Dr Seuss tried to dissuade a young Anthony Hecht from pursuing a career as a poet. The Cat in the Hat author was a family friend, and the young Hecht’s parents, not happy with their son’s poetic ambitions, asked the children’s author to have a word. He was unsuccessful: Hecht went on to win the Bollingen Prize, the Tanning Prize, and the Poetry Society of America’s Frost Medal. But although the American poet Anthony Hecht (1923-2004) attained critical recognition for his poetry, he still doesn’t have the readership he deserves, perhaps because those unfamiliar with his work don’t know where to start. Here at IL Towers we had great fun devouring the two volumes Collected Earlier Poems and Collected Later Poems, which contain pretty much all of Hecht’s poems, and below we introduce six of his greatest.
‘A Voice at a Séance’. Taken from his 1967 collection The Hard Hours, this dramatic monologue shows Hecht’s peculiar but irresistible blend of the everyday and colloquial with the poignant and tragic: alongside the reference to ‘allergy to certain foods’ we also have the allusion to Hamlet in ‘Something too much of this.’ And the last line is a masterpiece of understated emotion. A great introduction to Hecht’s poetry. (Note: in the version of the poem linked to above, ‘bees’ should read ‘trees’.)
‘The Dover Bitch’. If ‘A Voice at a Séance’ gives the impression that Hecht is a ‘straight’ poet who deals only in seriousness and graveness, this poem – one of his most widely anthologised, and definitely his most controversial – reminds us, as Christopher Ricks has pointed out, that Hecht is far from po-faced (elsewhere, in ‘The Feast of Stephen’, Hecht brilliantly characterises ancient Rome as ‘Mens sana in men’s sauna’). Here we have another dramatic monologue, responding in bluff contemporary idiom to Matthew Arnold’s famous poem about the declining Sea of Faith. What must Arnold’s female companion have thought of his pessimistic meditations? Hecht considers her…
‘The End of the Weekend’. Inspired by an anecdote from Ted Hughes, this is perhaps the strangest poem on this list, but it’s powerful and strange, and all the more powerful because it is strange: as the male speaker and his female companion are preparing to make love, they are disturbed by a bat in the attic. The poem takes on a Gothic and sinister turn in the final stanza, whose end-stopped lines barely contain the horror.
‘The Ghost in the Martini’. Another of Hecht’s ‘lust’ poems, this time about a middle-aged male speaker trying to pick up a woman much younger than him at a party. Out of the martini comes the speaker’s younger self, and a narrative meditation on losing one’s youth begins to develop.
‘More Light! More Light!’ This is probably Hecht’s most acclaimed and discussed poem. Hecht, a Jewish American poet who was old enough to remember news of the Holocaust arriving in America as the real horror of the Final Solution became apparent, repeatedly grapples with this most sensitive of topics in his work, but nowhere more successfully than here, in a poem which juxtaposes a Tudor religious martyr’s death at the stake with a scene from a Nazi concentration camp, where two Jewish men are ordered to bury a Polish man alive. Its title an allusion to Goethe’s supposed last words, ‘More Light! More Light!’ bears witness to the Holocaust without being overly glib or complacent about its subject.
‘Curriculum Vitae’. Its title a familiar phrase which literally means ‘course of life’ or ‘running of life’, this poem is a fine place to conclude our pick of Anthony Hecht’s best poems. The line about winter settling down in its chain-mail is especially good, while the reference to Banquo’s ghost – one of many Shakespearean allusions in Hecht’s work – reminds us how much of Hecht’s poetry is about being haunted by something, whether memories of our own past or the deep past. Here, Hecht discusses how his children’s breath in the grey winter air appears to summon ghosts, while also containing the ghosts of Hecht and other parents who belong to the older generation. The final line is a brilliant evocation of the vein-like patterns ice and frost make upon glass when it is breathed upon.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.