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The Life of a Poet

A Conversation with Anthony Hecht

HUMANITIES, March/April 2004 | Volume 25, Number 2

NEH Chairman Bruce Cole spoke recently with Anthony Hecht about the writing of poetry and the relationship between poetry and art. Hecht has published seven volumes of poetry, among them The Hard Hours, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1968. He is chancellor emeritus of the Academy of American Poets.

Bruce Cole: Let’s begin at the beginning. How did you start out to be a poet?

Anthony Hecht: When I was a college freshman, I had fallen in love with poetry--the poetry of others, to be sure, not my own. When I came home for a holiday weekend and announced with foolish bravura to my parents that that’s what I wanted to do, their silence was more appalling than any kind of recrimination.

My father was a businessman and I expected to be told how stupid this was as a mode of life. But he didn’t say anything. Nor did my mother. I knew immediately that this represented the absolute epitome of disapproval. The next time I came home they had called in allies. The allies were, of all people, Dr. Seuss, who was a close family friend, and his wife--Ted Geisel and his wife Helen.

Nothing leading was said at any point during the course of the dinner conversation, but after the dinner was over, Ted walked in to the living room with me and put his arm on my shoulders and said, “Tell me what it is that you think you want to do with your life.” I knew immediately that this was a setup, that my parents were in up to their eyeballs. I saw no way of seeking some devious way out of it, so I simply confessed that I wanted to be a poet. Ted said, “I think that’s a wonderful ambition. Let me tell you what I think you should do first. I think you should read The Life of Joseph Pulitzer.”

Now I knew nothing whatever about Pulitzer at that point, except that he was a newspaperman, and I couldn’t see what relevance that had to poetry. Some deep intuition in me told me that this would probably be one of the most discouraging books I could read, so I decided then and there never to read it, and I never have. And that’s how I became a poet.

Cole: Does one prepare for that step?

Hecht: One prepares by reading as much poetry as one can and reading it with attention and appreciation. Every time you read a really good poem, you learn something from it. That’s a wonderful kind of education because you don’t have to rely purely on the living instructors that you have in the classroom, but on all the great dead writers.

Cole: Did you learn about poetry in the classroom?

Hecht: I kept learning about poetry not with the intention of becoming a poet, but just by being a literature student and learning more and more that way. The first poets I admired, apart from my contemporaries, were people like John Donne and George Herbert, the metaphysical poets. I found them enormously rewarding. At the same time I was reading them, I was also reading T. S. Eliot and Robert Frost and other modern poets.

Cole: You must read a lot of prose as well. Do you see any kind of pattern of reading? Have your tastes in poets and authors of prose changed?

Hecht: Sure. The prose I read that bore upon poetry were critical studies and the works of critics like Edmund Wilson or R. P. Blackmur or Eliot or Tate or Pound. I found these were helpful. They guided me and probably had something to do with forming my tastes.

But one reads widely in all sorts of ways. For example, when I’d read a great deal of Shakespeare, I was able to see that in Moby-Dick Melville was strongly influenced by all kinds of Shakespearean idioms, by cadences, by actual images that he borrowed from the tragedies. One can’t really read Moby-Dick without fully savoring the Shakespearean background, the language in it.

Cole: You have said--I think I’m quoting--that being a poet is about a mode of life. “Poet” bears with it so many romantic associations. What is your mode of life as a poet?

Hecht: Well, I’ll tell you something. A very good young poet named Charles Simic sent me in the mail a photograph of Ezra Pound in the 1890s as a very young man. He already clearly had a sense of his vocation as a poet because he’s wearing a loose, floppy open shirt with a tie loosely knotted and he looks terribly bohemian. It’s a real style. Yeats, as you probably know, was also rather a dandy--poetical--in his dress.

I was much more influenced by W. H. Auden, who believed a poet should be as ordinary as possible and be easily mistaken for a businessman, if possible. He did nothing to distinguish himself, except out of sloppiness, to make his life different from ordinary people.

I guess I lead a very ordinary life. When I’m working, I’m in my little study in my house and I don’t indulge in eccentric behavior, but if I did, no one would know it.

Cole: It’s strictly a private matter. I mean, T. S. Eliot, too, certainly wouldn’t be called a bohemian.

Hecht: No. Eliot was strange in his own special way, I suppose.

Cole: I’m always interested in how you work, your daily routine. How does one craft poems?

Hecht: I wish I could tell you--I’m not sure I can. In any case, there probably are poets who could answer it. It used to be said of Balzac that he kept old apples in the drawer of his desk and he had only to open the drawer and smell this and it would instantly allow him to start writing at a terrific pace. I have no such device. There’s nothing that instantly sets off some mechanism in me that allows me to write.

