In Memoriam: Anthony Hecht (1923-2004)
As Reviewed By: Preston Merchant
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.
[private]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
Having seen her very self with my two eyes
About twelve months ago, alive and young
And fresh and well and beautiful as ever.