The Selected Letters of Anthony Hecht edited and with an introduction by Jonathan F.S. Post. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 365 pp., $35.00.
Unless he is John Keats, a poet’s letters seldom stand alone as literature. They might hold our attention as gossip (Lord Byron), psychiatric case study (Robert Lowell) or the after-hours thoughts of a combative poet-critic (Yvor Winters), but few could be pleasurably read without the additional scaffolding provided by the poetry. Even Marianne Moore, one of the last century’s great poets, was on most occasions a rather business-like writer of letters. In contrast, a reader unfamiliar with Keats’ verse can find his letters immensely readable with only occasional reference to the poems.
This prompts a question: What makes a good letter? How does it transcend its immediate context and purpose? What gives it the readability of a first-rate poem or essay? No formula is comprehensive, but wit surely plays a part (think of Flannery O’Connor’s letters), the unguarded humor of the moment. So too, the mingled impression of spontaneity, like good conversation in prose, with the care and polish of a seasoned writer. Perhaps the most important ingredient is revelation of character, the writer’s willingness to reveal, inadvertently or otherwise, some truth about himself. This should not be confused with confession, a contented reveling in one’s sins and misfortunes. The best letters, like the best poems, are simultaneously personal and not.
On the spectrum of letter-writing readability, Anthony Hecht (1923-2004) combines elements of Keats and Moore. He is never less than charmingly fluent, even in the letters he writes home from summer camp as a boy. In 1935, age twelve, in the first letter included in Selected Letters, Hecht writes from Camp Kennebec in Maine: “Mike and Meyer [a comedy skit] went over with a bang and Alan acted as Mike. I am learning to swim and as I am a freshman the boys are pouncing on me. I wanted to tell you that it has been raining here for two days and it is necessary to wear boots.” Already we hear the gift for comic timing in the future author of “The Dover Bitch” and “The Ghost in the Martini.”
For his themes, Hecht returns obsessively to death, barbarism and the human propensity for evil, while remaining a model of poise, technical elegance and erudition—a quality that frustrates readers and critics who subscribe to the imitative fallacy. Horror for Hecht was never an abstraction. He was a student at Bard College at the start of World War II. Expecting to be drafted, he enlisted in the Reserve Corps of the Army in November 1942. Hecht witnessed death in combat as an infantryman in Europe, and as a member of the 97th division he helped liberate the death camp at Flossenbürg. Two weeks earlier, on April 9, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer had been hanged there. Hecht was assigned to interview surviving French prisoners, and decades later he told an interviewer: “The place, the suffering, the prisoners’ accounts were beyond comprehension. For years after I would wake shrieking.” Jonathan F.S. Post, the editor of Selected Letters, includes more than twenty letters written while Hecht was on active duty, but all are silent on the subject of the atrocities he witnessed. Post says “an element of official wartime censorship is operating,” but one suspects Hecht found his experiences defied language. Only decades later, in poems and interviews, could he articulate the shrieking.
Hecht as a letter writer is often at his best with confident, off-the-cuff assessments of writers, their lives and works. Of W.H. Auden: “He is the only man I have ever known who went to the same contorted pains to conceal his kindnesses from public notice the way most of us conceal our vices.” Of John Donne’s poems: “[they] shift direction, change mood, alter as a voice alters in the course of speech.” Of Adrienne Rich: “shrill, politicized, and narrow.” Of the descriptive passages in William Maxwell’s novel Time Will Darken It: “They are some of the most beautiful passages of their sort I knew, reminding me of Flaubert and Chekhov.”
By far the most interesting and valuable letters are those in which Hecht writes at length about his own poems, usually to trusted fellow poets or critics. His greatest poem was probably “Green: An Epistle,” a 151-line dramatic monologue written in 1970, published the following year in The New Yorker, and collected in Millions of Strange Shadows (1977). Hecht seemed to sense its greatness and was puzzled by it. Its theme, the human gift for self-deception, is a recurrent one in his work. While writing the poem, Hecht sent a draft to his friend the poet L.E. Sissman. In a letter dated Aug. 14, 1970, Hecht says he is “still too close to the poem and therefore not quite reliable about what’s in it.” He glosses the metaphors drawn from the theory of evolution, suggests some of the poem’s origins in his own life, and concludes:
There is, however, a sense of universal human corruption that is intended to embrace the reader along with everyone else. How can we recognize evil if we are untainted with it ourselves? Who is not tainted with it; and who, in the end, can be a reliable witness?
“Witness” shows up frequently in Hecht’s work. In a late poem titled “Witness,” he observes that the sea “Has infinite reserves; at each attack / The impassive cliffs look down in gray disdain / At scenes of sacrifice, unrelieved pain, / Figured in froth, aquamarine and black.” The rhymed pairing of “disdain” and “sacrifice, unrelieved pain” is characteristic of Hecht. Seventeen years after the letter to Sissman, Hecht writes again about “Green” to another friend, the poetry editor Harry Ford:
It is more precisely about the familiar modes of self-deception that almost everyone employs. It is therefore about illusion or delusions, and it consequently borrows the allegorical myth of Plato’s cave, transformed into a modern movie theater.
In Hecht’s poems, the impersonal is always informed by the personal, but seldom in a banally autobiographical manner. When we encounter coolness, suspect an underlying warmth. His narrators are notoriously tricky and multi-layered, a cunning series of Chinese boxes-within-boxes, never one-dimensional stand-ins for the author, even when, as in the concluding line of “Green: An Epistle,” he speaks of “Writing this very poem—about me.”
In the collection’s final letter, written to Eleanor Cook in August 2004, two months before his death, Hecht coolly informs the literary scholar that he has some “distressing news”—he has been diagnosed with cancer—but in the meantime he’s putting together an essay to be titled “De Gustibus.” It will, he says, “concern how deeply personal, quirky and often irrational, are our judgments of taste, about which we are sometimes very defensive, and about which we sometimes feel vulnerable, residing as these judgments do in some highly private inwardness, deeply severed from what we normally think of as our faculty of judgment.”
The letters serve to send us back to Hecht’s best poems—“Rites and Ceremonies,” “The Venetian Vespers” and “The Book of Yolek” among them—with a new understanding of their “highly private inwardness.”
Patrick Kurp is a writer living in Houston, Texas, and the author of the literary blog Anecdotal Evidence.
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