The third millenium has not so far been kind to that generation of American writers born in the 1920s, having taken from us, in short order, Anthony Hecht, Donald Justice and Guy Davenport. All three received important awards in their lifetimes, though none was blessed with the sort of sales and attention granted to more verbose and less astringent authors such as [supply your own candidates]. And yet one senses, if only in that astringency and verbal restraint, that none of them minded the relatively lowered profile of his career and its attendant opportunity to pursue his writing as he chose.
If Hecht had published only The Hard Hours (as, arguably, he should have), his body of work would still be notable and even daunting to younger poets eager to learn from their predecessors. The Hard Hours is that oddity, a collection of poems consistent enough, well-wrought enough, to merit continued individual existence even in the face of selected or collected editions. It belongs with an elite group of such books which serve a poet as well as, or better than, a selection from the longer career. Pound's Cathay, Stevens's Harmonium and Yeats's The Tower are obvious examples; more recent possibilities include Ginsburg's Howl, Louis Simpson's At the End of the Open Road, James Wright's The Branch Will Not Break and Jack Gilbert's The Great Fires. Of these other volumes, only The Tower shares with The Hard Hours an unquestionable link with the great tradition of verse in English, of a poet at the height of his skills employing the formal patterns of English verse to speak to the world in which he lives. The Hard Hours is a commentary not simply upon man's inhumanity to man, but also (if I may use the term) Fate's inhumanity to man. The spur for Hecht's hard vision seems to be the Holocaust and his experience of it as an American soldier partaking in the liberation of Europe, but the book does not limit itself to the Holocaust, casting backwards -- especially in the central poem "Rites and Ceremonies" -- to Christians' earlier mistreatment of Jews, other non-Christians and even dissident Christians as well as pointing in other poems to misfortune both small and large -- the miscarriage of a child, the Black Death, a widower's sorrow, the life of Oedipus, the demeaning manners in which men deal with women.
Hecht's extraordinary verbal fluidity marks the collection. The rhymed metrical stanzas of the best poems here virtually never resort to awkward syntax or obviously padded language and range easily from elevated, almost liturgical formality to conversational nonchalance. Almost any page of "Rites and Ceremonies" offers examples of both. It begins with a recitation which might easily be entoned in a church or synagogue and which deftly alternates longer and shorter lines while using an a-b-c rhyme pattern to eliminate any tendency toward singsong:
Father, adonoi, author of all things,
of the three states,
the soft light of the barn at dawn,
a wind that sings
in the bracken, fire in iron grates,
the ram's horn [. . . .]
Hecht's imaagery implies not simply Jewish and Christian beliefs, but also an acknowledgment of science (the three states of matter) and the inclusion of personal experience (the barn at dawn). And yet before this long stanza ends, Hecht admits to his (and our) religious doubts and suggests the Holocaust burden of this and other poems by translating "Emmanuel" (God with us) into German (Gott mit uns). He proceeds immediately from that translation into a sequence of octaves which eschew liturgy for the flow of conversation:
I saw it on their belts. A young one, dead,
Left there on purpose to get us used to the sight
When we first moved in. Helmet spilled off, head
Blond and boyish and bloody. I was scared that night.
And the sign was there,
The sign of the child, the grave, worhip and loss,
Gunpowder heavy as pollen in winter air,
An Iron Cross.
The rhymes of this stanza are so natural, and naturally placed, that they would vanish if the stanza were printed as a paragraph. And notice the breadth of Hecht's empathy: he doesn't move immediately into the concentration camps (that will come in the second octave), but pauses first over the dead young German soldier, deliberately left where he died, presumably by the Allied forces who had arrived earlier, since the purpose is to inure Hecht's group to the sight of death. He notes as well the "sign" the soldier is wearing, the sign of Hecht's own Christian faith. Is that boyish soldier guilty of the Holocaust? Undoubtedly, at some level; yet Death has been meted out to him too. And the reader will later recall that gunpowder "heavy as pollen" when he comes, several pages later, to "More Light! More Light!" and its linking of a Christian burned at the stake by other Christians to another instance of Holocaust atrocity, widened to include the Poles.
But Hecht is not simply a poet of suffering, nor is The Hard Hours a book of unrelenting horror. Indeed it begins with "A Hill", a stately, free-verse, and strikingly ordinary meditation of visions with a surprising, nearly comic ending, and includes powerful, profane and funny salutes to other writers in "The Dover Bitch" (Matthew Arnold) and "The Man Who Married Magdalene" (Louis Simpson). These homages are not without their pain, to be sure, but they highlight also the power of humor and even, in the latter, suggest that tensions between faiths can resolve themselves in comedy as well as tragedy.
No poet is flawless, and no book is perfect. But The Hard Hours comes as close as any volume of the past fifty years to that ideal -- the collection from which nothing needs to be excised.
(The Hard Hours [New York, 1967] can be tracked down at a good used book store or library, or read within Collected Earlier Poems [New York, 1990].)