Anthony Hecht Hecht, Anthony (Vol. 8) - Essay

Hecht, Anthony (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hecht, Anthony 1923–

A Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet, Hecht is a technically ingenious and accomplished craftsman who writes in an elegant, baroque style. A common theme of Hecht's—the ironic contrast between harsh reality and artistic (hence false) versions of reality—can be found in one of his frequently anthologized poems; the highly satirical "Dover Bitch." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Anthony Hecht's collection, A Summoning of Stones, is a first volume of sustained charm and elegance. Mr. Hecht's most individual style, a sort of reflective effervescence set in variable mood-keys, is seen to its best advantage in "La Condition Botanique":

     The Mexican flytrap, that can knit
   Its quilled jaws pitilessly, and would hurt
  A fly with pleasure, leading Riley's life in bed
  Of peat moss and of chemicals, and is thoughtfully fed
   Flies for the entrée, flies for the dessert,
     Fruit flies for fruit, and all of it …

A Baroque exuberance in the medium characterizes Hecht's poetry; the words whirl and perform their curves. The verbalism shows his confidence in his métier. In the poem cited above, in "Japan", "Divination by a Cat" and "The Gardens of the Villa d'Este", the poet is reminding us of something we have too long forgotten: that poetry is a profession, that one can rejoice in pure professionalism. An artist who has mastered the possibilities of his talent hopes to catch our attention, like Bernini, with grand curves and plungings and soarings. In the drabness of a self-conscious age, licking our wounds in corners, we have forgotten the plasticity of the High Baroque, the "abounding, glittering jet" of man rejoicing in his own condition, to the envy of the gods.

This sets the dominant tone, the individual note of Hecht's writing. He is a poet, for example, who is not afraid to produce a pure exercise, as in "The Place of Pain in the Universe", where all is craftsmanship held up for our admiration, and the subject merely a device, as in an étude of Chopin. Language is meant to be enjoyed. The "Songs for the Air" show the same quality, an astonishing virtuosity, as if the language were a thousand genii. Echoes of Stevens at the beginning of the poem give way to language considered purely for itself, as a Roman square is functional only in the sense that it attracts onlookers…. In "A Poem for Julia" Hecht shows a propensity and a noble ability to discuss the various conditions and situations of man, shown in historical perspective; at the same time a tendency to draw a moral which seems an appendage to what had been some pretty live language.

I imagine the best poems are "At the Frick" and "Alceste". Here tough subject-matter has given his exuberance and vitality considerable bite…. It is a fine performance; and throughout his book Hecht shows himself to be a poet of much talent and many possibilities. (pp. 307-08)

Joseph Bennett, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1954 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. VII, No. 2, Summer, 1954.

A Summoning of Stones is Mr. Hecht's first volume of poetry. It shows him to be a poet of great charm, possibly even too great charm, for when these poems fall below Mr. Hecht's highest standard, as of course they occasionally do, it is always because his witty fancy gets out of control. This may be partly the fault of the period style, of which Mr. Hecht has a remarkable mastery.

We have, after all, been living for nearly half a century in an almost continuous poetic revolution, a preservation of the dialect of the tribe by drastic surgery. During the last decade or so, this revolution seems to have been slowing down; as it does, poets become more interested in mastering the established style and using it than in making an entirely new style for themselves. In poets like Mr. Hecht and, say, Richard Wilbur, the period style seems to be emerging pretty clearly. It is an eclectic style, a composite of means developed by various earlier 20th Century poets; you can hear the echoes, as you hear Yeats in Mr. Hecht's

        So that pale mistress or high-busted bawd
        Could smile and spit into the eye of death,

and Stevens in

        Deep in the phosphorous waters of the bay,
        Or in the wind, or pointing cedar tree,
        Or its own ramified complexity,

and Crane in

                         as the gulls hover
        Winged with their life, above the harbor wall,
        Tracing inflected silence….

Such a style offers the poet a great range of resources for "extending his remarks"; indeed, its mastery almost forces such an extension on him, whether his subject calls for it or not, just as Milton's style forced grandeur on him even when the occasion—no fear lest dinner cool—hardly required it. This is the danger of our period style. But it is a fine style when the occasion is right and the poet's remarks are good enough and sufficiently controlled. (p. 479)

