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The Achievements of Anthony Hecht
Posted By Jan Schreiber On December 1, 2004 @ 2:03 pm In December 2004: In Memoriam,Featured | No Comments
As Reviewed By: Jan Schreiber
For years I resisted the temptation to sum up Anthony Hecht’s work as a single, completed whole. I preferred to see it as an evolving organism, changing direction and emphasis as each new poem was added. That called for a more measured critical response. A book review was one thing-celebration of this, censure of that-but I was not ready for a wholesale assessment of the man and the work. And for many decades the fecund poet obliged me. However, his recent death changed all that. What we see is now what we get- neither more nor less-and it’s time to take stock of what we have.
[private]Hecht came of age in the 1940s, along with a cohort of writers who exerted extraordinary sway over the course of poetry in the twentieth century-writers such as Howard Nemerov, Amy Clampitt, Richard Wilbur, Louis Simpson, Denise Levertov, Donald Justice, and James Merrill, to name only a few. Like many of his generation, Hecht was influenced by John Crowe Ransom, with whom he studied at Kenyon College. Like almost all of them, he was deeply affected by the Second World War, and like the other Jewish poets of his time he was seared and annealed by the Holocaust. Early on, he became adept at transmuting raw, sometimes disturbing experience into verse of high polish. His poems have won the Pulitzer Prize, the Bollingen Prize, and the Montale Award, among many other honors.
His work has long stood out for what another contemporary, Ted Hughes, called its classical poise and elegance. In a time when poetic form was treated with suspicion or disdain by the academy and the editors of many prominent journals, Hecht hewed to the iambic line. His work commanded attention by its sheer technical mastery. But if technical mastery should not debar a writer from Parnassus, despite passing prejudice, neither should it afford automatic admission. What of the substance?
To read through Hecht’s complete opus is to be impressed anew by his unstoppable volubility, his ability to discourse fluently on anything, in suave and urbane meter, and often in a rime scheme of ingenious and sustained complexity. To the task of finding an appropriate rime at every turn he brings a vast vocabulary that embraces high diction and low, words of all periods including the archaic and the obsolete, classical references, and foreign phrases. His loquacity is like that of a man who has undergone psychoanalysis: there is nothing he will not say, at any length, on any provocation. In this most seemingly classical of poets, the classical virtues of compression, omission of irrelevance, concentration on essence, give way to the impulse to fill in detail after detail, simply, one suspects, because he can.
Consider a poem from Millions of Strange Shadows called “The Cost.” It depicts a modern young Italian couple on a motor scooter, riding past Trajan’s column in Rome, and it reflects on the appalling, incalculable human cost of the Dacian War memorialized by the column (which of course celebrates the Roman victors). It is a juxtaposition-youth, grace, and vitality against a monument to imperial ambition, destroyed lives, a chain of violence-that many poets would seize upon. Some would make a bitter epigram of it, some an ironic and reflective sonnet. Hecht writes twelve six-line stanzas, of which I quote the first two:
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,
Clean as a Calder, whose interlacing ribs
Depend on one another,
Or a keen heeling of tackle, fluttering jibs
And slotted centerboards,
A fleet of breasting gulls riding the smother
And puzzle of heaven’s wards.
All this lively detail, and we have not yet gotten to the young Italian couple on the Vespa, let alone Trajan’s column. This is, to be sure, a certain kind of mimesis, as Erich Auerbach styled the literary representation of reality. It is also a source of some aesthetic pleasure to those who take delight in the dexterous manipulation of language. Hecht evidently enjoyed flouting old conventions regarding high and low diction, as is only fair considering that his Vespa couple were probably clad in blue jeans and sandals. Late in the poem he observes that “one unbodied thought” distracting his precariously perched riders could bring down “the whole shebang,” and before that he imagines the major characters in Othello shouting to the protagonist, when he complains of injustice, “Go screw yourself!” Classical poise and elegance indeed.
