Anthony Hecht

1923–2004
Anthony HechtDorothy Alexander
One of the leading voices of his generation, Anthony Hecht’s poetry is known for its masterful use of traditional forms and linguistic control. Extraordinarily erudite, Hecht’s verse often features allusions to French literature, Greek myth and tragedy, and English poets and poetry stretching from Wallace Stevens to John Donne. Hecht, who died in 2004, was often described as a “traditionalist.” George P. Elliott contended in the Times Literary Supplement that "Hecht's voice is his own, but his language, more amply than that of any living poet writing in English, derives from, adds to, is part of the great tradition." Though his early work was often slighted as ornate or Baroque, his collection The Hard Hours (1967) is generally seen as his break-through volume. In that book, Hecht begins to use his experiences as a soldier in Europe during World War II. The often unsettling and horrific insights into the darkness of human nature told in limpid, flowing verse that characterize the poems in the collection would become Hecht’s trademark. According to Dana Gioia: “Hecht exemplifies the paradox of great art…He found a way to take his tragic sense of life and make it so beautiful that we have to pay attention to its painful truth."  

Anthony Hecht was born in New York City in 1923. Though a self-described mediocre student, he nonetheless counted his first three years at Bard College some of the happiest of his life. His college career was interrupted, however, when he was drafted into the army to serve in World War II. As an infantryman, he fought in Germany, France and Czechoslovakia. His division also helped liberate Flossenburg concentration camp. Ordered to collect evidence from the French prisoners, the experience marked him for the rest of his life. Hecht returned to the United States and finished his degree at Kenyon College where he studied under John Crowe Ransom. At Kenyon he also formed friendships with poets like Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Allen Tate and Randall Jarrell. Hecht’s first book, A Summoning of Stones (1954) displays great technical skill, but for some critics, the style seems mannered and dated. Donald Davie wrote in Shenandoah that "the poems are full of erudite and cosmopolitan references, epigraphs from Moliere and so on; and the diction is recherche, opulent, laced with the sort of wit that costs nothing. Here and there too the poet knowingly invites what some reviewers have duly responded with, the modish epithet 'Baroque.' But…the right word is the much less fashionable 'Victorian.'"

The Hard Hours (1967) broke with many of the mannerisms that marked The Summoning of Stones. According to Laurence Lieberman in the Yale Review: "In contrast with the ornate style of many of Hecht's earlier poems, the new work is characterized by starkly undecorative—and unpretentious—writing." Hecht’s mature style was evident in poems like “More Light! More Light!” one of his most famous poems and, some argue, the finest poem in English to address the Holocaust. The poem opens  with the burning of a Christian heretic in the Tower of London, but swiftly moves to “outside a German wood,” recounting a horrific event of the Holocaust in an attempt to capture how “barbarism dehumanizes its victims,” according to poet Ed Hirsch. Also described as a depiction of the “end of Humanism,” Hecht’s poem is one of his most frequently anthologized and discussed. Other poems that treat the Holocaust and Jewish trauma, like “Rites and Ceremonies,” as well as lighter verses such as Hecht’s response to Matthew Arnold, “The Dover Bitch,” have become standards in the twentieth century canon. The Hard Hours won the Pulitzer Prize.

Hecht’s next collections, Millions of Strange Shadows (1977) and The Venetian Vespers (1979), return in some ways to the high style and diction of his first. According to Steven Madoff in the Nation, Hecht is much like Wallace Stevens in his interest in music "as a medium and transcendent force," and he is especially influenced by "the melodic intricacy of expression, and the expansive discourse that is propelled through its argument as much by the perfection of the words' sound as by the thesis that they construct" in Stevens's writing. Unfortunately, said Madoff, "the complexity of this marriage [of sound and meaning] makes for a certain inscrutability." The Venetian Vespers, whose title poem Hecht admitted was his favorite, continues to demonstrate the smoothness of Hecht’s line, and his ability to jump registers, write metrically and adhere to complicated rhyme schemes without ever abandoning a conversational, easy tone. As Michael Dirda noted in his Washington Post Book World recommendation, “there is never a jarring line, never a word out of place; everything fits together with the inevitable rightness of the classical poet." Though known for such formal, intense poetry of great moral and ethical scope, Hecht also engaged seriously with light verse. With John Hollander, he invented a humorous form known as the “double dactyl,” that is similar to the limerick but significantly more difficult to write. Hecht and Hollander edited an anthology of double dactyls called Jiggery-Pokery: A Compendium of Double Dactyls in 1967.

