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Anthony Hecht, poet, was born on January 16, 1923,
and died on October 20, 2004, aged 81.

Obituary from TIMES 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.”

Hecht’s 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 city’s 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 children’s 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 Hecht’s 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.

Hecht’s 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 Hecht’s 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.

Hecht’s 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 Palladio’s Villa Foscari is 8:6, the same as that between the octet and the sestet in a Petrarchan sonnet.

Hecht’s 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


Out of the Box Coaching and
Breakthroughs with the Enneagram, Mary R. Bast, Ph.D. 
Copyright © 1999.
All rights reserved. Revised: November 24, 2014 
  

 

 

 

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