All these features make this a very modern poem, notwithstanding its formal rigor. Yet perhaps a critic is right to ask if these effects-loose association, unbuttoned language, a sense of being in tune with the times-have to be achieved at the cost of so many extra words. Leaving aside the issue of classical verities, it comes down to a question of patience: just as I find certain old movies tedious because of the slow editing (I don’t need to see someone close a car door after getting in; I don’t even usually need to see him get in), so I want to proceed at once to the central matter, the essence, of a poem. At his best, Yeats understood this: we want the shudder in the loins, not the foreplay.
However, before we hasten to condemn this most disciplined of poets as undisciplined in matters of economy, it behooves us to take a second look. When we do, we will find that the relation of matter to manner is greatly affected by the type of poem being considered, and that among Hecht’s poems a variety of types abound. It is worthwhile to survey those types, for there is much to be learned in the process.
The collected poems include many short lyrics-what we consider the dominant or typical poem of our time. They also include long narratives, often in blank verse. Here and there one finds poetic sequences, which combine some of the qualities of the two preceding categories. There is one masque, which resembles none of the other forms. And there are translations and digressions based on models in other languages. I wish to say something about each of these types.
Let us start with the short lyric, the form for which Hecht is probably best known, and let us consider one of the best of them, titled with a quotation from the Psalms: “The Darkness and the Light Are Both Alike to Thee”:
Like trailing silks, the light
Hangs in the olive trees
As the pale wine of day
Drains to its very lees.
Huge presences of gray
Rise up, and then it’s night.
Distantly lights go on.
Scattered like fallen sparks
Bedded in peat, they seem
Set in the plushest darks
Until a timid gleam
Of matins turns them wan,
Like the elderly and frail
Who’ve lasted through the night,
Cold brows and silent lips,
For whom the rising light
Entails their own eclipse,
Brightening as they fail.
Each of the six-line stanzas consists of a trimeter quatrain enclosed between riming first and last lines. The chime of each last line is thus a little fainter than the rime-endings of the preceding lines, and this faint but perceptible rime blends with the plaintive quality of the poem’s argument.
The poem appears to deal with a commonplace: the quickness with which day ends and night supervenes. Everyone recognizes that this is a metaphor for human mortality. But the argument shifts: there are lights throughout the darkness, shining until morning. And the lights are like human beings who persist despite their frailty. The new day overwhelms them; its growing brightness only confirming their decline.
What is truly inimical is therefore not night but the new day that so outshines the “elderly and frail.” The last stanza can be read on a literal level, without metaphor, but it is also a statement by a man at the end of his career, who sees talents emerging that may eclipse his own. The poem only partly rails at death; it also deplores the next generation-or rather the fact that there must be a next generation. That it does so with a dexterity and rhetorical control hardly to be matched by the poets now coming of age is a further irony that does not diminish either the writer’s anguish or the force of his complaint.
To the somber grace evinced by this poem, add the quality of sprightly invention, most strikingly seen in the creation of metaphor. In “Curriculum Vitae” Hecht sees school children on a winter morning as the ghosts
Of some departed us,
Signing our lives away
On ferned and parslied windows of a bus.
In “Crows in Winter,” the crows are “a meeting / of morticians in our trees” They inhabit “a bituminous air” (the atmosphere or their manner?-probably both),
And the wind, a voiceless thorn,
goes over the details,
making a soft promise
to take our breath away.
The poems are peppered with unforced erudition, as in this description of a camel at the start of “A Ruminant”:
Out of the Urdu, into our instant ken,
ambles the gross molester of the Sphinx,
our oont, or camel,
hunchbacked from failed exertions, poor Ur-Punch
and brigand clown of Noah’s passengers,
the Hebrew gimel
for the deformity it’s luck to touch.
Such details abound and frequently delight. But what of structure? Not all the lyrics are tightly constructed and subtly argued, in the manner of “The Darkness and the Light.”. Some are more impressionistic. “Memory” is a good example. Its twenty-one blank verse lines are used to recreate a scene in the fusty room of an old house, furnished with the impedimenta of an earlier generation:
The room contained a tufted ottoman,
A large elephant-foot umbrella stand
With two malacca canes, and two peacock
Tail feathers sprouting from a small-necked vase.
