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.1
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 know. But at Sewanee I was heartened to hear again and again—sometimes from an adjoining table, sometimes from an adjoining room—the characteristically low, resounding laugh of that man whose poems occasionally descended from their elevated heights for an erudite, atrocious pun: “civilization and its discothèques,” “truth and booty,” “mens sana in men’s sauna.” He was somebody who relished good company and good conversation. That laugh of his was a true belly laugh: it emerged from the core of the man.
In the spring semester of 1973, Hecht came to Harvard as a visiting professor and I enrolled in his poetry-writing class. I understood quickly that I had stumbled into the classroom of a master—a man who was erudite, funny, intuitive, and, in the critical business of tendering advice to undergraduates, self-effacing. What took longer to clarify was that I had found something of a lifelong friend and guide. I was nineteen.
The relationship of literary mentor and apprentice creates its own set of idiosyncratic complexities. A number of these were sensitively explored in Alec Wilkinson’s recent My Mentor: A Young Man’s Friendship with William Maxwell. (As it happens, Hecht was a huge admirer of Maxwell’s, who slowly produced novels while busy editing fiction at The New Yorker. Contemporary fiction was of limited appeal to Hecht—his fiction-writing peers excited him far less than his fellow poets but he loved unreservedly Maxwell’s understated midwestern novels.) Even the greatest of teachers might know nothing of their students, who may be enlivened and transformed across a cavernous lecture hall. The mentor’s relationship is something else again, an imbalanced but reciprocal give-and-take.
An initial search of my filing cabinet has turned up some eighty-six letters and postcards from Hecht, who, shortly after that spring semester of 1973, became Tony to me. Once he left Harvard, we wrote to each other. Outside my family, Tony became my first reader. He found time to write to me, and to comment on my poems, while in England, Italy, Austria. I mailed off whatever I was working on—and waited nervously for his usually prompt replies. The nervousness wasn’t needless or misplaced, for he could be a stern judge. Some twenty-seven years after receiving a particularly exacting letter, I still shudder when I remember that the last line of one of my stanzas was “metrically outrageous,” and that one of my neologisms suggested “pet dragons who are trained to light people’s cigarettes.” To look through those letters after his death is to be overwhelmed by the man’s kindness. He was a born encourager of the most useful sort: he had suggestions to propose. He thought hard about how this or that struggling poem might be wrested into presentability.
In time, I began teaching writing classes myself—and marveled all the more at the care and effort Tony was willing to expend on someone else’s work. Anybody who has ever taught a writing class knows how feelings of duty, professional pride, guilt, an urge to cultivate goodwill, and perhaps a raw desire to hold on to a job may combine to induce lengthy and enthusiastic commentary on apprentice work. And anyone who has ever taught a writing class would instantly recognize in Tony’s letters an intellectual and imaginative effort extending beyond all such calls to duty, pride, guilt, and the rest. I’ve met a number of younger poets similarly touched by how unstinting Tony Hecht was when they were beginning their careers.
In many ways, he and I held on to the roles we began with. Decades after I’d stepped out of his classroom, we regularly recreated that classroom. As time went on, I saw far less of him than I would have wished—we lived thousands of miles apart for a number of years—but when we did get together we would often hold informal two-person seminars. He’d ask me to suggest poems I wanted to discuss. I remember separate afternoons devoted to Shakespeare, Donne, Hopkins, Yeats, Ransom, Auden…. He had a rare gift for untangling complexities, especially with Auden, whose poetry eventually inspired his longest book, a critical study called The Hidden Law: The Poetry of W.H. Auden. But some of our happiest moments were the result of a carefully arrived at, shared incomprehension. We both loved Ransom’s “Vision by Sweetwater,” but what exactly was the poem about?
Built into such a relationship was a careful psychological distance. Given the central role he played in my life and in my wife’s life (he and his wife were godparents to our older daughter), you might have expected more intimate confidences. But much of what I know about the darker aspects of Hecht’s past—his unhappy first marriage, his hospitalization for depression, his traumatic experiences during the Second World War, culminating in extensive involvement with survivors of Flossenburg, the Nazi death camp—was derived from mutual friends or from published interviews.2 He talked rarely of such things, and I didn’t press him. It seemed his poems, calculated and tormented, said what needed to be said.
He always seemed a little taken aback when—as occasionally happened—I would challenge him on a small matter: the interpretation of a line of poetry, a prosodic distinction, the source of a quotation. For a moment, he would look startled and vaguely affronted; then, for another moment, thoughtful, as he mulled over the proposed emendation; and then pleased, for he enjoyed spirited debate. The very last time I saw him we argued the pros and cons of Frost’s dictum “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” (I was in support, Hecht in opposition.)
