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A Light Black World

Anthony Hecht was born in 1923, which means he belongs to the generation of writers who served in World War II and hit their stride in the 1950s. From the perspective of the cultural anarchy that was about to break loose, the Fifties are usually dismissed as a timorous and conformist decade: the cold war was at its height, nuclear catastrophe seemed imminent, Senator McCarthy was on the rampage, and liberals everywhere kept their heads well below the parapet.

That, certainly, was how it felt in exhausted postwar England, but—for this Englishman at least—the atmosphere was altogether livelier in the US, McCarthy notwithstanding. Instead of being cowed or stifled by the ubiquitous sense of menace, the Abstract Expressionist painters and their poetic equivalents—Lowell, Berryman, Plath—responded to it by turning inward; they used their private troubles as a mirror for the troubles all around, and the work they produced was anything but conformist. As for intellectual life, the arguing didn’t stop or become less fierce, it merely changed focus: from Marx to Freud, from dialectical materialism to the New Criticism. For a brief period, literature seemed to replace politics and religion as a source of true values, just as Matthew Arnold had predicted, and even literary criticism seemed like a noble vocation.

In other words, the Fifties were a serious decade and the Fifties poets took their art seriously. It was a craft, a skill to be learned, a hard discipline, like drawing from life, that stayed with you no matter what you did with it later. That was one of its many attractions for Anthony Hecht when he was fresh out of the army and trying to put his life back together again, courtesy of the GI Bill of Rights. It was a long and difficult task and he had a lot to work at, starting with his childhood in New York. His family was upper-middle-class, but flaky and thwarted and downwardly mobile, always on the edge of financial ruin; his younger brother was crippled and epileptic; his parents loathed each other and didn’t much care for their two children, whom they manipulated relentlessly in their shameful squabbles. Then the war came. Hecht was conscripted into the army, fought as a GI in Europe, and was present at the liberation of the Flossenbürg concentration camp, an annex of Buchenwald—experiences that darkened his already bleak view of the world, eventually helped to precipitate a breakdown, and seem to have stayed with him ever since.*

The GI Bill took him to Kenyon College, where he studied under John Crowe Ransom, began to teach, and published his first poems. Ran-som himself was a gifted poet, witty, tender, gentlemanly, and technically conservative. From him, Hecht has written, “one learned to pay keen attention to poetic detail.” He was also a master craftsman, which must have encouraged the younger poet’s fascination with poetic forms and their uses. But unlike Lowell, who had preceded him at Kenyon, Hecht was a slow starter. He later suppressed half the poems in his first collection, A Summoning of Stones, because the general tone, he told Philip Hoy, was “jaunty and distanced, cool and artificed…too full of devices.” In those days, essay-poems—poems with a beginning, a middle, and a moral at the end—were all the fashion on both sides of the Atlantic, though Hecht, even at the start, was too subtle a technician to settle for the thumping pentameters favored by his British contemporaries. Anyway, what he had to express was too complex for that complacent formula. At the root of all his best mature poems was darkness, or rather darkness and distaste, residues of his bleak childhood and whatever nightmares had their origins in his experience at Flossenbürg. He made poetry out of this, however, only by keeping it at a distance and applying great technical pressure.

Hecht, I mean, is a poet who has dealt with twentieth-century horrors most often in elaborate traditional forms. Like everyone of his period, he was profoundly influenced by T.S. Eliot, but what he took from him had little to do with experimental Modernism. Hecht’s Eliot is the poet who replaced the languid Romanticism of the late nineteenth century with a new style of classicism—impersonal, controlled, lucid, and highly intelligent. His Eliot was also the critic who backed it up with essays on what William James might have called the “tough-minded” poets—Donne and the Metaphysicals, Ben Jonson, Dryden, the Jacobean dramatists—who had somehow been pushed out of the way during the rise of the “tender-minded” Romantics. This was the Eliot who wrote, in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,”

Tradition…cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.

This was precisely what a young man with a natural bent for learning wanted to hear. So, too, was Eliot’s famous comment, in the same essay, on the extinction of personality:

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.

