Of the generation of American poets born in the 1920s, three are preeminent: Richard Wilbur (b. 1921), Anthony Hecht (b. 1923), and James Merrill (b. 1926). This judgment will, of course, be contested by those who are most excited by the high nonsense of a John Ashbery, the manic improvisations of an Allen Ginsberg, or the solemn proclamations of an Adrienne Rich. But for those admiring of “formal” verse—of meter, rhyme, and stanza—the trio named above (one of whom, Wilbur, is still alive and writing) are master practitioners. They were united in respecting their near-predecessors Elizabeth Bishop (b. 1911) and Robert Lowell (b. 1917), especially Bishop, about whom all three wrote essays. Going further back, Robert Frost and W. B. Yeats also figure for them as exemplars of the centrality of technique whose “modernism,” unlike that of Ezra Pound or T. S. Eliot, never abandoned poetry’s established forms.
Anthony Hecht, who is wonderfully restored to us by this expansive, finely edited volume of letters, was not only a marvelous poet but a man of letters whose productions show a marked range and authority. What is perhaps more remarkable is that his most fertile years, both as poet and critic, were his last 25—beginning with two volumes of poems published in the late 1970s, Millions of Strange Shadows and The Venetian Vespers. Between those books and his death in 2004, he brought out three further volumes of poems, along with two collections of literary essays, a group of Mellon lectures on the fine arts, and a substantial book on W. H. Auden. Until his retirement in 1993, he was an active teacher at the University of Rochester and at Georgetown. His onetime colleague at Rochester, Jonathan Post, has provided enough editorial commentary to the seven sections in which he has divided the letters so as to produce, in effect, a mini-biography. (As is the case with Wilbur and Merrill, a full biography of Hecht is under way.) Selected Letters also contains a generous number of photographs.
Hecht’s most creative period coincided, more or less, with his second marriage, to Helen D’Alessandro, who had been a student of his when he taught at Smith in the 1950s. Until then, his life was notable for its rough spots: He spoke of his childhood as a “rather bitter and lonely one,” although his letters home from summer camp as a teenager are full of high spirits; later, he wrote to a younger poet that summer camp had turned him into a confirmed reader.
At Bard, where he spent three years until being drafted in 1943, he majored in art, studied piano and voice, and wrote poems. The latter activity he called “a painful and laborious process,” and referred to his attempt at writing one of the most difficult of poetic forms, the sestina. He saw combat in the European theater, spent time after VJ Day serving in Japan, and would later be hospitalized twice for what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder, and for depression. The depression occurred upon the breakup of his first marriage, which produced two children but otherwise seems to have been a pretty grim affair.
The title of his first fully realized book of poems, The Hard Hours, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1968, feels in part like a look back at those years. Not that reading the letters from this time is a somber activity; the editor points out that there is a good deal of “mischievous fun” in them, although the fun must be understood often to include a deeply sardonic and unillusioned look at men and manners. “Please do not think that writing letters serves me as a watered-down version of therapy,” he warned his parents after they had congratulated him for what he called “spilling [my] guts to them.” But he did announce himself Hamlet-like, “a dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak[ing] like John a’dreams, unpregnant of my cause.”
He studied briefly with John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon after his discharge from the Army, and admits to having been “a product of the New Critics,” especially Ransom and Allen Tate. In 1951, he was appointed to be the first fellow in literature at Rome’s American Academy, a year in which he met Auden for a lengthy conversation in which Auden commented on some of Hecht’s poems. Auden told him that he had been unduly influenced by Ransom and Tate, and that his poems as a consequence were too “formal.” In a letter to his parents, Hecht agreed that the poems were “somewhat impersonal in tone, disengaged from the central emotions.” The criticism is certainly appropriate to his first published book of poetry, A Summoning of Stones (1954), which displayed a glittering surface, an elegance of diction and stanzaic pattern, but whose “emotions” were difficult to discern exactly.
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
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.”
I end on a personal note, since the penultimate letter in this collection is one written to me, in August 2004. It contains a long paragraph of critically incisive observations about Philip Larkin’s poetry as compared to Larkin’s sometime masters, Yeats and Thomas Hardy. Then a new paragraph in which he reveals that he has been diagnosed with cancer and has completed the first session of chemotherapy, “which will not only leave me shorn but carry me into late November.” He enclosed one of his last poems, “Declensions.” He would die in October of that year.
William H. Pritchard is Henry Clay Folger professor of English at Amherst College.