Prosody was a lifelong interest of Tony’s and many of our discussions turned on minute issues of meter and rhyme. He took quiet but deep satisfaction in knowing that he’d written a matchless sestina, “The Book of Yolek.” One of the most strict and elaborate of all poetic forms, whose pattern of six end-words marches inflexibly and repetitively from start to finish, sestinas are all but impossible to write. Hecht’s is the most moving sestina I’ve ever read—more so even than Elizabeth Bishop’s or W.H. Auden’s. If I could keep only one Hecht poem, it might be this one.
“The Book of Yolek”—which honors a little boy, “who wasn’t a day over five years old,” swallowed up by the Nazi death camps—encapsulates a number of Hecht hallmarks: formal ease; a juxtaposing of the pleasurable and the painful, the luxurious and the necessitous; a sense of a carefully graduated, growing menace; and, at the close, an unblinking look into the infernal. The opening stanza about Yolek’s life before his family is arrested is a pastoral idyll:
The dowsed coals fume and hiss after your meal
Of grilled brook trout, and you saunter off for a walk
Down the fern trail, it doesn’t matter where to,
Just so you’re weeks and worlds away from home,
And among midsummer hills have set up camp
In the deep bronze glories of declining day.
In the ideal sestina—and this comes pretty close to ideal—every one of the six end-words will make a meaningful journey by the poem’s close. The poem is like a short theatrical play, in which half a dozen passengers in a closed train compartment begin to speak and interact; the laws of dramatic economy would seem to insist that each must have his or her revelatory moment. In “The Book of Yolek,” each of the end-words deepens, darkens. The delicious campfire meal of stanza one becomes a “meal of bread and soup” at the Home for Jewish Children; the sauntering walk down the fern trail turns into a walk in close formation; the “to” of “doesn’t matter where to” changes into a numeral tattoo; the camper’s fondly recalled home yields to a prisoner’s “long home,” and the holiday camp to a concentration camp; finally, the “bronze glories of declining day” inevitably lead us to Judgment Day.
It wasn’t until the dusk of Tennyson’s career—the late nineteenth century—that emerging audio technology allowed poets to record their poems, and not until the twentieth century that this became a common practice. Many imperishable voices have perished.
It’s comforting to think that there are tapes and disks of Hecht’s readings, for it would have been a great loss if this particular voice—quite an idiosyncratic voice—had vanished. His was a middle-of-the-Atlantic accent, though located far closer to the English than the American shore. Given his background—he was born in New York City, and spent much of his adult life in Rochester—his voice was clearly a willed and self-designed creation: a deliberative and pointedly cultured, a plummy and yet cleanly enunciated deployment of well-rounded tones.
The last time I heard that voice was not long before he died. Tony had been undergoing chemotherapy treatments, with ravaging results. Given the painful range of physical ailments afflicting him over the years, he was a remarkably stoical man. This was the only occasion I ever heard him complain at any length about medical problems—and the form of his complaint was touchingly revealing. He explained that the difficulties of the chemotherapy were twofold. There was, first, a great deal of physical discomfort, much of it lingering. Second, and more important, there was a resultant loss of energy and concentration. For the first time in his adult life, he lamented, he found himself unable to read anything of length or complexity. In addition, the treatments had slowed and disjointed his thinking—and meanwhile I, on the other end of the phone, was noting how beautifully articulate he contrived to be even while complaining about his inarticulateness.
Shortly after his death, while I was sorting through his letters, the word noble sprang to mind, with a ring of rightness to it. It’s not a word I’d think to apply to many of the people I’ve been closest to—not a word, probably, most of them would wish to see applied. But with all its old-fashioned connotations, its echoes of the gentlemanly and the mannerly, the high-minded and the honor-bound, noble seemed perfectly to evoke my departed friend, whose greatest nobility lies in the seven volumes of poetry he so meticulously assembled.
That work was both painful and painstaking. And yet within it Tony often managed, usually by unexpected psychological pathways, to locate and to extol some rare natural wonder, some light-enkindled joy. If a well-made poem is a regimented attempt, against all odds, to safeguard against time some important facet of oneself, I’m struck, surveying those seven volumes, at how much of himself, both the darkness and the light, Anthony Hecht succeeded in preserving. At how much, even now, remains.
December 2, 2004
For some especially gripping accounts, see Anthony Hecht in Conversation with Philip Hoy (Between the Lines, 1999). I would highlight one sentence from Hecht’s wartime reminiscences: “There is much about this I have never spoken about, and never will.” ↩