The Magazine

Anthony Hecht at Eighty

A life in poetry.

Oct 27, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 07 • By DAVID MASON
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Collected Later Poems

by Anthony Hecht

Knopf, 224 pp., $25

Melodies Unheard

Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry

by Anthony Hecht

Johns Hopkins University Press, 314 pp., $24.95

THE EYE, self-satisfied, will be misled, says the monologuist in Anthony Hecht's "The Transparent Man," Thinking the puzzle solved, supposing at last / It can look forth and comprehend the world. High ambition and high achievement have faded in American poetry, but they will not disappear while Hecht lives. Eighty this year, he has just published "Collected Later Poems," the complete texts of his three most recent volumes of verse, and "Melodies Unheard," a gathering of essays.

Most readers remember him primarily as the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of a few dark but frequently anthologized poems such as "More Light! More Light!" or "A Hill":

In Italy, where this sort of thing can occur,

I had a vision once . . .

It got darker; pushcarts and people dissolved

And even the great Farnese Palace itself

Was gone, for all its marble; in its place

Was a hill, mole-colored and bare.

Or perhaps such lighter fare as "The Dover Bitch," which imagines what the woman in Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" was thinking while Arnold bemoaned to her the loss of faith and the decay of things:

So there stood Matthew Arnold and this girl

With the cliffs of England crumbling away behind them,

And he said to her, "Try to be true to me,

And I'll do the same for you, for things are bad

All over, etc., etc."

Well now, I knew this girl. It's true she had read

Sophocles in a fairly good translation

And caught that bitter allusion to the sea,

But all the time he was talking she had in mind

The notion of what his whiskers would feel like

On the back of her neck.

But Hecht is more than our resident misanthrope. He is one of the great synthesizers of the modern moment, a visionary poet capable of conveying private experience in public forms. He is formidable, to be sure, allusive and self-consciously literary in style, but he remains utterly above the triviality of much contemporary poetry, and he mixes opulence with an uncompromising and complex moral vision. At a time when poets are happy to clown for any crowd that will so much as notice them, Hecht remains defiantly difficult, offering pleasures of the sort one might derive from the novels of Henry James, the essays of John Ruskin, the paintings of Tiepolo.

BORN IN 1923, Anthony Hecht grew up in New York, the son of a businessman whose fortunes rose and fell so precipitously that family life was constantly imploding. Hints of these early years can be found in poems like "Green: An Epistle" and "Apprehensions." In an interview with Philip Hoy he observed his family's mixture of pride and shame at their Jewish heritage, his brother Roger's epilepsy and other ailments, and a general state of unhappiness throughout childhood.

He had a good schooling, however, attending Bard College before being drafted at twenty (his bachelor's degree was awarded in absentia). Overseas with the 97th Infantry, Hecht saw combat in France, Germany, and Czechoslovakia, participating in the liberation of a concentration camp at Flossenburg, where Dietrich Bonhoeffer had been murdered just days earlier: "The place, the suffering, the prisoners' accounts were beyond comprehension. For years after I would wake shrieking." Always inclined to seek aesthetic compensations for the pains of reality, he would find in this experience and in decades of later reflection the blunt truth underlying all of his poems: Life is so cruel, our sanity so tenuous, that any help offered by art and love is to be cherished beyond measure.

HIS OLDEST FRIENDS remember him for his rollicking sense of humor, as the fellow who used to recite swatches of Milton's "Lycidas" in a W.C. Fields accent, and the humor appears in such work as "The Ghost in the Martini," a politically incorrect lyric about the male libido at work, which heightens the comedy by having the man's conscience speak from his drink as he is trying to seduce a younger woman.