A Thickness of Particulars: The Poetry of Anthony Hecht
jonathan f. s. post
oxford university press, 288 pages, $35.00
Jonathan Post’s A Thickness of Particulars is the first book-length study of Anthony Hecht, one of the major American poets of the second half of the twentieth century. A Distinguished Professor of English at UCLA and the editor of Hecht’s Selected Letters (John Hopkins University Press, 2013), Post has lectured extensively on the poet at Yale and UCLA. The depth of his scholarship on Hecht is evident throughout this monograph, which emphasizes the “habitually dialectical quality of Hecht’s thinking,” his passion for poetic form, and his ability to write in complicated rhyming schemes without sacrificing an easy conversational tone.
Alternating between close readings of the poems, wherein Hecht’s work is placed in conversation with poetic giants W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, and Elizabeth Bishop, and the poet’s private correspondence, Post provides a biographical context for understanding the complexity of Hecht’s impressive corpus. As the author points out, however, this is not biography per se, but rather a general introduction to Hecht’s poetry. In nine chapters arranged chronologically, Post’s narrative ranges from discussions of well-known individual poems to collections of early and late efforts, with additional chapters focusing on thematic angles such as the influence of Shakespeare and the poet’s ekphrastic verse.
In the spring of 1943, while studying at Columbia, Hecht enlisted in the army. In 1945, his division landed in France and moved through Europe as part of the final campaign against the German forces. In April, Hecht was involved in the liberation of the concentration camp at Flossenburg in Bavaria, an experience that ensured the “ongoing place of war and suffering in his poetry.” Quoting Randall Jarrell’s remark that “the real war poets are always war poets, peace or any time” (which Colin Tóibín subsequently applied to Hecht), Post demonstrates how this harrowing experience suffuses Hecht’s body of work.
The initial chapter is devoted to “The Book of Yolek,” one of his best-known poems. Hecht frames his sestina as a story, employing deceptively simple terminal words (meal, walk, to, home, camp and day) to compose a poem that has been described as a “most terrifying sestina” and “perhaps the most unbearable in the language.” Post’s close reading illuminates the verbal complexity of this poetic form, which relies on the recurrent repetition of these six end words in its six stanzas and the concluding envoi. The poem begins with the speaker’s benign pre-war summer camp memories, which in the third stanza, shift to the narrator’s terrible wartime memories:
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.
In Post’s view, “its merciless logic reflects the systematic extermination of the Jews,” a conclusion that underscores Hecht’s ability to confront aesthetically this chapter in human history with extraordinary mastery and restraint.
Post next turns to the poet’s first collection, A Summoning of Stones (1954), which “is of interest today largely for what it tells us of Hecht’s development as a poet in the 1950s.” Rejecting a reading that regards these poems as merely a blueprint for future work, Post places Hecht in conversation with near-contemporaries Richard Wilbur (whom Hecht admired enormously) and Robert Lowell, drawing parallels between their respective early works. Both Wilbur and Hecht shared overlapping interests in music and art, as well as in landscapes and gardens, yet as Post makes clear, despite the similarities their first books were very different. Hecht’s Italian garden poem “The Gardens of Villa d’Este,” with its sensuous baroque language (“Consider the top balustrade/ Where twinned stone harpies, with doomed and virgin breasts,/ Spurt from their nipples that no pulse or hand has pressed”), is contrasted with Wilbur’s “Caserta Garden,” which despite being set in one of the most elaborate estates in Southern Italy, is according to Post “[s]o Frost-like in the setting and the sound of the sentence, we might as well be in New England.” Regarding Lowell, Post argues that Lowell’s dramatic monologue, “Thanksgiving’s Over,” was a critical example for Hecht when writing “The Vow,” a personal account of his first wife’s miscarriage. Post further makes the case that “the most explicit, if not necessarily the fullest, working out of ‘Thanksgiving’s Over’ is ‘Behold the Lilies of the Field,’” another of Hecht’s war poems. A central concern of the latter poem is the issue of witnessing the cruelties of war:
They stripped him, and made an iron collar for his neck,
And they made a cage out of our captured spears,
And they put him inside, naked and collared,
And exposed to the view of the whole enemy camp.
And I was tied to a post and made to watch . . .
