Anthony Hecht in 1976 (University of Rochester, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections)

Anthony Hecht, who died in 2004, has assumed the status of one of the major American poets of the past century’s late decades, taking his place alongside Richard Wilbur and James Merrill as formalist masters. His eight books of poetry brought him numerous prizes and awards, and his teaching career included many years at the University of Rochester and Georgetown. As a critic and biographer, he published essays and reviews of his contemporaries and an important full-length biography of W. H. Auden titled The Hidden Law. Like Auden, Hecht was a master of ironic wit seasoned with lyric grace, and his range of allusive reference to different kinds of poetry was prodigious. As an occasional writer of light verse, he combined with John Hollander to produce Jiggery-Pokery, an ingenious collection of verse they designated “double dactyls.” One of Hecht’s students, the poet Mary Jo Salter, has rightly praised his “grave historical sense,” but his impressive fund of learning was always enlivened by a remarkable technical ingenuity.

David Yezzi’s new full-length biography of Hecht has been preceded by a number of related books about him, notably Jonathan F. S. Post’s generous selection and probing critical study of Hecht’s letters, A Thickness of Particulars. There is also a book-length interview by Cyrus Hoy full of rich details about Hecht’s life, and there are numerous essays and reviews about all aspects of Hecht’s literary career. Yezzi tells us much we already knew about Hecht’s life and writings; his manner is wholly agreeable and ingratiating toward his readers, and he quotes just enough from the poems to make us want to read them in their entirety in the handsome new edition recently published by Knopf. Yezzi is himself a poet, and his respect for and love of Hecht’s work is evident throughout. Here I offer a few moments in Hecht’s work that strike me as particularly revealing of his distinctive style and temperament.

Hecht’s poetry is difficult, painstaking, “formal” in its commitment to stanza and rhyme (to blank verse as well), usually elegant, and remarkably consistent in its effort to find the exact word, or so it seems as we vigorously attempt to engage with the poet’s train of thought and feeling. Two examples may represent early evidence of the “frail, unlikely origins / Scarcely perceived, of all you shall become”:

Whole eras, seemingly without event,
Now scud the glassy pool processionally
Until one day, misty, uncalendared,
As mild and unemphatic as a schwa,
Vascular tissue, conduit filaments
Learn how to feed the outposts of that small
Emerald principate. Now there are roots,
The filmy gills of toadstools, crested fern,
Quillworts and foxtail mosses, and at last
Snapweed, loment, trillium, grass, herb Robert.

The erudition and opulence of Hecht’s early poems must surely be acknowledged.

Would you please repeat that, slowly, this reader requests. I missed the word that comes after “Snapweed” and in fact I probably should look up “quillworts,” along with “foxtail mosses,” and maybe “schwa.” Can I be the only person who is thrown by this whole passage (not to mention what precedes and follows it)? These lines occur in “Green: an Epistle” from Hecht’s third volume, Millions of Strange Shadows. The following stanza is from “A Cast of Light” from The Venetian Vespers, written about the same time in his mid-career:

A maple bough of web-foot, golden greens,
            Found by an angled shaft
Of late sunlight, disposed within that shed
Radiance, with brilliant, hoisted baldachins,
Pup tents and canopies by some underdraft
Flung up to scattered perches overhead,
These daubs of sourball lime, at floating rest,
            Present to the loose wattage
Of heaven their limelit flukes, an artifice
Of archipelagian Islands of the Blessed….

Faced with such verbal energies, a reader might be somewhat apprehensive about the style of whatever is to follow. 

Ripping out random passages from two poems is, of course, unfair. I do so here only to suggest a little about the difficulties we confront in coming to grips with the poems that contain them. Not all of Hecht’s readers were pleased at the results; among the many laudatory comments on his poetry—beginning with his first volume, A Summoning of Stones—two negative assessments stand out, each by English critics and practiced readers of poetry: Donald Davie and Denis Donoghue. Even if we don’t ultimately agree with their negative takes, there is value in considering their misgivings. Here is Davie, writing of Stones, which he found to be “full of erudite and cosmopolitan references, epigraphs from Moliere and so on…the diction is recherché, opulent, laced with the sort of wit that costs nothing.” Yezzi says that Davie’s reputation was that of a “hatchet-man,” but since Davie was a serious poet and critic, his judgment deserves a response, not a preemptive dismissal. The erudition and opulence of Hecht’s early poems must surely be acknowledged; the later poetry, still full of opulence and erudition, manages to avoid the oppressive diction that often characterized his earlier work.

What lightens the reader’s burden is the pervasive wit that helps us take things in the large, as we remember the fuss about dead white European males and the attendant controversy about who should get academic attention.

One of Hecht’s most effective ways of loosening things up is through humor. Here are some stanzas from a late poem, “Rara Avis in Terris,” which satirize the “jailbirds of ominous wing” that populate the scene. These “testosteronic felons,” notable for their “threats and theatrical aplomb,” are not just “in the ascendant” but have infiltrated what should be a quieter scene:

It’s the same in the shady groves of academe
Cold eye and primitive beak and callused foot
Conjunctive to destroy
                        all things of high repute,
Whole epics, Campion’s songs, Tolstoy,
Euclid and logic’s enthymeme
As each man bares his scalpel, whets his saber
As though enjoined to deconstruct his neighbor.

