In its clear-eyed mercy toward human weakness, Anthony Hecht's poetry goes from strength to strength. "The Venetian Vespers" is at once an intense corroboration and an ample extension of his subtle, supple talents. Nothing humane is alien to him….
[There is a handful] of short poems that are fostered alike by beauty and fear. But it is the four long poems ["The Grapes," "The Deodand," "The Short End," and "The Venetian Vespers"] that confirm Hecht as a poet of the widest apprehensions and comprehensions, and this without the gigantism that so haunts American poetic ambition. (p. 1)
Succinct and poignant, and with a steely unsentimentality despite its width of concern for all concerned, the title poem constitutes the quintessence of an entire novel. The plot—an unforgivable yet hideously natural family betrayal—is direct, and yet it is released, with touching reluctance, only indirectly and piecemeal. "The Venetian Vespers" ends, after legitimately availing itself of "The Merchant of Venice," of T. S. Eliot's lurid Venice in "Burbank With a Baedeker: Bleistein With a Cigar" and of "Death in Venice," with the undying worm of self-disgust. Yet it does not disgust us, this moribundity in Venice…. Hecht has genius in his command of rhythms, above all, where an imagined self-command falters and yet does not break.
One would need his powers of economy to get far enough in praise. There is much to be said about the illuminations that he gets from light in all its diversity; this book is, among much else, an anthology of light….
["The Venetian Vespers"] returns to a language that is not directly transparent (and that repeatedly speaks explicitly of brilliance, polish and scintillation) but that draws attention to itself. Verbalism and mannerism, tensed against much else, are now more deeply available themselves for exploration as well as for exploring with. (p. 44)
Christopher Ricks, "Poets Who Have Learned Their Trade," in The New York Times Book Review, Part II (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 2, 1979, pp. 1, 44-5.∗
Since the publication of A Summoning of Stones in 1954, Hecht's work has been praised for the delicate and intricate structure of its forms, as well as its classical erudition and wit. These qualities certainly make him pleasant to read. But his vision of the world is by no means ingratiating. His theme is our helplessness in the face of injustice in a world that is, beneath its façade, a natural hell, often made more hellish by the periodic outbreaks of our interior demons.
The conflict between comfortable or uplifting illusions and the hard realities is beautifully delineated in Stones. "Japan" explores changing stereotypes of that country's people: ingenious manufacturers of minute toys, monsters of oriental treachery, Zen masters—but always inhumanly clever. As the poet grimly reminds us, however, "Human endeavor clumsily betrays / Humanity." By a thrifty recycling of their own human waste for fertilizer, they spread the parasite, Schistosomiasis Japonica: "This fruit of their nightsoil / Thrives in the skull, where it is called insane." In the people's frailty, the stereotypes disappear, and they become like us. (p. 22)
I suspect that his formal strictures save him from a greater peril: a sensibility that would spill over into formless anguish if uncontrolled.
In The Hard Hours (1967) Hecht focused on even more lacerating images of helpless suffering. "The Vow" explores a father's reaction to the miscarriage of his child…. [The] poem depends on the tension created between the two voices [that of the father answering his unborn child], not the decision as to who is right. There is even less resolution in "More Light! More Light!," a poem that contrasts the grisly execution of a Marian martyr, sustained at least by his religion, with a Nazi atrocity, where the victims' deaths are robbed of any significance.
Millions of Strange Shadows (1977) showed a change of manner that disappointed some critics. The poem most characteristic of Hecht's early work was, ironically, a...
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A poem ought to be interesting. Sometimes it might even be expected to tell us something, or amuse us, or move us, or, at the form's best, make more real the connection between ourselves and the world. But first of all it ought to be interesting, so that we want to read it. In simplest terms we have a right to expect that a poem, which can tell us more about the universe than any other form of art, tell us at least as much as a story, a novel, a newspaper article. And that it do this with a fidelity to craft that allows the language to sing—which is what those other things cannot do. (p. 44)
When poems that have nothing to say are praised and honored the gulf between poetry and its audience is made wider.
These reflections are prompted by Anthony Hecht's new collection, The Venetian Vespers, which appeared accompanied by a front page review in The New York Times Book Review [see excerpt above], and a nomination for the National Book Critics Circle award. Despite these encomia, the book is arid.
Hecht has a way, even when dealing with what ought to be interesting material, of losing everything in description, as if that is what makes "poetry."… There is a spurious use of particulars that are not needed, either to tell the story or hold our interest. They are there to fill space, to make it sound like writing. But writing, good writing, depends on precision and economy as well...
