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Uncollected Hecht: An Introduction

Do poets, as Auden wrote of Yeats, become their readers when they die? In one sense, it’s unavoidable: the work, if it continues to attract readers, remains and is “modified in the guts of the living.” Poems are often modified for the living by the clarifying light cast on them by archival material—the poet’s worksheets, letters, notebooks, and uncollected poems. It is rare that these supplementary works contain lost masterpieces, but they do frequently round out our appreciation. That said, some uncollected work stands with a poet’s best.

“Omissions are not accidents,” Marianne Moore insisted in an epigraph to her Complete Poems. Yet every poet—unless particularly assiduous with the shredder—leaves behind work of value that, for whatever reason, did not find its way into published collections. What follows in this portfolio is a selection of poems—all uncollected, some previously unpublished—by Anthony Hecht. They are striking in their own right and even more so for the resonances they share with Hecht’s signature poems of love and death, wit and melancholy. A selection of archival photographs has also been made available by Hecht’s estate and by the poet’s widow, Helen Hecht.

When Anthony Hecht died in 2004, at the age of eighty-one, his Collected Later Poems had been out from Knopf for three years. Along with his Collected Earlier Poems (1990), the volume constitutes all of the work that Hecht chose to keep in print. Missing from the two volumes are a number of poems from his debut collection, A Summoning of Stones (1954). (These poems fell away when Hecht’s editor, Harry Ford, appended half of them to Hecht’s second book, The Hard Hours [1967].) J.D. McClatchy’s new edition of Hecht’s Selected Poems places the poems from Stones back in chronological order, and presumably a Complete Poems will restore the entire text.

Much has been written about Hecht’s experience as an infantryman in wwii, both in combat and at the liberation of Flossenbürg concentration camp. “The place, the suffering, the prisoners’ accounts were beyond comprehension,” Hecht said of the camp, an annex of Buchenwald, in an interview with Philip Hoy. “For years after I would wake shrieking.” The survivors were naked, skeletal, their yellowed skin stretched over bony frames; contemporary reports note that the smell was unbearable. Hecht explained to Hoy how he let go completely any illusions of heroism when on another occasion he saw American soldiers mow down a group of women and children who were attempting to surrender.

Hecht’s war poems are among his finest—“‘More Light! More Light!’,” “‘It Out-Herods Herod. Pray You, Avoid It.’,” “The Book of Yolek,” “Persistences,” and the third section of “Sacrifice.” The war poems here provide background music to these well-known works, adding notes of visionary intensity to Hecht’s often understated depiction of horror. “The Plate” is taken from an undated typescript and refers to the silver-like metal plates (of tantalum, most likely) that were used as prostheses to repair severe head wounds during the war. In the fire that burns the body into extinction, one hears the wordplay on gunfire. The poem ends with the word alive, an oxymoron, since it is the fire of death that exhibits such vitality. (The humorous riff on Wordsworth, a bit of spirit-bolstering from Hecht’s early days in the Army, is touching given how difficult Hecht’s war experience would prove.)

The subject of “A Friend Killed in the War” (which appeared in the Spring 1948 number of Reed Whittemore’s Furioso) has not been identified. Hecht saw a number of friends and fellow soldiers die in combat. The description of the opening wound and the heavy bandoleers recalls the account in section three of “The Venetian Vespers” of a death Hecht witnessed:

He haunts me here, that seeker after law
In a lawless world, in rainsoaked combat boots,
Oil-stained fatigues and heavy bandoleers.
He was killed by enemy machine-gun fire.
His helmet had fallen off. They had sheared away
The top of his cranium like a soft-boiled egg,
And there he crouched, huddled over his weapon,
His brains wet in the chalice of his skull.  

“Mathematics Considered as a Vice” describes L’Âne qui veille, the upright figure of a donkey playing the lyre on a buttress of Chartres Cathedral. The significance of the figure is the subject of wide speculation. Hecht suggests it is the donkey that Jesus rode, placed there to sing his story. By alluding to Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly, Hecht points readers to Erasmus’s adage: asinus ad lyram (an ass to the lyre), which correlates roughly with “pearls before swine.” Hecht also nods to Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, whom we hear echoed in “man is but an ass.” For Hecht, the ideal signs of mathematics are ill-suited to describe our contingent world.  This unpublished poem was enclosed in a letter from Ischia, where Hecht first met W.H. Auden, to Hecht’s younger brother, Roger (also a poet), in November 1950.  
“An Offering for Patricia” is a bittersweet poem from Hecht’s first marriage to Patricia Harris, which lasted from 1954 to 1961. Hecht later described the marriage as an unhappy one. This poem, which exists in typescript in the Hecht archive at Emory University, and (according to Jonathan F.S. Post) likely dates from 1955 describes the couple’s time together in Italy, before Pat returned by herself to the us. In a letter from June 1955, Hecht asks his father to be supportive of her:

Please try to be gentle with Pat when you see her. She is very sick and she knows it, but tries hard to forget it most of the time. I hope she will want to try to do something about it.

(The entire letter appears in Post’s edition of Hecht’s correspondence forthcoming from the Johns Hopkins University Press.) Though “An Offering” suggests perhaps a happier time together, its undercurrent of melancholy is palpable throughout.

Also in the archive at Emory is the typescript of one of Hecht’s early attempts to translate Baudelaire’s “Le Jet d’eau.” He ultimately preferred the version (under the French title) that appears in his last volume, The Darkness and the Light (2001). As Hecht wrote to his son Evan, in a letter dated April 2, 1998:

The original is a poem that has haunted me since the time I was a college undergraduate, and I have tried time and again to produce some English version that captured some of the magic, beauty and pathos of the French.

“The Fountain” is the only record remaining of those earlier attempts.

“Dilemma” came out of Hecht’s long collaboration with the artist Leonard Baskin. Two collaborations between them appear in the collected poems—“The Seven Deadly Sins” from The Hard Hours and “The Presumptions of Death” from Flight Among the Tombs (1996). “Dilemma” was intended to accompany a Baskin woodcut in their Gehenna Florilegium, but was ultimately dropped. “I’m aware of course,” Hecht wrote to Baskin in October 1997,

that the columbine poem is something of a cheat, but I found it a stumbling-block, its name supposedly derived from a “cluster of five doves, which the blossom is thought to resemble.”

Columbine’s charming dilemma, in which she eats her cake and has it too, employs Hecht’s wry mastery, at once “dark and amusing.” I have heard from people who knew Hecht well that he had seemed to them initially intimidating—perhaps because of his impressive achievement and authority as a poet, perhaps due to a quiet melancholy of his own. But those I have spoken with also shared the experience I had, when meeting Hecht late in his life, of a wit that admitted glints of mischief and of a thoughtful and patient generosity.

—David Yezzi

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This poem originally appeared in the September 2011 issue of Poetry magazine

  • David Yezzi’s poetry collections include Azores (2008) and The Hidden Model (2003), and his criticism and poetry have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, and Best American Poetry. A former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, Yezzi is Executive Editor of The New Criterion. He...

Prose from Poetry Magazine

Uncollected Hecht: An Introduction

  • David Yezzi’s poetry collections include Azores (2008) and The Hidden Model (2003), and his criticism and poetry have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, and Best American Poetry. A former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, Yezzi is Executive Editor of The New Criterion. He...

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