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About Anthony Hecht


Glyn Maxwell

Hecht was born in New York City. He graduated from Bard College in 1944 and served in the army in Europe and Japan. After the war he studied at Kenyon College, where he began a long and distinguished career as a professor, most recently at Georgetown University, Washington. His second collection, The Hard Hours, won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1968; his many other awards include the Bollingen Prize and the Librex-Guggenheim Eugenio Montale Award. Apart from five poetry collections, he has published critical essays (Obbligati, 1986), light verse (Jiggery-Pokery, 1967, with John Hollander), and translation, most notably of Aeschylus (Seven Against Thebes, 1973, with Helen Bacon) and Joseph Brodsky.

Some recent editions of his work (Collected Earlier Poems and The Transparent Man, both New York and Oxford, 1990) employ on their covers a photograph of the poet's face reflected in a mirror--on the latter book a photographic negative--most appropriate images for his substantial and remarkable oeuvre, which holds the glass up to this worst of centuries and looks it squarely in the eye, neither glossing its beauty nor flinching from its horror. The work of Anthony Hecht shatters the cosy notion that a fragmented, fractured age should be reflected in the forms of its art, that ugliness and shapelessness demand payment in kind. Like Auden, he has absorbed the evils and grotesqueries of his unhappy century into a verse both highly formal and all-encompassing, stitching wounds with iambs, sculpting pentameters of sustained, Latinate beauty, sounding a healing music.

Thirteen years after his first book (A Summoning of Stones, 1954) in which, as he rightly admits, ‘advanced apprenticework,’ craft, and polish have priority, Hecht published The Hard Hours, where pity and terror rise to the placid surface of his tones, sometimes an even simplicity (as in the famous ‘"It Out-Herods Herod. Pray you, avoid it"', where he counterpoints the innocence of his children in front of the television with the observation that he 'could not, at one time, / Have saved them from the gas'); sometimes a numbed lyricism: 'Father, among these many souls / Is there not one / Whom thou shalt pluck for love out of the coals? / Look, look, they have begun / To douse the rags' ('Rites and Ceremonies'). In the latter poem Hecht goes further towards confronting the Holocaust than perhaps any other English-language poet. Elsewhere, he weaves together biblical and classical history, modern America, myth, and fine art with a painter's detailed observation and transformation of the physical .

Millions of Strange Shadows (1977) continues and expands the work, notably into love poems which are all the more intense and conquering for being part of the same dread world as the cruelty, tyranny, and spiritual inertia by which such love is encircled and threatened. The Horatian range and dexterity of Hecht's lines also allow some happy ventures into comedy ('The Ghost in the Martini') and current affairs ('Black Boy in the Dark'), always anchored on the twin foundations of the poet's historical awareness and his generous, embracing intelligence.

These strands continue through The Venetian Vespers (1980) and The Transparent Man (1990). See in particular 'The Short End' and the title-poem in the former, one a tragicomedy of an American woman, the other an exile's monologue of childhood memory, aspiration, and decay; and in The Transparent Man, the enchanting 'Love for Four Voices', a masque of the lovers from A Midsummer Night's Dream. In 1993 he published a long study of Auden, The Hidden Law (Cambridge, Mass. and London).

From The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-century Poetry in English. Ed. Ian Hamilton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. Copyright 1994 by Oxford University Press.


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