I should have posted something about the death last month of Anthony Hecht [see this 2003 post]; he’s one of the poets who’s helped me through the past few decades, not only by his reliable craftsmanship (a rare trait these days, shared with the too-little-appreciated Richard Wilbur) but by his dogged investigation of the darker side of human behavior (prompted by what he saw during World War Two, including both heavy fighting and the liberation of a concentration camp). But I had problems of my own and couldn’t even begin to frame a post, so I let it go.

Now, reading the NY Times Sunday Book Review (this week a special Poetry Issue, though as my wife says most people will toss it out thinking it’s a particularly cheesy advertising supplement with its hideous yellow-and-red cover), I come across an appreciation by David Yezzi that does a better job than I would have done:

He internalized the prosodic traditions of English the way a virtuoso violinist works a complex sequence of rhythm and pitch into muscle memory. The rest is making music. Hecht played fluently in any key: the minor organ tones of his Jamesian ”Venetian Vespers,” the major-chord affirmations of the love poem ”Peripeteia,” the sober procession of his canzone ”Terms,” and ”The Dover Bitch,” his buffo sendup of Matthew Arnold: ”And he said to her, ‘Try to be true to me, / And I’ll do the same for you, for things are bad / All over, etc., etc.’ ”

Hecht’s sumptuous verse earned him a reputation for accomplished formalism, but that, I think, says more about the free-verse age in which he wrote than about his sterling achievement. He was a poet who, like Thomas Hardy, could capture in the image of a barren landscape the specters of history.

Hecht’s poems often layer biblical and classical themes over modern or even quotidian concerns, creating rich palimpsests at once immediate and broad-reaching in their implications. The binding of Isaac, for instance, becomes a resonant image in Hecht’s war poetry. His keen dramas—a family held by a soldier at gunpoint, a tourist ripped off in Naples, a miscarriage—and his various personae reflect a poet attempting, as Hecht once said, to disguise himself. Yet the poet’s impersonality never dulls emotion; it tempers it to heartbreaking effect…

Towards the end, Yezzi quotes Hecht’s ”Sarabande on Attaining the Age of Seventy-seven”:

The dramatis personae of our lives
Dwindle and wizen; familiar boyhood shames,
The tribulations one somehow survives,
Rise smokily from propitiatory flames
Of our forgetfulness until we find
It becomes strangely easy to forgive
Even ourselves with this clouding of the mind,
This cinerous blur and smudge in which we live.

I was struck by the word cinerous: it clearly had something to do with ashes (Latin cinis, root ciner-), but what exactly did it mean? It’s not in the OED, surprisingly, but Webster’s Third International has it: ‘a light bluish gray to light gray that is redder and darker than skimmed-milk white and very slightly redder than glaucous gray.’ I’m sure that presents an exact image to someone familiar with color nomenclature, but for me it reduces to a blend of ‘off-white’ and ‘light gray,’ which I hope is good enough for Hecht’s purposes. What caught my attention, though, was the entry a few lines above: cinereous ‘gray tinged or shaded with black.’ Now, I love the variety and depth of the English vocabulary, but this seemed excessive; who could possibly keep those two words apart, one meaning gray verging on white and the other gray tinged with black? To make matters worse, there’s an alternate form cinereal defined as ‘cinereous.’ (I might add that the OED does have cinereous, defined as ‘Of an ashy hue, ash-coloured, ashen-gray’—but what color are these ashes?) And to make matters worse, Aegypius monachus is known in English as both cinereous vulture and cinerous vulture. Sometimes it’s all just too much, and nothing but poetry helps.

Incidentally, this may be my last post until Sunday; my laptop died and I’m leaving for Thanksgiving with the inlaws right after lunch. I wish a happy holiday to those of my readers who celebrate it, and may the cinerous blur and smudge in which we live spare all of us any unnecessary grief.


  1. Thank you, LH – another terrific author for my long reading list.
    As to your melancholy wish – I hope brisk November air and country skies will clear the blur and that ugly smudge, too.
    {The color: grossly simplifying, imagine that “salt and pepper” – or, better, a Weimaraner – see, it could be beautiful)
    I wish you could dine at my table on Thursday – I’m doing some “creative cooking” – cornish hens with pomegranates, persimmons and cranberry – last Thanksgiving in my old house.
    Autumn is so energizing!

  2. ben wolfson says

    The ashes of paper frequently have a bluish tinge–not really light grey or off-white, it’s different.

  3. Tatyana: Thanks for the Weimaraners; they do make a nice image to go with the word! (I once met several of Wegman’s Weimaraners, a real highlight of my time in NYC.) And I wish I could share your meal — it sounds fantastic. (I think Cornish hens are much more interesting than turkey, though I enjoy turkey once a year.)
    Ben: That’s my problem with “ash-colored” — ashes are all sorts of colors.

