My title,” explains the distinguished Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anthony Hecht in the preface to his first volume of prose, Obbligati: Essays in Criticism, “refers to a complex set of obligations undertaken by these essays—obligations to the works and poets they deal with, as well as to the editors, teachers, and administrators who offered me their pages and podia. I also mean to affirm what I conceive to be the proper role of criticism as a musical obbligato: that is, a counterpart that must constantly strive to move in strict harmony with and intellectual counterpoint to its subject, and remain always subordinate to the text upon which it presumes to comment.”

At first blush, this sounds admirable, impressive. “Ah,” we are likely to think, “what a marvelously apt and elegant title.” But wait a minute. The Italian-English dictionary informs us...


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