The Magazine

Formal Address

The correspondence of Anthony Hecht.

May 27, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 35 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
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It was not until he brought out, 13 years later, The Hard Hours that such poems as “Behold the Lilies of the Field,” “Rites and Ceremonies,” and “More Light! More Light!” not only displayed central emotions but scenes of torture, humiliation, and horror as presented through the Holocaust and other imperial outrages. These poems, Hecht’s most sensational forays into extreme situations and sufferings—they would be added to later by “The Deodand” and his unforgettable sestina, “The Book of Yolek”—are doubtless his most memorable poems, though not, to my taste, his finest ones.

His happy second marriage brought a son, and is marked by his settling into the routine of teaching, with visiting stints at Harvard and Yale as his reputation grew, and a steady production of poems. The letters contain no indication that he was anything but satisfied with, indeed grateful for, how his life and work had shaped themselves. Almost all the letters are about poets and poetry, invariably consisting of focused, intelligent criticism, and not without their occasional sharpness of annoyance at one or another person or cultural phenomenon. (An untypical letter to an unidentified “Mr. Lord,” who had written unsolicited, sometimes abusive, letters to Hecht, begins: “From the first missives of yours to arrive, I have been either bored or repelled by what you have written.”)

With the publication of his long, six-part poem “The Venetian Vespers,” and an accompanying, even more striking one, “The Short End,” Hecht entered the genre of dramatic monologue. Here, the example of Frost was important. He wrote to Jeffrey Myers that Frost was one of the best employers of that form, thus performing a needed service to American poetry, and that Frost was “an almost solitary defender of formal poetic values during the Modernist period when formal practices were being widely trashed.” Coming from a poet who greatly admired modernists such as Yeats, Eliot, and Wallace Stevens (though not Pound, whom he called “unrewarding if not infuriating to read”), the salute to Frost has special merit. Hecht’s dramatic monologue “The Transparent Man” (the title poem of his 1990 volume), movingly spoken by a woman suffering from leukemia in a nursing home, is one of his best and most Frostian. The monologues showed him as a resourceful, increasingly practiced user of blank verse—they are full of the musical twists of rhythm and tone that are made possible by playing a speaking voice against the metrical grid.

But just as impressive in his poetic oeuvre, overall, are the many poems written in rhymed stanzas, with elaborate, even ornate diction, that make a different kind of music from the blank verse narratives. In the words from “Sarabande on Attaining the Age of Seventy-seven,” a poem from his final book, The Darkness and the Light:

A turn, a glide, a quarter-turn and bow, 

The stately dance advances; these are airs

Bone-deep and number as I should know
     by now, 

Diminishing the cast, like musical chairs.

One of his letters speaks of how he has discovered Alfred Tennyson, the “unabashed luxuriance” of whose music had become persuasive to him. With the aid of Christopher Ricks’s great edition of Tennyson’s poems, he had been able to see “what at first seemed ‘tricks’ of diction, rhythm, metrical music .  .  . as part of a very real, and eloquent and moving drama of poetic discourse, full of an immediacy it had taken me a very long time to locate.” Hecht’s deep and ever-increasing knowledge of English verse is shown in two of his best critical essays, “The Music of Forms” and “On Rhyme” (from his collection Melodies Unheard), which reveal an inwardness with poetry as strong as are the musical rewards of his own poems. In this connection, I might mention poems from his later collections, such as “Curriculum Vitae,” “Meditation,” “Murmur,” “Rara Avis in Terris”—a lovely tribute to his wife, hedged round with satirical hits at current literary culture—and the matchless poems of farewell to his contemporaries David Kalstone and James Merrill. 

At the other end of the tonal scale are moments in the letters where the vernacular invigoratingly asserts itself, as when he thanks Richard Howard for his translation of Gide’s The Immoralist but finds it hard to believe that its hero “could possibly have three friends who could endure to listen to such a protracted recitation without interrupting him with a swift kick in the ass.”