  4. A couple of decades later, William Logan has a useful review-essay in the LRB (21 March 2024; archived) that separates out his good and bad qualities in a convincing way:

    His second collection, The Hard Hours, was not published until 1967, and signalled a striking change in tone and temperament. The poems were written against the backdrop of the war and lean towards the grotesque. Hecht remained classicism’s classicist, characters from Greek and biblical mythology rushing on stage as if waiting in the wings; but the subjects are sometimes more modern, more fraught. There’s little poise left in them: the emperor Valerian is flayed alive; a father realises he could not have saved his children from the camps; an alcoholic suffers a psychotic break. (At the end of his first marriage, Hecht was hospitalised for depression and dosed with the antipsychotic Thorazine.) The book includes Hecht’s most frequently anthologised poem, ‘The Dover Bitch’, a music-hall turn on Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’. There were also poems that held private, darker meanings, especially ‘More Light! More Light!’, about a savage incident at Buchenwald. The Hard Hours won the Pulitzer Prize.

    Hecht indulged in such dark appetites less frequently in his subsequent books. The arch style of his later poems, beginning with Millions of Strange Shadows (1977), often overwhelms their subjects or makes them merely the occasion for Hecht’s expert flaunting of language and style. He could scarcely contemplate a poem, it seems, without measuring the doors and windows for the advent of a Greek god. He was erudite past the normal boundaries of erudition. There’s a niggling suspicion, reading his work, that he was always trying to prove himself to himself.

    Hecht’s poetry rejects the lure of the personal. He erected a barbed-wire fence between himself and the common reader, like a man planting ‘Danger’ signs around a minefield. One of his most cynical poems, ‘The Cost’, begins with a couple riding a Vespa around the base of Trajan’s column […] The poem ends stanzas later in magnificent, despairing fashion:

        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?

    Almost two decades after the poem was published, during a dinner party, Hecht’s best friend, William MacDonald, mentioned that the Dacian wars had lasted only two or three years, not fifteen. Hecht was shocked, and spent the entire night searching for his source, only to find it completely mistaken. He was angry with himself but furious that MacDonald had never mentioned the lapse. A terrible phone conversation followed the next day. Although Hecht later tried to mend the breach, the friendship of decades was over. His brittleness made him unable to laugh at the sort of mistake many poets have made, most famously Keats in ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’, where he gave Cortez, not Balboa, credit for discovering the Pacific. Nothing in Hecht’s poems reveals so well what, however artfully concealed, lay beneath the surface of his work: guilt, self-loathing, pettiness. […]

    In Hecht beauty can rarely be enjoyed for its own sake, because beneath beauty horror often lurks. He was a poet so pursued by the past that even access to the splendours of the world could not soothe, knowledge of good never drive out the terrors of existence. When those ‘ancestral deputations’ draw near, ‘some sentry flings a slight,/Prescriptive, “Who goes there?”’ He has been transported back to the war. Hecht had been wounded by prejudice, even on the part of friends, and was only gradually able, he admitted, to ‘shed my shame at being Jewish’.

    Hecht’s formality was not always a good or sufficient gift. In ‘Poem Upon the Lisbon Disaster’, an artful translation from Voltaire, the pentameter couplets are balanced in fine Augustan fashion; but they read like second-hand Pope. Hecht imitating Pope is never as good as Pope imitating Pope […]

    In Hecht’s following books, The Venetian Vespers (1979), The Transparent Man (1990) and Flight among the Tombs (1996), the poems can be divided into those you wish were longer and those you wish much shorter. In the weaker work, slightly strained personae come calling like unwanted guests. Poems in his long-winded mode include ‘The Short End’, some four hundred lines on a marriage gone wrong, as Hecht’s first marriage had; ‘See Naples and Die’, five hundred lines in which another marriage comes to grief; and ‘The Venetian Vespers’, nine hundred where a man looks back ruefully on his life. Something goes dead in Hecht’s long poems; there’s a lack of tension, so that his humdrum people fail to stand for something more.

    He was to the end a formal poet, thriving on the heartbeat of metre and little deaths of rhyme. Hecht stands with the strongest formal poets of his generation, Richard Wilbur and James Merrill, who accepted Auden’s legacy and for the most part worked ravishingly within the boundaries it set. […]

    There’s a tendency to reduce Hecht’s poems to the showstoppers and ignore the fine work he did on a more modest scale, however spoiled by archness or preciousness. If the stolid poems of his maturity were sometimes chiselled from inferior marble, his leering classical gods and biblical patriarchs looking down with a thousand-yard stare, the same poet wrote ‘The End of the Weekend’, ‘Behold the Lilies of the Field’, ‘The Man Who Married Magdalene’, ‘More Light! More Light!’, ‘The Deodand’, ‘An Overview’ and ‘Proust on Skates’, some of the most brilliant poems of the past sixty years, poems so full of ghosts they ensure that Hecht will always haunt us.

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