One of the smaller revelations in Late Romance, David Yezzi’s deeply researched and beautifully written new biography of the poet Anthony Hecht, is Hecht’s high-school friendship with Jack Kerouac.1 They intersected as teenagers at New York’s Horace Mann School, where, Yezzi writes, “both were conspicuously talented though not very studious.” Hecht was attracted to Kerouac’s “easygoing kindness,” and they shared an interest in writing, both contributing to the school’s literary magazine. Of course, Yezzi writes, “Kerouac was decidedly cooler than Hecht.” When they rang in the year 1940 together at a New Year’s Eve party, Kerouac offered Hecht a joint, which the latter declined, considering marijuana the vice of a “ ‘dope fiend’ out of Victorian melodrama.”
What makes this episode stand out is that the two men went on to occupy the opposite extremes of post-war American literature. Kerouac, of course, became the idol of the Beat generation with On the Road, the 1957 novel chronicling his journeys across America in pursuit of sex, drugs, and mystical ecstasy. In art as in life, the Beats sought to escape all kinds of self-consciousness and constraint; Kerouac called his ideal “spontaneous prose” and famously wrote the first draft of his novel in three weeks on a single, continuous scroll of paper.
In his early poem “Seascape with Figures,” by contrast, Hecht demands: “What, then, is freedom? Merely to be free/ Is nothing.” His first book, A Summoning of Stones (1954), declared allegiance to formality of every kind: elaborately structured stanzas, literary allusions, irony and parody, dictionary words. “Will-o’-the-wisp, on the scum laden water,/ Burns in the night, a gaseous deceiver/ In the pale shade of France’s foremost daughter,” Hecht writes in “Alceste in the Wilderness.” In “The Gardens of the Villa d’Este,” he offers a classical invocation: “Goddess, assist me now;/ Commend my music to the woods.” This poetry feels removed by more than just an ocean from the America where Kerouac wrote: “I said to myself, Wham, listen to that man laugh. That’s the West, here I am in the West.”
Hecht eventually distanced himself from his baroque early poems, seeing them as the work of an apprentice, and his mature work is more powerful and personal. But he remained committed to a self-consciously literary ideal. In his last book, The Darkness and the Light, published in 2001 when he was seventy-eight years old, he praises works of art that are the product of elaborate discipline:
Melodies of Bach fugues, the right-to-left
Writing of Leonardo, a long-term loan
From Hebrew, retrograde fluencies in deft
Articulate penmanship. . . .
Yezzi shows that Hecht imbibed this vision of poetry directly from its New Critical source. After serving in World War II, he enrolled at Kenyon College to study with John Crowe Ransom, who with Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren had distilled modernism into a doctrine of irony, ambiguity, and impersonality. Many of the best younger poets of the 1940s and 1950s took their cue from these New Critics, including Robert Lowell and Randall Jarrell, who had preceded Hecht at Kenyon. He was proud of this intellectual lineage: “To have become one of that little group of Kenyon students in the mid-forties,” Hecht wrote later, was “to have been assimilated into a hieratic tradition, a select branch in the great taxonomic structure of the modern intellect.”
Interestingly, it was the older poets in this “little group” who eventually rebelled against it. Lowell’s early work was even more dense and complicated than Hecht’s, and it won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1947. But, partly in response to the Beats, Lowell deliberately relaxed his style in the 1950s, turning to the more plainspoken confessionalism of Life Studies. Jarrell, John Berryman, and Elizabeth Bishop, all born in the 1910s, followed a similar path. But poets born in the 1920s such as Hecht, Richard Wilbur, Richard Howard, and James Merrill never rebelled in the same way. They remained true to New Critical principles of formality and complexity, even as their work, too, moved in the direction of greater self-revelation.
What makes Late Romance an exemplary literary biography is the way Yezzi—a poet and a former editor of The New Criterion who now teaches at Johns Hopkins—connects Hecht’s aesthetic ideals with his personality and experiences. If Hecht flourished in his chosen “hieratic tradition” while others chafed against it, he did so because, as Yezzi writes, he “discovered in language the ‘hidden law’ that bestows an implicit order on the world, without which, like Lear, ‘we shall go mad.’” For Hecht, madness wasn’t just a Shakespearean allusion, but an ever-present possibility, and his best poems rely on formal strictness to contain an intimate knowledge of chaos and evil.
