Anthony Hecht

Formalist poet with disturbing themes
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The Independent Online

Anthony Evan Hecht, poet, teacher, critic and translator: born New York 16 January 1923; Consultant in Poetry, Library of Congress 1982-84; married 1954 Patricia Harris (two sons; marriage dissolved 1961), 1971 Helen D'Alessandro (one son); died Washington, DC 20 October 2004.

Like W.H. Auden, whom he venerated, Anthony Hecht first fell in love with poetry with the force of a coup de foudre. It was 1940 and he was 17, and in his first year at Bard College, in New York State.

His parents, middle-class and conventional, were alarmed by his declaration that he was going to be a poet, and consulted a family friend and the only writer they knew, Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr Seuss. Geisel advised the young Hecht to read the biography of Joseph Pulitzer, the journalism magnate responsible for the eponymous prize. Suspecting this was being suggested to discourage him - Pulitzer was not by any stretch of the imagination a poet - Hecht never read the book. Later in life, with typical self-deprecating acuity, he said his one piece of advice to young writers was never to read the life of Joseph Pulitzer.

A formalist poet, Hecht had all the versifying qualifications this implies, and once even co-wrote with the poet John Hollander a collection of poems which were all double dactyls (its very title, Jiggery-Pokery, is itself a double dactyl). But the sophistication of his work belied a very dark sensibility, which emerged later in his career and stemmed from his early experiences in the Second World War.

Unlike other writers of his generation, such as James Dickey, Hecht never talked very much about his own soldiering, and he downplayed his role, even though he was engaged in extensive fighting in Europe after D-Day. He was also an early liberator of a concentration camp, Flossenburg, a neighbouring annexe of Buchenwald and the camp where Dietrich Bonhoeffer was murdered a week before the camp was overrun by the Allies.

Though what he saw in the camp deeply affected Hecht, he was none the less honest enough in later years to say that his subsequent deep reading about the Holocaust meant he was not always able to distinguish his "anger and revulsion at what I really saw from what I later came to learn". But it was clear that other things he did witness shaped a bleak and unsparing vision of humanity which haunts his finest poems. Once, for example, he remembered in an interview how

a small group of German women, perhaps five or six, leading small children by the hand, and with white flags of surrender . . . came up over the far crest and started walking slowly towards us, waving their white flags . . . When they were about halfway . . . two of our machine-guns opened up and slaughtered the whole group . . . For the rest of the day there was much loud and insistent talk about that morning's slaughter, all intended as justification . . . That morning left me without the least vestige of patriotism or national pride.

Having graduated from Bard College in absentia, Hecht went to Kenyon College after the war, where he studied with the New Critic and poet John Crowe Ransom, and then took an MA from Columbia University in 1950. Hecht spent his professional life teaching, for many years at the University of Rochester (1967-85) but also as a guest teacher at many other institutions, including Harvard and Yale. He was not an advocate of free verse, but he could recognise talent in students who did not necessarily hold his formalist views, and writers who studied under Hecht include Norman Williams, Brad Leithauser and Timothy Murphy. He was unstinting in his encouragement to young poets, and generous in helping to publicise their work.

After serving for two years as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (America's Poet Laureate), Hecht joined the faculty of Georgetown University in 1985 and taught until his retirement in 1993.

Hecht's first collection, A Summoning of Stones, appeared in 1954, and was well received - one critic compared him favourably to Wallace Stevens. The poems are perhaps more notable for their technical precocity than for their feeling, and Hecht himself later dismissed them as "advanced apprenticework". This changed with his second collection, The Hard Hours (1967), which won the Pulitzer Prize and contains much of Hecht's best work.

The polish of his versifying contrasts powerfully with the gritty grimness of his themes. Although never overtly autobiographical, Hecht's best poems here reflect what seems an indubitably personal sense of loss - the many "arid and defeated landscapes" in these poems were, Hecht acknowledged, "a means to express a desolation of the soul".

It is the manifestly darker poems in The Hard Hours which prove most haunting, as in the famous "More Light! More Light!", where a Pole is ordered by German soldiers to bury two Jews alive. Refusing, he is made to swap places with them, then is swapped again, and this time he does not demur:

No light, no light in the Polish eye.

When he was finished a riding boot packed down the earth

His style was now freed up, though he never lost his affinity for forms - from sestinas to villanelles and his beloved dactyls. He could be a highly entertaining, even funny writer, though there was a always a point to his humour - even his famed parody of Matthew Arnold, "Dover Bitch", has a pathos to its deflation of the ponderous Arnold:

But all the time he was talking she had in mind

The notion of what his whiskers would feel like

On the back of her neck . . .

Unusually for a poet, Hecht began to write much more as he grew older, and he published five collections of poetry after the age of 50, as well as many translations and a full-length and excellent study of his much-loved Auden (The Hidden Law, 1993). He translated classical writers such as Aeschylus, as well as contemporary writers such as Joseph Brodsky.

Hecht's poetry is uncompromising in its use of literary and artistic allusion (he was especially fond of Ekphrastic poems about paintings) and his work is marked by a pervasive historical awareness. These traits can make his poetry difficult, but it is never knowingly obscure, and any pretentiousness is ruthlessly cut out by a steely and deflating authorial eye.

The Venetian Vespers (1979) typified this mix of erudition and directness. An abstract reverie "of light chromatics (Monet and Debussy)" yields to a description of the rubbish bobbing in the canals, pointlessly spoiling the beauty of the "world's most louche and artificial city":

Pale, smoky quarts of acqua minerale

Iodine-tinted liters, the true-blue

Waterman's midnight ink of Bromo Seltzer

An impressive-looking man, latterly with a large shock of white hair and a full beard, Hecht dressed beautifully, and was polished, gracious, and articulate in demeanour. Unlike so many other poets of his generation, he was neither flamboyant nor Bohemian in his personal life, and took Auden as his model -

who believed a poet should be as ordinary as possible and be easily mistaken for a businessman . . . I lead a very ordinary life.

But there was occasional emotional upheaval, most notably when he separated from his first wife and she took his two sons with her to live in Europe for several years. The resulting depression was severe enough for Hecht to be hospitalised.

Although honest about this, as he was about his experiences in the war, Hecht was always disinclined to wear his heart on his sleeve, and this reticence, coupled with technical virtuosity, made his treatment of disturbing themes so striking, and gave his poems their particular power.

Andrew Rosenheim