And that’s not the worst of it; there are the Bacchae,
The ladies’ auxiliary of the raptor clan
With their bright cutlery,
                                    sororal to a man,
And feeling peckish, they foresee
An avian banquet in the sky,
Feasting off dead white European males,
Or local living ones, if all else fails. 

Alexander Pope would be pleased to have written these lines.

In Philip Hoy’s book-length interview with Hecht, he raises explicitly the matter of Hecht’s often difficult vocabulary, noting that even friendly critics have sometimes balked at it. Hoy mentions the word “anthelions” as one that will have readers reaching for their dictionaries. Does Hecht worry, he asks, about unfamiliar words standing out in his poems? Hecht pretty much brushes off the question by saying there’s nothing wrong with inviting a reader to look up a word. The lines I quoted from “Rara Avis in Terris” may not require the assistance of a dictionary, but there is some excess here, and in the poem as a whole, language is deliberately difficult, not to be taken in too easily. What lightens the reader’s burden is the pervasive wit that helps us take things in the large, as we remember the fuss about dead white European males and the attendant controversy about who should get academic attention. It’s the sharp surprise that makes all the difference, subordinating peculiarities of diction to the larger joke. It’s fair to claim that over the course of his career, Hecht’s wit became stronger and more surprising in the connections it made.

Hugh Kenner once defined “pace” as the rate at which a poem reveals itself. It’s difficult to talk convincingly about pace without reading a poem aloud, as one does in any good poetry class. One of the most attractive things about Hecht’s work is his delicacy in creating verse whose rate of revelation is highly satisfying. Central to this effect is the daring way in which he extends without punctuation an argument that ranges over stanzas. You think it must be time for a full stop, but the voice will not be interrupted. Pace is one important virtue of what may be my favorite Hecht poem, his elegy to the critic David Kalstone, one of the first victims of the AIDS virus. It’s important to deal with the whole six stanzas:

who died of AIDS

Lime and mint-mayonnaise and salsa verde
Accompanied poached fish that Helen made
For you and J.M. when you came to see us
Just at the salmon season. Now a shade,

A faint blurred absence who before had been
Funny, intelligent, kindness itself,
You leave behind, beside the shock of death,
Three of the finest books upon my shelf.

“Men die from time to time,” said Rosalind,
“But not,” she said, “for love.” A lot she knew!
From the green world of Africa the plague
Wiped out the Forest of Arden, the whole crew

Of innocents, of which, poor generous ghost,
You were among the liveliest. Your friend
Scattered upon the calm Venetian tides
Your sifted ashes so they might descend

Even to the bottom of the monstrous world
Or lap at marble steps and pass below
The little bridges, whirl and eddy through
A liquified Palazzo Barbaro.

That mirrored splendor briefly entertains
Your passing as the whole edifice trembles
Within the waters of the Grand Canal, 
And writhes and twists, wrinkles and reassembles.

After the two introductory stanzas in which Kalstone is saluted, we are brought up short by the dismissal of Rosalind’s “wisdom” in light of a contemporary plague that has wiped out the unknowing “crew.” The following long sentence extends over two stanzas, then sweeps us forward to the sentence that follows (“You were among the liveliest”) and on to the next stanza’s end at the Palazzo Barbaro. A lot goes on in those seven-and-a-half lines, most notably the surprising and strong allusion to the “monstrous world,” evoking the great moment in Milton’s “Lycidas” in which the hero “[v]isit’st the bottom of the monstrous world” before his triumphant rise. 

Hecht’s outstanding skill in writing rhymed verse shouldn’t obscure the fact that he was equally gifted with blank verse. One of the longer late poems, “The Transparent Man,” shows distinct traces of Robert Frost’s easy, subtle command of idiom in North of Boston and later books. In “The Transparent Man,” a fatally ill woman speaks from a nursing “home” she will never leave. Her signal activity now is to study the sycamore and beeches outside her room, and recently she has discovered, “the dense, clustered woodland just behind them.” She gazes, fascinated at this “riddle / Beyond the eye’s solution.” If there is order to this wilderness:

It takes a better eye than mine to see it.
It set me on to wondering how to deal 
With such a thickness of particulars,
Deal with it faithfully, you understand,
Without blurring the issue. Of course I know
That within a month the sleeving snows will come
With cold, selective emphases, with massings
And arbitrary contrasts, rendering things
Deceptively simple, thickening the twigs
To frosty veins, bestowing epaulets
And decorations on every beech and aspen.
And the eye, self-satisfied, will be misled, 
Thinking the puzzle solved, supposing at last
It can look forth and comprehend the world.
That’s when you have to really watch yourself.

If one is tempted to paraphrase the poem, the very thickness of this passage cautions us to watch ourselves, lest we think the “puzzle solved” and “be misled.” Better to register these lines’ weight and measure as one more example of Hecht’s poetic authority. It is an authority the poet shares with David Yezzi, whose sympathetic eyes and ears are everywhere apparent in this book. 

Late Romance
Anthony Hecht—A Poet’s Life
David Yezzi
St. Martin’s Press
$40 | 480 pp.

William H. Pritchard’s most recent book is Ear Training (Paul Dry Books). A frequent contributor, he is the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English, emeritus, at Amherst College.

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