The Count of the Castle
In Memoriam: Anthony Hecht (1923-2004)
When Anthony Hecht first came to the
Sewanee Writers’ Conference to teach a summer workshop in the early
1990’s, one of his students was particularly eager to meet him.
The man had been a pilot in Vietnam.
On one mission, he had lodged a copy of The Hard Hours below
his cockpit seat, near his boot. After
taking anti-aircraft fire, he returned safely to base and inspected the
damage. A round had pierced
the skin of the plane and come to rest inside the book, only inches from
his leg. At the conference,
he wanted to meet the man whose poetry had saved his life.
If anyone wanted to believe that poetry could stop a bullet, it was
Anthony Hecht. Or, better said, his work measures humanity’s greatest
artistic achievements—an elegant classicism—against the leaden dross of
humanity’s failings. Poetry
for Hecht was not, in Robert Frost’s phrase, “a momentary stay against
confusion,” but an elaborate fortification against the horrors of the
twentieth century. It required
continual reinforcement, sound raw materials, and constant vigilance.
It was a difficult and laborious process, but in Hecht’s skilled
hands the baroque facades were bolstered by broad learning and humanist
concern. His entrenched
position was a castle with ramparts, not a concrete pillbox bristling with
machine guns. But even he
wasn’t sure his defenses could repel the onslaught.
Tony enjoyed playing the count of that castle.
The jacket photo for one his books shows him in a tuxedo.
With his white goatee and clipped speech—and in the company of
Helen, his stylish wife—he seemed to exist entirely in the realm of art,
as mankind’s permanent representative to Parnassus.
People at Sewanee often had a hard time calling him “Tony,” as
his nametag suggested and which he preferred.
“Mr. Hecht” seemed the better moniker.
But for all the grandeur of his bearing, he often enjoyed shattering
the illusion. After a reading
once, a member of the audience was trying to parse the inconsistencies of
his accent. Tony spoke with
broad continental vowels but would deliver a hard, midwestern nasality to a
word like art (and the word came out often).
It was not “aht,” with an emphasis on the vowel, but “arrrt,”
lengthening the r’s. He was
asked if a European childhood before coming to America had been the source
of his accent. “It is,” he replied, “an affectation.”
Tony was one of the few poets of his generation not to make a living
teaching creative writing. While
he spent most his time in a university, it was to teach Shakespeare, not the
Forms of Poetry. Indeed, he was
remarkably uncomfortable with the whole workshop endeavor.
At Sewanee, each student in his group was given a one-hour conference
to discuss a manuscript. Tony
would meet his charges on a bench under a tree, or on the porch of a log
cabin—perfectly sylvan settings for pondering the immensities of the human
condition. But most students
wanted more technical feedback. Tony
spoke often of an older woman, the wife of a college president, his first
year at Sewanee who listened patiently to his critique as he struggled for
the right words, to offer something useful for her.
I can’t imagine that Tony’s assessment was anything but decorous,
but his discomfort was probably obvious, which she took as a negative
judgment. “She burst into
tears,” he said. She told him
she had been writing poetry all her life.
She had wanted his affirmation but felt rebuked.
Tony was deeply troubled by this incident, as he certainly had not
meant to hurt her, but I think he felt great sympathy.
She was someone who lived for the word, who wrote as if her life
depended on it—as he did. He
believed in poetry—indeed, in all art—as moral calculus and not the sum
of its technical components. Did
it matter in the end that her lines scanned poorly?
In a speech in New York to the National Institute of Social Sciences a few weeks after he died, Adele Chatfield-Taylor, president of the American Academy in Rome, called Anthony Hecht part of the “burning eternal flame of classicism that is Rome.” Tony used that flame to illuminate the darkest moments of the twentieth century—the Holocaust, murder and execution, failed human relationships on all levels. His overriding concern, beyond the elaborate forms, learned wit, and dazzling rhetorical turns, was simple human sympathy, especially for those suffering. My favorite memory of him is his reading of “Coming Home” one summer at Sewanee. The poem is spoken in the voice of John Clare, the early nineteenth century poet, who was committed to an insane asylum and had visions of his wife Mary, who had died long ago. Tony’s voice broke at the poem’s conclusion,
But I would not be taken in with blarney