Anthony Hecht’s Nobility
Three years ago Jonathan Post published a generous selection of Anthony Hecht’s letters, with useful editorial comment; now he has followed up with 300 pages of first-rate criticism of Hecht’s poetry. Although the official biography by David Yezzi is in progress, readers of this marvelous poet should feel that as an enlightening guide to Hecht they couldn’t be in better hands than Post’s. Hecht had already been, in 1999, the beneficiary of published conversation with Philip Hoy, a conversation in which Hecht proved himself willing to go deep into both his personal life and the corpus of poems that issued from it. His intelligent candor about both life and work helped make more available the densely expressive language that characterized him as a poet. It takes time to get used to such density, and Post has been exemplary in guiding us to fuller understanding.
Hecht may be grouped with Richard Wilbur and James Merrill as the most repaying “formal” American poets from the last century’s second half. His fifty years of published lyrics are impressively backed up with a longish book on Auden’s poetry and with three volumes of essays that show everywhere the highest critical inquiry into the history and present conditions of English and American verse. Like Wilbur, he spent decades in the classroom: Wilbur at Wellesley, Wesleyan, Smith, and Amherst; Hecht at Bard, Smith, the University of Rochester, and Georgetown University. (Merrill’s stints in the classroom were occasional.) Hecht didn’t teach “creative writing” merely; neither did Wilbur, who gave a Milton course at Wesleyan for many years. But although I can’t prove it, of the three poets Hecht is the closest to a professional academic, more participant in the day to day professorial routine, both illuminating and frustrating. (In his final years at Georgetown he grew increasingly dismayed at certain theoretical and feminist approaches to the teaching of literature.) As for shared admirations, the three poets were one in their devotion to Elizabeth Bishop, whom each wrote about with penetration and warmth.
Hecht has acknowledged his debt to the New Critics, especially to John Crowe Ransom, about whom he wrote an essay, and to Allen Tate. One feels this debt in Jonathan Post as well, a student and colleague of Hecht’s at Rochester. Recently Post edited a large collection of mainly excellent essays by various hands, The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare’s Poetry. He meant to emphasize the poetry, as can be noted from his introduction where he points to the domination, in recent decades, of theoretical perspectives that often went about their business by shoving the poetry aside, presumably to get at deeper things. Such perspectives as new historicism, performance and gender studies “nearly displaced a knowledgeable understanding of, and interest in, what an earlier generation of critics would have assumed to be the central working conditions of Shakespeare’s muse: that his writings, first and foremost, belonged to the broader field of verbal art or poesis.” Hecht would have approved this emphasis: in his late poem “Rara Avis in Terris,” before settling down to compliment his wife as one of those rare birds, he has some harshly agile words for less agreeable birds, first in politics, then in academic literary study:
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.
Those witty, politically incorrect attitudes are played out in stanzas and rhyme that are beautifully composed.
Perhaps, in the eyes of some readers, too much so for their own good. In his introduction, Post refers to the adverse criticism that Hecht is all too facile in his poetic operations, “that his poetry is too formal; too interested in occasionally elaborate diction; too ‘closed’ or balanced in its harmonics; too severe in tone and subject”; while his mastery of sound is sometimes turned against him as “eloquence” merely. The burden of Post’s book is to make a strong case that refutes such adverse criticism. Even among good readers and critics of Hecht and his contemporaries, one detects on occasion a faintly depreciatory tone. When Adam Kirsch reviewed his final book of poems, The Darkness and the Light, he conceded that Hecht’s poetry showed “seriousness, intelligence, formal discipline.” He then followed with a “but,” opining that future readers will turn to Lowell, Berryman, and Plath “for a sense of what it was like to live, and suffer, in our times.” Such implication is close to suggesting that alcoholism, severe psychic dislocation, with suicide maybe waiting in the wings, are indispensable for giving the richest sense of what it was like to live in “our” time.
This condescension to Hecht’s work, be it ever so slight, is ironic considering that so many of his poems explore with precision and intensity what William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, called “sick souls.” Replying to a letter from a correspondent who found that in the poems from his final book the feeling of despair was dominant, Hecht agreed the word was appropriate to characterize “the book’s “timbre or tone, or atmosphere,” although, he added, not much more so than it was in earlier collections. With reference to James’s phrase, Hecht admitted to recognizing himself as “sharing many of the views and feelings of those [James] called Sick Souls,” adding that the Shakespeare play he was most moved by was King Lear, the most “unconsoling” of all Shakespeare’s works. So as a poet concerned—as were Lowell, Berryman, and Plath—with “what it was like to live, and suffer, in our times,” Hecht’s credentials are strong.
