'Collected Later Poems' by Anthony Hecht
Reviewed by Cynthia Haven
Sunday, November 23, 2003; Page BW12
COLLECTED LATER POEMS
By Anthony Hecht. Knopf. 231 pp. $25
Anthony Hecht has always been a bracing
antidote to the times. His work is formal and exacting in an era of the
slipshod. He has often favored long, narrative, contemplative blank
verse, written in third-person, at a time when self-indulgent,
self-revelatory lyrics -- with a big emphasis on the "I" -- are lauded.
As a counterweight to contemporary poetic fashion, he is
a true kinsman of Richard Wilbur, with whom he is frequently and too
breezily compared. But psychologically he stands at the opposite pole.
While Wilbur, in Randall Jarrell's memorable words, sees the "bright
underside of every dark thing," Hecht sees the darkness hemming our
words, our acts, our history. Years ago, he staked his poetic territory
in what he calls "a few snapshots from along the Via Negativa." In
Collected Later Poems, it's still his turf, as he continues writing
into his ninth decade.
A couple of photos from the road: In "Sacrifice,"
Abraham's offering of Isaac is counterpoised with a French family
during the Occupation -- a family risking the life of a son to keep a
bicycle from a German soldier. "The Book of Yolek" might be a companion
piece to Edgar Bowers's "In Defense of Poetry." Both revisit Aug. 5,
1942, when Polish writer-educator Janusz Korczak led 200 children in
his Jewish orphanage to their deaths under Nazi guard, thus choosing to
die with them. Hecht and Bowers were born a year apart and came of age
as soldiers on the European front (in fact, so did Wilbur).
But Hecht's experience was different. Hecht witnessed the
unprovoked slaughter of a group of German women and children. Hecht, a
Jew rescuing Jews, also participated in the liberation of Flossenberg,
the annex to Buchenwald where Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed.
Hecht documents his horrors in flat, metonymic,
unhysterical language -- as if he's in some sort of tug-of-war between
the language and its content, as if language were his hazmat suit for
dealing with atrocity. Czeslaw Milosz, also a witness to abominations,
wrote, "I haven't learned to speak as I should, calmly." Hecht has.
The via negativa, in the writings of Thomas Aquinas,
holds that because God is not an object in the universe, all terms and
concepts are limiting. Hence, God might be defined by what He is not --
"Beyond millions of deaths, loss and injustice,/ The derelict shacks,
the bare neglected farms. . . . "
Hecht's most frequently anthologized poem, included in
his Collected Earlier Poems, "More Light! More Light!" describes a Pole
who refuses orders to kill two Jews, and thus dies painfully, and
without meaning, after them. The title says it all -- "More Light! More
Light!," as if Hecht, quoting the dying Goethe's last words, craved it.
And when he does, Hecht oscillates away from emotional severity -- he
goes off the diet -- and gluts us with sensual language like this:
Etched on the window were barbarous thistles of frost,
Edged everywhere in that tame winter sunlight
With pavé diamonds and fine prickles of ice. . . .
(from "A Certain Slant")
Or this, on the "smoldering immolation of the year":
Leaf-strewn in scattered grandeur where it fell,
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