Places Never Explained
- The Selected Letters of Anthony Hecht edited by Jonathan Post
Johns Hopkins, 365 pp, £18.00, November 2012, ISBN 978 1 4214 0730 2
In January 1945, as she was preparing her collection North & South for publication, Elizabeth Bishop wrote to her publishers to say she was worried that she had written nothing about the war:
The fact that none of these poems deal directly with the war, at a time when so much war poetry is being published, will, I am afraid, leave me open to reproach. The chief reason is simply that I work very slowly. But I think it would help some if a note to the effect that most of the poems had been written, or begun at least, before 1941, could be inserted at the beginning, say just after the acknowledgments.
Bishop’s war effort was brief. In August 1943 she worked in a navy optical shop in Key West, taking binoculars apart to clean them, but eyestrain made her sick and the acid used to clean the lenses caused eczema. After five days she was honourably discharged.
Bishop did accept that ‘Roosters’, written in Key West and first published in 1941, was a war poem, or at least a poem about the warlike instinct:
The crown of red
set on your little head
is charged with all your fighting blood.
‘I want to emphasise,’ she wrote to Marianne Moore, ‘the essential baseness of militarism’, and the poem is filled with images of questionable military might:
Deep from protruding chests
in green-gold medals dressed,
planned to command and terrorise the rest
The poems Bishop wrote between her arrival in Key West in 1938 and her move to Brazil more than a decade later are laced with images of violence and warfare. ‘Florida’ begins as though she is writing a breezy travel guide (‘The state with the prettiest name’), but quickly the images darken. Mangrove roots, ‘when dead’, ‘strew white swamps with skeletons’, and turtles ‘die and leave their barnacled shells on the beaches,/and their large white skulls with round eye-sockets/twice the size of a man’s’. In the poem’s second half, there are buzzards ‘drifting down, down, down’, and slowly ‘the state with the prettiest name’ becomes ‘the careless, corrupt state’ and the alligator’s calls include ‘war, and a warning’. Not being in the war, not seeing any violence first-hand, offered Bishop an oblique angle from which to take in what was happening. The heightened images of tension and disruption in her poems of the 1940s may have had other sources too, but the war made its way into the nervous system of her poems indirectly and mysteriously.
Robert Lowell was a high-profile conscientious objector, writing to Roosevelt in September 1943 with a ‘Declaration of Personal Responsibility’ which objected to the mining of the Ruhr Dams and the bombing of Hamburg. He concluded:
In 1941 we undertook a patriotic war to preserve our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honour against the lawless aggressions of the totalitarian league: in 1943 we are collaborating with the most unscrupulous and powerful of totalitarian dictators to destroy law, freedom, democracy, and above all, our continued national sovereignty.
With the greatest reluctance, and with every wish that I may be proved in error, and after long deliberation on my responsibilities to myself, my country, and my ancestors who played responsible parts in its making, I have come to the conclusion that I cannot honourably participate in a war whose prosecution, as far as I can judge, constitutes a betrayal of my country.
Many of Lowell’s war poems are driven as much by his fervid Catholic faith and devotion to the Virgin Mary as by his anti-war sentiments. The diction is clotted and dense; the tone is earnest and overwrought. ‘The Dead in Europe’ begins:
After the planes unloaded, we fell down
Buried together, unmarried men and women;
Not crown of thorns, not iron, not Lombard crown,
Not grilled and spindle spires pointing to heaven
Could save us. Raise us, Mother, we fell down
Here hugger-mugger in the jellied fire:
Our sacred earth in our day was our curse.
It is clear from this poem that wherever Lowell was when the bombs fell, he wasn’t close by. His best poem about the war, ‘Memories of West Street and Lepke’, came later, appearing in Life Studies in 1959; it dealt with his imprisonment for being a conscientious objector. In the relaxed metre he found congenial for his personal poems he looks back with calm irony at his old fiery self:
I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,
and made my manic statement,
telling off the state and president, and then
sat waiting sentence in the bull pen
beside a Negro boy with curlicues
of marijuana in his hair.
Randall Jarrell’s five-line poem ‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner’ must be one of the best-known American poems about the war:
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters,
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
Jarrell was drafted late in 1942. ‘Being in the army,’ he wrote, ‘is like being involved in the digestive process of an immense worm.’ In Bomber County: The Poetry of a Lost Pilot’s War, Daniel Swift writes about the strangeness of Jarrell’s war: ‘No one was ever so far from the war as Randall Jarrell, deep in Texas.’ He started training as a pilot. ‘Flying is pretty dull,’ he wrote to Edmund Wilson, ‘and I’m bad at it.’ At the beginning of 1943 he was moved to an air force training base near Wichita Falls, where, as Swift writes, ‘he worked in the mail room and was later transferred to the Interviewing and Classification Department. It was hardly a heroic war.’