The durability of such a poem depends in part on the precision and evocativeness of the description, and in greater part on what is made of it-the emotional force the poet derives from this perception. In this case the perception is a momentary surge of feeling “on sunny days toward midsummer” when
The brass andirons caught a shaft of light
For twenty minutes in late afternoon
In a radiance dimly akin to happiness-
The dusty gleam of temporary wealth.
Much is left out here-the emotional meaning of the room for the observer, the family connection, if there is one, the extent to which the artifacts are more than mere antiquarian curiosities. Readers will vary in their reactions; for my money this is not one of Hecht’s more forceful poems.
At other times, however, Hecht’s blank verse achieves considerable tautness and energy. “Devotions of a Painter” is a tour-de-force of description, as it should be, since it aims to evoke the lushness of a painter’s visual observations and of his canvas:
Weeds flatten with the current. Dragonflies
Poise like blue needles, steady in mid-air,
For some decisive, swift inoculation.
And in the persona of a painter, Hecht offers his credo as an artist-whether with paint or with words:
I am an elderly man in a straw hat
Who has set himself the task of praising God
For all this welter by setting out my paints
And getting as much truth as can be managed
Onto a small flat canvas.
(Note the casualness of the meter here: each of the first three lines quoted has a quick extrametrical syllable tucked into the pentameter, while the fourth contains three syllables of such even stress that the sense of meter is momentarily suspended.) This poem too does not rise to a climax, does not bowl the reader over by the force of its suddenly revealed connections among unlikenesses. Instead it turns on the force of a perceptive man’s response to the physical world:
I am enamoured of the pale chalk dust
Of the moth’s wing, and the dark moldering gold
Of rust, the corrupted treasures of this world.
For many readers, that is a sufficient feeling and a sufficient truth.
First-rate poems like “The Darkness and the Light” are rare in Hecht’s-or anyone’s-work. The characteristic tone and shape of many of Hecht’s shorter free-standing poems a page or less in length is a sort of dying fall, where power is achieved in the details, but the conclusion is a little off-handed. “The Ceremony of Innocence” is a good example. It describes an episode in which a prisoner is brutally tortured and killed. Afterwards the torturers learn they have murdered the wrong man:
And this made one of them thoughtful. Some years after,
He quietly severed connections with the others,
Moved to a different city, took holy orders,
And devoted himself to serving God and the poor,
While the intended victim continued to live
On a walled estate, sentried around the clock
By a youthful, cell phone-linked praetorian guard.
And that’s it. The focus of the poem at the end shifts to the man who avoided the victim’s fate-apparently by being powerful and resourceful. There is an undefined sense that this avoidance is unjust, and there is an implication that the reformed torturer, while evidently troubled, got off too easily. But these are inferences derived from tone, not statement. We do not have a complete understanding of the situation, either intellectually or emotionally. The poem is presented with great suavity, but we sense something missing.
Hecht comes closest to locking in a powerful feeling when he is dealing with the Holocaust in one guise or another. Consider “The Book of Yolek,” a sestina with an epigraph from the gospel of John: “Wir haben ein Gesetz, und nach dem Gesetz soll er sterben.” (“We have a law, and by our law he ought to die.”) In the Bible that statement is attributed to “the Jews,” but as an epigraph for this poem, and in German at that, it clearly applies to the Nazis who drove children to death camps. (Hecht, the most musical of poets, would have known the fugal setting of this line in Bach’s St. John Passion.) Yolek, barely five years old and with bad lungs, was forced in 1942 to abandon his noon meal and take “that terrible walk” between armed guards. The sestina, with its key words recurring in ever-changing patterns, proves a fitting vehicle for this meditation, in which Yolek’s fate plays on the mind of the writer, who concludes,
You will remember, helplessly, that day,
And the smell of smoke, and the loudspeakers of the camp.
Wherever you are, Yolek will be there, too.
His unuttered name will interrupt your meal.
Prepare to receive him in your home some day.
Though they killed him in the camp they sent him to,
He will walk in as you’re sitting down to a meal.
In contrast to the lyric, longer narratives require a different poetic technique. The meter is often blank verse, but employing a more casual diction. Sometimes Hecht allows himself to be surprisingly informal, humorous, and self-revealing, as when he writes in “Circles” of the consequences of divorce:
I was to be instructed by the courts
Upon the nicest points of such afflictions,
Having become a weakened, weekend father…
…and he recounts the sad afternoons supervising the play of children he must shortly return to the custodial parent, as they revolve monotonously on “the merry, garish, mirthless carousel.” At such moments poetry interposes only a very thin screen between the writer and his audience.