The book’s title, A Thickness of Particulars, comes from a moment in Hecht’s moving narrative poem “The Transparent Man.” In it a woman of thirty years, dying of leukemia, has pretty much ceased to read (her visitor, a book-lady, has come with a “book-trolley”) and spends much of her time looking out the nursing home’s window, not so much at individual trees but at the “dense, clustered woodland” behind them. She can’t unravel them, find the riddle “beyond the eye’s solution”; and she wonders if there’s an order to the woodland she can’t see and that “set me on to wondering how to deal / With such a thickness of particulars / Deal with it faithfully, you understand, / Without blurring the issue.” Post’s title is a good one for a book that is suffused with the sometimes bewildering particulars of a Hecht poem; it acknowledges the looker’s, or the critic’s, duty to deal with them faithfully, without blurring things.
In A Thickness of Particulars, Post’s procedure is in no way startling; he takes up Hecht’s books in chronological order, from The Hard Hours (1967) through The Darkness and the Light (200l). (A few poems from his first volume, A Summoning of Stones (1954), are included in The Hard Hours.) For closer focusing, Post selects what he takes to be the major poems and, without any sort of theoretical throat-clearing, goes to work at delineating their expressive life. As he does this, he quotes liberally from the poem in question, a great help to the reader who needs such highlighting and reminding. He has a useful chapter exploring Hecht’s debt to James Merrill, especially to Merrill’s long poem, “The Book of Ephraim,” which would eventually be the beginning of his book-length The Changing Light at Sandover. Merrill’s example was of vital importance to a poet who was beginning to write his own long poem, “The Venetian Vespers.” In fact the “influence” didn’t run merely one way, from Merrill to Hecht; in a letter acknowledging receipt of Millions of Strange Shadows (1977), Merrill complimented Hecht on the volume and declared, “I feel in complete technical sympathy with you and am not at all sure this isn’t by far the deepest sympathy to be found in our trade—not unlike ‘compatibility’ in the erotic sphere.” The underlining of “technical” warns us against taking the compliment as “merely” paying tribute to Hecht’s mastery of rhyme and stanza. It should rather recall T. S. Eliot’s assertion in the preface to the second edition of The Sacred Wood when, in referring to what he calls “the technique of verse,” he adds that it can’t be defined and that “we cannot say at what point ‘technique’ begins or where it ends.” Like Eliot, Merrill in praising Hecht’s technical mastery knew that such knowledge stretched a long way to include, in the cliché, the human condition.
At one point, speaking of the difficult, late poem “Meditation,” Post calls it “the most complex and beautiful intertwining of the visual and the verbal in all of Hecht.” Not that his compatriots, Merrill and Wilbur, are anything less than fully attuned to such intertwinings, but it’s hard to think of any poet since Auden who is Hecht’s superior as a master of literary, musical, and visual modes. The presence of such a triple-threat sensibility keeps his poems in touch with artistic creations outside himself, located in time, in history, to be known only through learning and hard endeavor. This search for aesthetic pleasure helps to save the poet from any too precious immersion in the prison of self; you never feel, in reading one of Hecht’s poems, that, oh yes, this poem is “about” poetry. There’s nothing airless about his work, even in its fiercely self-reflective passages.
Hecht’s longer narrative poems, all written in blank verse rather than the intricate stanzas he had become so expert at, are mainly contained in two volumes, The Venetian Vespers (1979) and The Transparent Man (1990). Post gives the two Italian poems ample space, a chapter on “Vespers,” seven pages on “See Naples and Die.” His admiration for both poems is high, and while I don’t exactly disagree, I realized that my preference was for the two “shorter” long ones, “The Short End” and “The Transparent Man.” These Post barely touches on while claiming, justly to my ears, that—apropos of the female speaker in the latter poem—there is “no other speaker in Hecht who seems so imaginatively alive, so drawn to the heroically human.” No one can deny the extended brilliance of “The Venetian Vespers” and to a lesser extent “See Naples and Die,” but there has always seemed to me something not quite there, not quite to be understood about the sad fortunes of the “I” narrator in each poem. There’s some puzzle about exactly what went wrong in the lives of either of them, not that a character’s imperfection is any limitation to dramatic monologues—think of Browning’s “Andrea del Sarto” or “A Toccata of Galuppi’s.” But in Browning the eloquent pathos of each character is finally measured and understood. Joseph Brodsky hurt Hecht’s feelings by suggesting to him that the narrative of “See Naples . . .” was too thin to sustain a poem of such length. After a number of readings, I see Brodsky’s point, and indeed Post calls it one of Hecht’s most puzzling poems.