But he did write heroically. William Pritchard, in his biography of Jarrell, says that ‘in letter after letter, Jarrell turned the routine, the boredom, the loneliness and the wastefulness of army life far from the zones of combat into the figures of something like art.’ In February 1943, Jarrell wrote to his wife, Mackie, from Wichita Falls:
The cowpasture in the afternoons is a wonderful sight. Imagine a perfectly flat, perfectly barren and desolate plain, the soil is a kind of loess – it’s one tremendous dust-pile; on this plain, for as far as you can see, there are men running, doing calisthenics, and playing rough children’s games – tens of thousands of men. Tremendous clouds of dust hang over the field all afternoon; when the wind rises there is a dust storm so extreme that you can’t see men fifty or a hundred yards away.
A few months later he wrote to a friend about his living conditions:
I sleep in a double-deck bed with a cowboy from Texas, a nice boy who never finished the third grade, just below me; if I stretch out my left hand I can touch a small dark pleasant Italian, about five feet high; with my right hand I can touch somebody who came from I don’t know where, but he’s just been here two weeks while his wife had a baby boy.
‘In the evenings,’ Jarrell added, ‘I mostly write poetry or letters to Mackie.’ From feeling at the beginning that he would not be able to write poetry, Jarrell by August 1944 was writing to Oscar Williams: ‘If anybody can write a good poem about anything, he ought to do it about a war he’s in.’ Two months later, in Tucson, Arizona, he wrote to a friend:
I’ve been wonderfully lucky for the past six months – my job and Tucson are swell, Mackie has an awfully nice Red Cross job (so we’ve enough money), I live off post and get to play tennis, I like the people in my department, I’m even writing poems. My two subjects are: bombing Hamburg and bombing crews – I feel sympathetic and sorry for both of them.
Jarrell wrote to his wife about Allen Tate’s ‘Ode to Our Young Pro-Consuls of the Air’, a poem which ends with the Dalai Lama being exterminated from the air, saying it was ‘certainly poor and annoying … I thought the Dalai Lama almost the only touch of imagination.’ When he wrote to Tate on the same subject he left out his view that it was ‘poor and annoying’, telling him instead: ‘I thought the part when they kill the Dalai Lama wonderful, and even more wonderfully characteristic.’ This may seem hypocritical or merely polite, but it is significant that the first letter was written in April 1943 and the second in May 1945. In those two years, Jarrell had undergone a change in his attitude towards war poetry and the poems he himself could write.
Jarrell paid close attention to what other writers were doing about the war. In 1943, after reading a story about the army by John Cheever in the New Yorker, he wrote to Mackie: ‘The trouble with writing a story about the army is this: people expect something to happen in a story (Cheever supplied things, lots of things); but the whole point of the army is that nothing ever does happen, and putting the things in falsifies everything.’ In a review of a book by Marianne Moore in 1945, Jarrell was ready to attack the celebratory war poem. Moore’s ‘In Distrust of Merits’ ended:
If these great patient
dyings – all these agonies
and wound bearings and bloodshed –
can teach us how to live, these
dyings were not wasted.
Moore, he wrote, ‘does not understand that they’ – the war dead – ‘are heroes in the sense that the chimney sweeps, the factory children in the blue books, were heroes: routine loss in the routine business of the world … She does not remember that most of the people in a war never fight for even a minute.’
Jarrell later attacked Auden for recommending that parents read Grimms’ Fairy Tales to their children, the better to banish such bogeys as, in Auden’s words, ‘the Society for the Scientific Diet, the Association of Positivist Parents, the League for the Promotion of Worthwhile Leisure, the Co-operative Camp for Prudent Progressives’. Jarrell responded: ‘Were these your enemies, reader? They were not mine.’ He took Auden to task for not responding to the war: ‘This was written … within the months that held the mass executions in the German camps, the fire raids, Warsaw and Dresden and Manila; within the months that were preparing the bombs for Hiroshima and Nagasaki; within the last 12 months of the Second World War.’ Those last ten words arrive with an earnest, clanging sound. They suggest a seriousness about large matters that may be present in Jarrell’s thinking about the war, but are notably absent from his letters from this period, which are about the dullness of what he is doing, or filled with small needs and requests, such as asking his wife in November 1943: ‘If you go into our boxes of clothes at Austin bring my white tennis trousers and two good sweaters.’
