Anthony Hecht, poet, was born on January 16, 1923,
and died on October 20, 2004, aged 81.
ONLINE, October 26, 2004:
Poet who expressed the horrors of the 20th century in
verse of formal rigor and cultured gravity.
One wants to feel in control, Anthony Hecht once
said of the formal, austere poetry that became his hallmark. If you are writing in
free verse, what makes it a poem? A number of my contemporaries wrote in free verse, but
it became just random jottings from their minds.
Hechts own poetry was the opposite of random: most of his verse appeared so
highly crafted and formally rigorous as to be unimprovable. Among the finest American poets
of the late 20th century, he was the creator of an urbane body of work that emphasized
formal integrity and classical austerity when many were as consciously eschewing them.
Anthony Evan Hecht was born in New York City in 1923, the son of a banker. He was
educated at three of the citys schools before studying at Bard College, a
progressive offshoot of Columbia University that emphasized self-directed study,
particularly in the fine and liberal arts.
Almost as soon as he got there Hecht decided that he wanted to become a poet. He
announced his new vocation to his horrified parents who at once enlisted a family friend,
Theodore Geisel, to dissuade him.
Geisel, better known as the childrens author Dr Seuss, advised Hecht to read the
biography of Joseph Pulitzer, the newspaper publisher. Surmising that he was being pushed
towards more lucrative ways than poetry of writing for money, Hecht never read the book.
Later in life, he joked that his main piece of advice to young writers was never to read
the biography of Joseph Pulitzer: but perhaps appropriately, he took the Pulitzer Prize
for poetry anyway in 1968.
After three years at Bard College, Hecht was drafted into the 97th Infantry Division of
the US Army after the outbreak of the Second World War. As basic training proceeded, he
said, he found himself entirely unable to read. The combination of fatigue and the
numbing effect of close-order drill . . . had all but lobotomized me, he told the
writer Philip Hoy. I feared I would never be able to read anything with pleasure
again, should I even survive. It was a terrifying kind of pre-death.
Pre-death became actual once Hechts division was sent to Europe. There is
much about this I have never spoken of, and never will, Hecht later said of his war
service. He served in France, Czechoslovakia and Germany, often under heavy fire and inept
command. He saw men of his company machinegun German women and children who were waving
white flags, something that he said left me without the least vestige of patriotism
or national pride. His division was also the first to discover the concentration
camp at Flossenbürg. Hecht, who spoke some French and German, translated the statements
of the prisoners who could still speak. The place, the suffering, the
prisoners accounts were beyond comprehension, he said. For years after I
would wake screaming.
On leaving Germany, he spent some time in Japan, generating news copy to portray the
occupying American forces in a favorable manner. It was quite shameless,
hypocritical work, he said, and therefore perfectly consistent with everything
I had ever known about the Army.
Discharged in 1946, he studied for a further year at Kenyon College in Ohio. There, he
was taught by John Crowe Ransom, whose poetry he came fervently to admire. At the end of
the year he went briefly to Iowa to teach, but, suffering from post-traumatic shock
syndrome after his war service, gave it up swiftly to enter psychoanalysis. After that he
returned to New York, where he was taught by Allen Tate; and when Tate left, Hecht took
over his teaching job.
In 1951 he was awarded a Prix de Rome fellowship beating Jack Kerouac and
spent a year writing in Rome. While in Italy, he visited Auden on Ischia and spent an
afternoon helping him to pick the Yale Younger Poet of the Year John Ashbery.
Hechts first collection, A Summoning of Stones, appeared in 1954, when he
was 31. It was impressive and well reviewed, but seen now it appears to falter under a
counterfeit archaism and wilful elegance that Hecht later eliminated. Nevertheless, it won
him a Guggenheim Fellowship, enabling him to quit Bard College and return to Rome. That
year, he also married.
By the time his next collection appeared in 1968, his marriage was over and Hecht had
gone from teaching job to teaching job, backed by a string of fellowships. He continued to
innovate in 1966 Esquire magazine published an essay in which he and John
Hollander introduced a form of light verse composed of double dactyls, featuring the
exploits of Marcus Aurelius, Vladimir Horowitz, Judas Iscariot and other rhythmically
felicitous personalities but it was with the publication of The Hard Hours
that his reputation became international. He won the Pulitzer Prize the next year.
Gone was the effortful sprezzatura of his earlier volume. In its place was an
individual voice formal, grave and bleak, but not without humor in which
Hecht was able to tackle subjects from the Holocaust (in the much-anthologized More
Light! More Light!) to Matthew Arnold (the entertaining parody The Dover Bitch).
It was an urbane poetry that did not flinch from atrocity and horror, employing
well-mannered classical reticence to set off the inhumanity of its subjects.
Such a style would become Hechts stock in trade. He pursued it in Millions of
Strange Shadows (1977) and in The Venetian Vespers two years later, which, in
language laced with Psalmic references, explored the inner landscape of an expat American
wandering in Venice: an obsolete/ Left over from a weak ancien régime/ About
to be edged out with upstart germs.
After Obbligati in 1986 he became almost prolific, turning out collections in
1990 (The Transparent Man), 1993 (The Hidden Law), 1996 (Flight among the
Tombs) and 2002 (The Darkness and the Light). He also taught younger writers
such as Brad Leithauser and Norman Williams, and served on the faculties of Harvard, Yale
and Rochester College. He retired in 1993.
Hechts criticism displayed the sensitivity to musical and
rhythmic life that informed all his poems. He set himself to study what he called
the music of forms, believing that poetry works upon us in ways of which
we are not fully aware unless we put ourselves to study of the work . . . and examine it
with care, tact and delicacy.
Those three principles were central to his own analyses; but he was an astute forger of
linkages, too. Once he suggested that the sonnet form might owe its persistence to the
Vitruvian ideal of architectural proportion, noting that the relationship between the
length and width of Palladios Villa Foscari is 8:6, the same as that between the
octet and the sestet in a Petrarchan sonnet.
Hechts final book, The Darkness and the Light, was notable for its further
condensation of what was already a compressed poetic form. One poem, Sarabande on
Attaining the Age of Seventy-Seven, has as its final stanza:
A turn, a glide, a quarter-turn and bow,
The stately dance advances; these are airs
Bone-deep and numbing as I should know by now,
Diminishing the cast, like musical chairs.
His wife and son survive him, as well as two sons from his first marriage.
Poetry & Personality
the Box Coaching and
Breakthroughs with the Enneagram,
Mary R. Bast, Ph.D.
Copyright © 1999.
All rights reserved. Revised:
November 24, 2014