Three Anecdotes about Anthony Hecht
photo credit: Library of Congress
Hecht tells this story in several interviews, but I heard
him relate it during a question and answer period when he was reading
from his book The Darkness and the Light at a local bookstore.
This was in the dark year of 2001.
When he was a college freshman, Hecht fell deeply
in love with poetry. On his return home to the Upper East Side
of Manhattan, he told his parents that he wanted to and would become
a poet. He had expected arguments and derision from his father,
a stockbroker, but was met, instead, with an appalling and cold silence.
This was worse than any words of disapproval that his father could
have said. Hecht went back to Bard College. The next time he
returned home, his parents has brought in an ally to perform a flanking
maneuver against him. They had over for dinner a close family
friend, Ted Geisel, and his wife, Helen. Ted Geisel would later
become better known as the children's writer, Dr. Seuss.
After dinner, Geisel walked into the living room with Hecht.
Putting his arm around Hecht's shoulder he said, "So, Tony, tell
me what you think you'd like to do with your life?" Hecht immediately
recognized this as a plot, and that his parents were in it up to their
eyeballs. But he was trapped, and saw no way out. So he
confessed to Geisel that he intended to be a poet. "That's
wonderful, Tony,"” Geisel said, "I think that's a
wonderful ambition. Now, let me tell you what I think you should
do first. First, you should read the Life of Joseph Pulitzer."
Hecht could not imagine what the biography of Pulitzer had to do with
poetry, and didn't know anything about Joseph Pulitzer except that
he was a newspaper tycoon. But a deep intuition told him that
this book would be the most discouraging book imaginable, and the
worst thing he could read. He resolved then and there, not to
read the Life of Joseph Pulitzer. And he never did.
Every poet is always two poets. At least.
These are divisions that fuel the Hegelian dialectic within each, and
the accompanying charge and energy that allows for poems to come forth.
Anthony Hecht is no exception.
Hecht's first name is Anthony, a name that would not
be out of place in the Rome of Julius and Augustus. Anthony is
Hecht's public name. It's the one on the cover of his books.
This is the poet with the neatly trimmed goatee, the bowtie, the conservative
demeanor. Hecht's resonant, Claude Rains voice and elocution (which
Hecht admits was a kind of assimilation for him) comes from here.
It is ‘"Anthony" Hecht who was the consultant in poetry
to the Library of congress from 1982 through 1984. His appointment
coincided with his move to Washington, DC. Not every poet can
find Washington congenial (D. M. Thomas
complained about the hyper-masculinity of Washington and its architecture,
as opposed to the nurturing femininity of New York City. Uhm.
Right), but Hecht was clearly at ease here. He made his home in
Friendship Heights and lived in a large, whitewashed brick house, with
two libraries inside. He taught at Georgetown University until
his retirement, and he was something of a “"house poet"
at the local Politics and Prose bookstore.
I like to think that the classically inspired buildings
of the Capitol and environs appealed to him. Anthony Hecht continually
reached back to Augustan Rome and Attic Greece in his poetry—history
being one of his tropes. He extolled form and the need for form
in poems. His penultimate book of prose was called On The
Laws of the Poetic Art, a title probably impossible to live up
to and one that few writers could deploy without a lot of irony or parody.
I admire Hecht for his convictions, and, well, every poet has to find
his or her own way, just as every poem has to find its own way.
Two brief quotes from the book show how much of a Washingtonian Anthony
“Most of the presidential portraits in the White
House are craven in their servility, the notable exceptions being
the earliest, by the greatest artists of the greatest presidents,
including Gilbert Stuart's portrait of Washington.”
And this about the famous Saint-Gaudens sculpture at
Clover Adams' tomb in Rock Creek Cemetery (which is about 10 minutes
from my house):
“Saint-Gaudens may not have worked either from
a photograph or from a recollection of his subject, and the figure
in his sculpture may initially seem no more than an allegorical figure.
But she is presented with much of her face hooded by enveloping drapery.