Jarrell and some of his fellow poets became very conscious of the English poets of the First World War. One of the first poems he wrote during the war, the satirical ‘The Soldier’, was titled after Rupert Brooke’s poem, in order, as he told his wife, ‘to compete’ with him. Karl Shapiro’s best-known war poem, or anti-war poem, ‘Scyros’, used an epigraph from Brooke; it was named for the island where Brooke was buried. In an interview with the Paris Review, Shapiro spoke of reviewing a book of new poems written in the 1930s by surviving poets of the First World War. ‘It struck me as very sad,’ he said, ‘that these men who were now probably in their fifties or so, and had never gotten over their experiences, were forgotten. Passed over. They were all in the trenches too. I remarked in my review that war seems to be a permanent tattoo, or scar, on those who have been in it.’
The American war poets were competitive. In a note in Jarrell’s Letters: An Autobiographical and Literary Selection, which she edited, Mary Jarrell wrote: ‘As a war poet, Jarrell saw Shapiro’ – who won the Pulitzer in 1945 – ‘as a rival to whom he had lost.’ Of Shapiro’s next book, Jarrell wrote to Lowell: ‘Shapiro’s new book is pretty bad … I wonder if he’s ever going to grow up any. And stop depending on Auden.’ In a review of John Ciardi’s Other Skies, which appeared in 1947, Jarrell wrote: ‘It is extremely disappointing that a B-29 gunner shouldn’t get more of the feel of what happened to him into what he writes.’ James Dickey, who also served in the war, wrote: ‘Did Jarrell never love any person in the service with him? Did he just pity himself and all the Others in a kind of monstrous, abstract, complacent and inhuman Compassion?’ He criticised the tameness of Jarrell’s tone: ‘He generally does not hold out long enough for the truly telling phrase, for the rhythm that matches exactly the subject, the image, the voice.’
Many of Jarrell’s war poems describe action he never witnessed, but, since he worked with pilots, and was eventually involved in training them, he must have heard enough about what they experienced to imagine it as though he had been through it. Some of the poems are written in the voice of others; many avoid melodrama and the ‘telling phrase’ with deliberation and care. Yet despite their skill, the poems often seem oddly manufactured, living in a dead space of rhetorical writing about action and warfare. There are lines which are recognisably ‘poetry’ (‘His goggles blackened with his own bright blood’) and others that read like well-written doggerel. Dickey, too, wrote poems about action. ‘The Firebombing’, for example, is a detailed, rather rambling account of a bombing mission, as remembered many years later. The memory in this case may be accurate; even though, as Swift writes in Bomber County: ‘Dickey’s war was a story patchworked up from pieces he had seen, heard, read. It was a quilt of quotations and little lies, repeated over the years, but it was based on something he wanted and that is the sadness of it.’
The war was not simple for any of these poets. Each responded to events and to what was expected of them in different ways, but none in a way that is easy to interpret. Perhaps the very act of bombing from a plane – what Richard Eberhart called ‘The Fury of Aerial Bombardment’, the gap between, in J.M. Synge’s phrase, ‘a gallous story and a dirty deed’ – made it impossible for anyone, including Yeats in ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’, a poem which seems to hover over many of these American poems, to do anything more than allow well-made phrases to cover over the hard facts, or the ambiguous set of feelings which came later, or was obscurely there at the time.
Of the many things Jarrell said about the war, the one that seems most true came at the end of his review of Marianne Moore. ‘The real war poets are always war poets, peace or any time.’ This remark applies more perhaps to Anthony Hecht, who was born in 1923 and had published no poems before he went to war, than it does to anyone else. Hecht studied at Bard College then served in the US Army from 1943 to 1946. He saw action in Germany and Czechoslovakia in 1945 and was later stationed in Japan. After the war he studied at Kenyon College with John Crowe Ransom and William Empson (Jarrell had earlier been on the faculty; Lowell had been a student there), and in New York with Allen Tate. In the early 1950s he lived in Italy, where he became friends with Auden; later he taught at Bard College, Smith College, the University of Rochester and Georgetown. His first book of poems, A Summoning of Stones, was published in 1954. In 1968 he won the Pulitzer for his next volume, The Hard Hours. His Collected Earlier Poems were published in 1990; his Collected Later Poems came out in 2003, a year before his death.
As he remembered it in later years, Hecht’s childhood was the beginning of his war. In 1998, Hecht explained that ‘Apprehensions’, one of his best poems, was ‘largely autobiographical’. In it, he described his father’s attempted suicide after the Wall Street Crash:
And then one day there was discovered missing
My brother’s bottle of Phenobarbital –
And, as it later turned out, a razor blade.
