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Ancient Pain

A new biography of Anthony Hecht is a study of discipline in art, life, and civilization.

Trajan's Column, Ancient Rome Historic Center, Rome, Italy
(Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Late Romance: Anthony Hecht, a Poet’s Life by David Yezzi

Donald Fagen, the lead singer of Steely Dan, tells a story about the poet Anthony Hecht that does not appear in David Yezzi’s new biography. In 1966, “my formerly tweedy, graying poetry professor, Anthony Hecht,” returned for the fall semester at Bard College “in gray-and-white-striped Uncle Sam bell-bottoms, a bright paisley shirt, a suede vest and Beatle boots.” Hecht had apparently spent the summer in Haight-Ashbury. He soon reverted to his usual tweed, but it inspired Fagen to go see San Francisco for himself.

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Hecht’s influence on the lyrics of Steely Dan may be his most widely appreciated legacy today, given how few Americans read poetry anymore. The influence is obvious. Hecht was a formalist with a wry sense of humor. His poems are disciplined, articulate, and clever, always anchored to a moment, a place, and specific characters. “Kid Charlemagne,” the song that came out of Fagen’s own trip to San Francisco, has lines Hecht could have written.

Anthony Hecht was born in New York City in 1923 to a prosperous German-Jewish family. His fame as a writer, which earned him the poet laureateship in 1982, rests most of all on his poems about the Second World War. He served as an infantryman in the European theater and helped to liberate the Flossenbürg concentration camp. Because he spoke French and German, he was tasked with interviewing survivors, an experience that left him traumatized. Hecht belonged to the class of highly cultured German Jews for whom the atrocities of the Nazis were not only a shock but a betrayal. He titled his most celebrated camp poem “‘More Light! More Light!’” after the last words of Goethe, contrasting the sage of Weimar with the SS man’s Lüger and riding boot. 

Hecht’s formalism grew out of his difficult childhood. His parents loathed each other, restrainedly. His father was high-strung and ineffectual, his mother domineering and resentful of her husband’s weakness. Their seething hatred erupted into view only occasionally, such as when his father came home with bandaged wrists from a suicide attempt, or when young Anthony was hauled home from college because the family psychiatrist believed his father, missing for days, might be planning to kidnap him. Otherwise this emotional turmoil stayed hidden under layers of middle-class propriety. 

When teenage Hecht announced he wanted to be a poet, his parents brought in family friend Theodore Geisel (better known as Dr. Seuss) to sound out whether he was serious. Celebrities make many cameo appearances in Yezzi’s book. Jack Kerouac was Hecht’s high school friend. His rival for the affections of his first serious girlfriend was Marlon Brando, whom he described in a letter at the time as “a hulking sort of guy, with a Charles Atlas torso.” Chevy Chase was his student at Bard. “I had no idea he had been through so much,” Chase recalls. “I wouldn’t have known about it unless he told me. ... He was a very funny combination of proper and improper.”

Hecht was recently divorced when Chase knew him, which may also explain his Haight-Ashbury interlude. Patricia Harris was a model whom Hecht had met when she was 19 and he was 30. They were married for five years with two children before she left him in 1960. She spent the first year after their divorce living in New York and running in the social circles of the Kennedy campaign. Friends assumed she was one of the president’s mistresses. Her son Adam recalls coming across “the clipping of an article that appeared then, with a photo of Pat, wondering in essence, Who is this blonde running around the White House?

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From the vantage of 1965, it must have seemed to Hecht that he was one of those people fated never to be happy, like his parents. His marriage to Pat had been misery after misery, as were his love affairs following their breakup with, among others, Anne Sexton and the New Yorker writer Natacha Ullmann (the subject of the poems “Message from the City” and “A Letter”), both of whom were married. His poems from this period are dark. “The Vow” describes a miscarriage Pat suffered:

In the third month, a sudden flow of blood.
The mirth of tabrets ceaseth, and the joy
Also of the harp. The frail image of God
Lay spilled and formless. Neither girl nor boy,
But yet blood of my blood, nearly my child.
All that long day
Her pale face turned to the window’s mild
Featureless gray.

It concludes:

If that ghost was a girl’s, I swear to it:
Your mother shall be far more blessed than you.
And if a boy’s, I swear: The flames are lit
That shall refine us; they shall not destroy
A living hair.
Your younger brothers shall confirm in joy
That this I swear.

Then, like a burst of light, came his second wife. Helen D’Alessandro had been Hecht’s student in freshman English at Smith College in the late 1950s, but it was in 1971 that they fell in love after running into each other at a dinner in New York. They married three months later and stayed together until Hecht’s death in 2005. Helen Hecht, still alive, was clearly Yezzi’s biggest helper in this authorized biography, giving him documents and putting him in touch with sources, so his account may be biased in her favor; even accounting for that, his picture of decades of domestic bliss rings true.

Happy years may leave no trace in history, but the same is not true of poetry. Hecht did his best work living with Helen and their son Evan. His book Millions of Strange Shadows (1977), which is dedicated to “Helen, of whom I have / Receiv’d a second life,” opens with “The Cost,” perhaps his finest poem. It describes a young Italian couple on a Vespa passing by Trajan’s column, unaware of the events commemorated on it:

And why should they take thought
Of all that ancient pain,
The Danube winters, the nameless young who fought,
The blood’s uncertain lease?
Or remember that that fifteen-year campaign
Won seven years of peace?

Hecht was not always so serious. The same collection contains the comic poem “The Ghost in the Martini” about a famous poet picking up a 20-year-old fan at a cocktail party. He plays the scene for laughs even though the girl’s wide-eyed flattery and their age disparity resemble his meet-cute with Helen. The seduction is interrupted by the ghost of the title, the poet’s past self, who reminds him of the lonely years on which his fame rests:

Bloody monastic it was.
A neurotic mixture of self-denial and fear;
The verse halting, the cataleptic pause,
No sensible pain, no tear,

But an interior drip
As from an ulcer, where, in the humid deep
Center of myself, I would scratch and grip
The wet walls of the keep . . . 

In that thick, fetid air
I talked to myself in giddy recitative:
I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live

Unto the world . . .’  I learned
Little, and was awarded no degrees.
Yet all that sunken hideousness earned
Your negligence and ease.

“I once read ‘The Ghost in the Martini’ to an audience in England which included W.H. Auden,” Hecht told an interviewer, “who, after the reading was over, said he was surprised I could get that drunk on one martini.”

In a way, these two poems are about the same subject: whether the price we pay for happiness is proportionate to the benefit. Every good thing in life—an empire’s peace, a happy marriage, a beautiful poem—is achieved only through years of training in self-discipline. There is no way of knowing in advance whether what we sacrifice in cultivating self-mastery will have any reward, much less a reward that makes up for what we have lost. But unless we are willing to forgo civilized pleasures entirely, we have no choice. Formalism was Hecht’s subject as well as his method.

“The Ghost in the Martini” ends with the poet dismissing the ghost and turning back to the girl: “I touch her elbow and, leaning toward her ear, / Tell her to find her purse.” One can get some idea of the vast gulf between Anthony Hecht’s more cultured era and our own by comparing that poem to the successor work produced by his worthy student Donald Fagen, “Hey Nineteen.”