Chaos was a familiar presence since childhood. Born in Manhattan in 1923 to an upper-middle-class German-Jewish family, Hecht had a privileged upbringing even after the Depression struck, complete with private schools and European tours. But his father, Melvyn, was a failure in business, losing much of the money his forebears had made in the leather trade, and the family’s downward mobility gave the young Hecht a basic sense of insecurity.
This was compounded by his father’s erratic behavior, which included three suicide attempts and at least one disappearance, during which Hecht was warned that Melvyn might show up at his college and try to harm him. The family dynamic was further complicated by his younger brother Roger’s severe epilepsy, which consumed most of their parents’ attention, leaving Anthony isolated in his own struggles against depression.
No wonder Yezzi writes that Hecht was happiest away from home, at summer camp and during his first years at Bard College. His studies were cut short after Pearl Harbor, when Hecht, to avoid the frontline infantry, enlisted in an army training program for college-educated young men, hoping to become a translator. Already deeply unhappy in the military—“Even on your own free time you cannot manage to think the thoughts you want to, and escape from the army for a while,” he wrote to his parents—he was stunned when the training program was abruptly dissolved and he was assigned to a combat infantry division.
“That morning left me without the least vestige of patriotism or national pride,” he recalled.
Hecht’s experience of combat was brief, but Yezzi convincingly shows that it affected the whole course of his later life and work. His unit landed in Europe in March 1945 and proceeded into Germany on April 7, just four weeks before V-E Day. Mopping up the last German holdouts may have been light duty compared to the Normandy landings or the Battle of the Bulge, but it was real combat, with all the attendant horrors. Yezzi quotes a memorandum Hecht wrote at the time accusing his superior officers of repeatedly sending patrols toward a German machine gun despite knowing they would be slaughtered. “One night a thirty-man patrol returned with all but four men either wounded or dead,” Hecht noted. On another occasion, his comrades machine-gunned a party of German women and children who were approaching with white flags of surrender. “That morning left me without the least vestige of patriotism or national pride,” he recalled.
Possibly more traumatic was what happened after he left the front lines. In late April Hecht’s division liberated the Nazi concentration camp at Flossenburg in Bavaria, where some thirty thousand people had been killed and hundreds continued to die every day from typhus. He was assigned to interview the surviving inmates, collecting testimony that was later used in war-crimes trials. The stories Hecht heard about murder and torture—including a “game” in which Nazi guards would compete to have their dogs bite off a prisoner’s genitals—haunted him, and he experienced night terrors for the rest of his life.
As with other American writers who were combat veterans of World War II, the experience shaped Hecht’s work profoundly even when it wasn’t his explicit subject. In his 1996 book Flight Among the Tombs, Hecht wrote a sequence of twenty-two poems to accompany engravings by the artist Leonard Baskin, each portraying Death in a different guise, including “Death the Punchinello”:
In candor, I admit some do not like me.
They call me “Toad,” and they would not be far
From the truth, if only they were speaking German.
The pun on the German word Tod is a reminder that Hecht still associated the language with death, more than half a century later. Indeed, Yezzi shows that much time needed to pass before he was prepared to engage poetically with the war. In his first book, Hecht admitted, “the subject matter . . . didn’t have a pressing immediate need for me; I’d write about anything that came to hand.” It wasn’t until his second book, The Hard Hours (1967), that he was “prepared to attack” subjects “that had enormous emotional importance to me.”
The book includes Hecht’s most famous poem, “More Light! More Light!” which recounts a Holocaust incident he had read about: When a Nazi guard ordered a Polish prisoner to dig a grave for two Jews, he refused; whereupon the Nazi ordered the Jews to a dig a grave for the Pole, and they obeyed. Just as he was about to be killed, the Pole agreed to dig a hole for the Jews to be killed in. For Hecht, who often wrote about death as an ironic, mocking presence—“your imperishable comedian,” as he put it in “Death the Punchinello”—the story shows how fear makes a mockery of virtues like courage and solidarity: “Much casual death had drained away their souls,” he writes of the prisoners.