Normally, what I would do is to allow several ideas to coalesce and form themselves into some central idea and image that’s going to result in a poem. Very rarely is it a single idea. It’s almost always a combination of things that seem to work toward the point. For example, once at the University of Michigan I began talking about this poem before I actually wrote it. It’s a poem that celebrates the birth of our son, who was born on the fifth of April in Rochester in a blizzard, which was not uncommon for Rochester. That weather, and the fact that it was unlikely in April, coalesced in my mind with all sorts of accidents in the cosmic order, including the death of people in the Vietnam War, which was going on, and the chance of stray bullets killing people.

All of that somehow was brought together and assimilated into a single poem, which was called “The Odds.” It is about the birth of our son, but about the birth of our son in a time when people were dying in a random, helpless way. It was a composite of themes that would not normally have belonged together, but came out in, I think, a pretty successful poem.

Cole: So once you get this coalescing of ideas, then you have to give them voice?

Hecht: Right.

Cole: Can you talk about that?

Hecht: The poem in question begins with a description of our backyard, with the swing set that’s still standing. It has accumulated loaves of white mounds on the swing seats. The image has to do with the odd fact that chance has made these perfect shapes, but it is pure chance, because some flakes float off and go other places.

The idea of formal designs appearing out of randomness has to do with a kind of luxurious expenditure in which you don’t care what the cost is. You would go on creating shapes like that because your resources are endless or the resources, in this case, are divinity or whatever it is that created them. In the poem, this is like the chance of germinating cells creating a child. That, in turn, leads to My Lai and the catastrophe that took place there. So there was a kind of progression, a kind of logic, that was pursued, and it ended up in a way that satisfied me.

Cole: War is a recurring theme in much of your poetry. It’s difficult for you, I know, to talk about your own experience in the war, but it underlies your poetry.

Hecht: My part in World War II was a very modest one. I’m very tentative about writing about it, because I don’t want to try to give the impression that I was a hero or played a major part.

At the same time, it seems to me that some poets have exaggerated the importance of the role that they played. It’s important on a serious subject like that not to posture.

I wrote a letter about this to Poetry magazine recently. Let me quote myself, if I may. “The story goes that James Dickey grotesquely exaggerated the extent of his combat experience. But that, in the end, has little bearing on the quality of his war poems. This is not a pleasant truth. Some experiences are so devastating or traumatizing that we feel they ought to be spoken of only by those who have experienced them firsthand, who have earned the right to speak by the forfeiture of enormous suffering.”

I have more trouble with someone like Sylvia Plath, as I also said in the letter to Poetry magazine. I quoted Seamus Heaney, who said that her poem “Daddy” "rampages so permissively in the history of other people’s sorrows that it simply overdraws its rights to our sympathy.” I agree with this. She appropriated the Holocaust so persuasively that the scholar Leo Braudy assumed she was Jewish, although she was not even partly Jewish, and her father was German.

So one has to be very tentative and careful and discriminating in writing about the war. You can’t go through military combat in the front lines of the infantry and walk away from it as though it never happened. It’s a terrifying experience. It’s grotesque and awful.

Cole: But something like Dickey’s is a kind of wonderful and somewhat imaginative construction, which can be a great poem without exactly experiencing it. Others call for an authentic voice--front-line combat and the concentration camps and the like. That’s something that distinguishes these two.

Hecht: Well, he was in the Air Force. I think he exaggerated the number of missions he actually flew, but that doesn’t bother me greatly.

Cole: How old were you when you went into the army?

Hecht: I was a sophomore in college. I guess I was nineteen.

Cole: This was a very early formative experience.

Hecht: Yes, it was, and nothing prepares you for it properly. There was a standard army joke that was used at reception centers when people were called up to service. You came in on a truck and there was always a large contingent of people who’d only been there three days perhaps. They all yelled in chorus, “You’ll be sorry.” They were talking about kitchen police duty or some minor labors. But there was a lot to be sorry for.

Cole: This question falls on that. You often write of suffering and war.

Hecht: Let me just say, apropos of that, that it’s not an alien subject of poetry. It’s what the Iliad is about. It’s what most of Greek tragedy is about.

Cole: It’s what life is about.

Hecht: Yes. So I see nothing that’s contradictory about those topics. I don’t want to dwell upon them indefinitely, and writing a Greek tragedy is altogether different from writing a lyric poem. In fact, it’s possible to have some sort of reconciliation in a great work, in a tragedy or in the Iliad, when Achilles receives the father of Hector and there is a very, very touching, humane, delicate scene of reconciliation between these enemies. You can’t find room for that in a lyric poem. But in the Iliad it’s very, very beautiful.

Cole: My experience in the visual arts is that often the greatest examples are those that deal with these themes: suffering and pain, but forgiveness and reconciliation, as well. I often think that there’s an idea that great art somehow has to be not those things, but about beauty and lyricism and the like. That is not at all true.

