- Not without Literary Means
In his introduction to Anthony Hecht’s Selected Poems (2011), J.D. McClatchy calls attention to the physical and mental isolation, the “forlorn aloneness” of many of Hecht’s speakers. One has only to think of the protagonist of “A Hill,” stranded in his vision of desolation; of the infantryman in “Still Life,” isolated in wartime Germany; of the child in “Apprehensions,” escaping his domestic trauma by reading; and of the dramatic speakers of “The Venetian Vespers” and “The Grapes,” the latter of which states that she “knew at last… / What it must have felt like in that rubber boat / In mid-Pacific, to be the sole survivor / Of a crash.”
As if to counterbalance this loneliness of spirit in the poetry is the great trove of letters that are collected in The Selected Letters (2012), annotated and introduced by Jonathan Post. About 4,000 letters and postcards have survived, and there are likely more to be discovered, since Hecht was a prolific letter writer. Given that the selections begin at age 12 and end at 81, there is much variety. However, readers who know Hecht only from his poetry and criticism may be surprised by the sociability, by the general good humor, wit, and playfulness that issues from the poet considered the somber conscience of his generation. “Thank you for the generously inscribed copy of your book,” he writes to one author, “which, I may add, richly deserves the commendations on its jacket, especially mine.” Late in life, he tells another, “Self-assessment is next to impossible, even, perhaps especially, at my age, when I behold myself, in somebody else’s words, ‘Beaten and chopped with tanned antiquity.’” The difference between the letters and poetry brings to mind the “Afterthought” in Robert Lowell’s Notebook 1967–68 (1968): “In truth I seem to have felt mostly the joys of living; in remembering, in recording, thanks to the gift of the Muse, it is the pain.” Hecht himself says something of the kind in the dedication to “The Venetian Vespers,” which reads, in part, “Whatever pain is figured in these pages / Whatever voice here grieves, / Belonged to other lives and distant ages / Mnemosyne retrieves.”
The volume begins with the adolescent Hecht’s letters home from summer camp (a camp that later would reappear in “The Book of Yolek”). In interviews Hecht disclosed that he had an unhappy childhood with very little encouragement from his parents; he told The Paris Review that “parental dissatisfaction was a kind of tyranny” and that the sadness in certain poems was a distillation, in part, of the “poisonous brew of fear, hatred, self-loathing, impotence and deep discouragement” of his childhood. Little of this is evident in the early letters home: there, Hecht is a jaunty adolescent, writing about his adventures and signing his letters “lots of love, Tony.” In a similar way, Hecht’s recollections about his war experiences don’t accord exactly with the depictions in the letters. In interviews, Hecht maintained that the army experience was intellectually deadening, a “hateful” experience that left him feeling “lobotomized.” He told The Paris Review that after trying and failing to read during basic training, he “put the books away, and never looked at them again during the entire time [he] spent in the army.” That may be so, but he looked at other books—quite a few others, as the letters indicate. Shortly after arriving in France, on March 5, 1945, Hecht reports having with him four books—including a compilation of five of Shakespeare’s tragedies and Finnegans Wake (1939)—and four periodicals, The New Yorker and Partisan Review among them. “So you see I am not without literary means,” he writes to his parents. Later that month he reports, “Strangely enough, my own morale has been remarkably high since I’ve been here.”
I note these differences between the recollections of the older man and the evidence of the letters not to suggest that Hecht modified the narrative...