Clover Adams committed suicide by drinking the chemicals of a photography
darkroom; the sculpted figure suggests an absolute and silent withdrawal
from the world, and may therefore be more personal and representative
than it at first appears. The painting depersonalizes a real
person; the statue personalizes the impersonal.”
But On The Laws of the Poetic Art is only one
of the two of Anthony's books with “"law" in the title.
The other is The Hidden Law, subtitled The Poetry of W.
H. Auden. Now, I have two tall bookcases in my house that
accommodate about half of my poetry cache. They are next to each other.
The books are arranged by author, going down the first bookcase and
starting at the top of the second. The top row of both bookcases is
up at the ceiling, and is, in fact, the top of the bookcase with a thin
piece of plywood to straddle the gap. If you read the titles straight
across that top row from the first bookcase and continue onto the second
bookcase, the titles run thusly: Shorter Collected Poems by
W.H. Auden, Longer Collected Poems by W.H. Auden, The Orators
by W.H. Auden, Collected Earlier Poems by Anthony Hecht, The
Transparent Man by Anthony Hecht, Flight Among The Tombs by
Anthony Hecht, The Darkness and the Light by Anthony Hecht.
This progression makes more sense to me than the
alphabetical arrangement that the pressures of conformity force me to
adopt. It is a progression founded in affinity.
Auden is one of the 20th century masters of prosody,
and Anthony Hecht is not far behind. He is one of the Audenites,
which includes James Merrill and Richard Wilbur.
For poets, any stricture is both shield and goad, whether traditional
form or Oulipian constraint. It's too pat to say that Hecht needed
the concentration on formal elements (not only rhyme and meter, but
also attention to the larger structural elements of a poem, such as
careful, deliberate resolution of a poem's parts, its themes and metaphors)
to keep the content, the roots of his concerns, from overwhelming him.
It's just as likely that he simply had a natural affinity for prosody,
and his pleasure was to be found there. Hecht enjoyed these elements
just as Auden did (who said that he liked nothing better than discussing
topics such as the use of bacchics). Hecht had a natural facility for
memorizing poems. In a sense, Hecht's advocacy of traditional
form and prosody has history on its side. The bulk of poems throughout
the history of poetry are made with the elements that Hecht extolls.
James Wright and Anthony Hecht gave
a reading at Wayne State many years ago, and next day they had to
rise at the crack of dawn to catch early flights home. Shortly
after getting into the taxi, and with no warning, Hecht began to intone:
Yet once more, O ye Laurels, and once more
Ye Myrtles brown, with Ivy never-sere,
I come to pluck your Berries harsh and crude
And with forc'd fingers rude,
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year ...
Hecht didn't stop until he reached the end of Milton's
Lycidas, all one hundred and ninety-three lines, and many
miles later. This would have been amazing enough, but what made
it even more so was the fact that the whole performance was done in
the voice of W.C. Fields.
Fields was allowed to interpolate a few comments now and again.
After the lines "He must not float upon his watery bier/Unwept,
and welter to the parching wind,/Without the meed of some melodious
tear" Hecht would pause, and Fields would observe: 'That's very
sad—that part about the watery beer.'
Apparently, Wright was so overwhelmed, he could do no more at the
end than whisper, hoarsely, 'Thank you.
Hecht was known to many—friends and family—as
Tony. It is "Tony" Hecht who is responsible for the
above anecdote (and what wouldn't I have given to be there!), for dreadful
puns ("The Masseur Of Mon Suier," "mens sana in men's
sauna") or—if such a thing can be said to exist—good
puns ("The Dover Bitch"), and for the slapstick of a poem
like "The Naming Of The Animals."
It's Tony Hecht who's responsible for inventing the
poetic form of the double dactyl (notice the doubling theme showing
up again), a verse form invented by Anthony Hecht and Paul Pascal
in 1951 (this according to Hecht in his introduction to the book he
put together with John Hollander, Jiggery-Pokery,
A Compendium of Double Dactyls.
