A Matter of Formality
Distinguished man of letters Anthony Hecht remembers teaching and learning at Kenyon
When Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and critic Anthony Hecht was enrolled at Kenyon as a special student of John Crowe Ransom's in 1946-47, and was simultaneously teaching freshman English for the first time, he remembers seeking out Ransom in his office for advice on how to teach Macbeth. Sitting across the desk from his mentor, Hecht had a clear view of the chalkboard on which the editor would scribble the list of contributors to the next issue of the Kenyon Review. The twenty-four-year-old Hecht saw with some shock that his own name appeared on the list, sandwiched between the dazzling names of Lionel Trilling and Eric Bentley. He tried to maintain his composure, to ignore this thrilling information, to focus his thoughts on Shakespeare's tragedy of ambition. But after a couple of minutes, unable to contain his curiosity and excitement any longer, he asked Ransom if it was true that his work was slated to be published in the prestigious journal.
Ransom turned around, looked at the list, and murmured, "I seem to have made a slight mistake." He then walked over to the chalkboard, rubbed out the H in Hecht's name, and wrote in Br instead. But the "mistake" proved as prophetic as the incantations Macbeth heard on the heath. For in the following issue, Ransom did publish one of Hecht's poems--the first publication of the young poet's career. Although Hecht modestly assumes that Ransom did so out of embarrassment at this incident, the fact is that twelve more of his poems appeared in the Review over the next seven years. Embarrassment could not account for that. Ransom had recognized his student's gifts.
One must seek far to find more eminent men of letters than Anthony Hecht, a towering figure in the world of American poetry. The author of seventeen books of poetry and four volumes of literary criticism, including the recently released Melodies Unheard: Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry, a noted translator, editor, and collaborator, as well as co-inventor of the comic verse form known as the double dactyl, Hecht is esteemed as a poet's poet. Throughout his career he has remained, like Ransom before him, a staunch practitioner and champion of formalism, devoted to rhyme, meter, and stanza in an era often dominated by free verse. Although Hecht fixes his gaze unflinchingly upon the fragmentation, atrocities, and howling injustices perpetrated during the twentieth century, he confines such subject matter within delicately wrought, intricate forms, beneath the polished surface of dazzling language. The formlessness and scatology of the howl he has left to others.
Before ever arriving at Kenyon, Hecht had been stamped by personal experience of certain twentieth-century atrocities. At the age of twenty, in the midst of his undergraduate studies at Bard College (then an experimental arm of Columbia University), Hecht was drafted into the Army. The year was 1943, and he saw service in both Europe and Japan. A shaping event in his life occurred when his division was sent to liberate the Nazi camp in Flossenburg, Germany, near Buchenwald, where theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer had been executed as a traitor. To his horror, the young Jewish soldier saw prisoners starving, dying of typhus, turning into corpses by the hundreds every day. Because of his facility with languages, he was assigned to translate the surviving prisoners' accounts of what they had suffered and witnessed, as well as the versions given by their German guards who were now prisoners themselves.
This traumatic consciousness inspired Hecht's nightmares for years to come. Images of the Holocaust suffuse many of his most highly regarded poems, including "More Light! More Light!," "Rites and Ceremonies," and "'It Out-Herods Herod. Pray You, Avoid It.'"
Born in 1923 in New York into what he styles an unhappy family, Hecht attended the Horace Mann School, where he was friends with classmate Jack Kerouac. He describes himself as having been an indifferent student until 1940, when he matriculated at Bard College. There he awoke to the life of the mind, immersing himself in the poetry of T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Dylan Thomas, W.H. Auden, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Deep in the study of literature he experienced happiness, he says, for the first time in his life, and decided to become a poet. The war interrupted this joyful period.
In the Army, Hecht met Robie Macauley '41, one of Ransom's former students who had shared a house at Kenyon with Robert Lowell '40, Peter Taylor '40, John Thompson '40, and Randall Jarrell. Macauley, who would eventually succeed Ransom as editor of the Kenyon Review, suggested that Hecht make his way to Gambier after the war to resume his literary development under Ransom's tutelage. In 1946, with the assistance of the G.I. Bill of Rights, Hecht enrolled at the College as a special student.