The poem also outlined his brother’s physical problems:
A heartless regimen of exercises
Performed upon a sort of doorway gym
Was meant to strengthen my brother’s hand and arm,
As hours with a stereopticon
‘For many complicated reasons,’ Hecht said, ‘my childhood was a rather bitter and lonely one.’ The problem is that this was written many years later, when the Hecht persona, in all its solemnity, was well in place. The letters he wrote when he was a teenager – which now appear, along with a great many from the war, in a thorough Selected Letters – suggest that there was a distance between the inner life and the outer life, or the life as it was later remembered. Like most of us, Hecht was probably able to keep them wonderfully apart. The letters he wrote from summer camp at the age of 12 were perfectly happy. A letter from 1936 to his father concludes: ‘Love from your best pal.’ An undated letter, which the editor suggests might have been written in 1938, when Hecht was 15, reads:
Private: To Dad
Dear Dad –
Two men were going to a masquerade ball as a cow, one to be the front, the other back. They were walking across a field when suddenly a real bull started chasing them. The back man said: ‘Can you run?’
Front man: ‘I’ll be fucked if I can.’
Back man: ‘Well, you’ll be fucked if you can’t.’
He might have meant ‘I’ll be fucked if you can’t.’ The letters suggest that Hecht was a normal, almost jolly boy. This may have been a performance, and perhaps the memories described in ‘Apprehensions’ are closer to what mattered:
We were living at this time in New York City
On the sixth floor of an apartment house
On Lexington, which still had streetcar tracks.
It was an afternoon in the late summer;
The windows open; wrought-iron window guards
Meant to keep pets and children from falling out.
I, at the window, studiously watching
A marvellous transformation of the sky;
A storm was coming up by dark gradations.
But what was curious about this was
That as the sky seemed to be taking on
An ashy blankness, behind which there lay
Tonalities of lilac and dusty rose
Tarnishing now to something more than dusk,
Crepuscular and funerary greys,
The streets became more luminous, the world
Glinted and shone with an uncanny freshness.
The drama in Hecht’s war letters, as the editor points out, is ‘more reminiscent of Hamlet (an alter ego whom he frequently quotes) than Homer’. Their carefulness may be the result of censorship, as he makes clear in a letter from California in 1944: ‘I trust I am not guilty of a breach of military reticence if I suggest that, were this ban to be lifted, I could report nothing that would give you cause for either worry or excitement. It is still, I regret to announce, the same dull routine.’ Three months later, he seemed to have avoided the censors in his description of an encounter with a German prisoner of war:
I had a long talk with a German prisoner (auf Deutsch, naturlich). But don’t spread that around. It’s a Court Martial offence. He was 22 years old, and it has been five years since he has seen Christmas at home … Thinks Nazism would never work in this country, because people prize their individual liberty too highly, whereas they don’t in Germany. He seemed quite intelligent.
Now, there’s a job I’d really like to have – re-educating German prisoners of war with an eye to anticipating the problems that will arise in Germany after the war. Ah, well.
His letters from 1945 are vague about where precisely he is. He is ‘Somewhere in France’ or ‘Somewhere in Germany’. The letters are funny, or about books he is reading, or filled with his observations and predictions: ‘I think reconstruction in this country’ – Germany – ‘will be accomplished much more quickly than in France. The French just sit around in realms of self-pity, telling one atrocity story after another.’ The Germans he stayed with ‘have done their best to impress us with the idea that they were never Nazis … These houses are frequently full of Nazi propaganda, most elaborate, and many have framed photographs of the members of the family who are in the service. As you see, we don’t trust any of them.’
In the wake of the liberation of the concentration camp at Flossenbürg, Hecht was involved in interrogating the guards, and others. On 14 May 1945 he wrote home:
The war is over, and I have come through it unscathed … Unscathed, of course, does not mean unaffected. What I have seen and heard here, in conversations with Germans, French, Czechs, & Russians – plus personal observations – combine to make a story well beyond the limits of censorship regulation. You must wait till I can tell you personally of this beautiful country, and its demented people.
When the war ended Hecht was in North Carolina. His first letter from Japan, where he was stationed next, was sent in the autumn of 1945. In October he wrote home in excitement, having found a German enclave on the coast, filled with Nazis. ‘And I was there,’ he wrote. ‘I spoke to some of them, and have the background on most of them.’ They included Josef Meisinger, the Butcher of Warsaw, who was executed in 1947, and Count Dürckheim, whom he called ‘the Goebbels of the East’. In his letter to his family he emphasised how confidential this information was, and requested ‘THAT YOU KEEP THIS TO YOURSELVES ENTIRELY, WITHOUT EXCEPTIONS’.
