One of my favorite modern poets is Anthony Hecht, an unprolific formalist with a bleak outlook on life whose verse goes down like good strong black coffee. The NY Times has a piece on him today that explains something of his bleakness; after the usual unhappy childhood Hecht was
a 20-year-old Jewish soldier in the 97th Infantry Division and arriving one day at the Flossenburg camp in Germany, where the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed for treason. What Mr. Hecht saw horrified him: starving prisoners, dying at a rate of 500 a day from typhus. He had a smattering of German and French and was assigned to translate the prisoners’ accounts of the atrocities and the responses of their German guards, who had been captured. For years after, Mr. Hecht dreamed about the camp, waking up screaming…
More important than the biography, of course, is the work.
He is a poet’s poet, a composer of what the poet and novelist Nicholas Christopher, a former student, calls symphonic verse, of dazzling surfaces and profound rhythms. “Reading his work is like hearing really powerful music,” Mr. Christopher says, “Tchaikovsky or Stravinsky.”
Still, over the years Mr. Hecht has been criticized for being ornate, obscure, old-fashioned. “At times he’s been unpopular,” says J. D. McClatchy, the poet and editor of The Yale Review. “He’s not beating drums like Ginsberg. He’s not detached like Wilbur, or confessional like Lowell. He went his own way. At the end he may last longer.”
The library where Mr. Hecht sits is an expression of the man and the work — serene, with fluted pilasters and a frieze around the ceiling with lines from his “Death the Poet,” written in gold leaf:
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.
And now they sleep in dust.
The Latin is a variant of a line from (not surprisingly) the Book of Job: “ecce nunc in pulvere dormiam et si mane me quaesieris non subsistam.” Job 7.21 (Behold now, I shall sleep in the dust: and if thou seek me in the morning, I shall not be.)
Several poems are online here, here, here, and here.