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Anthony Hecht [is] one of the most maddeningly unprolific of contemporary poets. I recall the excitement of discovering, in The Hard Hours (1968), a manner clear but not shrill, urbane without shallowness, erudite without undue solemnity, and commendably lacking in that stylistic fuss and muddle which suggest an embarrassed backward glance by so many American writers towards some notional European tradition. Knowing his way around the literature of classical antiquity seems also to have helped….
His visual effects have an unembarrassed sensuality in their grasp of surface and texture, curiously at odds with similar elements in much recent English verse, where such things tend to be regarded almost as sybaritic accretions….
The title poem [of The Venetian Vespers] ought to encourage anyone who, like me, has been deploring the stunted growths, severely limited vistas and chilly parochialities of poetry during the past decade. Here at last are scope, amplitude and long perspectives, in a work whose governing style is one of relaxed self-assurance. It is not, thank heavens, wholly about Venice, whose role as a monstrous cliché of European cultural experience is so often lethal to common sense. Yet the inclusion of witty and acutely-observed autobiographical fragments among bravura descriptions of canals, frescoes and mosaics gives the writing a many-layered, haphazard brilliance and variety oddly comparable to its subject. The poem becomes the city, and Hecht joins Byron, Musset and Baron Corvo in the small band of those who can write of La Serenissima without grovelling, vulgarity or obtuseness.
Jonathan Keates, "Vault Echoes," in The Spectator (© 1980 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 244, No. 7922, May 10, 1980, pp. 23-4.∗
Narrative has always been the conscience of Anthony Hecht's poetry. He is an instinctive decorator, a court jeweller among wordsmiths, who from time to time submits himself to a bare narration. Bare, because the facts are beyond the aid of artifice. They are narratives of atrocity, the flaying alive of the Emperor Valerian, the stoning of Stephen, or, most particularly, the persecution of the Jews throughout history, culminating in the concentration camps. It is as if the power of invention, the skill and the delight in artifice, is a gift that could be used in any way at all; whereas narrative is a vocation, a moral imperative, that determines how the gift is to be used….
Hecht has explored … ambivalence and sought to harness the opposing attractions within a poetry that can contain them both….
Hecht is at his best in exploring the contrariness of the soul's attractions. The best of his short poems, "The Odds" or "A Birthday Poem", have always been able to set delight against foreboding, celebration against self-knowledge: but in his previous collections that contrariness has as often been evident in the interplay between different kinds of poems…. The major departure of The Venetian Vespers is the use of narrative fiction—fiction rather than fact—in an attempt to explore the full range of contraries within a single extended poem.
There are three narrative fictions, "The Grapes", "The Short End", and the title poem, all three centred around oppositions of light and colour that are also oppositions of mood and experience. Of these it is the title poem that is the most ambitious and the most problematic.
The first two sections of "The Venetian Vespers" are beautifully written. The subtlety of construction, around images of bubbles in water, bubbles in Venetian glass, could make a study in itself. In the stream of consciousness of a man in his declining years, "an expatriate American, / Living off an annuity", we quickly recognize the characteristic landscape of Hechtian desolation—but delineated with a quite conclusive eloquence, as if images that have obsessed him all his life are now receiving their definitive...
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[Anthony Hecht is a] poet of the dailiness of terror…. [He is formidable in The Venetian Vespers] because he takes upon himself, precisely, the burden of justice, however "poetic" its disposition must be…. The past presses on Hecht like an iron, terrible in its discipline. He is one of those who, unable to renounce the world, are immolated on acceptance, on facing up.
The masterpiece of the volume is a narrative poem called "The Short End," whose heroine, a certain Shirley, is wounded in her naive faith in "Constancy" and finds in a Drambuie ad in the New Yorker a revelation of her own perdition…. (p. 476)
Lexiconish, detached, deliberate, Hecht can leave a short...
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To "modern life"—surrealist dreams,
The existential at extremes,
Group sex and its well-planned disasters.
I wound up with Johnson's Masters.
There are only a half-dozen poets writing today with the technical prowess, moral intelligence, and exuberant gravity of Dr. Johnson's masters. Anthony Hecht is one of them. Much of his new book [The Venetian Vespers] started elsewhere, and he has made his own—a brace of caustic imitations of Horace, one of Ronsard, and two padded but affecting translations from the Russian of Joseph Brodsky. There are ten...
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