Besides truth, he was interested in booty. (In ‘A Lot of Night Music’ he wrote: ‘Out of the woods and woodwork poets come,/Hauling their truths and booty.’) He wrote home to tell them that he was sending ‘75 yards of white silk I wrote you about, in addition to about 16 yards of striped, coloured silk. Included in this box is the black lacquer cigarette box I mentioned … In the second box is a fur-lined Japanese aviator’s suit, which should come in handy if you ever decide to become a Japanese aviator.’ In the next letter, sent from Kumagaya, he wrote: ‘Went to an old whore house today. Pretty lousy looking place. The girls weren’t so hot either. But I got what I was looking for.’ The next paragraph reads: ‘I was looking for a piano.’ In another letter from Kumagaya he addressed the question of poverty in postwar Japan:
A few days before Christmas, it was discovered that the mother of a large and very poor family, driven to insanity by starvation, killed one of her stepchildren, cooked it, and fed it to her husband and children. It seems that she was not getting her due from the food rationing system, and being too poor to deal with the black market, was driven to cannibalism.
This passage stands out in Hecht’s letters home for its stark description of horror. Because of the military censorship, and also perhaps because of his own need to reassure his parents, much got left out. In a series of interviews Hecht did with Philip Hoy in 1999, however, published in the Waywiser Press series ‘Between the Lines’, Hecht had more to say about what he had witnessed at Flossenbürg in 1945:
When we arrived, the SS personnel had, of course, fled. Prisoners were dying at the rate of 500 a day from typhus. Since I had the rudiments of French and German, I was appointed to interview such French prisoners as were well enough to speak, in the hope of securing evidence against those who ran the camp … The place, the suffering, the prisoners’ accounts were beyond comprehension. For years after I would wake shrieking.
He also described an encounter with the Germans which left some of his fellow soldiers ‘legless, armless, or dead’. When the firing stopped, he told Hoy:
And then, to my astonishment, a small group of German women, perhaps five or six, leading small children by the hand, and with white flags of surrender fixed to staves and broom-handles, came up over the far crest and started walking slowly towards us, waving their white flags back and forth. They came slowly, the children retarding their advance. They had to descend the small incline that lay between their height and ours. When they were about halfway, and about to climb the slope leading to our position, two of our machine guns opened up and slaughtered the whole group … This was all due to the plain panic of soldiers newly exposed to combat, due also to guilt, to frustrated fury at the casualties we had suffered. In any case, what I saw that morning was, except for Flossenbürg, the greatest trauma of the war – and, believe me, I saw a lot of terrible things.
Hecht began the process of transforming himself as a teenager. His accent became English, or almost English. In an interview in the Paris Review in 1988 he told J.D. McClatchy: ‘I suppose my voice must sound affected in some way … Doubtless it’s a mask of some sort; a fear or shame of something, very likely of being Jewish, a matter I am no longer in the least ashamed of, though once it was a painful embarrassment.’ In his introduction to the interview, McClatchy described Hecht’s patrician aura: ‘Anthony Hecht is an aristocrat among poets … his poems hold themselves to a high standard, and in their purposes and sympathies is a natural nobility … He even looks the part. With his solid build and sad eyes, his heraldic gray hair and pointed beard, he resembles a benevolent Shakespearean duke.’ To McClatchy, Hecht related what happened when he got out of the army in 1946:
I was consistently drunk for well over two weeks. My parents were particularly forbearing and indulgent about this. They kept me in full supply of booze. I think I drank day and night, and I fell asleep most nights on the floor of their New York apartment. The drink must have served as a sort of narcotic for everything unmentionable that had happened or that I saw during those years.
When McClatchy asked: ‘And did you quit drinking after those weeks?’ Hecht replied: ‘Certainly not. I have drunk, probably too much, ever since then, and to this day I get jumpy and restless in the evening if I have nothing to drink.’ For 35 years, he said, he had also ‘smoked heavily, three packs of unfiltered Philip Morris a day’. In the 1950s, after his first marriage broke up and his ex-wife took their two sons to Europe, he was hospitalised for three months for depression.
He kept a great deal, however, in check. In a few poems, the wit and good humour from his early letters home emerged. In ‘The Man Who Married Magdalene’ he managed to sound as cool and smart as Bob Dylan:
I have been in this bar
For close to seven days.
The dark girl over there,
For a modest dollar, lays.
And you can get a blow-job
Where other men have pissed
In the little room that’s sacred
To the Evangelist.