By contrast, “The Short End” is a darkly comic-horrific narrative about the disintegration of a marriage, with the wife’s alcohol-fueled fantasies ending in a real conflagration. The young married couple, Norman and Shirley Carson, endure their first dreadful marital experience at a convention in Atlantic City, where Norman, a traveling salesman, mistakenly brings his wife along to a company shindig, unaware that it’s not the thing to do. Atlantic City, the boardwalk, is sketched in unforgettable, tawdry vividness:
The vast boardwalk itself, its herringbone
Of seasoned lumber lined on the inland side
By Frozen Custard booths, Salt Water Taffy
Kneaded and stretched by large industrial cams,
Pinball and shooting galleries with Kewpie Dolls,
Pink dachshunds, cross-eyed ostriches for prizes,
Fun Houses, Bumpum Cars and bowling alleys,
And shops that offered the discriminating
Hand-decorated shells, fantastic landscapes
Entirely composed of varnished star-fish,
And other shops displaying what was called
“Sophisticated Nightwear For My Lady,”
With black-lace panties bearing a crimson heart
At what might be Mons Veneris’ timber-line . . .
At the drinking party the other salesmen and their “girls” socialize, as Madge and Felix, “Bubbles” and Billy Jim mockingly salute the newly-weds. Billy Jim asks
If either of them knew a folk-song called
“The Old Gism Trail,” and everybody laughed,
Laughed at the plain vulgarity itself
And at the Carsons’ manifest discomfort
And at their pained, inept attempt at laughter.
The merriment was acid and complex.
Felix it was who kept proposing toasts
To “good ol’ Shirl an’ Kit,” names which he slurred
Both in pronunciation and disparagement
With an expansive, wanton drunkenness
That in its license seemed soberly planned
To increase by graduated steps until
Without seeming aware of what he was doing
He’d raise a toast to “good ol’ Curl an’ Shit.”
Hecht’s reputation as a poet of the Holocaust—“Rites and Ceremonies,” “More Light! More Light!” and the almost unbearable “The Book of Yolek” (with consideration of which Post begins his book) is undeniable. But “The Short End” has, on a low-rent scale, its own unspeakable horrors.
At the other narrative pole from “The Short End” is “The Transparent Man,” a monologue spoken by the dying woman. It is Thanksgiving, and the woman finds the added seasonal pressure not easy to handle. The poem’s opening lines establish the gentle intelligence of her voice:
I’m mighty glad to see you, Mrs. Curtis,
And thank you very kindly for this visit—
Especially now when all the others here
Are having holiday visitors, and I feel
A little conspicuous and in the way.
It’s mainly because of Thanksgiving. All these mothers
And wives and husbands gaze at me soulfully
And feel they should break up their box of chocolates
For a donation, or hand me a chunk of fruitcake.
What they don’t understand and never guess
Is that it’s better for me without a family;
It’s a great blessing. Though I mean no harm.
After the intensities of the Holocaust poems and the baroque splendor of “The Venetian Vespers,” these lines and the poem they inaugurate may have come as a surprise to its readers. The presence of Frost is patent, especially in his one-woman narratives like “A Servant to Servants,” from North of Boston. Hecht’s gradual absorption of Frost’s poems had everything to do with the way—with Frost’s distinction in mind—the speaker “says” rather than sings her plight. Yet as the monologue develops and expands metaphorically, there is a corresponding rise in the narrative pitch:
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 birch and aspen.
In a letter to Ira Sadoff, Hecht spoke of the necessity, in a long poem that needs to keep its reader’s interest, “to rise above what might dangerously become the pedestrian limits of insight and vocabulary that might conventionally be assigned to a particular character.” In the above passage a “real” woman would probably not employ the adjective “sleeving” to characterize the coming snow, nor use the word “epaulets” to name what the snows are “bestowing.” Remember that while Wordsworth in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads pledged himself to use the real language of men, he also proposed to throw over that language “a certain coloring of imagination.” Frost does this in his North of Boston narratives, and so does Hecht in these forceful and beautiful lines from the dying woman’s story.