Hecht: Well, Keats--whom I’ve been thinking about a great deal recently because I’ve written a long lecture about him--says with regard to King Lear that Shakespeare is able to reconcile and present everything that is disagreeable because he puts it in a context of beauty and truth.

To a certain extent, Lear is one of the most harrowing of all the works of literature. There’s a lot of debate about the significance of the last scene. I am convinced that Lear dies deceived into thinking that Cordelia is going to come back to life, which she is not, and that this is the last self-deception that he goes through.

It’s a very, very grim play. Nevertheless, it’s a play that is full of extraordinary, touching scenes of real love and real devotion of Cordelia to him and him to Cordelia that don’t redeem the action on the stage, but do something to elevate the spectator or the reader in a way that I find very moving.

That’s what good literature can do. It doesn’t evade any of the terrible things in life. It faces them and faces them squarely, but puts them in a context in which they have a richer meaning than they would as simply raw, descriptive facts.

Cole: That reminds me of Picasso’s definition of art: art is a lie that tells the truth. I think that is a wonderful definition. It is the manipulation of all these things that somehow comes up with something that is more than life, yet is the truth.

Hecht: You are an art historian and I am a poet. Almost from the first, there has been a kind of reciprocal relationship between painting and poetry, which is to say, from medieval times, when the stories of the New Testament were represented in paintings. This was, as it were, a joint working of visual art and a text that was known and recognized.

There’s a wonderful book by John Hollander, called The Gazer’s Spirit, which is about ekphrastic poems, poems about works of art. I’ve written quite a number of such poems. In my first book there was a poem called “At the Frick.” In the course of my career I’ve written a poem called “Still Life,” one about a Matisse painting, another poem called “Meditation,” about an assemblage that I made myself of several paintings in the Accademia in Venice that were religious paintings of the Virgin and Child surrounded by saints.

Cole: “Sacred Conversations”?

Hecht: “Sacred Conversations,” yes. And I wrote a poem called “The Road to Damascus,” which is based on a painting at the Rochester Art Museum, and a poem called “See Naples and Die,” which has a description of Bellini’s Transfiguration in the Naples Museum. So Bellini, to be sure, is a favorite painter of mine, as Titian must be of yours.

Cole: Bellini is one of the most poetic of all painters--one of the most subtle and nuanced and in some ways delicate painters. I should preface by saying I think art historians do a wonderful job of talking, but so do poets. Often I find the most incisive criticism of painting from poets.

Hecht: I don’t know whether that is true or not, but, as you probably know, John Ashbery began by writing art criticism when he was living in Paris. And it was for highly eccentric painters. He liked wild and fairly orgiastic artists.

Cole: I had a wonderful talk with Eudora Welty about this. She told me that she studied art history at the University of Wisconsin. She wrote wonderful descriptions of Dutch seventeenth-century painting.

Hecht: Yes.

Cole: I’m a fan of many poets’ discussion of visual art, and I’m just thinking of why that is so. First of all, to talk about paintings well, you have to find something that’s not easy to find--that is, the verbal equivalent of something that is essentially not verbal. There’s also the play of imagination, which is an essential part.

Hecht: Ruskin is interesting on the subject, because he does claim, at times, that the task of seeing and seeing accurately is almost the most important act that a human being can perform in life. This is a task, certainly, for good poets as well as for painters: to see with precision, with accuracy, without lying, without exaggeration. This is a very difficult task.

Cole: You’ve done a number of translations?

Hecht: French and German and Greek and Russian. On the Greek and the Russian I had a lot of help. I worked in collaboration with Helen Bacon on a translation of Aeschylus. And from the Russian, I worked with Joseph Brodsky in translating poems of his. When you don’t know a language, you’re floundering a lot, of course, but then you have special guidance--or at least I had--and that helps greatly. With my French and German, my languages were adequate or barely adequate to face those things.

I have found that I can’t translate everyone, but only certain poets who are enough like me or who correspond in their way of thinking and feeling enough to mine so that I can manage to do an adequate job. Sometimes I can fall in love with a poem, for instance by a French poet, and find that I simply haven’t got a way to convey it in English. I can love it without being able to find the right words to give an equivalent in English.

Cole: That’s fascinating. Does it sensitize you to your own language?

Hecht: Well, no. It frustrates me, because I wish I could render everything that I read and admire into English, but I can’t.

Cole: You spent a lot of time not just in your study writing poetry, but in the classroom teaching it. How do the two come together for you?

Hecht: Well, I retired from teaching in 1993, when I turned seventy. I have to say my feelings about that are complex. There’s an enormous relief at not having to correct lots and lots of papers and exams. I do miss my good students.

Much more than missing or worrying about the students is my enormous sense of having been delivered from the bonds of my colleagues (laughter). There tends to be in academic circles a very tight-knit and embattled sense of what the vocation is.

