The Morality of Anthony Hecht

By Yezzi, David | New Criterion, April 2004 | Go to article overview

The Morality of Anthony Hecht

Yezzi, David, New Criterion

Few men speak humbly of humility, chastely of chastity, skeptically of skepticism.--Pascal, quoted by Anthony Hecht

Some poets cavil at the notion of a "collected poems" in their lifetime. While I can't quite imagine it, I think I see their point. There's something peremptory about a collected, like cashing in one's chips and leaving the game. And who would feel that he had written enough? Edgar Bowers, pleased by the handsome edition of his poems in one volume, said he only wished that it were longer--not unlike life itself, I want to add. A collected poems lays bare an entire career. And was it worth it, the many years spent jotting? A collected contains all that's needed for readers--and even for the poet himself--to answer yes or no.

Anthony Hecht's recent Collected Later Poems (1) takes up where his magnificent Collected Earlier Poems leaves off. The two books span some fifty years of writing, from A Summoning of Stones in 1954 to roughly the present. Hecht, of course, is still very much with us and adding to his complete works, but, regardless of any poems that follow, these two volumes constitute one of the great achievements in poetry of the last hundred years.

This will be even clearer, I suspect, in decades to follow, which is not to say that Hecht has suffered neglect. He is one of our most laureled poets. But the way that critics celebrate Hecht often strikes me as both backhanded and wholly typical of the current climate in American poetry. "An accomplished formalist" recurs as the standard tag, the phrase meant as qualified praise, like complimenting someone's calligraphy--very pretty, no doubt, and once valued, perhaps, but rather too precious for anything today beyond addressing wedding invitations. Elegant but irrelevant.

The ineptitude of this kind of grudging appreciation is not the worst of it. One pities those who feel that a given age can accommodate only one kind of poetry (free verse these days, presumably), as if important work by both Eliot and Hardy, for example, did not issue from the 1920s, or from Larkin and Bunting in the 1960S, or from Geoffrey Hill in both free and metered verse throughout his career. No, the real downside to the appellation "formalist," more damning than the taint of fustiness, is the way it precludes poems from being anything other than formal. A good formalist, the epithet suggests, is one who produces exquisite verse, period.

No one, I think, disputes Hecht's command of English verse, but, because prosodic skill is a rare and useless talent in this free-verse age, his work sometimes arouses the same admiration lavished on a bipedal poodle. Labeling Hecht a formalist, while undeniable in the most obvious sense, misses the point. If anyone puts paid to the notion that metrical skill cancels passion, it's Hecht. What's more, if form and subject matter may be seen as complementary and interdependent, the opposite point better characterizes his work: Hecht may be the foremost "matterist" of his age, a feat more brilliant and difficult, in the end, than the mastery of traditional forms that he so abundantly displays.

The Later Poems provides an occasion to survey Hecht's matter in toto, by which I mean something more than the sum of his lucidly limned subjects: a marriage dissolving, a painter en plein air, an orchestra tuning, sounds echoing in a cathedral. Nor do I mean those Hechtian signatures that crop up in poem after poem, such as the meliorating power (woefully limited) of art, music, and culture; Talmudic confrontations with biblical writing; Jamesian dramas of dissolution and death; savage satires. If there exists one overarching concern, one touchstone for testing all of Hecht's poems, it is his abiding moral sense.

The poems seethe with Hecht's grim appraisals of human failure, and no institution or endeavor--not art, religion, culture, politics--escapes indictment, whether satiric, bitter, or melancholy. …

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