In ‘The Dover Bitch’, the poet who often displayed an unusual reverence for the poets of the past, suddenly forgot that he did, and began, ‘So there stood Matthew Arnold and this girl,’ and went on: ‘But all the time he was talking she had in mind/The notion of what his whiskers would feel like/On the back of her neck.’ He could recite large sections of ‘Lycidas’, adding a commentary in the voice of W.C. Fields. 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 told Philip Hoy, ‘I would pause, and let Fields observe: “That’s very sad – that part about the watery beer.”’ And the poems contain many good jokes, such as the phrase ‘Mens sana in men’s sauna’, or the title ‘Le Masseur de Ma Soeur’.
But most of the time Hecht was solemn. Once the war was over, instead of longing for freedom, as others did, or for his mother, or his girlfriend, or the Lord God, Hecht thirsted for the New Criticism, and once he drank from it, he couldn’t get enough. Of his teacher John Crowe Ransom, he told McClatchy:
I can no longer remember whether I read or heard him declare that a young man in the toils and thralls of love is particularly unfit to write a love poem, and that he must distance himself from his ecstasy before he can command enough self-possession and artistic disinterestedness to be able to write about it. But this made enormously good sense to me … it excused me from the task of setting down raw and unconsidered emotion; and it suggested a strategy by which to proceed.
Irony, distance, impersonality, decorum, the well-made poem, the ornate phrase, became Hecht’s strategy for handling what had happened to him. Just as cold water is a cure for lust, when Hecht thought about ‘what left me almost wordless with confused feelings’, he could reach for Seven Types of Ambiguity, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ or ‘The Well Wrought Urn’. He would also, in his own poems, deal with those poets who failed to follow his example:
Some are like desert saints,
Wheat-germ ascetics, draped in pelt and clout.
Some come in schools, like fish.
These make their litany of dark complaints;
Those laugh and rejoice
At liberation from the bonds of gender,
Race, morals and mind,
As well as metre, rhyme and the human voice.
Still others strive to render
The cross-word world in perfectly declined
Pronouns, starting with ME.
The first letter to his parents which seemed to describe the extinction of personality he was learning was written in September 1947:
I was a little disappointed that you congratulated me for ‘spilling my guts’, as though I had properly performed some bodily function. Please do not think that writing letters serves me as a watered-down kind of confession or therapy; I don’t think of it as an opportunity to discourse on my woes in the hope of receiving in return the appropriate sympathy and praise. I write to you to let you know what’s going on, and because the business of writing helps me to objectify and remove myself from the very stuff I’m writing about.
Hecht later noted that he had read Lowell’s comment to Theodore Roethke: ‘I remember Edwin Muir arguing with me that there is no rivalry in poetry. Well, there is.’ Soon, Hecht entered in the spirit of things. In 1951, from Rome, he reported to his parents that Auden had said that ‘my poetry was better than most of the younger poets, specifically [Richard] Wilbur’s and Shapiro’s – though, I don’t see how Shapiro gets into the “younger” category any more.’ (In 1968, Allen Tate wrote: ‘We have gotten into the bad habit of ranking our poets. I refuse to do this. I can only say that whoever else may be at the top, Hecht is there too; for there is nobody better.’)
Hecht loved Italy, but found himself for 18 years living in Rochester. It might have been a relief to call his poem about the city ‘Sestina d’Inverno’, but he had to face hard American facts. Thus the poem opens, ‘Here in this bleak city of Rochester’, and goes on to invoke the natives ‘Of this grey, sunless city’. But it may have been a useful place from which to view the vagaries and venalities of other poets. There is a wonderful letter from 2000 written to Hoy in which Hecht remembered writing a Guggenheim recommendation for Louis Simpson and then Simpson saying ‘from the vantage of his post at Berkeley he would see what he could do to get me invited out to read at several campuses in California’. Years later, Hecht discovered that when such a possibility was mentioned by others in California, Simpson,
representing Berkeley, demurred. He explained that I suffered from a very pronounced speech defect, and that it would be a kindness not to expose me to public terror and humiliation that a poetry reading by me would certainly entail. Since Simpson was the only one of the group who could claim to know me personally, his word on the subject was final.
Hecht remembered bad reviews and other slights and insults, and his letters are peppered with references to them. When his wife gave him the unabridged journals of Sylvia Plath for Christmas 2000 – he had taught with Plath at Smith College – he found that she had
a number of quite mean things to say about me … such as the claim that I have my hair ‘professionally curled’. She was really stark raving bonkers. She also claimed that I squirrelled away my Hudson Review Fellowship, wishing to hoard it at a time when both Sylvia and Ted were envious, and wished they could have a grant, and felt that I was keeping such funding from some other worthy poet. It’s especially galling to be calumniated from beyond the grave.
