alike have turned to these books for their technical mastery, their intellectual power, and the plenitude of their emotion. If I had to single out one of his literary achievements that I value most, it would be his truth-telling—his steady, clear-eyed confrontation with the facts of our lives. I would not want to underestimate the salty slang, the satiric bite, or the ingenious wit of some of his poems. But I return with gratitude to that strain in Hecht’s work, so rare in contemporary poetry, that I can only call noble—high, important matters dealt with in a manner that is contained, digniﬁed, and open, full of feeling: life looked at from the vantage of spirit.
About the Author
J. D. McClatchy is the author of six volumes of poems and three collections of essays. He has also served as editor of many other volumes of poetry; including The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry and James Merrill's Selected Poems. He teaches at Yale and is the editor of The Yale Review. He lives in Stonington, Connecticut.
Alfred A. Knopf