At other times the narrative poem becomes a sustained memoir, less concentrated, closer to the rhythms of prose:
Here is a sunny day in April, the air
Cool as spring water to breathe, but the sun warm.
We are seated under a trellised roof of vines,
Light-laced and freaked with grape-leaf silhouettes
That romp and buck across the tablecloth…
The writing is precise and animated, but more words are devoted to scene-setting and description than most lyrics would employ; the result is a lower tension running through the poem. The reader does not brace for a revelation at every turn. He is in this for the long haul, and he expects things to develop slowly. He is not disappointed: they do develop. The poem I am quoting, “See Naples and Die,” narrates in a series of scenes the unraveling of a marriage while the couple is vacationing in Italy. It does this with an interesting mixture of the subjective and the objective: the point of view is the poet’s, but he is no more kind to himself than to his wife, and he is not uncharitable toward her. Both of them appear to perplex him:
Marriages come to grief in many ways.
Our own was, I suppose, a common one,
Without dramatics, a slow stiffening
Of all the little signs of tenderness,
It seems to me in fact that Martha and I
Were somehow victims of a nameless blight
And dark interior illness.
The scenes are small but telling. He falls for a con game and is cheated out of some money. She disappears without explanation and returns in a state of near hysteria. Together they visit ancient ruins in hopes of forgetting themselves. At nearly all points the diction assures the reader that this is not a taut lyric but a story, reconstructed from a journal and from fallible memory:
Somewhere along in here, deeply depressed,
I ceased making journal entries, so what follows
Is pretty much an uncertain reconstruction
Concerning our brief excursion to the baths
Of Nero …
It is disarming, and it reassures the reader that there will not be a need to figure out mysterious references and allusions as the narrative progresses.
But of course this is not a clinical discussion. If the references are not mysterious, still the subject-the dissolution of human affections-is as fundamentally mysterious as is their creation. And so they must be anatomized obliquely. In Hecht’s narration the couple visits the site of the ancient volcanic explosion that obliterated so many lives. And he recalls the letters of Pliny the Younger, whose uncle, the eminent naturalist, had tied a pillow over his head as rocks and debris fell and set out onto the suddenly drained sea bed:
One could make out in such brief intervals
An endless beach littered with squirming fish,
With kelp and timbers strewn on muddy flats.
Giant sea-worms bright with a glittering slime,
Crabs limping in their rheumatoid pavane.
And there the poem ends, with a vision of wreckage and destruction, wrought not by human beings but by brute, incomprehensible nature.
What should we make of this? We do not have a traditional lyric with an intense focus on a perception that fixes the experience in the reader’s psyche. Nor do we have a tragedy: the actions and emotions are not large enough. Rather we have something closer to a short story that takes us through a series of events and resultant feelings so that the characters and their situation evoke a sympathetic response. Yet the narrative borrows techniques from the lyric-meter, symbolic scenes (the con game, the volcano’s devastation), figurative language (“crabs limping in their rheumatoid pavane”). In this particular poem these heightening devices are offset by the random ordering of scenes and the avoidance of causal connections among events, so the cumulative effect is not intense. It is an effect not of woe or wonder, but of sadness, perplexity, and-viewed from the proper angle-of quiet revelation.
Hecht wrote other quietly effective verse narratives, including “Apprehensions,” “The Short End,” and “The Venetian Vespers.” All are worth reading, though I do not believe any of them place him in the first rank as a master of short fiction. But in our time, when poets in the expansive movement are exploring narrative technique, there is much to be learned from his craftsmanship.