On more serious matters, Hecht disagreed with Auden about the function of detail in a poem; this disagreement became crucial to the sort of detail-laden poems Hecht began to make. Auden, he wrote to his parents, believed that details ‘should never be allowed to distract the reader’s attention from the main line of discourse, whereas I believe that the details should be made to subsume, to contain, to embody, to incarnate the point and meaning of the poem.’ He went on: ‘I think he may be right most of all in saying … that my verse was perhaps too formal – not in the metrical sense, but in being somewhat impersonal in tone … This is mainly what he has against Ransom and Tate, and with many qualifications, he’s right.’ The question Auden might have put to Ransom, who argued that ‘a young man in the toils and thralls of love is particularly unfit to write a love poem,’ was: what should the young man then do? How long should he wait? Would the love not emerge, in some way or other, in any poem he wrote? Hecht was not afflicted by love – not now. Rather, he was traumatised by what he had seen and felt in the war. Writing poems with exquisite ornamentation about gardens in Italy, as he did with considerable skill, was one way of dealing with things. But what also entered his poetry, and stayed there throughout his career, were intimations of violence and images of cruelty. In ‘Behold the Lilies of the Field’, the flogging and flaying of a former emperor was described in great detail. In poems such as ‘Third Avenue in Sunlight’, ‘A Roman Holiday’, ‘The End of the Weekend’, ‘The Cost’ and ‘The Hunt’, there were undertones and overtones of an abiding violence lurking at the heart of things.
And then there were the poems in which Hecht attempted to deal directly with what happened in Germany, such as ‘Rites and Ceremonies’:
It is twenty years now, Father. I have come home.
But in the camps, one can look through a huge square
Window, like an aquarium, upon a room
The size of my living room filled with human hair.
Others have shoes, or valises
Made mostly of cardboard, which once contained
Pills, fresh diapers. This is one of the places
In ‘More Light! More Light!’, Hecht connected two violent acts, a burning at the stake in the 16th century and the execution of two Jews and a Pole by the Nazis in the Second World War. The tone is plain, relentless; something nearly unbearable is being coldly, forensically documented; it is, as Hecht says in a letter, ‘brutally straightforward stuff’:
We move now to outside a German wood.
Three men are there commanded to dig a hole
In which the two Jews are ordered to lie down
And be buried alive by the third, who is a Pole.
The tone of this and other poems about Germany in the war were justified in a letter Hecht wrote to a former student in 1994:
Though I never suffered like those who were prisoners in the camps, I did actually see one; and I need nothing to make it vivid to me … Except for [Elie] Wiesel’s Night, I have read no ‘literary’ works about the prison camps that seem anywhere nearly as effective as straight reportorial accounts, because the facts themselves are so monstrous and surreal they not only don’t need, but cannot endure, the embellishment of metaphor or artistic design.
In many of these letters and in his interviews with McClatchy and Hoy, Hecht emphasised that he had been marked by the war; he wished to distance himself from poets who had not been through the same experience, but who also wrote about dark matters. ‘Larkin,’ he said to Hoy, ‘did not serve in the war and he was not a Jew, and he counted himself lucky on both scores. It may be that one of the appeals of his poetry for many readers lies in his contemplation of “the solving emptiness”, which is obscurely comforting. Not paradise, to be sure, but a kind of beneficent anaesthesia.’
The phrase ‘the solving emptiness’ comes from Larkin’s poem ‘Ambulances’, in which people see the ‘wild white face’ of someone on a stretcher being ‘carried in and stowed’:
And sense the solving emptiness
That lies just under all we do,
And for a second get it whole,
So permanent and blank and true.
Since what Hecht had seen was too severe and abiding to be resolved by any ‘solving emptiness’, he had no interest in taming it, or domesticating it, or making it easy for the reader or for himself. Instead, he began to revisit his childhood with images of cruelty and violence. In ‘Apprehensions’, he recalled a German governess, ‘Replete with the curious thumbprint of her race,/That special relish for inflicted pain.’ At the end of the poem, she appears to him in dreams:
As the ghettoes of Europe emptied, the box cars
Rolled towards enclosures terminal and obscene,
The ovens blazed away like Pittsburgh steel mills,
Chain-smoking through the night, and no one spoke.
We two would meet in a darkened living room
Between the lines of advancing allied troops
In the Wagnerian twilight of the Reich.
She would be seated by a table, reading
Under a lampshade of the finest parchment.
She would look up and say, ‘I always knew
That you would come to me, that you’d come home.’
