I caught my final glimpses of Anthony Hecht in Tennessee last July. This was at the Sewanee Writers Conference, where he was a guest of honor. I was one of a panel of five writers and editors come to pay tribute. Each panel member was to present a brief talk about Hecht’s work. It was a task turned all the more imposing by having the object of our remarks, the eighty-one-year-old poet himself, seated in the audience. The look he trained upon us was—to my eyes—neither encouraging nor censorious but simply, deeply thoughtful. Though Hecht had as healthy an appetite for acclaim as most writers, he was typically far less tolerant than most of “damned nonsense”—a favorite phrase of his. The shared sentiment on the panel was that observations had better be defensible and all facts correct.
Today, when poets tend to feel less appreciated and less well read than novelists or journalists, one will frequently hear somebody praised because he or she “really loves poetry.” This was damned nonsense in Hecht’s view—why should anybody be commended for this? Poetry was the apex of the art, the sum and summit; it was the true stuff. You found in Hecht neither that apologetic diffidence nor that insular smugness, with its fierce pride in small numbers, so common among poets.
At Sewanee, I gave him a number of those close covert inspections reserved for cherished friends whose health has been shaky. He’d suffered various medical trials and scares over recent years and had almost died not long before of heart problems. The poet I saw at Sewanee looked solider than I’d imagined. But as it turned out, those July days in Tennessee were a sort of sunlit valediction, for it was shortly after his return home to Washington, D.C., that he received the diagnosis of advanced lymphoma that was his death sentence. He died on October 20.
I left Sewanee with two impressions. The first was purely literary: having entered his eighties, Hecht was still at the top of his powers. On the evening after our panel, he gave a reading—the last public reading of his life—and introduced work completed only in recent months: rich and delicate poems, all the old music freshly intact.
The second impression may surprise those acquainted with Hecht only on the page: I was struck by the charm and frequency of his laughter. Hecht’s poetry is well known for its bleak subjects, for a grimness that often veers into gruesomeness. He created some of the most harrowing images I’ve met in poems: the half-decapitated soldier in “Venetian Vespers,” the live burials of “‘More Light! More Light!’” and “The Short End,” the flaying in “Behold the Lilies of the Field,” the crowded gas chamber of “Rites and Ceremonies.” “The Deodand,” which closes with an image of a bedizened, perfumed, dismembered prisoner of war, holds the distinction of being the most excruciatingly violent poem I …