[It] is not the established style which makes Mr. Hecht's poems interesting; it only determines their kind. Mr. Hecht makes them good. The distinction is clear in "La Condition Botanique." This is a poem "about" botanical gardens; it belongs to what is by now almost a conventional kind, a poem in which, while apparently making meticulous and even scientifically accurate observations about the obvious subject, the poet gradually builds up a system of assertions about life as a whole…. How complicated and yet how clear and controlled the structure of this sentence [from "La Condition Botanique"] is: "The Romans and the rest knew nothing of the sweat of plants, plants which breathe on the greenhouses, which are run so to the pleasures of the plants, so to their happiness—which spreads to the ground where pipes do this and that—so to the pleasures of the plants that…." The clause which follows upon "that" runs to eighteen more lines of equally complicated and equally controlled sentence structure. This syntactical virtuosity is what the period style provides for the poet if he can learn it. Its use is to provide the maximum syntactical opportunity for what is the main interest of this kind of poem, the only apparently incidental detail. The poet has to be able to make such detail good enough or the poem becomes a monumental bore. Mr. Hecht is able to; in spite of the apparent randomness of his observations, they all fall together finally. Satan remains below; the flowers thrive "as in the lot first given to Man,/Sans interruption …". (pp. 480-81)

Mr. Hecht likes to apply this style to such subjects as botanical gardens, and he has poems on "The Gardens of the Villa d'Este," on "A Roman Holiday," and on the Frick Museum. He also likes abstract elements like Air or Water. But he knows too how to make this style work for "A Discourse Concerning Temptation" or pain, for narrative, like the one of Samuel Sewall's wooing, for a soldier's soliloquy ("Christmas Is Coming") or an elegy for dead companions ("Drinking Song"). He has considerable range, but he is committed to the established style, of which he might have said what he actually says of something slightly different:

   This was not lavish if you bear in mind
   That dynasties of fishes, swimming before mankind,
   Felt in the pressure of their element
   What Leonardo charted in a brook:
   How nature first declared for the baroque
   In her design of water currents.

Arthur Mizener, in The Kenyon Review (copyright 1954 by Kenyon College), Summer, 1954.

Anthony Hecht belongs to the courtly tradition, and is our latest and happiest answer to Baudelaire's libel that "The protestant countries lack two elements indispensable to the happiness of a well-bred man: gallantry and devotion." In addition to its wit, its complexity and its high musical qualities, Mr. Hecht's poetry is notably generous and open. The gentlemanly virtues are sublimated into gesture. To maintain this spirit in our acid atmosphere, a poet needs the gift of radical irony. All his truths must be provisional on the conditions and premises established in the poem…. In no other young poet has it a wider or more cheerful range than in Hecht, nowhere is it more blithe or baroque…. Poise, weight, variety, ease, wit, economy and unforced distinction of phrasing—all these things are present in Hecht to an unusual degree. Best of all, I should say, is the sense of spaciousness and reserve. A poem like "Alceste in the Wilderness," with its Websterian mortisme, manages to balance a (probably) insoluble obscurity against such a rich texture of image and sound that our normal demands for coherence are satisfied. This is a rare achievement in any poet and puts Hecht in the highest modern company. (pp. 679-80)

R. W. Flint, in Partisan Review (copyright © 1954 by Partisan Review, Inc.), November-December, 1954.

[There] is the intriguing possibility that the older Auden will be as influential in the U.S. as the young Auden was in Britain—and to just the same effect: making the newest American poetry Parnassian, provincial, even Tennysonian. Anthony Hecht is surely a case in point. Nothing is so immediately Audenesque about his poems as their insolently perfunctory attitude to subject matter. "Think of a subject, and verify it." Doubtless at all times indifferent poems have been written to this recipe. What distinguishes recent Auden poems is their bland refusal to conceal the fact, and just as the "Bucolics" in his last collection displayed what Auden called to mind when some one in the audience called out "Mountains" or "Lakes," so Hecht has a poem called "Japan" constructed on just the same principle. Five intricately regular rhyming stanzas present the author remembering that Japanese are little, that they are acrobats and jugglers, that they make ingenious toys, and that on the other hand they were fierce and treacherous in war yet afterwards eager to be friends, that now they are "very poor." We wait for the resolution into harmony. Instead the poet remembers something else—that (apparently) the use of human dung in the paddy-fields produces a disease called "schistosomiasis japonica." By a virtuoso-feat these Latin syllables are accommodated into the stanza without flawing its glassy surface, and this glittering expertise is the true climax of the poem which needs only to be rounded off by a last stanza saying that the poet will have to revise his ideas about Japan. There is no pretence that the ostensible subject exists for the poet except as a peg on which to hang the embroidered robe of style; and style, thus cut loose of any responsibilities towards what it offers to express, degenerates at once into virtuosity, frigid accomplishment. Thus all we can say if asked to distinguish the good poems from the bad in [A Summoning of Stones], is to point out that some are less accomplished than others—that, for instance, in a poem called "The Gardens of the Villa d'Este," the intricate regularity of the rhymed stanza is achieved, as it isn't in "Japan," with no respect for the stops and starts of syntax or the natural pauses of the speaking voice. (pp. 43-4)

It's the provincialism that needs insisting on, for the poems are full of erudite and cosmopolitan references, epigraphs from Molière and so on; and the diction is recherché, opulent, laced with the sort of wit that costs nothing. Here and there too the poet knowingly invites what some reviewers have duly responded with, the modish epithet "Baroque." But if that is an accurate description of the style, it has nothing to say to the crucial question of how the style is related to its ostensible subject. For that the right word is the much less fashionable "Victorian."