If the verse narrative sacrifices some of the lyric’s intensity in favor of the structural complexities of fiction, the poetic sequence attempts to have it both ways. A common theme, which does not always involve connected action, serves as a unifying principle, and yet the discrete poems comprising the sequence are each capable of standing alone, embodying the intensity and punch of the lyric. The elements of a sequence may gain more or less from their context; at the least, the context gives readers a ready access to the central theme. Little time need be wasted in setting the scene. Hecht explored the form with an early sequence of short poems called “The Seven Deadly Sins.” Late in life he composed a much more ambitious sequence of twenty-two poems called “The Presumptions of Death,” accompanied (as was the first sequence) by stark woodcuts of Leonard Baskin. In these poems Death appears in a series of guises: Inquisitor, Oxford Don, Knight, Archbishop, Society Lady, Poet, Painter, Judge, etc. In most, Death speaks directly to the reader.
The poems are in a variety of forms and are uneven in quality. I have little patience with the villanelle, even-or especially-on a theme as stark as this, but at times, and using other forms, the poems achieve a fierce and persuasive eloquence. In “Death the Hypocrite” it is clear at once that the hypocrisy is the reader’s:
You claim to loathe me, yet everything you prize
Brings you within the reach of my embrace.
I see right through you, though I have no eyes;
You fail to know me even face to face.
Your kiss, your car, cocktail and cigarette,
Your lecheries in fancy and in fact,
Unkindnesses you manage to forget,
Are ritual prologue to the final act
And certain curtain call.
The poem owes much to the ancient tradition of plain-style moral analysis in the manner of Gascoigne and Raleigh-and of course it is also indebted to Baudelaire, who provides the poem’s penultimate line:
Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère,
Acknowledge me. I fit you like a glove.
In some of the “Death” poems the punch lines come too easily. “Go ahead, make my day!” is a predictable ending to the poem called “Death Riding into Town,” and when we read, at the end of “Death the Mexican Revolutionary,”
For I inaugurate
A brand new social order
Six cold, decisive feet
South of the border.
-we think surely resourceful Death could do better than that.
By contrast, “Death the Whore,” at four pages almost a sequence within a sequence, offers sharp insights that are anything but obvious:
And now you’re angry
At what you think of as my long digressions
When in fact it’s the eclipses of your mind,
Those sink-holes, culverts, cisterns long avoided
As dangerous, where the actual answer lies…
The speaker is a woman with whom the person addressed had once been intimate. She has committed suicide and speaks to him from what we might call the grave, except-
And then you learned by a chance word of mouth
That I had been cremated, thereby finding
More of oblivion than I’d even hoped for.
And now when I occur to you, the voice
You hear is not the voice of what I was
When young and sexy and perhaps in love,
But the weary voice shaped in your later mind
By a small sediment of fact and rumor …
So Death entraps the living, carries them along.
And finally Death the Carnival Barker urges the crowd in to see the inevitable show. We have come through a series of guises to recognize Death in every place and in every artifice. We are, or should be, no longer surprised. But still we stand like rubes at a sideshow, unsure (as if we had a choice) whether to stay or flee. And this time the punch line resonates:
Fear not, my friends! There’s room for everyone!
Step forward, please! Make room for those in back!
Standing a little apart among the poetic sequences is “Rites and Ceremonies,” perhaps the most disturbing poem Hecht ever wrote, and one of the most powerful. At once a prayer, a ritual meditation, and a horrific imagining of the cruelties inflicted on the Jews over a long sweep of history, the poem owes something to “The Waste Land” -it too contains a fire sermon-but it is more focused. It moves from scenes of World War II and the Nazi death camps to recollections of earlier historical moments when Jews were burned alive in public squares, or when young Jewish men were driven like animals on parade, “scourged and buffeted.” Some of the poem’s strong effect is achieved by shifting from a loose and irregular iambic line-as close to free verse as Hecht ever came-to a complex stanzaic form that contains the horror without lessening it. After the people are tied together on an erected platform, the stanzas take the form of a prayer:
O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue
To crie to thee,
And then not heare it crying! Who is strong
When the flame eats his knee?
O hear my prayer,
And let my cry come unto thee.
Hide not thy face.
Let there some child among us worthy be
Here to receive thy grace
It is barren hereabout
And the wind is cold,
And the crack of fire, melting of prayer and shout
Is blown past the sheepfold
Out of hearing.