Hecht's final books, Flight among the Tombs (1998) and The Darkness and the Light (2001) take weighty subjects such as death, war and the dark sides of love as their central themes. Flight among the Tombs also contains elegies to Hecht’s fellow poets Joseph Brodsky and James Merrill. Poetry contributor John Taylor found that in Flight among the Tombs, "Hecht's formal mastery is of the highest order. Priceless lessons can be learned: the way a skillful poet manipulates a variety of traditional forms (including the ever-tricky villanelle), the naturalness of his meters and rhymes, his bold displays of consonance…his concision, his descriptive powers." While The Darkness and the Light was often described as formally “less perfect” than earlier work, William Logan found that the imperfection made the poems more emotionally accessible. "The moody valedictory poems of The Darkness and the Light are more ravaged and humane than any Hecht has written," remarked Logan. Logan saw a "loosening of control" that "has made Hecht a warmer, more sympathetic poet."

Hecht was also a noted critic. His volumes of literary criticism are highly regarded. Obbligati (1986) contains critical essays on the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, and Emily Dickinson, as well interpretations of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. A proponent of close reading and engagement with the text itself, Hecht’s critical work on the poetry of W.H. Auden, The Hidden Law (1993) originates less from a “critical orthodoxy than from the admiration of a working poet," noted Sidney Burris in the Southern Review. Hecht’s other volumes of prose include On the Laws of the Poetic Art (1995), which contains six lectures Hecht gave at the National Gallery of Art in 1992 as part of that institution's Andrew Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, and Melodies Unheard: Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry (2003), the last work he published before his death in 2004. Hailed as ground-breaking from nearly all corners, the book contains essays that elucidate a lifetime of reading and thinking about literature and poetry. Wide-ranging and extremely learned, the essays, according to poet Mark Strand, “are models of civility, candor, and grace.” Encompassing almost all of the English literary tradition, Hecht’s essays also treat formal concerns such as the implications of the sestina and the structure of the sonnet. Strand went on: “I know of no other poet, certainly none of Anthony Hecht's stature, who sheds as much light on the intricacies and hidden designs of poems and who does it with such style.”  

A longtime professor of poetry at the University of Rochester, Hecht also taught at institutions such as Georgetown, Yale, Harvard and Smith College. He was the Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress from 1982-1984, and won many of America’s most prestigious poetry awards, including the Bollingen Prize, the Ruth Lily Poetry Prize, the Wallace Stevens Award and the Frost Medal. His collected poems were published in two volumes, Early Collected Poems (1993) and Later Collected Poems (2005). His death in 2004 was marked by a great outpouring of tributes and eulogies. In the New York Times, David Yezzi offered this praise: “It was Hecht's gift to see into the darker recesses of our complex lives and conjure to his command the exact words to describe what he found there. Hecht remained skeptical about whether pain and contemplation can ultimately redeem us, yet his ravishing poems extend hope to his readers that they can.”

Career

Has taught at Kenyon College, State University of Iowa, New York University, Smith College, and Washington University; Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, associate professor of English, 1962-67; University of Rochester, Rochester, NY, John H. Deane Professor of Poetry and Rhetoric, 1967-85; Georgetown University, Washington, DC, university professor, 1985-93. Visiting professor, Harvard University, 1973, and Yale University, 1977. Consultant in poetry to Library of Congress, 1982-84; trustee, American Academy, Rome, beginning 1983; Andrew Mellon lecturer in the fine arts, National Gallery of Art, 1992; Rockefeller Foundation resident, Villa Serbelloni, Bellagio, Italy, 1993. Military service: U.S. Army, three years; served in Europe and Japan; temporary duty with Counter-Intelligence Corps.