In other poems, Hecht preferred to approach his war memories indirectly, sneaking up on them. The first poem in The Hard Hours, “A Hill,” tells of a visionary moment in Rome when the poet’s actual surroundings disappeared and he seemed to find himself on a bare hillside in winter, hearing the crack of a rifle. Hecht concludes the poem by saying that this was a boyhood memory of a place “north of Poughkeepsie.” But the suddenness of the vision, the suggestion of violence, and the stark fear—“I was scared by the plain bitterness of what I had seen,” Hecht writes—all combine to suggest that what the poet is really remembering is a scene from wartime.
Yezzi writes that this poem “reads like a textbook flashback,” a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans. He compares “A Hill” to a later Hecht poem, “Still Life,” in which a peaceful nature scene is suddenly shattered by the poet’s realization that he is actually “somewhere in Germany,/ A cold, wet Garand rifle in my hands.” The moment is reminiscent of the ending of Primo Levi’s memoir The Truce (1963), in which he writes about a recurrent dream that his post-war life was itself a dream, from which he wakes up still in Auschwitz.
“There is much about [the war] that I have never spoken about, and never will,” Hecht said later. Yezzi makes a strong case that unresolved trauma, combined with a native tendency to depression, helped make the two decades following the war unhappy ones for Hecht. Writing slowly and drinking heavily, he saw himself outpaced by contemporaries in the race for jobs and prizes. His first marriage, in 1954, was a recipe for disaster: the melancholy poet married a young fashion model named Patricia Harris, “a world-class beauty” with absolutely no interest in living as a faculty wife at remote Bard. The marriage collapsed in bitterness and infidelity, and Hecht was permanently separated from his two sons when Pat remarried and moved to Europe. He commemorated the experience in a satirical poem titled “The Man Who Married Magdalene”:
I will come to in Bellevue
And make psalms unto the Lord.
But verily I tell you
She hath her reward.
At the same time, Hecht benefited from the philanthropy lavished on American poets in the early Cold War—what Robert Lowell called, in an elegy for John Berryman, “our Fifties’ fellowships/ to Paris, Rome and Florence.” Between a self-financed trip in 1949, a Rome Prize in 1952, and a Guggenheim in 1954, Hecht developed an enduring love of Italy, where many of his poems are set, including the title poem of his 1979 collection The Venetian Vespers. In all of these ways—the drinking and dysfunction as well as the encouragement and opportunities—Hecht led what Lowell called, in the same elegy, “the generic [life] our generation offered.”
Indeed, in telling Hecht’s story, Late Romance conjures up a whole vanished literary culture, whose vices and virtues now feel equally out of fashion. Compared to Hecht’s generation, today’s poets are far less likely to drink, brawl, and cheat on their spouses, at least in public. They treat their mental illnesses with prescription medication, rather than having periodic nervous breakdowns and checking into psychiatric hospitals like Gracie Square, where Hecht spent three months in 1961.
The great turning point in Hecht’s life came in his forties, when instead of a midlife crisis he enjoyed the “late romance” of the book’s title. In 1968 The Hard Hours won the Pulitzer Prize, a gratifying vindication for a poet who had fallen behind his contemporaries. Then in 1971 Hecht met Helen D’Alessandro, or re-met her, as she had been his student at Smith College fifteen years earlier. For Hecht, Yezzi writes, it was “love at second sight”; the couple were acquainted in March, got married in June, and remained happy together until Hecht died in 2005.
Yezzi describes the relationship as having “a storybook, fated quality,” and while the stories couples tell about themselves are seldom the whole truth, it is clear that this second marriage brought Hecht a kind of domestic happiness he had never known before. In the poem “Peripeteia,” he describes this new life as
more deeply real,
Simply because of her hand, than any dream
Shakespeare or I or anyone ever dreamed.
Perhaps the best gauge of that happiness is that Yezzi spends some three hundred pages on Hecht’s first four decades, but needs just a hundred pages for his last three. Yezzi says that in his final months, after a lifetime of writing difficult poems on difficult subjects, Anthony Hecht “wished to acknowledge his gratitude for the good fortune that came to him after the traumas of his youth, the way that tragedy sometimes resolves unexpectedly as comedy.” As readers of poets’ biographies know, such happy endings are as rare as they are gratifying.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 42 Number 3, on page 61
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