Of the generation of American poets born in the 1920s, three are preeminent: Richard Wilbur (b. 1921), Anthony Hecht (b. 1923), and James Merrill (b. 1926). This judgment will, of course, be contested by those who are most excited by the high nonsense of a John Ashbery, the manic improvisations of an Allen Ginsberg, or the solemn proclamations of an Adrienne Rich. But for those admiring of “formal” verse—of meter, rhyme, and stanza—the trio named above (one of whom, Wilbur, is still alive and writing) are master practitioners. They were united in respecting their near-predecessors Elizabeth Bishop (b. 1911) and Robert Lowell (b. 1917), especially Bishop, about whom all three wrote essays. Going further back, Robert Frost and W. B. Yeats also figure for them as exemplars of the centrality of technique whose “modernism,” unlike that of Ezra Pound or T. S. Eliot, never abandoned poetry’s established forms.
Anthony Hecht, who is wonderfully restored to us by this expansive, finely edited volume of letters, was not only a marvelous poet but a man of letters whose productions show a marked range and authority. What is perhaps more remarkable is that his most fertile years, both as poet and critic, were his last 25—beginning with two volumes of poems published in the late 1970s, Millions of Strange Shadows and The Venetian Vespers. Between those books and his death in 2004, he brought out three further volumes of poems, along with two collections of literary essays, a group of Mellon lectures on the fine arts, and a substantial book on W. H. Auden. Until his retirement in 1993, he was an active teacher at the University of Rochester and at Georgetown. His onetime colleague at Rochester, Jonathan Post, has provided enough editorial commentary to the seven sections in which he has divided the letters so as to produce, in effect, a mini-biography. (As is the case with Wilbur and Merrill, a full biography of Hecht is under way.) Selected Letters also contains a generous number of photographs.
Hecht’s most creative period coincided, more or less, with his second marriage, to Helen D’Alessandro, who had been a student of his when he taught at Smith in the 1950s. Until then, his life was notable for its rough spots: He spoke of his childhood as a “rather bitter and lonely one,” although his letters home from summer camp as a teenager are full of high spirits; later, he wrote to a younger poet that summer camp had turned him into a confirmed reader.
At Bard, where he spent three years until being drafted in 1943, he majored in art, studied piano and voice, and wrote poems. The latter activity he called “a painful and laborious process,” and referred to his attempt at writing one of the most difficult of poetic forms, the sestina. He saw combat in the European theater, spent time after VJ Day serving in Japan, and would later be hospitalized twice for what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder, and for depression. The depression occurred upon the breakup of his first marriage, which produced two children but otherwise seems to have been a pretty grim affair.
The title of his first fully realized book of poems, The Hard Hours, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1968, feels in part like a look back at those years. Not that reading the letters from this time is a somber activity; the editor points out that there is a good deal of “mischievous fun” in them, although the fun must be understood often to include a deeply sardonic and unillusioned look at men and manners. “Please do not think that writing letters serves me as a watered-down version of therapy,” he warned his parents after they had congratulated him for what he called “spilling [my] guts to them.” But he did announce himself Hamlet-like, “a dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak[ing] like John a’dreams, unpregnant of my cause.”
He studied briefly with John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon after his discharge from the Army, and admits to having been “a product of the New Critics,” especially Ransom and Allen Tate. In 1951, he was appointed to be the first fellow in literature at Rome’s American Academy, a year in which he met Auden for a lengthy conversation in which Auden commented on some of Hecht’s poems. Auden told him that he had been unduly influenced by Ransom and Tate, and that his poems as a consequence were too “formal.” In a letter to his parents, Hecht agreed that the poems were “somewhat impersonal in tone, disengaged from the central emotions.” The criticism is certainly appropriate to his first published book of poetry, A Summoning of Stones (1954), which displayed a glittering surface, an elegance of diction and stanzaic pattern, but whose “emotions” were difficult to discern exactly.