Bibliography

POETRY:
  • A Summoning of Stones, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1954.
  • The Seven Deadly Sins (pamphlet; includes wood engravings by Leonard Baskin), Gehenna Press (Rockport, ME), 1958.
  • Struwwelpeter, a Poem, Gehenna Press (Rockport, ME), 1958.
  • The Hard Hours, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1967.
  • Aesopic (couplets; includes wood engravings by Thomas Bewick), Gehenna Press (Rockport, ME), 1968.
  • Millions of Strange Shadows, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1977.
  • The Venetian Vespers, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1979.
  • A Love for Four Voices: Homage to Franz Joseph Haydn, Mandeville (Hitchin, Hertfordshire, England), 1983.
  • The Transparent Man, Knopf (New York, NY), 1990.
  • Collected Earlier Poems (contains The Hard Hours, Millions of Strange Shadows, and The Venetian Vespers), Knopf (New York, NY), 1990.  
  • Collected Earlier Poems, Knopf (New York, NY), 1992.
  • Death Sauntering About, Friends of the Amherst College Library (Amherst, MA), 1994.
  • The Presumptions of Death, Gehenna Press (Rockport, ME), 1995.
  • Flight among the Tombs: Poems, Knopf (New York, NY), 1996.
  • The Gehenna Florilegium, Gehenna Press (Rockport, ME), 1998.
  • The Darkness and the Light, Knopf (New York, NY), 2001.
  • Collected Later Poems, Knopf (New York, NY) 2005.
PROSE:
  • Robert Lowell: A Lecture Delivered at the Library of Congress on May 2, 1983, Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1983.
  • The Pathetic Fallacy: A Lecture Delivered at the Library of Congress on May 7, 1984, Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1985.
  • Obbligati: Essays in Criticism, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1986.
  • The Hidden Law: The Poetry of W. H. Auden, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1993.
  • On the Laws of the Poetic Art, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1995.
  • (With Philip Hoy) Anthony Hecht: In Conversation with Philip Hoy, Between the Lines (London, England), 1999.
  • Melodies Unheard: Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, Maryland), 2003.
OTHER:
  • (Editor, with John Hollander) Jiggery-Pokery: A Compendium of Double Dactyls, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1967.
  • (Translator, with Helen Bacon) Aeschylus, Seven against Thebes, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1973.
  • (Editor) The Essential Herbert, Ecco (New York, NY), 1987.
  • (Editor, with G. Blakemore Evans) William Shakespeare, The Sonnets, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1996.
Also translator with William Arrowsmith of Sophocles' Oedipus at Colossus. Poems included in New Pocket Anthology of American Verse, edited by Oscar Williams, World Publishing, 1955, Contemporary American Poetry, edited by Donald Hall, Penguin, 1962, Poet's Choice, edited by Paul Engle and Joseph Langland, Dial, 1962, A Controversy of Poets, edited by Paris Leary and Robert Kelly, Doubleday-Anchor, 1965, Poems of Our Moment, edited by John Hollander, Pegasus, 1968, and in other anthologies. Contributor to sound recordings, including The 1987 Consultants' Reunion, A Sixtieth-Anniversary Reading, and Academy of American Poets Fiftieth-Anniversary Celebration. Has done translations from French and German. Contributor to Hudson Review, New York Review of Books, Quarterly Review of Literature, Transatlantic Review, and Voices.