A double dactyl is a limerick on steroids. To
give you an idea of Hecht's mischievousness, the rules for the strictest
form of double dactyl are: two stanzas, each made up of three lines
of dactylic dimeter with the last line being a dactyl and a single accent.
The two stanzas rhyme on their last line. The first line of the
first stanza is two words of nursery rhyme nonsense, such as "higgledy-piggledy."
The second line of the first stanza is the name of a historic personage,
who is the subject of the poem. The name must itself be double-dactylic.
The fifth, sixth, or seventh lines must be entirely composed of a single,
double-dactylic word. No single six-syllable word, once used in
a double dactyl, should ever be knowingly used again.
If Anthony Hecht can say that "if you are writing
in free verse, what makes it a poem?", then Tony Hecht can say
that any good poet creates his own music, whether free verse or formal,
and that what a poet has to truly guard against is a total mastery of
a form where the deployment of it becomes negligible for him.
More so than being a proponent of capital F Formalism, Hecht is an opponent
of the facile and tin-eared. For Hecht, the form has got to be
vital. He even admitted to a few, though not many, poems in free verse.
Tony kept Anthony from being too doctrinaire. He was, after all,
an admirer of the distinctly non-traditional poetry of William
What I recognize in myself is a strong, almost embarrassing,
Puritan streak in myself which feels that it is impossible to look
at existence, even at its most joyful, without remembering that there
are other people who are suffering at the same time—and keeping
that double vision is difficult.”
—Anthony Hecht, from an interview
with William Baer
There's our double again. I once misread (misreading
being a kind of pun your brain plays on itself) Hecht's middle name
as Ivan instead of Evan. I thought Ivan was a remarkable middle
name. It reminded me of Hecht's affinities to Dostoyevsky,
as well as Kafka, and that Hecht also shared some of
the pessimism and torment of that other, famous, fictional, Ivan: Ivan
Hecht described himself as something of a "sick
soul," after a type of character identified by William
James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, where
he contrasts the "sick soul" with the "healthy minded,"
such as Whitman
and Emerson (today he would include Richard
Wilbur). Not a bad way to divide up poets, if another way to
divide up poets was needed.
Grief is a characteristic of Hecht's poems, and Ivan
would be an appropriate name to stand for his tragic sense of life,
where cruelty and unreason are history's lessons, and where literature
is not, and cannot be, consoling. This sense was abetted by his wondering
how it is that people who have suffered horrors keep from collapsing
into complete nihilism or how they endure in the face of suffering like
the Shoah. Certainly being one, and the last, of the World War II poets
(along with Randall Jarrell,
James Dickey, Karl
Shapiro, Louis Simpson, Kenneth Koch,
and others) contributed to his fundamental feeling of the world as desolate.
Hecht himself traced this back to his childhood. In his usual clear-eyed
manner he described it as privileged and yet profoundly insecure, to
the point of desolation (At one point his mother told him that an aptitude
test he took revealed that he had no aptitudes at all).
Hecht came home after his discharge from the Army, that
is after seeing half his company killed or wounded, the top of friend's
head removed by a shell, after seeing members of his company shoot a
mother and her children in a panic, and after seeing the extermination
camp at Flossenburg. He says that after he came back he was consistently
drunk—day and night—for two weeks. But, though for most
of his life Hecht was inclined to drink liberally, it is the case that
the more he drank the more sober he appeared. He was pleased that with
greater alcohol intake his speech became that much more precise and
fastidious. It meant he was giving nothing away. That was what poetry
In 1982 my wife and I had just moved to Washington,
DC. She would be going to graduate school in philosophy, I, having
no interest in graduate school, would be trying to make ends meet.
We had friends in Mount Pleasant who shared a group
house, right on Irving Street, in the middle of the hill that climbs
from Rock Creek Park up to 16th Street Northwest. I don't remember
the exact date but it was August or September when we had a birthday
party for our friend Stephen, who is a remarkable person. A lot of
the attendees were cooks in various DC restaurants. The birthday cake
was made by one of them and was wonderful—butter cream, layers
sponged in liqueur, cluttered with shavings of bittersweet chocolate.