Trying to find one poem that can be exempted from these strictures, I choose "A Deep Breath at Dawn," a poem in much simpler stanzas, altogether too Yeatsian for comfort both in diction and feeling, yet possessing what the more polished pieces so disastrously lack—a true development, unpredictable yet natural, of a subject which one thereby knows to be truly, not just ostensibly, the subject of the poem. (p. 44)

Donald Davie, in Shenandoah (copyright by Shenandoah; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Autumn, 1956.

"The Hard Hours" … releases with dramatic completeness a talent that was only hinted at in "A Summoning of Stones." The truth is, the weak poems in the earlier book, and a few in the present one, are weakened by a mechanical sense of form. The strong and spacious poems that give the new book its character—poems like "A Hill," "Behold the Lilies of the Field" and "More Light! More Light!"—demonstrate how well Hecht understands the economy of his vision. He brings these poems to book by the most intense lyric control. Only in two poems in the new book do I feel the kind of cookie-cutter use of stanza that gave his first book a slightly frivolous effect. These are called "Ostia Antica" and "The Origin of Centaurs," and perhaps the very concerns of the poems suggest the brittleness of form. (pp. 24-5)

William Meredith, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 17, 1967.

At first acquaintance, Hecht's art may seem to be a retreat, or withdrawal, from modernism. In his method, he leans more to realism than to symbolism, and he is an insistent moralist—his poems carry an unfashionably large freight of message. (p. 602)

Whereas the symbolist's difficulty is the risk of moving too far from literal experience to be intelligible, Hecht's art takes the risk of moving in too close. We see the events as clearly as through the camera eye—there seems to be no blurriness, even at the edges of the scene imaged, no ambiguities. In contrast with the ornate style of many of Hecht's earlier poems, the new work [in The Hard Hours] is characterized by starkly undecorative—and unpretentious—writing. He relies, to a valiant degree, on the power of quiet overtones to transmit the intense emotional experience hidden below the casual surface; the undemonstrative vocabulary, low-keyed meters, and rhythms often accumulate, as in the closing lines of "The Hill," into a withering revelation of truth and pain.

At times, Hecht's new style grows too flat and prosy, one-toned. All verbal tension is dissipated by the studied dullness of rhythms. In an extreme effort to pare down his verse to essentials, and to omit any embellishments of style that might attract the reader's attention to themselves and away from the serious human statement, the technique backfires…. When the line flows too easily and unobtrusively, it offers no settling resistance to the reader—the hesitations that significant form always imposes on the mind's ear—to free him from style and release his thought into the urgencies of subject. This is the risk Hecht takes when he trims his style too close, but only rarely does he overrefine.

Hecht's most consistently masterful device is to juxtapose stories from history, ancient and contemporary (or scenes from his personal life, present and past), generating a powerful religious and political moral from collision between them…. The scissoring movement between story and story provides the reader's nervous system with a series of shocks, a jackknifing of emotions, comparable to that produced by the interplay of plot and subplot in King Lear, and in some story sequences of the Old Testament. I don't know any other poetry in English, outside poetic drama, that creates anything like this effect. (pp. 602-03)

Laurence Lieberman in The Yale Review (© 1968 by Yale University, reprinted by permission of the editors), Summer, 1968.

Mr. Hecht, unlike other poets, has not cried mea culpa and kicked over the traces of one discipline in order to embrace another. He has discarded the baroque, decorative elements of his earlier verse; he no longer writes the poem which is essentially one long, dazzling, conceit; he has a new simplicity and strength. But he is still brilliant; he still employs literary sources; his poems are still tightly woven, excellently constructed forms. Fortunately. For Mr. Hecht is surely one of the most accomplished practitioners of metrical verse around. His rhythms are invariably energetic and his rhymes manage never to be clumsy or obtrusive. The overall effect is one of classical balance and vigor, admirably suited to his themes and their treatment…. Most of Mr. Hecht's poems are dramatic rather than lyrical, in the sense that he sets up situations in which characters move and act. Some are in a ballad style, including the tough and powerful "The Man Who Married Magdalene," after a poem by Louis Simpson (with whose verse Mr. Hecht's has a good deal in common). (p. 71)

Lisel Mueller, in Shenandoah (copyright by Shenandoah; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Spring, 1968.