Hecht the elegist was there from the beginning in his memorializing of war’s atrocities. The volume of which “The Transparent Man” is the title poem contains several notable elegies to departed poets and critics, of which the finest, as I read it, is in memory of the literary critic David Kalstone, an early victim of AIDS. Post merely mentions the poem—after all, he has more elegies to consider than his book can take on—and I don’t think it’s only my friendship with Kalstone many years ago that makes me settle on the elegy to him as one of Hecht’s most powerful. In the passage quoted above from “The Transparent Man,” the presence of enjambment in the pentameter lines is notable, as it is in the poem to Kalstone, where enjambment carries the voice over the divisions between quatrains. I quote the final four stanzas:
“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.
It’s difficult to know where to begin in praising these lovely and chilling stanzas with their pointed allusions to Shakespeare and “Lycidas.” The tonal range, from the mock-jab at Rosalind to the impersonal elevation of the final stanza, is noteworthy; so too the musical development that only a practitioner of Frost’s ear-reading can register.
Hecht’s final book of poems, The Darkness and the Light, was published just three years before he died of a lymphoma that a course of chemotherapy failed to stem. Post is right to characterize, with relation to the whole volume and especially the first and last poems that frame it—“Late Afternoon: The Onslaught of Love” and “ ‘The Darkness and the Light Are Both Alike to Thee’”—as quieter and more understated, a “late style” in which “the art of reticence permeates.” In J. D. McClatchy’s selection from Hecht’s work, he ended by emphasizing a strain in it that he found “noble” and also rare in contemporary poetry. Jonathan Post pays tribute to this strain by beginning his book with “The Book of Yolek” and concluding it with a short poem,”I.M.E.M,” saluting the courageous dignity with which a literary scholar and colleague of Hecht’s at Georgetown ended his life: “Dressing himself in a dark well-pressed suit, / Turning the lights out, lying on his bed, / Having requested neighbors to wake him early / When, as intended, they would find him dead.”
In returning to the charge Adam Kirsch made that, for all Hecht’s seriousness, intelligence, and formal discipline, it would be Lowell, Berryman, and Plath to whom readers went for the sense of “what it was like to live, and suffer, in our times,” we may say without asking whether any one of that threesome exhibited the “noble” strain McClatchy found central to Hecht’s poetry, that none of them wrote poetry to which rhyme was essential. There is of course plenty of rhyme in the early Lowell, while in Berryman rhyme is practiced but also sporadic, less than essential to the poem in which it is employed. By contrast, Hecht was, in Richard Wilbur’s judgment, “the most resourceful rhymer since Pope” (Auden, Merrill, and Wilbur himself are also in contention for that accolade). Is it at least possible that a brilliant talent for rhyming is central to the production of strongly humorous verse? It was Pope himself who wrote, “Let the strict life of graver mortals be, / A long, exact, and serious comedy.” I think “serious comedy” is an appropriate gloss on Hecht’s work as a whole, as it would not be for the poets Kirsch finds most proficient in portraying life in our time.
Just before Hecht died and after the publication of The Darkness and the Light, he wrote a few poems, one of them published in The New Yorker and absent from Post’s fine book. Here is “Spring Break”:
The beach is the hot parade ground where brigades
Of suntanned girls disport themselves and thrust
Upon one’s notice pelvis, butt, and bust,
And whitened noses bridged with heart-shaped shades.
The boys are beery, laying plots to score,
Exhibiting heroic abs and pecs,
The showy animality of sex,
Which the girls make weak pretenses to ignore.
They are viewed by dry, bird-wristed, blue-rinsed crones
With diamond rings and teeth of Klondike gold
Mounted on a frail armature of bones;
Their hatted husbands, once, perhaps, adored,
Now paunchy, rheumatoid, and feeling old,
Who joust at chess, assault at shuffleboard.
As at a signal and like an enormous swarm
Of monarch butterflies, the young ones head
Northward to strict assignments and to bed
Each of them in a rock-star-postered dorm,
And steel themselves for mastering Kant’s “Critique”
Of impenetrable Reason, Pico’s claims
For human dignity, late Henry James,
And insubordinate particles of Greek.
Meanwhile the elders breathe a grateful sigh;
Vanished are rudeness, arrogance, and noise.
Yet, a week later, what is their reward?
Views of the changeless ocean leave them bored,
And it would be ungenerous to deny
The girls were pretty and the boys were boys.