Hecht remembers Ransom as a "courtly and gentle man." He relished the delicious archaisms in Ransom's poetry (an element that has come in for critical attention in Hecht's own work) and found Ransom's essays "diffident, cunning, wittily reserved, and ceremonious" (terms that might be applied as well to Hecht's prose), quite distinct from the prevailing expository prose practiced by such critics of the day as T.S. Eliot, I.A. Richards, Richard Blackmur, and William Empson.
In a tribute to Ransom originally published in The American Scholar and later reprinted in a volume entitled Masters: Portraits of Great Teachers (1981), Hecht wrote that "one learned from him, not facts or positions, but a posture of the mind and spirit, a humanity and courtesy, a manly considerateness that inhabited his work as it did his person. And one learned to pay a keen attention to poetic detail."
This emphasis on "humanity" was one of two competing strains in the literary atmosphere of postwar Gambier discerned by Hecht. He poignantly evokes the peculiar sense of chosenness Ransom instilled, indeed nourished, in his students:
To have become one of that little group of Kenyon students in the mid-forties was not merely to have joined them under Mr. Ransom's remarkable tuition; it was also to have been assimilated into a hieratic tradition, a select branch in the great taxonomic structure of the modern intellect, in which we were the direct and undisputed heirs not only of Mr. Ransom himself but of all our distinguished predecessors who were his former pupils. These ranged from legendary young men of stunning mental powers who had graduated just too soon for any of us to have met them (about one of these it was affirmed that he wandered the campus reading extremely difficult texts in philosophy from which he tore out the pages and threw them away after a single, hasty, but sufficient perusal) to such as Peter Taylor and Robert Lowell, who were just coming into their fame, and beyond to Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks, and Robert Penn Warren, who has discernibly changed the course and character of American letters. . . . The responsibility of following in so august a procession we regarded as a difficult, historic, burden, just sufficiently mitigated by our private sense of being among "the anointed."
"Hieratic," "anointed"--the religious overtones of these words recall Ransom's naming the community of poets a "secular priesthood," even as they convey a sense of election experienced by those witnessing firsthand the birth of the New Criticism. The fabled Golden Age of literary studies at Kenyon is characterized by the disciples' paradoxical consciousness of being blessed nearly, but not quite, to the point of affliction.
Hecht's accomplishments as poet, critic, and teacher of literature suggest the degree to which he deserves his place among Ransom's heirs. At Kenyon, Ransom afforded Hecht important opportunities that would shape his career. Besides publishing Hecht's first poems, Ransom initiated his student into the teaching career that would become his bread and butter. Hecht would hold professorial positions at Bard College, Smith College, the University of Rochester, Washington University, Harvard, Yale, and eventually Georgetown University, where he taught as University Professor from 1985 until his retirement in 1993.
The lectern beckoned to Hecht when a Kenyon faculty member, taken ill, was unable to continue teaching freshman English. Ransom turned to Hecht because, at age twenty-four, Hecht was slightly older than the other students and was the only one who already possessed an undergraduate degree (Bard having granted him a degree in absentia). Did he have any teaching experience, Ransom inquired. All the young man could dredge up along these lines was a stint at Bard in which he had taught mathematics in a government-sponsored training program for the military. Much to Hecht's surprise, Ransom liked this response because he believed that literature should not be segregated from other spheres of knowledge. He invited Hecht to take over the freshman English class.
Recounting this episode in Anthony Hecht in Conversation with Philip Hoy (1999), Hecht recalls being "hastily inducted into the faculty by the dean of the college, who informed me that there was no anti-Semitism to be feared at Kenyon, witness the solitary presence on the faculty of one Dr. Salomon, who taught in the divinity school. I would have enjoyed punching him in the face; but I greatly liked and respected Ransom, and was enthusiastic about tackling the teaching job."
Hecht enjoyed the work and found it easy to establish a rapport with students not much younger than himself. Was it difficult to sit, as it were, on both sides of the desk, being a student and faculty member at the same time? No different from the situation of any graduate teaching assistant, he believes.