It was hot, and we had the front door open for air.
We had moved on to Jamesons when two strangers walked in the front
door and into the living room. They were looking for some party of
some sort, but did not have the address, and thought it might be us.
Although it was very odd, and they were complete strangers, we'd been
through a lot of wine and Irish whiskey at that point and were, if
nothing else, convivial. So we invited them in for cake and drinks,
to join our celebration. They were both clearly drunk, though not
out-of-control drunk—the younger man was loud, and did most
of the talking; the older man—he was maybe in his late 50s or
early 60s—was reserved, quiet and precise, but not unfriendly.
We offered them some cake and some whiskey. The younger
one—I can't remember his name at all—said that he was
some (Who? Don't remember.) diplomat's son. He talked about nomads
for some reason, made a slightly lascivious comment about Stephen's
unclothed upper body, then talked about how he was writing a book,
or, rather, had an idea for a book that he would write, and that it
was bound to be a bestseller. In 1982, there was a lot of concern
with returned Viet Nam veterans. Probably also some fear, but generally
worry about their trauma, mental instability, their alienation from
civilian life, their inability to re-enter society.
The idea was to have a book that would re-introduce
the vets to American culture. It would list the markers of American
society that they were not familiar with: TV shows, memes (not that
they were called that), fads, and generally how to function and get
around and act like an American citizen who hadn't spent time in Saigon
and in war.
I don't remember exactly what I said, but I said something
like: "What about people who never went to Viet Nam but who've
been in different kind of battles and been traumatized, who are alien
Americans in America, and returning to an unfamiliar place they've
actually never left. Your book should address them, too." It
was, no doubt, a more incisive comment than I can do justice to here.
And we were drunk.
Like all sideways comments, it wasn't picked up on,
and the conversation moved on to other things. I'm not sure how it
came up, probably just out of interest, the younger guy asked what
we all did. And we went around the room: chef, sous chef, line cook,
carpenter, graduate school, house renovator and real estate sales
and—well, these are illustrative examples. I was somehow able
to avoid responding, but the older man looked at me and pointed and
said: “"And you're the poet."
Somebody asked what made him say this, and he said
it was the comment I had made about veterans—that it was how
a poet would think. The younger man said something like, "He
should know, he's the new poet laureate.” And I don't remember
exactly when we were told—we were drinking—or figured
out the older man was Anthony Hecht, but at some point we did. Being
in our 20s we intended to keep drinking—and we were drinking—through
the night, so after a time the two of them got up to leave. I think
I shook Hecht's hand, mumbled something. A while after he left we
discovered he'd forgotten his reading glasses. Also, the plate his
cake was on was completely clean. He'd assiduously forked up every
To claim to be a poet almost immediately engenders a
bad conscience. How could one have the hubris to take "poet"
as a job description? Reading—during college—Homer,
Aeschylus, Virgil, Dante,
Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton,
Valery, Mandelstam would silence all
but the most adamantine ego. The pride of thinking oneself a poet is
in tandem with the shame of admitting to it. Our feelings about it are
always doubled in conflict. I don't know if Hecht knew he was doing
a kindness that evening, but I can't convey how much his comment meant
to me then, and still does today, and for which I could have never thanked
him enough. Thank you, Anthony Hecht. Thanks, Tony.
William Baer, Fourteen On Form: Conversations With Poets, University
Press of Mississippi, 2004
work has appeared in the Indiana Review, American Letters
& Commentary, Cream City Review, The Germ,
and Redivider, among other places. He is co-publisher of VRZHU
Press and co-coordinator of the Brookland Poetry Series. He works in
international development and lives in the Brookland neighborhood of
Washington DC with his wife and five children.
in Volume 10.4, Fall 2009.
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