In ‘The Feast of Stephen’, a poem made up of four sonnets, the image of young men in a locker room becomes more and more menacing, as ‘the coltish horseplay’ moves into dreadful and deliberate violence against ‘a young man whose name is Saul’:
Out in the rippled heat of a neighbour’s field,
In the kilowatts of noon, they’ve got one cornered.
The bugs are jumping, and the burly youths
Strip to the waist for the hot work ahead.
In a poem called ‘Still Life’, published in The Venetian Vespers (1979), he depicted a sylvan scene ‘Of Tennysonian calm just before dawn’. But no scene like this could ever not have intimations of what he saw in the war. ‘Nature,’ in the poem, ‘is magnificently dumb.’ And then:
Why does this so much stir me, like a code
Or muffled intimation
Of purposes and preordained events?
It knows me, and I recognise its mode
Of cautionary, spring-tight hesitation,
This silence so impacted and intense.
As in a water-surface I behold
The first, soft, peach decree
Of light, its pale, inaudible commands.
I stand beneath a pine-tree in the cold,
Just before dawn, somewhere in Germany,
A cold, wet Garand rifle in my hands.
In his next volume, The Transparent Man (1990), Hecht wrote a sestina called ‘The Book of Yolek’, in which he dramatised another ordinary day in his own life when he could ‘saunter off for a walk/Down the fern trail, it doesn’t matter where to’, and his thoughts returned to summer camp; then, once more, his mind wandered to an image that he didn’t witness, but couldn’t prevent himself from summoning up:
The fifth of August, 1942.
It was morning and very hot. It was the day
They came at dawn with rifles to The Home
For Jewish Children, cutting short the meal
Of bread and soup, lining them up to walk
In close formation off to a special camp.
One of the boys in the poem is called Yolek. The poem ends:
Prepare to receive him in your home some day.
Though they killed him in the camp they sent him to,
He will walk in as you’re sitting down to a meal.
In one of the last letters in this book, from February 2003, Hecht wrote about this use of the sestina, a form in which the end words of the six lines of each stanza are repeated in a different order over six stanzas, and all six words used in the final three-line stanza. ‘It occurred to me that because of the persistent reiteration of those terminal words, over and over in stanza after stanza, the sestina seemed to lend itself especially well to a topic felt obsessively, unremittingly.’
Hecht was 22 when he left Germany in 1945. He would live for almost six more decades. He is unique among poets in the English language who fought in the First or the Second World Wars because of the intensity of his struggle. It’s possible that the poems in which he actually mentions the war are too open, too ready to offer the shocking and startling image; they are not as successful as a number of other poems in which he managed to bury the shock in a more muted diction, or in which he mocked his own experiences, or explored a calmer, more personal desolation, poems such as ‘A Hill’, ‘A Voice at a Séance’, ‘Coming Home’ or ‘Going the Rounds: A Sort of Love Poem.’
In his interview with Hoy, Hecht considered the strange power of that poem ‘A Hill’. Hecht had discussed the poem with his therapist, he said, and went on: ‘You are perfectly right to see arid and defeated landscapes cropping up in a good number of my poems … They were for me a means to express a desolation of the soul.’ But in ‘A Hill’, he found a tone that was lower in register than the high-flown business of the ‘desolation of the soul’. At the opening, he is ready to mock the very idea that in Italy he had a vision, by adding after the word Italy the phrase ‘where this sort of thing can occur’ and then: ‘though you understand/It was nothing at all like Dante’s, or the vision of saints,/And perhaps not a vision at all.’ This lowering of the tone allows him then to describe what happened with a fierce and chilling conviction. In the poem he is crossing a piazza in sunlight in the early morning. He is with friends. The diction of the poem is spare, careful, but also exploratory, as though something must be said now without ornament, something that is plain and true about the ‘vision’ that came to him:
It was very cold
Close to freezing, with a promise of snow.
The trees were like old ironwork gathered for scrap
Outside a factory wall. There was no wind,
And the only sound for a while was the little click
Of ice as it broke in the mud under my feet.
I saw a piece of ribbon snagged on a hedge,
But no other sign of life. And then I heard
What seemed the crack of a rifle.
As the poem ends, Hecht will associate this event with a place north of Poughkeepsie in New York which he knew as a boy. But for any reader of his work, this landscape – how desolate it is, and haunted, and how the silence is ready to be broken by something he will not forget – has a more elemental force which comes in and out of Hecht’s work, hitting against his talent at its more ornate and exalted, as a boat might hit against a pier when a storm starts up. This tone, the calm controlled cadences, belonged to him as much as the well-wrought technical wizardry of some of his other work. Its undertone of aftershock remains part of the legacy Hecht sometimes fought against, the legacy his best work, nonetheless, often contains.