Further Reading

BOOKS
  • Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 8, 1978, Volume 13, 1980, Volume 19, 1981.
  • Contemporary Poets, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
  • Hecht, Anthony, and Philip Hoy, Anthony Hecht: In Conversation with Philip Hoy, Between the Lines (London, England), 1999.
  • Lea, Sydney, editor, The Burdens of Formality: Essays on the Poetry of Anthony Hecht, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1989.
PERIODICALS
  • AB Bookman's Weekly, November 28, 1994, p. 2287.
  • Agenda, winter, 1994, p. 224.
  • Atlantic, February, 1967; April, 1993, Peter Davison, review of The Hidden Law: The Poetry of W. H. Auden, p. 128.
  • Bloomsbury Review, May, 1994, review of The Hidden Law, p. 10.
  • Book, July, 2001, Stephen Whited, review of The Darkness and the Light, p. 79.
  • Booklist, July, 1986, review of Obbligati: Essays in Criticism, p. 1578; May 15, 1990, review of The Transparent Man, p. 1773; November 15, 1996, Donna Seaman, review of Flight among the Tombs, p. 567; May 1, 2001, Ray Olson, review of The Darkness and the Light, p. 1658.
  • Book World, August 31, 1986, review of Obbligati, p. 9; July 8, 1990, reviews of The Transparent Man and Collected Earlier Poems, p. 1; April 3, 1994, review of The Hidden Law, p. 12; February 25, 1996, review of On the Laws of the Poetic Art, p. 4; January 26, 1997, review of Flight among the Tombs: Poems, p. 8; December 7, 1997, review of Flight among the Tombs, p. 13.
  • Boston Review, August, 1987, review of Obbligati, p. 18.
  • Carleton Miscellany, Volume IX, number 3, 1968.
  • Choice, July, 1993, review of The Hidden Law, p. 1767; March, 1987, review of Obbligati, p. 1058.
  • Christian Science Monitor, February 1, 1968; September 10, 1986, review of Obbligati, p. 23.
  • Commonweal, December 7, 1990, Margaret Wimsatt, review of The Transparent Man, p. 731; December 17, 1993, Daria Donnelly, review of The Hidden Law, p. 18.
  • Comparative Literature Studies, review of On the Laws of the Poetic Art, p. 191.
  • Contemporary Literature, spring, 1969.
  • Economist, June 23, 2001, Seamus Heaney, review of The Darkness and the Light, p. 3.
  • English Literature in Transition 1880-1920, February, 1994, review of The Hidden Law, p. 231.
  • Explicator, 54, 1996, Ellen Miller Casey, "Hecht's 'More Light! More Light!,'" pp. 113-115; fall, 1999, Will Clemens, "Hecht's 'Death as a Member of the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke,'" p. 46, and Kathryn Jacobs, "Hecht's 'The Ghost in the Martini,'" p. 48.
  • Harper's, August, 1968.
  • Hudson Review, summer, 1997, review of Flight among the Tombs, p. 319.
  • Journal of English and Germanic Philology, April, 1994, review of The Hidden Law, p. 265.
  • Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 1986, review of Obbligati, p. 842; April 15, 1995, review of On the Laws of the Poetic Art, p. 532.
  • Lambda Book Report, May, 1994, review of The Hidden Law, p. 39.
  • Library Journal, August, 1986, review of Obbligati, p. 151; June 15, 1990, Fred Muratori, review of The Transparent Man, p. 115; February 1, 1993, Henry L. Carrigan, Jr., review of The Hidden Law, p. 82; June 1, 1995, David Kirby, review of On the Laws of the Poetic Art, p. 114; October 1, 1996, Graham Christian, review of Flight among the Tombs, p. 82; April 1, 1997, review of Collected Earlier Poems, p. 95; June 15, 2001, Tim Gavin, review of The Darkness and the Light, p. 77.
  • Listener, October 19, 1967.
  • London Magazine, Volume VII, number 12, 1968.
  • Nation, September 3, 1977.
  • National Review, August 15, 1986, review of Obbligati, p. 44.
  • New Criterion, June, 2001, William Logan, review of The Darkness and the Light, p. 68.
  • New Leader, October 1, 1990, Phoebe Pettingell, reviews of The Transparent Man and Collected Earlier Poems, p. 19.
  • New Republic, December 15, 1986, William H. Pritchard, review of Obbligati, p. 37.
  • New Statesman and Society, December 5, 1997, review of Flight among the Tombs, p. 59.
  • New Yorker, February 25, 1967; December 8, 1986, review of Obbligati, p. 154.
  • New York Review of Books, February 13, 1986, reviews of Millions of Strange Shadows, The Venetian Vespers, and The Hard Hours, p. 11; August 1, 1968; August 17, 1978; February 13, 1986, Brad Leithauser, "Poet for a Dark Age," p. 11; March 3, 1988, p. 11; December 21, 1989, p. 56; May 9, 1996, Helen Vendler, review of On the Laws of the Poetic Art, p. 39; March 27, 1997, John Bayley, review of Flight among the Tombs, p. 18.
  • New York Times, September 12, 1986, review of Obbligati, p. 23.
