Anthony Hecht Hecht, Anthony (Vol. 13) - Essay


(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 (false) versions of reality—can be found in one of his frequently anthologized poems, the satirical "Dover Bitch." (See also CLC, Vol. 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Harold Bloom

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The high artistry of Anthony Hecht has been to nurture his own gift, and to work at it with the deliberateness and steadiness that it deserved from him. A Summoning of Stones (1954) and The Hard Hours (1967) have now been joined by Millions of Strange Shadows…. Emotional intensity and formal power were combined in Hecht from his beginnings; if there has been a deepening in so elegant and grave an art, it has been in the release of a humor gentler than the initial ironies of apprehension that Hecht once cultivated. The 30 poems in Hecht's new book are all fully written, but several truly are the best he has published and are very likely to endure. The very best is "Green: An Epistle," which is a lesson in profound, controlled subjectivity and self-revelation, an exact antithesis to the opaque squalors of "confessional" poets. Almost equally remarkable are "Coming Home," in which the poet John Clare receives a deeper interpretation than any critic has afforded him, and "Apprehensions," again a masterwork of dramatic introspection. (p. 25)

Harold Bloom, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1977 by The New Republic, Inc.), November 26, 1977.

G. E. Murray

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Millions of Strange Shadows is only [Hecht's] third volume of original poetry in nearly three decades, the first since The Hard Hours (1967) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Anthony Hecht remains one of a shrinking handful of our most skilled poetic craftsmen. This is not to imply that his music overwhelms his substance, but the music is unforgettable. Listen, for instance, to one segment from "The Cost," a poem addressing the wages of war:

        Think how some excellent, lean torso hugs
             The brink of weight and speed,
        Coasting the margins of those rival tugs
             Down the thin path of friction,
        The athlete's dancing vectors, the spirit's need,
             And muscle's cleanly diction.

It strikes me that this passage, pinched out of context, not only opens discussion on the standards and values of human conflict, but also is descriptive of the finest of Hecht's writing. Surely his messages conform to media that ride "the brink of weight and speed" and address "the spirit's need" as precisely and delightfully as sail on water. But the melody of language disposed in startling patterns of rhyme and meter is only one concern here.

In what is supposedly the heydey of the loose style and personal poem, Anthony Hecht admirably couples epic ambitions with an intense lyrical gift, laced with nerves of meaning…. (pp. 963-64)

Much of the grave perception and grey perspective that distinguished Hecht's two earlier collections, with "those neuter, intermediary states / Of vacancy," are again present in [Millions of Strange Shadows], serving as "Reminder of a time, / An Aesopic Age when all the beasts were moral / And taught their ways to men." From not so innocent or grand a precipice, Hecht mourns our drab folly….

There is often a long, hard sadness going through the poems in this volume, a sense of living at the end of a civilization cycle. More than ever before, however, love of wife and family and, most notably, humor, now infiltrate Anthony Hecht's vision. The addition is a blessing, particularly evidenced by the superb poem "The Ghost in the Martini," a wildly funny, yet bracing look at the hollow retreat into middle age. (p. 964)

G. E. Murray, in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1977, by the University of Georgia), Winter, 1977.

Irvin Ehrenpreis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Anthony Hecht certainly practices the poetry of limits. Yet he often handles obnoxious subjects: a description of the rotting corpse of a monkey ("Alceste in the Wilderness"), the horrors of war ("Christmas Is Coming," "Drinking Song," etc.), the destruction of the Jews ("Rites and Ceremonies"), the Lisbon earthquake. One of his least forgettable poems tells of the capture, humiliation, torture, and flaying of the Roman emperor Valerian ("Behold the Lilies of the Field"). But he manages the frightfulness within a perceptible design….

When Hecht takes up quickening subjects—fatherhood, the praise of landscape, sexual tenderness—his sweet-and-sour tone gains force from hints that he also has in mind the death-bearing experiences. A knowledge of pain refines the edge of pleasure, as a knowledge of pleasure sharpens the acid of pain. It seems appropriate that Hecht likes to indulge in oxymoron: "dirge of birth" ("An Autumnal"), "awkward grace" ("Peripeteia")….

In many poems Hecht gives the quickening experience an advantage. He does not imply that life, for any long period, is free from pain. On the contrary, he implies that pain and grief mix so homogeneously with the stuff of existence that we may assume their omnipresence. Love, beauty, and wisdom do not cancel them out and do not spring from them (alas!) but descend as a gift in spite of them. The graces of life barely compensate us for the omnipresence of grief or pain. This lowering truth is a reason for dwelling on the graces….

Elaborate forms challenge Hecht's imagination. His most personal and tender poem of guilty love, "A Letter," is in a complicated, rhymed stanza that might have been used by his admired George Herbert.

[In] Millions of Strange Shadows (see Shakespeare, Sonnet 53), Hecht sounds more comfortable with the difficult forms and allows himself fewer archaisms than in his earlier work. But he still observes the fundamental human experiences through the settings and alternatives which oppose or threaten them: foregrounds seen through backgrounds, love through war, an impulse of vitality as a reminder of death. (p. 48)

Irvin Ehrenpreis, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1978 Nyrev, Inc.), August 17, 1978.

Desmond Graham

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[It] is the ability to make poems, the command of a convention, which is so impressive about Anthony Hecht's Millions of Strange Shadows…. Hecht makes no bones about it: he is formal, immensely skilful, gives himself whatever room he needs for elaborate description, extended discourse, intricacies of reference and overlapping complexities of theme. Conscious art is Hecht's forte, and it is an art which can encompass—in the single poem ('The Cost')—a couple on a Vespa, the processes of history, the common soldier's fate, the fallibility of hope … my list is not exhaustive. Hecht's themes are moral, in both personal and public spheres; his imagination is philosophical; his art is as serious as it is authoritative. But…. And here the problem starts: his command of art filters experience (quite con sciously so) to an extent which leaves me restless. I seek metaphors for what is wrong: the art is so finely inlaid, everything fits too well? It moves us through experience as if in a luxury car, observing the rough road, the changing weather? Somehow we are passengers in his poems…. Hecht does not strain, he opens his hand and images drop into it; cadence and balance and poise take their hold: but even granting that this is the opening—deceptively casual and leisurely—to an experience through which Hecht will take his time, something is slackened in our minds by such grace. Each epithet, descriptively perfect, is cushioned against discomforting weight…. (pp. 66-7)

[There] is nothing peripheral or trivial in Hecht's graceful art—but in so finely miming the false security which his words expose, his art is infected by this security. What the reader receives is not an art directing him outwards to the instances of suffering which are given, but an art closing in round its own beauty: ("elegance" would be too weak a word for these lines). (p. 67)

Not arch, not posed, not literary, [his poetry carries] a tenderness which is nonetheless impaired. We know too well where we are with this beautifully written book, and it is somewhere other than where we live. (p. 68)

Desmond Graham, in Stand (copyright © by Stand), Vol. 20, No. 1 (1978–79).