Open Daily 9:30–6:00, Monday Until 8:00

1923-2004

Anthony Hecht

By J.D. McClatchy

His death, just three weeks ago, is so recent that in one’s grief there is hardly room for adequate tribute. But then, he so loved this Academy, to which he was elected thirty-five years ago, that to speak of him now, in this room, may after all be the right way to review the span of his achievement and to take thereby the measure of our loss.

Anthony Hecht was a slow starter—though not as slow as the professor who first sparked a passion for poetry in the young undergraduate at Bard in the early 1940s. Tony and his four classmates would show up at the professor’s door of a late morning, rouse him from sleep, wrap him in a robe, and offer a toothbrush glass filled with hair of the dog, after which the man would launch into a rousing lecture on modern poetry. But Hecht’s own emergence as a poet had more formidable obstacles than gin. The war (into which he was drafted as an infantry rifleman), a disintegrating first marriage, and the aftershocks of both, delayed things. His first book wasn’t published until he was 31 years old, and not until his second book, The Hard Hours, which appeared thirteen years later and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, did the literary world fully realize that there was a master in their midst. But just as his career unfolded rather than evolved—so brilliant was he from the beginning—so too it would be better to say that he was deliberate rather than slow. He apprenticed himself to older poets from whom he would patiently and thoroughly learn the art—first to John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon, whose dry ironies and metrical precisions he studied; then to Allen Tate at New York University, whose gravity of tone he made his own; and finally on Ischia in 1950 to W. H. Auden, whose supremely confident technical prowess and variety and whose moral acuity Hecht emulated to dazzling effect in his early work. As I said, his course was steady. He was not as reticent as Elizabeth Bishop or Philip Larkin, but he was as careful to issue books only when they were perfectly realized. There were seven collections of poems, four magisterial books of essays, other books edited and translated, and several generations of students whom he taught with a rare devotion and generosity. His poems were steady too, over the decades, in returning to abiding themes and tones that had their source deep in his experience and lent a resonant melancholy to his reflections. An unhappy and isolated childhood and his harrowing experiences during the war, both on the battlefield and in the German death-camps which he helped liberate, continued to haunt, explicitly or secretly, many of his best poems. Those dark shadows, of course, served as well to throw into stronger, brighter relief the exuberant wit and sumptuous textures of other poems. And when, as they often did, these two threads were woven into a single poem, the results are simultaneously eerie and enthralling.

What impressed his peers and astonished his admirers was a peculiar set of gifts, this uncanny ability to take up the darkest of subjects in the lightest of manners, poise in lines pulsing with intellect and yet settled into speech. I would say of his temperament that he had a Jewish sense of history and a Christian sense of the imagination. That is to say, he was at once a realist who looked on the past with a sad, patient, sometimes embittered eye and saw his task as what he called the “contemplation of horror,” while, at the same time, he had a romantic’s sense of art’s redemptive powers. Again and again in his poems he faced into the evil and violence of both history and the self, yet did so fully aware of love’s monuments, of hope’s ideal cities, and all the bright, revolving orders of the imagination. Or, as one poem puts it:

For human life is composed
In reasonably equal parts
Of triumph and chagrin,
And the parts are so hotly fused
As to seem a single thing.
This is true as well
Of wisdom and ignorance
And of happiness and pain:
Nothing is purely itself
But is linked with its antidote
In cold self-mockery—
A fact with which only those
Born with a Cosmic sense
Can learn to content themselves.
While heroes die to maintain
Some part of existence clean
And incontaminate.

Tony once mentioned that as a boy whenever someone sang “My bonny lies over the ocean” he heard it rather disconcertingly as “My body lies over the ocean.” And in an important sense it did. It lay, to be precise, in Italy, his heartland if not his homeland. He was the very first Prix de Rome fellowship winner, and the time he spent in the Eternal City permanently colored his imagination. A poem in his first book, “The Gardens of the Villa d’Este,” opens this way:

This is Italian. Here
Is cause for the undiminished bounce
Of sex, cause for the lark, the animal spirit
To rise, aerated, but not beyond our reach, to spread
Friction upon the air, cause to sing loud for the bed
Of jonquils, the linen bed, and established merit
Of love, and grandly to pronounce
Pleasure without peer.

But the poem goes on to explore Italy’s—and art’s—more lasting lessons, as when in discussing the garden he describes the effect of his own pruning, the poet’s craft:

For thus it was designed:
Controlled disorder at the heart
Of everything, the paradox, the old
Oxymoronic itch to set the formal strictures
Within a natural context, where the tension lectures
Us on our mortal state, and by controlled
Disorder, labors to keep art
From being too refined.

Italy—its cities and landscape, its climate and food, its art and its people—was a resource for Hecht all his life, but it is no wonder that he came to prefer Venice to Rome. While Rome makes the past unforgettable, Venice makes time vanish. Its stage set of wavering palaces and bridged mazes, the whole frayed tapestry of the city’s louche and luxuriant life is on display in several of Tony’s best poems, mostly, notably in his masterpiece, the long monologue of 1979, “The Venetian Vespers,” a virtuosic display of exquisite descriptions of the city—its sequined luminosities and stony depravities, that swirl around a solitary, unstable expatriate whom they both overwhelm and console.

Venice was almost an annual pilgrimage he and his wife Helen made, and just last spring they were in Italy again, Tony writing new poems in his study and then coming down in the evening with Helen to talk with friends over drinks and dinner. A photograph of the young poet shows the suave swagger of a matinee idol, while one of the older looks like the noble duke in a Shakespeare play. What neither picture can capture is the elegant charm, allusive or hearty, of his conversation and of his absolute command of those facts and feints instinct in what used to be called a civilized man. And to watch the two of them together at any moment, Tony and Helen, was to recall the profound influence their romance had on his work. Helen became, in every sense, his muse—as, say, Tanaquil LeClerc or Suzanne Farrell was for George Balanchine, helping him to extend and refine the terms of his praise for the human form and the world’s bounty. Hecht had stolen Helen into the Troy of his imagination, and the poems inspired by and dedicated to her are the most luminous in his books. Even the pace of his writing accelerated after they married, as if he were writing to please only her.

What he once wrote of another poet’s work could be said more truly of his own when he noted: “the way a poem’s total design is modulated and given its energy, not by local ingredients tastefully combined, but by the richness, toughness, and density of some sustaining vision of life.” Hecht wrote in an age when a slurred or shaggy poetry was too often preferred, but he was not merely enshrined by connoisseurs. The unmistakable authority of his work earned him the admiration even of those who didn’t understand his aesthetic principles. They too sensed the grandeur of his poems. It is that grandeur he takes with him, a nobility of purpose, an amplitude of vision, a deep and powerful engagement with the sublime themes of his art. He has entered now that other Academy, and in the company of T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden, of Robert Lowell, and Elizabeth Bishop. He joined the pantheon of poets who have changed the way we listen to poems—which is to say, the way we hear ourselves think and feel. It has been said that the silence after a piece of music by Mozart is also by Mozart. Most everyone in this room can remember the effect of reading a poem by Anthony Hecht, and of then looking up, looking back out at the world and seeing it changed—its extremes of love or violence suddenly revealed and encompassed. Violence is the result of our despair, and love is the quality of attention we pay to things. Anthony Hecht studied both, and wrote down what he saw in words whose memory and example will continue to unnerve and transform, to enchant and teach us all.

 

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 11, 2004.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters