Poetic Words: Anthony Hecht

Screen Shot 2013-08-25 at 7.13.11 AMReading a lot of the American poet Anthony Hecht, prompted by a long and engrossing piece on his recently published letters by Colm Tóibín in the LRB, and also an upcoming poetry book group at our neighborhood bookstore, Politics and Prose.

Tóibín puts Hecht in the genealogy of war poets (unlike Jarrell, he saw action in WWII and was deeply affected by it.)

From the review

Of the many things Jarrell said about the war, the one that seems most true came at the end of his review of Marianne Moore. ‘The real war poets are always war poets, peace or any time.’ This remark applies more perhaps to Anthony Hecht, who was born in 1923 and had published no poems before he went to war, than it does to anyone else. Hecht studied at Bard College then served in the US Army from 1943 to 1946. He saw action in Germany and Czechoslovakia in 1945 and was later stationed in Japan. After the war he studied at Kenyon College with John Crowe Ransom and William Empson (Jarrell had earlier been on the faculty; Lowell had been a student there), and in New York with Allen Tate. In the early 1950s he lived in Italy, where he became friends with Auden; later he taught at Bard College, Smith College, the University of Rochester and Georgetown. His first book of poems, A Summoning of Stones, was published in 1954. In 1968 he won the Pulitzer for his next volume, The Hard Hours. His Collected Earlier Poems were published in 1990; his Collected Later Poems came out in 2003, a year before his death.

Here is Hecht’s “Death the Poet: A Ballade-Lament for the Makers,” a poem that does not, for me at least, fit into a war poetry tradition. Belongs instead to the long list of old poets’ looking back–“laments for makers” being an idea that goes back centuries in poetry. Hecht himself notes John Skelton. The collection it’s in, Flight Among the Tombs, also has a wonderful poem mourning James Merrill.

Death The Poet
A Ballade-Lament for the Makers

Where have they gone, the lordly makers,
Torchlight and fire-folk of our skies,
Those grand authorial earthshakers
Who brought such gladness to the eyes
Of the knowing and unworldly-wise
In damasked language long ago?
Call them and nobody replies.
Et nunc in pulvere dormio.

The softly-spoken verbal Quakers
Who made no fuss and told no lies;
Baroque and intricate risk-takers,
Full of elliptical surprise
From Mother Goose to Paradise
Lost and Regained, where did they go?
This living hand indites, and dies,
Et nunc in pulvere dormio.

Old Masters, thunderous as the breakers
Tennyson’s eloquence defies,
Beneath uncultivated acres
Our great original, Shakespeare, lies
With Grub Street hacks he would despise,
Quelled by the common ratio
That cuts all scribblers down to size,
Et nunc in pulvere dormio.

Archduke of Darkness, who supplies
The deadline governing joy and woe,
Here I put off my flesh disguise
Et nunc in pulvere dormio.

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