Here, as in many other poems, including the justly praised “It Out-Herods Herod,” Hecht reaches back to archaic language at moments of strong feeling. The effect is not one of pretension or obscurity but of a somber power. The poem ends with “Words for the Day of Atonement,” in which prose lines and verse combine with the effect of a religious ritual:
Forgiven be the whole Congregation of the Children of Israel, and the stranger dwelling in their midst. For all the people have inadvertently sinned….
Neither shall the flame
Kindle upon them, nor the fire burn
A hair of them, for they
Shall be thy care when it shall come to pass,
And calling on thy name
In the hot kilns and ovens, they shall turn
To thee as it is prophesied, and say,
“He shall come down like rain upon mown grass.”
If the poetic sequence represents a triumph of integrated form, theme, and meaning, as this one does, despite some unevenness, the masque, as realized by Hecht in “A Love for Four Voices” is surely a triumph of another kind: a piece of extended verse that is almost wholly free of content. In this homage to Franz Joseph Haydn, Hecht creates four speakers-“voices”-that represent members of a string quartet: the treble violins (Hermia and Helena) and the viola and cello occupying the tenor and bass clefs (Lysander and Demetrius). These figures are not supposed to evoke classical Greece-a culture preceding Haydn by more than two millennia-so much as a timeless, idle world of endless dalliance: namely the world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, from which the four characters have stepped forth.
As in Shakespeare’s play, the nominal subject is love, and the action, such as it is, consists of a rather stylized, decorous, and artful anticipation of, and recovery from, the act of love. The tempo markings of the four movements give away the plot:
I. Allegro moderato
II. Minuetto: presto ma non troppo
III. Andante: post coitum triste
IV. Finale: vivace assai
The poem, feeling no responsibility to say anything of consequence, coasts by on sheer charm, as if it were Valéry lite. Here is the sonnet comprising the final tutti section of the first movement, after the instruments have each singly introduced themselves:
Now in a highly sharpened signature,
We sign away our lives for the duration,
And each of us, determined on seduction,
Makes his insinuating overture.
Organ involuntaries, crotchet songs,
Bed chamber measures, operatic lays,
Each goes its cunning, predetermined ways,
Seeking the counterpart for which it longs.
Time’s of the essence, and will not permit
Eight hands, eight legs, two staffs and one joint purpose
Any returning, any starting over,
Nor can the ingenuities of wit
Alter the text or term of this our opus
That binds in ligatures beloved and lover.
Readers with a modicum of musical knowledge will recognize a series of devious and often salacious puns in this sonnet. There is a minim of regret expressed here-that poetry does not generally permit entire sections of a work to be repeated, as music does, or encourage artful variation on a theme, as when a major-key passage is restated in minor (though Wallace Stevens committed both liberties in “Sea Surface Full of Clouds”). So the masque proceeds with rarely a backward look through its sections and its movements, managing nonetheless to suggest chamber music of a languid and sensuous character, while never coming to grips with anything one could call an idea.
I am, to be sure, unfair. Ideas float quickly through this masque as they do through the streaming consciousnesses of the characters in Ulysses: to wit, the conviction that feelings and the mood of a summer evening can be in seductive accord, that men’s destinies are not in their control (one’s fate is determined by Fate), and that love, which is inherently self-regarding, can transform one’s sense of self. But these are mere notions, to be lightly touched, recognized, and abandoned. Time and again Hecht regales his readers with a pun of high wit-
In an inventory of post-Freudian sex
Called “Civilization and Its Discothèques”
-only to move smoothly to the next subject. The aim is not instruction but delight. It is delight for a languid summer’s day, like a lemon ice, and it has a good measure of charm, but in half an hour you’ll be hungry again.
Hecht is a dexterous translator. The two final pieces in the first collection are from poems of Joseph Brodsky. I have not looked at the Russian, but in English they are weary, a little mannered, inventive, and sonorous. About a quarter of the poems in the concluding section of the collected later poems are translations-from Baudelaire, Goethe, Horace, Vaillant, and Charles d’Orléans. It is good to see Goethe well translated into contemporary English. The poem in this instance, “The Plastic and the Poetic Form,” is about art and the artist. By allowing discreet enjambments and half-rimes into a rigorous structure, Hecht hastens the poem along, giving it a fluidity that nicely complements the sense of the final stanza:
Duly bathed and cooled, his mind,
Ardorless, will utter
Liquid song, his forming hand
Lend a shape to water.
