The bulk of Anthony Hecht’s oeuvre is an album of the agony of visions revisited. His parodies aside, much of Hecht’s poetry speaks to matters he found most important: seeing and seeing accurately, remembering, and reconciling by way of relentless effort and painstaking technique. He once said that seeing accurately is almost the most important act that a human being can perform in life. This act is one he perfected as a formalist, or New Critical poet, one that maintained the ethos of an era, and one that Hecht made memorable both by virtue of form and by content.
As did Ezra Pound, Hecht saw poetry as the insignia of civilization, and he took responsibility as a poet whose task it was not only to write about himself or further his practice of poetic expression, but also to apply prosodic skill to life by putting it into context without evading the terrible. A seemingly impossible task, Hecht accomplished it by taking an almost impossible approach, by writing in a poetic form that many say is almost impossible to write: the sestina.
Hecht approached this daunting, demanding task with the belief that it is possible to have some sort of reconciliation—to present that which is disagreeable by putting it into the context of beauty and truth, the way, he once noted, that John Keats found William Shakespeare was able to do. The sestina provided the form for Hecht to combine, contrast, and reconcile several ideas at once. Ideas that bombard and overwhelm the human senses and sensibilities in an overwhelming manner require ordering. Grotesque incidents that compound and intensify in the human mind by way of human recall require reckoning. As a witness to and a recorder of the horrors of the Holocaust and with the haunting of the memories of this experience that found him bolting awake shrieking for decades after, Hecht was compelled to use a form of expression that would depict the cognitive dissonance and the visceral devastation of such atrocities—a form that would make sense of it by encapsulating the randomness, the chaos, and the complexity of Holocaust images from which he was never able to shake free.
The sestina is a difficult and demanding form composed of six six-line stanzas and a concluding three line envoi that, in exchange for traditional rhyming, uses a fixed pattern of six end words, all of which must be used once in each stanza (in a predetermined order) and once again in the last three lines of the envoi. By employing this form, Hecht could depict randomness and incomprehensible atrocity, combining and contrasting—by balancing in the tight and formal architecture of the sestina—several opposing ideas and images in an oxymoronic, paradoxical composite of things that do not normally belong together, ultimately allowing for an uncanny coalescence.
In “The Book of Yolek,” for example, the sestina’s six end words, “meal,” “walk,” “camp,” “home,” “to,” and “day,” fix the grossly contrasting constructs of any boy, any child, any person eating, strolling, attending summer camp, and living any day with the representative Warsaw ghetto orphan, Yolek, who is forced to walk to an extermination slave-labor camp, where his meals are less aesthetic indulgences and more savage scrapping for crumbs of survival, and where his day is the antithesis of a child’s typical day.
In such works (again, excluding here a focus on his playful parodies, his elegant ekphrastic poetry, his learned literary criticism, and his playful and dabbling double dactyls), Hecht choreographs combinations of opposite concepts—the ugly and the beautiful, the private and public worlds, battle and passivity. He also orchestrates by juxtaposing images—darkness and light, remembering and forgetting, symbols of good and symbols of evil—and conducts complex antithetical linguistic abstractions in phrases such as “calm suspension,” or “strange...
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