[The Hard Hours] represents Hecht's career from its beginning (the earliest copyright is 1948) and allows us to see the basic argument that underlies most of his poetry: facing the biological conditions of decay and destructiveness and the historical facts of mass savagery, man tries to construct "rites and ceremonies" by which to know his condition, combat his weakness and despair, and achieve civility. Hecht's favorite images for man's biological condition come from the insect world, an insidious and yet microscopically elaborate world in which man sees his own reflection. In "Alceste in the Wilderness", for example, he imagines Molière's misanthrope escaping to the jungle and finding there a microcosm of the hypocritical world he has fled:

        Before the bees have diagrammed their comb
        Within the skull, before summer has cracked
        The back of Daphnis, naked, polychrome,
        Versailles shall see the tempered exile home,
        Peruked and stately for the final act.

The analogous image from history is the slaughter of the innocents. In "'It Out-Herod's Herod. Pray You, Avoid It'", a father, seeing himself reflected in his children's eyes as a television hero-protector, muses:

                Yet by quite other laws
                My children make their case;
                Half God, half Santa Claus,
                But with my voice and face,
                A hero comes to save
                The poorman, beggarman, thief,
                And make the world behave
                And put an end to grief.
                And that their sleep be sound
                I say this childermas
                Who could not, at one time,
                Have saved them from the gas.

The horror of historical chance is all the more concentrated for the nonchalance with which it is mentioned; and the "childermas", even if ultimately insufficient, is quietly noble.

Hecht is a highly accomplished formalist, but form is not an ultimate value. "Nothing," he says in "Three Prompters from the Wings", "is purely itself / But is linked with its antidote/In cold self-mockery—/A fact with which only those/Born with a Comic sense/Can learn to content themselves." This describes the broadest use of form in Hecht's poems: it holds together, in harsh comic fusion, the self-mocking opposites; it rarely resolves them. Often the tension issues from a comic inappropriateness of rhetoric, as in the description, in "A Vow", of a miscarriage ("In the third month, a sudden flow of blood./The mirth of tabrets ceaseth, and the joy/Also of the harp"), or as in the liturgy, in "Pig", to the swine into whom a thousand demons were driven ("O Swine that takest away our sins/That takest away"). Whatever the tactic—and his approaches are many—the strategy is basically the same: Hecht works against the grain, but so smoothly that we almost fail to notice. He gives us valved emotion; rather than direct expression of feeling, he presents, in magnificent variety of forms, the artifices we construct in the face of our historical and biological condition. Thus we get both formal brilliance and intense, often bitter, irony—and, more difficult to trace, a humane and kindly sympathy for man, inadequate as he struggles against destruction. (pp. 684-85)

Richard A. Johnson, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor, © 1968 by The University of the South), Autumn, 1968.

Anthony Hecht's first book of poetry, "A Summoning of Stones," was published in 1954, his second, "The Hard Hours," in 1967…. Thirty new poems make his third collection, "Millions of Strange Shadows."

If there is a genteel tradition in American poetry, Mr. Hecht is commonly supposed to belong to it; he is regularly esteemed for precision, wit, craft, inventiveness—the virtues which a poet is required to practice in the absence of passion….

Generally,… Mr. Hecht is content to be urbane. Not a poet of the incandescent line, he loves the linkages of a stanza, where he has room to move and breathe. If he had lived four centuries ago he would have composed himself by writing madrigals. As it is, he writes long, shapely sentences and sends them through an entire stanza, eight or ten lines for good measure. Fluent without being garrulous, his tone accommodates nearly every effect within the limits of high conversation, including certain excesses of diction which would be offensive on a more informal occasion. (p. 6)

In his new book Mr. Hecht is more abstemious…. Effects of diction no longer call attention to themselves. Mr. Hecht speaks of poetry as "governed by laws that stand for other laws," and he prefers laws that are self-evident to those that need to be explicated and enforced…. In "Dichtung und Wahrheit" Mr. Hecht puts "the freshness of the text" beside "the freshness of the world/In which we find ourselves," an allusion to Wallace Stevens's poetry, presumably, in acknowledgement of an old affiliation…. In another poem he invokes "some shadowless, unfocussed light" in which "all things come into their own right." The same poem speaks of "the cool, imperial certainty of stone" and of pebble, weed and leaf seen "distinct, refreshed, and cleanly self-defined,/Rapt in a trance of stillness." The composure is not deemed to be impregnable: when rain comes things run to flux again. But meanwhile we have hovered upon Mr. Hecht's central mood, where the state of blessedness is "deep" and "unvexed."

The new element in these poems is a sense of the cost of such felicity. Trances of stillness are expensive. Roman motorcyclists have to "put much thinking by" to become "as Yeats would have it, free and supple/As a long-legged fly." In another poem one's "negligence and ease" are earned by another's "sunken hideousness." (pp. 6-7)

It is my guess that the poet of these new poems is no longer confident that to know the world in little is to know it at large or well enough. He is now weighing the cost, in these weighted poems, of the order and finality they appear so effortlessly to achieve. (p. 7)

Denis Donoghue, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 27, 1977.