The Horace translations are in many ways the most delightful, suggesting a spiritual kinship across the millennia. Hecht uses a dactylic meter that substitutes frequent trochees to prevent the rhythm from galloping away with him. Here is Horace praising the virtues of drink in “A Special Occasion”:
You limber the dullard’s faculties with your proddings;
With Bacchus the Trickster you break through careful discretion,
Making even the politic say what they mean.
And here, in “A Symposium,” is Horace pretending to tease out from a friend the name of his newest conquest:
There’s nothing to blush about, since you only go
For the classy and high-toned. Come on, just whisper
Her name in my ear.
O you poor silly kid,
You’ve bought yourself a regular Charybdis;
You deserve better. What can Thessalian spells,
Wizards or magic ointments do for you now?
The words “classy” and “high-toned” pitch the diction of the poem – and thus the social and intellectual position of the characters-at just the right level for satire. And though no one would conceive today of using words like “a regular Charybdis” (will the pair hereafter be known as Silly and Charybdis?), yet, in the words of Cole Porter, we know but too well what they mean.
From this survey it is evident that Hecht’s interests and achievements cover a large and varied landscape, and that no set of expectations keyed to a single genre prepares readers for everything they will encounter. But one expectation will be met time and again. Throughout the collection, and indeed throughout his career at irregular intervals, we encounter Hecht’s recurring, quenchless concern with the dark and brutal side of humanity. It occurs, not surprisingly, in poems dealing, however obliquely, with the Holocaust. But it occurs elsewhere too, for Hecht was not naïve enough to see the Holocaust as a historic aberration or the unique pathology of a single nation. Late in life he wrote a poem with the unforeboding title, “A Brief Account of Our City.”
Composed in blank verse, it purports to be a guide’s monologue, spoken to one or more visitors. It describes the city’s ancient history, the violent events and harsh warriors that founded it: “Great murderous vulgar men, they must have been.” Then we see the city as it stands today, with a church, “Our Lady of Sorrows,” and a great field, set off from the rest of the community, in which stands “A large, well-cared-for, isolated house.” This is the house which the city provides free of charge to the public executioner. His position among the citizenry is well defined:
Are allowed a special tutor, but not admitted
To any of our schools. The family
Can raise all that’s required for their meals
Right on the grounds, and, if need be, a doctor
Will call on them, given half a day’s notice.
The children are forbidden to leave the place,
As is, indeed, the entire family,
Except when the father alone is called upon
To perform official duties.
In this way the sensibilities of the townsfolk are disturbed as little as possible by the grim presence in their midst, which they evidently consider essential. Hecht gives to the guide the achingly ironic line: “And by this means / Everyone is kept happy.” Then the monologue turns back to the ordinary, and the guide recommends the potato dumplings at the local restaurant.
Here, I believe, is the center of Hecht’s concern as a poet. The transcendent moment is to be prized, certainly, and all manner of verbal graces are displayed to be savored. The follies of mankind remain a source of amusement, and the unfathomable nature of love as it materializes and vanishes will puzzle this poet and his descendants forever. But the tragic enigma of a wise and clever race capable of unspeakable cruelties is never far from Hecht’s mind, or from his best poems.
After all is said and done, what are we to make of Hecht’s contribution to our literature? It is probably safe to say that none of his poems matches the best by Stevens or Frost, and for me at any rate none carries the unanswerable authority of two works by near contemporaries-Philip Levine’s “They Feed They Lion” and Philip Larkin’s “Aubade.” But these are mountains in a landscape of high hills. Richard Wilbur may outdo Hecht in breadth if not in fluency, but Hecht’s best works bear comparison with Wilbur’s, as they do with some of the finest poems by Thom Gunn, Howard Nemerov, and Donald Justice. He is a poet with a musical ear unmatched among even the best craftsmen of formal verse, and when he is on the ground closest to his emotional center-the ever-present threat to life, order, and civilization inherent in the darkest impulses of human beings-he writes with harrowing effect.
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