Anthony 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 Hecht was:
“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 Augustus Saint-Gaudens sculpture at Clover Adams‘s 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 Carlos Williams.
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 Fyodor Dostoyevsky, as well as Franz Kafka, and that Hecht also shared some of the pessimism and torment of that other, famous, fictional, Ivan: Ivan Karamazov.
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 Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo 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 was for.
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 crumb.
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 Alighieri, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, John Milton, Paul Valery, Osip 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
Originally published in Volume 10:4, Fall 2009.
Michael Gushue is co-publisher of the nanopress Poetry Mutual, and co-curator of Poetry at the Watergate. His most recent book is I Never Promised You a Sea Monkey (Editorial Pretzelcoatl, 2017), a collaboration with CL Bledsoe. His other books are the chapbooks Pachinko Mouth (Plan B Press, 2013), Conrad (Souvenir Spoon Books, 2010), and Gathering Down Women (Pudding House Press, 2007). His satirical advice column, with CL Bledsoe, How To Even, can be found at: https://medium.com/@howtoeven/. To read more by this author: Michael Gushue: Fall 2005; Michael Gushue: DC Places Issue; Michael Gushue: Audio Issue.