  • New York Times Book Review, January 29, 1984, John Gross, review of Jiggery-Pokery: A Compendium of Double Dactyls, p. 8; September 7, 1986, p. 19; July 22, 1990, William Logan, review of The Transparent Man and Collected Poems, p. 26; July 19, 1992, reviews of The Transparent Man and Collected Earlier Poems, p. 32; August 15, 1993, Emily Eakin, review of The Hidden Law, p. 18.
  • Observer, November 12, 1967.
  • Parnassus, Number 2, 1988, review of Obbligati, p. 189; January, 1998, review of Flight among the Tombs, p. 287.
  • Partisan Review, number 3, 1987, review of Obbligati, p. 289.
  • Perspective, spring, 1962.
  • Poetry, September, 1968; October, 1990, Alfred Corn, review of The Transparent Man, p. 34; June, 1997, John Taylor, review of Flight among the Tombs, p. 172.
  • Publishers Weekly, June 13, 1986, review of Obbligati, p. 64; January 13, 1992, review of The Transparent Man, p. 54; May 14, 2001, review of The Darkness and the Light, p. 76.
  • Queen's Quarterly, spring, 1991, reviews of The Transparent Man and Collected Earlier Poems, p. 250.
  • Reporter, February 22, 1968.
  • Review of English Studies, May, 1997, review of On the Laws of the Poetic Art, p. 287.
  • Sewanee Review, July, 1994, review of The Hidden Law, p. 476; January, 1996, p. 158.
  • Shenandoah, spring, 1968.
  • South Carolina Review, spring, 1996, review of The Hidden Law, p. 286.
  • Southern Review, winter, 1991, Henry Taylor, review of The Transparent Man and Collected Earlier Poems, p. 235; spring, 1994, Sidney Burris, review of The Hidden Law, p. 364.
  • Spectator, November 16, 1991, reviews of The Transparent Man and Collected Earlier Poems, p. 54.
  • Times Literary Supplement, November 23, 1967; May 6, 1977; May 30, 1980; July 26, 1991, reviews of The Transparent Man and Collected Earlier Poems, p. 4; April 9, 1993, review of The Hidden Law, p. 10; March 8, 1996, review of On the Laws of the Poetic Art, p. 28; August 22, 1997, review of Flight among the Tombs, p. 24; December 5, 1997, review of Flight among the Tombs, p. 13; October 27, 2000, Patrick Crotty, review of In Conversation with Philip Hoy, p. 27.
  • Virginia Quarterly Review, summer, 1993, review of The Hidden Law, p. 102; autumn, 1994, review of The Hidden Law, p. 122; winter, 1996, review of On the Laws of Poetic Art, p. 14.
  • Wall Street Journal, July 31, 1990, review of Collected Earlier Poems, p. A11.
  • Washington Post, January 26, 1997, Dana Gioia, "'Poetry': Anthony Hecht, Kim Addonizio, Donald Hall, Hayden Carruth, Robert Hass," p. X8; November 6, 1997, David Streitfeld, "Washington Poet Wins Rich Prize; Anthony Hecht Cited as 'Moral Conscience,'" p. C1.
  • Washington Post Book World, December 30, 1970; July 7, 1990, p. 1; February 25, 1996, p. 4.
  • World Literature Today, spring, 1987, review of Obbligati, p. 298; summer, 1997, Lee Oser, review of Flight among the Tombs, p. 594.
  • Yale Review, spring, 1969; winter, 1989, p. 202; April, 1993, p. 76; April, 1997, Stephen Yenser, review of Flight among the Tombs, p. 161.
OTHER
  • American Academy of Poets Web site, http://www.poets.org/ (August 1, 2001), "Anthony Hecht."
  • Modern American Poetry, http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets.htm (March 4, 2001), "Anthony Hecht."
OBITUARIES:
ONLINE
  • New York Times Online, http://www.nytimes.com/ (October 22, 2004).
PERIODICALS
  • Chicago Tribune, October 22, 2004, section 3, p. 11.
  • Independent (London, England), October 25, 2004, p. 35.
  • Los Angeles Times, October 23, 2004, p. B18.
  • New York Times, October 22, 2004, p. A21.
  • Times (London, England), October 26, 2004, p. 59.
  • Washington Post, October 22, 2004, p. B7.

Translated By Anthony Hecht

Audio & Podcasts

Essential American Poets The Poetry Magazine Podcast
  • Listen The Fish is Also Cooked
    Poems by Sharon Olds, Brenda Shaughnessy, Mary Ruefle, Reginald Dwayne Betts; plus David Yezzi on Anthony Hecht.
Poem of the Day Poem of the Day Poem of the Day Poem of the Day Poetry Off the Shelf
  • Listen Much Casual Death
    Christopher Ricks discusses Anthony Hecht’s harrowing and unforgettable poem “More Light! More Light!”

Poet Categorization

LIFE SPAN 1923–2004

Anthony Hecht

Biography

One of the leading voices of his generation, Anthony Hecht’s poetry is known for its masterful use of traditional forms and linguistic control. Extraordinarily erudite, Hecht’s verse often features allusions to French literature, Greek myth and tragedy, and English poets and poetry stretching from Wallace Stevens to John Donne. Hecht, who died in 2004, was often described as a “traditionalist.” George P. Elliott contended in the . . .

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