The Selected Letters of Anthony Hecht edited by Jonathan F.S. Post

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Selected Letters of Anthony Hecht

Edited by Jonathan F.S. Post
Johns Hopkins University Press

Reading a writer’s correspondence over the course of a lifetime is like watching home movies filmed over many years. We see the person in the present moment without the benefit of hindsight or the reframing that often accompanies knowing how things turn out. Here’s an excerpt from a playful letter a twenty-three-year-old Anthony Hecht sent to his parents while stationed in Japan during World War II.

As I recall, Milton wrote a sonnet upon becoming twenty-three years old. Not only did he write a sonnet, but the damned thing has become immortal. Besides this, he’d written plenty of immortal stuff before he ever became twenty-three. . . . Yet I, a dull and muddy-mettled rascal, . . . can write nothing.

Along with his frustration at having writer’s block, we see the seeds of Hecht’s ambition, in comparing himself to Milton, and an intellectual interest that would later define the man who became one of the preeminent poets of the second half of the twentieth century.

With the release of The Selected Letters of Anthony Hecht, Johns Hopkins University Press provides a glimpse into the development of this major poet. The book offers letters written over a span of almost seventy years, from 1935 to 2004. Beginning with twelve-year-old Hecht’s exuberant letters from summer camp, the collection continues through his years in the army and encompasses his long, accomplished career as an academic, poet, and critic. The book concludes with some deeply introspective letters written near the end of his life.

Early in the book is a collection of letters written during World War II, while Hecht was stationed on the front lines. He took part in the final campaign by the Allied powers against German forces on the European front. From there he was shipped to Japan for the end of the war and the chaotic and difficult postwar period. The letters are personal and filled with details of the places and people from his frequently changing locations. They also express the extreme boredom and depression that come from living in conditions over which one has little control. The references to the war are only hints: “The exigencies of combat have made writing impossible for the last few days.” Still we know from his poetry that the war left a deep, lasting impression.

The letters after the war trace Hecht’s significant growth as poet and critic. We see a man thoroughly immersed in the subject and world of poetry. The letters demonstrate the richness of his thinking, much of it delivered with a great amount of grace and wit. An example is this delightful response to poet Sherod Santos, in which he reflects on the relationship poets have with criticism of their work:

The attitudes of most poets, I would imagine, must oscillate between feeling that a number of their best effects have gone unnoticed, and feeling that they have been too generously dealt with. Usually far more of the former than the latter. It is a common hope that posterity, which Emerson called bribeless, beyond entreaty, and not to be over-awed, will come to see what once was missed. I have known some particularly bad poets who have survived on the thin gruel of this hope.

Students of Hecht’s poems will enjoy the frequent insights into his work. For example, he cleared up a question I had about his poem “More Light! More Light!” Although the title is an obvious reference to what are purported to be Goethe’s last words, the poem provides no clue to why that reference was made. In a letter to editor William Read, Hecht explains that Goethe is seen as a primary representative of the German Enlightenment. The use of Goethe’s words in the title was an ironic response to the Nazi soldiers for their cruel and barbaric act of having prisoners bury other prisoners alive.

Reading a collection of letters like this allows one to experience the social world and the network of connections that locate the author. Hecht’s letters follow his developing friendships with many of the most prominent writers of the time: James Merrill, Harold Bloom, Joseph Brodsky, Allen Tate, Richard Wilbur, John Hollander, Edward Hirsch, Anne Sexton, Karl Shapiro, and Donald Hall, among others.

The letters also uncover his significant personal struggles outside the literary world, slowly revealing details of the difficult marriage to his first wife and the emotionally wrenching divorce that ultimately led to a three-month stay in Gracie Square, a psychiatric hospital in New York. The letters from this time include some surprisingly intimate and flirtatious missives to the poet Anne Sexton after Hecht’s divorce.

Most letters have been excerpted by editor Jonathan F. S. Post—at times frustratingly so. Occasionally a letter breaks before it seems that Hecht’s train of thought is complete. However, given how tedious some collections of unedited correspondence can be, we have to assume that Post made cuts in the service of keeping the collection engaging. He does leave in some of the controversial remarks that Hecht referred to as “just the sort of thing that, judiciously edited, could make for a scandalously successful book.” Among them are these tidbits:

[Ezra Pound] I find myself becoming increasingly impatient with anti-semites, and my impatience increases if, at the same time, they regard themselves as infallible prophets.

[Anne Sexton] I was never very comfortable about the way Anne Sexton exploited her hospitalizations and periods of dementia.

[Carolyn Forché] I do not much care for the engagé poems of Carolyn Forché. Poetry should not put itself in the position of trying to compete with headlines.

[Robert Bly] When a Bly review turns up I normally read it since I can count upon a number of splendid imbecilities that keep me humming contentedly to myself for days on end. . . . In his own odd way he was very nearly a reliable critic; which is to say, I could be almost certain of liking any book with which he found vigorous fault.

[Maxine Kumin] Kumin’s essay, rank with self-pity, allows her to pretend she knows something about prosody.

[Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath] A book that is nearly repellent in its narcissistic self-absorption . . .

Along with his considerable intelligence and wit, the letters unveil some unflattering aspects of Hecht’s personality. In one letter he harshly criticizes the contributors to an anthology and realizes that they are almost exclusively women. He says, “I began to think I was, as I have long been accused of being, a misogynist, male-chauvinist pig.” In another letter he disparagingly refers to those who might disagree with him as belonging to a group of “embattled feminists” and others as part of “a lesbian splinter-group.” One can understand the reason he has been so accused. Post is to be applauded for keeping these comments in. Their inclusion makes for a truer portrait of the man who wrote these letters.

The last section of the book covers the period from 1993, when Hecht retired from teaching, to two months before his death in 2004. The letters continue to exhibit a man vigorously involved in the world of literature and ideas. They are also tinged with a sense of his mortality, as when he wrote to writer and critic Francine du Plessix Gray:

It seems to me as I approach my seventh-eighth year that I have been acquainted with death from very early in my life; and by acquainted I mean intimately acquainted. I no longer have much fear as regards my own death, though I dread the possibility of preliminary pains that may precede it. I am much more distressed by the thought of the misery my death will give to family. . . . No doubt after a certain age, the ambitions that sustain us in youth cease to play any role in our lives, and we have to fall back upon love. And when that is gone, we are truly bereft.

In the penultimate letter, in which he responds to scholar and friend William Prichard, Hecht makes a blunt revelation: “I’ve been diagnosed with cancer.” He briefly mentions his chemotherapy treatments but then, always in the service of literature, brings the discussion back to his poetry: “I mention this partly to explain something about a poem of mine I enclose.”

Aside from the literary light it sheds on his work and the work of others, Hecht’s correspondence is engaging and fun to read. Written to a wide range of people in a variety of situations, the letters are consistently warm, thoughtful, and witty. The attraction of a collection like this is the insight it provides into a major writer’s life and work, values and beliefs. To these purposes, The Selected Letters of Anthony Hecht delivers quite admirably. While they reveal his flaws, they also show a man who was strongly connected to his family, generous to colleagues and young writers, and deeply involved in the literary discussions of the day. This extensive collection of letters offers satisfying insights into the life and times of one of the major literary figures of the last century.