Hecht was a nonreligious Jew who wrote poetry because, among other reasons, he wanted to deal with what he had seen firsthand: the crimes committed against less fortunate Jews in Nazi Germany. He was too intelligent, however, and far too fastidious ever to try to hitch a lift from such outrage; “I have,” he told Hoy, “little sympathy or patience with the poetry of moral indignation.” For Hecht, Eliot the invisible poet was a perfect role model.

Hecht’s way of keeping his volatile subject matter at an aesthetic distance was to create characters and speak through them like a novelist, just as Browning had done. This is nowhere more apparent than in an extraordinary poem published in his second collection, The Hard Hours, in 1967. It is called “Behold the Lilies of the Field,” and in it, without ever raising his voice, he contrives to describe something altogether monstrous—the ritual humiliation, daily flogging, and eventual flaying alive of the Emperor Valerian by the Persians in 260 AD. Unusually for Hecht, the poem is in free verse, but a free verse written with such attention to detail and so subtly monitored for pitch and tone that it seems as disciplined as the trickiest traditional prosody. It also has a tricky time-scheme, shifting from the American present to ancient Rome with no apparent change of gear. The poem begins, almost like one of Lowell’s “Life Studies,” with a man angrily recounting some wounding childhood memory of his hypocritical mother to a shadowy figure who might be a therapist:

I don’t think
She knows what honesty is. “Your mother’s a whore,”
Someone said, not meaning she slept around,
Though perhaps this was part of it, but
Meaning she had lost all sense of honor,
And I think this is true.

But that’s not what I wanted to say.
What was it I wanted to say?…
Lie back. Relax.
Oh yes. I remember now what it was.
It was what I saw them do to the emperor.

Then comes the sudden change of scene and century and the terrible catalog of cruelties, glassily enumerated, which circle repeatedly back to the narrator’s own torment, variations on the single theme of unwillingly bearing witness: “And I was tied to a post and made to watch.”

On one level, it is a sidelong and beautifully reticent way of airing Hecht’s Flossenbürg nightmare. Bearing witness, however, is only part of the torment. Valerian’s story ends, as the mother’s does, with the loss of honor. At which point, the mother unexpectedly reappears:

His death had taken hours.
They were very patient.
And with him passed away the honor of Rome.
In the end, I was ransomed. Mother paid for me.
You must rest now. You must. Lean back.
Look at the flowers.
Yes. I am looking. I wish I could be like them.

He is talking about murderous rage as well as outrage, and the cold voice coldly describing the unspeakable things he “saw them do to the emperor” is not quite as dispassionate as it seems. It makes you wonder what the soothing therapist was thinking, not just about the man’s despair, but about the crippling sadism that lurks below it. And this is Hecht’s particular strength: he knows how to tackle the ambiguity of feelings while keeping it at arm’s length, ironically, and without benefit of Modernist experiment.

For Hecht, cruelty is a terrible side effect of what he called, in his poem “The Venetian Vespers,” “Something profoundly soiled, pointlessly hurt/ And beyond cure in us.” It is like a trapdoor that opens at his feet when he least expects it, usually when he is most in love with the world and how it looks. And this, paradoxically, is more often than you’d think because Hecht, for all his pessimism, is fascinated by the sheer sumptuous richness of things. He is a consummate painter of still life:

They were green grapes, or, rather,
They were a sort of pure, unblemished jade,
Like turbulent ocean water, with misted skins,
Their own pale, smoky sweat, or tiny frost.

He is equally hedonistic about his craft: he loves language as much as he loves the visible world, and handles rhyme and meter with the same scrupulous, almost sensuous attention to detail as he paints still life. As a result, he is, among his many other talents, one of the best translators around. In his versions of two long poems by Joseph Brodsky, “Cape Cod Lullaby” and “Lagoon,” he triumphantly performed the impossible, recreating the intricately melodious metrical forms that come naturally in Russian but seem to defy plain English. Similarly, in The Darkness and the Light, Hecht’s most recent collection, he captures the lilt, wry wit, and lightness of touch of Charles d’Orléans in a way that makes the fourteenth-century French poet read like a contemporary:

Back off, clear out, the lot of you,
Vile Melancholy, Spleen, and Woe;
Think you to dog me to and fro
As in the past you used to do?

Not anymore. “Begone. You’re through,”
Says Reason, your determined foe.
Back off, clear out, the lot of you,
Vile Melancholy, Spleen, and Woe.