In addition to Ransom, Hecht studied with English professor Charles Coffin, a specialist on Donne, and he recalls having wonderful conversations with legendary philosophy professor Philip Blair Rice. Rice was to write a book on George Santayana which would bear the Kenyonesque title, The Philosopher as Poet and Critic. The influence of Rice's discourse may be seen in Hecht's poem, "Upon the Death of George Santayana." Beyond that, Hecht alludes to Santayana at the beginning of one of his prose volumes, On the Laws of the Poetic Art.
Following his year as a special student, Hecht returned twice to Gambier for the summer program known as The Kenyon School of English. Begun by Ransom, the program drew a glittering assembly of brilliant literary figures to the Hill, among them William Empson, F.O. Matthiessen, Austin Warren, Eric Bentley, L.C. Knights, Allen Tate, and Cleanth Brooks. The Kenyon School of English served as an incubator and nursery not only for poetry and fiction but also for the New Criticism, which focused on formal literary elements, studied sources of tension generated within literary works, and taught generations of students to "read closely" in works deemed to be as self-contained and anonymously fashioned as Keats's well-wrought Grecian urn.
In 1950, Hecht received a master's degree from Columbia University, where he studied with such notables as Mark van Doren and Lionel Trilling. The following year, he was awarded the Prix de Rome fellowship, an honor which had never before been given to a writer. At the time, Hecht was already living in Italy, on the island of Ischia, where he met and discussed poetry with W.H. Auden, another great poet-critic who would influence Hecht's oeuvre.
In addition to the Prix de Rome and the Pulitzer Prize, Hecht has won numerous major awards and honors, including the Bollingen Prize in Poetry, the Librex-Guggenheim Eugenio Montale Award, the Ruth B. Lilly Poetry Prize, The Dororthea Tanning Award, the Wallace Stevens Award, the Corrington Award, and the Robert Frost Medal. He has also won prestigious fellowships from the Guggenheim, Hudson Review, Ford, and Fulbright Foundations, among others. Hecht was elected a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, has been named Chancellor and Chancellor Emeritus of the American Academy in Rome, and from1982 to1984 was Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, a position which afterward came to be known as Poet Laureate of the United States.
His latest book of critical essays on poets and poetry, Melodies Unheard: Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry, was published this spring by Johns Hopkins University press.
The eighty-year-old Hecht resides in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Helen D'Alessandro, who had been a student in his freshman English class years earlier at Smith College. D'Alessandro is an interior designer and the author of several cookbooks; they have a son, Evan. Hecht has two sons as well, Jason and Adam, from an earlier marriage.
Glyn Maxwell writes in The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-century Poetry in English: "The work of Anthony Hecht shatters the cozy notion that a fragmented, fractured age should be reflected in the forms of its art, that ugliness and shapelessness demand payment in kind. Like Auden, he has absorbed the evils and grotesqueries of his unhappy century into a verse both highly formal and all-encompassing, stitching wounds with iambs, sculpting pentameters of sustained, Latinate beauty, sounding a healing music."
If much of Hecht's poetry is elegiac in tone and content, shaped by grief, another side of his literary personality embraces wit and humor. In a parodic nod to Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach," he has written "The Dover Bitch." Evoking Wallace Stevens' "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle" is Hecht's "Le Masseur de Ma Soeur."
He is, perhaps, a poet eternally caught between tears and laughter, a complexity wonderfully captured in an anecdote about an early morning taxi ride Hecht shared with another Kenyon-educated poet, James Wright '52, following a poetry reading. To entertain Wright as they rode long miles to the airport, Hecht intoned from memory the sonorous and grief-stricken lines of Milton's elegy "Lycidas," which laments the tragic death of a young poet drowned at sea. But, with the paradoxical Hecht touch, he recited the poem, nearly two hundred lines, in the voice of W.C. Fields!
"It was my habit," Hecht has recalled, "to allow Fields a few interpolative comments now and again. I remember that after the lines
He must not float upon his watery bier
Unwept, and welter to the parching wind,
Without the meed of some melodious tear
I would pause and let Fields observe: 'That's very sad--that part about the watery beer.'"
That the poem being recited was the subject of one of Ransom's most famous essays ("A Poem Nearly Anonymous") is the icing on a particularly delectable cake. It takes an Anthony Hecht to hear the voice of ironic comedy in the sounds of majestic solemnity, to render simultaneously the gifts of both.
Wright, it is said, was so overcome he could only murmur, "Thank you."
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