Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

"A Policied Exile from the Human Race": The Achievement of Anthony Hecht

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

"A Policied Exile from the Human Race": The Achievement of Anthony Hecht

Article excerpt

"A Policied Exile from the Human Race": The Achievement of Anthony Hecht Anthony Hecht. Collected Later Poems. Alfred A. Knopf 2003. 231 pp. $25.00

Anthony Hecht. Melodies Unheard: Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry. Johns Hopkins University Press 2003. 314 pp. $24.95

In 1994-95 I was a Fellow in Literature at the American Academy in Rome, as Anthony Hecht had been forty-three years earlier. In the company of an archeologist, a group of us made a journey one day down the coast of Campania to Sperlonga, nowadays known as a summer resort, but also the site of a remarkable summer banqueting cave that belonged to the Emperor Tiberius. The cave, originally hollowed out of the native rock by the sea, is now ruined, though set into its piers are still visible the terracotta jars of a Roman fish hatchery. In its heyday, however, the Emperor and his guests would have reclined on a sort of natural dais washed by the sea within the cave, its walls richly mosaicked and frescoed, with a backdrop of sculpted scenes from the Odyssey. It was here that the ambitious lieutenant Sejanus began his murderous rise to power (his fall is chronicled by Ben Jonson in an under-appreciated play) by throwing his body across the Emperor's during a collapse of the ceiling. In the museum nearby, one may see some of those sculptures from the Odyssey, including a fragment in which Odysseus' men, their bodies straining, grind the burning brand into the eye of the Cyclops. It is an irony Hecht might have appreciated: Mortals blind the monster Polyphemus just as Sejanus blinded Tiberius for a while. What begins as myth is repeated as history and resonates to the present day; history itself may be understood as moments of vision yielding to blindness as the light yields to darkness.

In prefatory remarks made some years ago before reading his "A Birthday Poem" (from Millions of Strange Shadows, 1977), Hecht commented on that peculiarity of eyesight whereby the human eye can focus on something near-a windowpane, for instance-or something further away-the landscape beyond the window-but not on both simultaneously. His poems, however, effectively accomplish this feat of perception, for they hold in a simultaneous view both the present moment, in its intimacy and rich detail, and that history-largely distinguished by its cruelties-that lies in the distance. His narration of human turbulence, whether on the large scale (as history) or the small (as sexuality), serves to involve the reader in the poem as a moral witness, sometimes an unwilling one. The moral dynamics of his poetry are much more complex and unsettling than those of any merely "political" poet.

Hecht's poems also hold in simultaneous focus life as we experience it and as it is represented to us by art. In his view, while art cannot provide a viable alternative to life, it affords powerful consolations. The tension in his poems between intricate form and uncontrollable content is often resolved, for the reader, through a release into beauty and pleasure. Just so, "A Birthday Poem" invokes Mantegna and Holbein, Verdun and Waterloo, in the course of an address to a beloved (for as to type, it is finally a love poem). Hecht's instinct to turn toward history and art are balanced by a fundamentally Romantic belief in the sufficiency of feeling itself, as in the moment

The publication of Hecht's Collected Later Poems-which gathers The Transparent Man (1990), Flight Among the Tombs (1996), and The Darkness and the Light (2001)-seems an ideal occasion both to look at how these double focuses, so characteristic of his art, have been sustained and varied over the years, and to consider his achievement generally.

With his first book, A Summoning of Stones (1954), Hecht established himself as a master of prosody on a par with Richard Wilbur and James Merrill, with all their grace and wit. Also made clear at the outset was his intense affinity with Italy. America's love affair with Italy dates at least as far back as Daisy Miller, but seldom has an American poet responded to that country with such nubile relish. …

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