If you resurface, may God throw
You and your whole damnable crew
Back where you came from down below,
And thereby give the fiend his due.
Back off, clear out, the lot of you.

At heart, however, Hecht is a classicist and is at his best with the Latin poets. Like Horace, he has the true satirist’s gift for combining anger with elegance, without ever losing his balance. And although he is now nearing his eightieth birthday, his contempt for hypocrisy and vanity is still going strong, especially when they intrude on subjects he most cares for, like literature:

It’s the same in the shady groves of academe:
Cold eye and primitive beak and callused foot
Conjunctive to destroy
all things of high repute,
Whole epics, Campion’s songs, Tolstoy,
Euclid and logic’s enthymeme,
As each man bares his scalpel, whets his saber,
As though enjoined to deconstruct his neighbor.
And that’s not the worst of it; there are the Bacchae,
The ladies’ auxiliary of the raptor clan
With their bright cutlery,
sororal to a man.
And feeling peckish, they foresee
An avian banquet in the sky,
Feasting off dead white European males,
Or local living ones, if all else fails.

When Hecht is writing in public mode, like this, he has the gift for jaunty, far-fetched rhymes and the sharp eye for pretension of a latter-day Byron. But he lacks Byron’s swagger and, even when making fun of fools, his take on the human condition is as mirthless as it ever was.

Poets in old age tend to look back, as though to take account of their lives, to bring vanished people and places back to life, and say goodbye. Hecht, however, is going down to the wire forgiving no one, with every detail clear-cut and no soft focus. This, for example, is how he remembers the overstuffed parlor of his parents’ apartment:

Green velvet drapes kept the room dark and airless
Until on sunny days toward midsummer
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.

No phony nostalgia for Hecht; “dimly akin to happiness” is as close as he gets to being reconciled to his bleak childhood.

There is just one poem that seems at first to be the exception because it expands with great delicacy on “the pleasures of those childhood days”:

The sound of rain. The gentle graphite veil
Of rain that makes of the world a steel engraving,
Full of soft fadings and faint distances.

The poem ends, “Who can resist the charms of retrospection?” Who, indeed? The answer is in the title, “Lot’s Wife.” Look back nostalgically, Hecht is saying, and you get turned into a pillar of salt.

He is still troubled by visions of cruelty. A number of these new poems are based on Old Testament stories, grimly reinterpreted as precursors for the Final Solution. And even the less cataclysmic tales are tainted by the desolation cruelty leaves in its wake: for instance, one of the elders who spies on Susanna as she bathes is a dirty old man with sadistic fantasies, stewing in “the plush, delirious Minsky’s of his mind.” The only biblical character who sounds not altogether desolate is Miriam, the prophetess and sister of Aaron, who is also the one who might be speaking for Hecht:

I had a nice voice once, and a large following.
I was, you might say, a star.

Her last words are,

The past is past; it’s no good to anyone.
Many were lovely once, at least as children.

She sounds resigned, mature, almost forgiving—that is, until you recall Miriam’s fate: because she bad-mouthed Moses, the good Lord, in his mercy, made her a leper. As in Beckett’s End Game, Hecht’s world is “Light black. From pole to pole.”

Beckett also said, “The prospect of death is always revivifying,” and sure enough, the atmosphere brightens wonderfully with the three poems that end this new collection. They are about making a decent exit, and the way they are written shows how it should be done—gracefully, tenderly, and con brio:

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.

When Emerson, in 1837, wrote admonishingly, “We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe,” he seemed, like a good democrat, to be objecting less to the influence of Europe than to its courtliness. One of Hecht’s many achievements is to write with the courtly grace of Lovelace or Carew in a wry and wholly contemporary American voice.

  1. *

    Hecht discusses all this, and a great deal more, in a long and illuminating conversation with Philip Hoy, published in 1999 by Between the Lines. Anthony Hecht in Conversation with Philip Hoy is one of an excellent series which also includes book-length interviews with W.D. Snodgrass, Richard Wilbur, Thom Gunn, and Seamus Heaney, among others. Although they are called “conversations,” Hecht’s was conducted at a distance and without benefit of a tape recorder: Hoy first sent him a list of one hundred questions, to which Hecht responded with intricate written replies; this was followed by a further fifty letters and faxes, and much rewriting.

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