Cole: Putting academia aside, can you offer some observations on the state of poetry? Is poetry alive and well in 2003?

Hecht: I think it’s in wonderful shape. I can offer into evidence the names of a good number of extraordinarily gifted young poets: Brad Leithauser who was a student of mine at Harvard, and his wife, Mary Jo Salter, both of them excellent poets, among the best now writing in America. There are others: B. H. Fairchild, Timothy Murphy, Greg Williamson, Joseph Harrison, and Norman Williams. Norman Williams was a student of mine at Yale. He’s a very, very fine poet. All seven of them mean that poetry is thriving in this country and doing extremely well.

Cole: What about the venues for publication of poetry? Are there enough?

Hecht: I think anybody who is good enough is bound to get published. Anybody who comes to you and says, “I’m a marvelous poet, but I can’t get published” is being deceived about his or her own quality. I have never found a poet of any quality who can’t find a publisher, first of all, in journals easily, but then, after that, in book form. I don’t see any problem. I do admit that there are obtuse publishers and I have myself recommended manuscripts to publishers which they have, to their shame, turned down. But these people went on to find publishers elsewhere. It works out in the end.

Cole: Do you think there are an increasing number of readers of poetry, as well? Has poetry flourished?

Hecht: It’s hard to say what poetry is. In recent years, it’s become a performing art. The people who do rap poetry and go to poetry slams are getting up there on the stage and being personalities. I once received an application for a teaching job--at Georgetown, I think--from someone who had never, in fact, published any poems, but had read in many coffee houses. He regarded himself as a qualified poet on this ground alone. Whatever a poet is, the definition is changing rapidly and I have not a great deal of patience with performing artists.

Cole: Do you have any particular take on rap or poetry slams?

Hecht: No. I do know this, though. Some of the very best poets--poets I most admire--happen to be rather poor readers of their own poetry. That doesn’t reflect in the least on the quality of their work. They are very, very good poets. They happen not to be good readers.

Elizabeth Bishop is a case in point. She was very shy and, being shy, she was not able properly to convey the real quality that’s there on the page for anyone to see when they look at it. Then there are these other people who, because they feel themselves entertainers, have an enormous stage presence and don’t produce anything memorable at all.

Cole: Should poets be the best readers of their own work?

Hecht: Not necessarily. Sometimes it may take an actor to do it well. This is certainly true with Shakespeare. We don’t know what Shakespeare himself was like when he read parts, but good actors can bring a text to life in a marvelous way.

Cole: How do you define a poet? What is your definition of a poet?

Hecht: I don’t have one, except that a poem, once it’s written, should be memorable and enduring. By enduring, I don’t mean a hundred years from now. I mean that when you go back and read it a second, third, fifth, and twentieth time, it still has all the power and authority that it had at the beginning. It doesn’t fade away and become simply a piece of empty rhetoric. This comes about for me most powerfully when it’s formal poetry, when it’s written in a form.

Cole: That’s an interesting observation. I think that’s true for any work of art. When you come back it is not only still arresting, but it seems to have changed. It really hasn’t changed, but it’s a vehicle that allows you to bring your own increasing experience to it, which makes it even more interesting, more riveting. That’s one of my definitions for a truly great work of art.

Hecht: I absolutely agree with that. It’s a very mysterious quality in great art that it should grow with you, over a period of many, many years. New interpretations can find themselves that completely repudiate earlier ones and that are nevertheless still valid. Shakespeare’s plays are a wonderful example of how we see new things in them constantly.

Cole: And each generation sees something different.

Hecht: Yes.

Cole: It continually is evolving--it doesn’t, but it’s a kind of wonderful, intricate armature, which is then completed by whoever is looking at it. It changes according to age, generation, and the like.

This is a very global question: what is the contribution that poetry makes to our lives and to our civilization? Can you just speculate on that?

Hecht: People with a lot more courage than I would be happy to do so. Ezra Pound had no doubt at all that poetry was, in fact, the insignia of civilization. There have been a lot of people who have felt that, Dr. Johnson among them.

It’s been held that we can estimate the value of any particular civilization by the quality of the literature it provides. That’s been said more often of literature than the other arts--music or painting--partly because there’s a cognitive content in literature which is absent in the others, or only partly present in the others. It is a way of articulating the aspirations, ambitions, the hopes, the anguish of people and it’s therefore a valuable record of the state of the soul of a people.

I think one doesn’t sit down to write a poem with the intention of registering a people’s soul, except if you’re Virgil, perhaps, and feel that you have an obligation to the whole of Roman civilization. Ordinary lyric poets just write their poems one at a time and hope that something serious is going to eventuate.

Cole: That was terrific. Thank you for taking some time away from your poetry to talk about it.

Hecht: Thank you.