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Seeing Is Not Believing’

3.

Hecht was lastingly happy in his second marriage, but his new happiness never overcame his earlier miseries. After his parents’ death, when he was nearly sixty, his brother disposed of some favorite books that had been at his parents’ apartment. Hecht was provoked into shock,

and it was shock more than anything else that so stirred me. I knew at once that the loss was almost entirely symbolic, though the knowledge did not in the least diminish my Gordian knot of rage, guilt, and other violent emotions that I had thought pretty well buried for good.

He was notoriously thin-skinned; even the most affectionate memoirs, among them Brad Leithauser’s, published in these pages in 2004, recall moments when he was “vaguely affronted.” He was defensive about his own defensiveness, and, in essays and letters, insisted that it was less a personal quirk of his own than an occupational disease of poets:

We are a touchy and easily offended lot, and this reflects the uncertainty of our place in society…. Now, other men get tired and bored with other kinds of employment…. But there are not many for whom their entire amour propre is so intimately tied to their professional careers.

In private, he was wounded by slights that no other poet ever imagined. As a visiting professor at Yale, he startled colleagues by complaining that he had been obliged to introduce himself to his students when the department chairman neglected to visit his first class and make the introduction for him.

W.H. Auden wrote that the virtue of meters and stanzas was that they liberate a poet from the iron law of his private obsessions:

Blessed be all metrical rules that forbid automatic responses,
force us to have second thoughts, free from the fetters of Self.

Hecht had begun writing with the conviction that poetic laws stand for other laws. Late in life he began citing Auden’s entirely different way of thinking about poetic form. In Hecht’s early work, in obedience to arbitrary laws that decree the shape and size of a stanza, he tends to stuff his lines with inert adjectival filler. An eighteen-line stanza about the Defenestration of Prague is filled out with “certain ambassadors” (not “ambassadors”), “the town of Prague” (not “Prague”), “And so it happened that,” “that famous height,” and “in a manner worthy to be sung.” (Auden told him that he should have reduced the whole stanza to a brief allusion.) He later became skilled enough to dispense with filler, and the regular stanzas of his later poems are often starkly exhilarating:

How even and pure this light!
All things stand on their own,
Equal and shadowless,
In a world gone pale and neuter,
Yet riddled with fresh delight.
The heart of every stone
Conceals a toad, and the grass
Shines with a douse of pewter.

In contrast, when he wrote poems in unrhymed quasi-Shakespearean blank verse, in which no stanza form compelled him to mold his thoughts, he lapsed into the overripe syntax that Eliot half-parodied in The Waste Land:

While thorned and furry legs
  embrace each other
As black mandibles tick. Immature girls,
Naked but for the stockings they
  stretch tight
To tempt the mucid glitter of an
  eye.

Asked about his taste for words like mucid and pavonine, Hecht said he used them to portray fictional characters:

I normally put them into the mouth of a person who is characterized as one who uses an exotic language. The narrator of “The Venetian Vespers,” for example, is someone who out of a kind of pathological drive learnt a lot of fancy language.

This ignores the fact that Hecht used the same exotic language in poems written in his own voice, and his phrase “a kind of pathological drive” implies more than he says about his motives. The style of Hecht’s blank-verse poems is that of an adolescent trying to fill the capacious formal clothes of his poetic fathers.

In his critical prose, with no metrical form to constrain him, Hecht rambles and grumbles, and submerges his convincing craftsman’s insights in paragraphs that begin “Candor demands that I acknowledge,” or “At the same time we must consider,” or “If the foregoing can tentatively be accepted.” When he sees in another writer his own double obsession with fatherhood and law, he loses all sense of proportion. He discovers that the key to The Merchant of Venice is the arbitrary Old Testament law that Portia’s father has bequeathed to her through his will, and which she must transform into the New Testament dispensation of love. While writing up his discovery he tells a friend, without irony:

I am convinced that I am the only person who understands that play; and that, moreover, my essay will not simply be one more “interpretation.” …What I am writing I think will prove to be unassailable and incontrovertible…. I believe that once my essay is published it will become an indispensable exegesis for the play, and will be beyond dispute correct.

No magazine would print the essay, so it appeared only in Hecht’s prose collection, Obbligati (1986). The published version again makes his claim that it offers “an unassailable case in behalf of my answers to the questions I deal with,” that it is not merely one among many possible interpretations.

4.

Hecht was famously generous to students and to strangers who sent him their poems. He wrote long letters of detailed, judicious criticism, with no trace of vague flattery. Jonathan F.S. Post, once Hecht’s student and now editor of his letters, repays Hecht’s generosity with tactful biographical summaries and, where needed, succinctly relevant headnotes. Except for the dreary sans-serif typeface used for the letters (the introduction and headnotes are more legible), this is a model edition. The letters themselves are vastly interesting for what Hecht says about himself and his poems, less so about everything else. Some of the humor will escape readers who never heard Hecht tell a story in a sly ironic voice.

Hecht’s best poems are driven by the same generosity he gave to his students. He uses his suffering not as a provocation to self-pity but as the vehicle through which he can imagine someone else’s greater suffering. In “The Short End,” after having dramatized his own learned aestheticism in “The Venetian Vespers,” he again portrays someone destroyed through a passion for art, a woman who collects decorative pillows and dies when they catch fire as she smokes in bed. One of the aims of the poem, Hecht said, “was to take a character almost entirely unprepossessing, a fat and slovenly drunken woman with garish and vulgar taste, and to try to win the reader’s sympathy for her by the time the poem was over.”

In “The Book of Yolek,” he remembers himself as a boy lost in the woods and thinking of home, and then thinks of the boy Yolek, seized from his home by the Nazis in 1942. This taut, imposing poem evokes Hecht’s two deepest themes: the doomed lost boy and the disastrous law cited in the poem’s epigraph, the German words from Luther’s Bible that translate, “We have a law, and by our law he ought to die.” The poem is a double act of personal memory and personal identification, but Hecht freed it from the fetters of self by writing it in the strict form of a sestina.

Hecht was one of the rare poets who increase in power and self-knowledge as they grow older. In his last book of essays, Melodies Unheard (2003), he tried, with partial success, to renounce his angers and resentments:

By now I have largely, almost entirely, put behind me that militant sort of “severe reprobation” Ruskin found it a moral imperative to administer; and I’ve done so with a sense of shame I was too young to feel at the time of commission….

One of the last poems in the Selected Poems is “Sarabande on Attaining the Age of Seventy-Seven”:

A turn, a glide, a quarter-turn and
  bow,
The stately dance advances; these
  are airs
Bone-deep and numbing as I
  should know by now,
Diminishing the cast, like musical
  chairs.

Hecht had written often about dying, most memorably in “The Presumptions of Death,” a grim sequence where death speaks in the roles of poet, archbishop, society lady, carnival barker, and more. He had always imagined death forcing its victims to join the grotesque movements of the Totendanz, the dance of death. Now he imagined himself accepting death’s summons but refusing death’s indignities, in the stately voluntary motions of a sarabande.

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