Chapter three discusses Hecht’s 1967 Pulitzer-Prize-winning volume The Hard Hours, which Post considers “the crucial, indeed critical, book of his career.” Several seminal poems in this volume concern the Holocaust, challenging Ardono’s famous declaration (which he subsequently backed away from) that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” In its opening stanza, “More Light! More Light!” retells the horrible death endured by Protestant martyrs in Elizabethan England, then quickly shifts to a more contemporary horror story, “outside a German wood./ Three men are there commanded to dig a hole / In which two Jews are ordered to lie down / And be buried alive by the third, who is a Pole.” The longer, more complex “Rites and Ceremonies” is in Post’s view “seeking an explanation for the suffering brought about by the Holocaust.” Through the poet, the persecuted address God, “calling on thy name/ in the hot kilns and ovens.” Post argues persuasively that with this collection, Hecht evolved “from primarily a descriptive to a dramatic poet, a process whereby the poet situates himself in a place or landscape, and without writing confessional poetry per se, uses that space to reveal his thinking.”
Many commentators regard “The Venetian Vespers” as one of Hecht’s best works, and Post devotes an entire chapter to his exegesis. Divided into six sections wherein an unnamed speaker wanders through multiple locations in Venice, this dramatic poem acquires the scale and the scope that sets it apart from “everything else Hecht had written up to this point. … [B]oth the city’s visual and verbal associations … encouraged [in Hecht] a many-sided baroque amplitude of expression.” Hecht spent a significant amount of time in Italy, and he had long been drawn to Venice, and in this chapter Post makes the case for reading “The Venetian Vespers” as a poem about “the city in relation to the self, the self in the city.” Here is Hecht’s speaker encountering St. Mark’s Cathedral “against a heaven of coined and sequined light”:
Into those choirs
Of lacquered Thrones, enameled Archangels
And medaled Principalities rise up
A cool plantation of columns, marble shafts
Bearing their lifted pathways, viaducts
And catwalks through the middle realms of heaven.
Hecht’s ekphrastic verse, which Post sees as “a major creative force in his middle and later years,” is discussed at length in a chapter that pays particular attention to “The Deodand,” his first poem dedicated to a single painting, and to “Matisse: Blue Interior with Two Girls.” Post credits Hecht’s skill in this genre primarily to the influence of Bishop, whose poetry displayed a sharp painterly eye. Quoting Hecht’s dictum that only in the gaze of the other “do we exist for one another,” Post argues that his poetry is essentially “an extended mediation on this important imperative.”
In the ekphrastic verse from Hecht’s middle years, Post further identifies three key elements (which he attributes in part to John Ruskin): “Knowledge, exuberance and moral sense.” These qualities abound in “The Deodand,” based on Renoir’s Parisians Dressed in Algerian Costume. Hecht’s critique of sexual retribution in the context of French Imperialism in Algeria opens with a description of three women in a French harem, before turning to a chilling description of a Legionnaire being dressed by his captors as a French whore.
In “Shechtspeare,” Post assesses Hecht’s “lifelong involvement with Shakespeare,” arguing that the Bard’s influence, well proven in Hecht’s critical essays, also “fed into the creation of some of Hecht’s finest poems.” Post places Lear “at the epicenter of Hecht’s holocaustic and post-holocaustic sense of suffering from The Hard Hours on,” noting, too, their “commonality of vision” in “Sarabande on Attaining the Age of Seventy-Seven,” from Hecht’s last collection, The Darkness and the Light (2001). He further identifies the poet’s use of blank verse, his subtle network of allusions, and the dramatic transformations present in many of Hecht’s monologues. Post highlights “Peripeteia,” which takes as its subject the experience of watching a play by Shakespeare, to illustrate how Hecht skillfully incorporates a crucial dramatic plot moment into the poem. In this and other dramatic monologues, Post argues Hecht followed Shakespeare’s example in his belief that “the needs of the dramatic situation, not an absolute fidelity to a character’s social situation, determine the scope and shape of the poem’s language.”
Other late collections, such as The Transparent Man (1990) and Flight Among the Tombs (1996) are also analyzed in detail. Hecht’s skill at longer narrative poems is illustrated by Post’s reading of two dramatic monologues from the 1990 volume: the title poem “The Transparent Man” and “See Naples and Die.”
Because Hecht was actively writing and publishing up to the time of his death in 2004, it’s easy to forget that his formative years as a poet were during the heyday of the New Criticism. Broadly speaking, this critical perspective emphasized the primacy of the text as an independent and complete work of art. Hecht studied under John Crowe Ranson, one of the architects of the New Criticism at Kenyon College, and later under Alan Tate, another of the generation of Southern writers dedicated to this approach to literary criticism. As Post’s study makes clear, with his masterful use of formal technique and linguistic control, the lessons of his mentors stuck with Hecht throughout his career.
In the conclusion to his preface, Post states that the goal of his book is to “initiate or otherwise stimulate a critical conversation,” a goal in which he succeeds admirably. Throughout the book, Post’s erudite and scholarly analysis of Hecht’s considerable corpus illuminates the formal power, moral depth, and intellectual brilliance of this important American poet.
Adrienne Leavy is editor and publisher of Reading Ireland.