Anthony Hecht's admirers consider him a major American poet, a master of formalism.
Critic William Pritchard in the Hudson Review's excellent summer issue praises "A Thicket of Particulars: The Poetry of Anthony Hecht," a recently released volume of criticism of Hecht's work edited by Jonathan Post, who also edited an edition of Hecht's letters.
Pritchard's review, titled "Anthony Hecht's Nobility," looks forward to a forthcoming biography of Hecht by David Yezzi. Along with Hecht's poetry, Pritchard cites his critical writings, including a study of Auden. As Pritchard illustrates, Hecht, who died almost 12 years ago at age 81, continues to receive the kind of attention that will keep his work in view.
According to Pritchard, Hecht stands with Richard Wilbur and James Merrill as "the most repaying 'formal' American poets from the last century's second half." Besides discounting Wilbur's work in this century, the term "repaying" seems odd, as if poetry were a savings account. Others might include on the repay list Richard Howard, John Hollander and Donald Hall.
Pritchard cites an Adam Kirsch review of Hecht's final book of poems, "the Darkness and the Light," in which Kirsch said that while Hecht's work showed "seriousness, intelligence, formal discipline," future readers will turn to Lowell, Berryman and Plath "for a sense of what it was like to live, and suffer, in our times."
Kirsch's reference surprised me: I thought Lowell and Berryman had sunk on the reputation chart, although different schools keep different ones. Elizabeth Bishop, whom Pritchard mentions Hecht and Merrill revered, seems the poet whose work most likely will continue to be read. But who knows what the future holds? Young poets keep rising who will also take their place on the immortality ladder.
The Times Literary Supplement recently had a fascinating piece on how poets' work remains vital for future generations, pointing out that Keats was virtually unknown during his lifetime while poets no longer remembered were popular.
I first heard about Hecht at the Sewanee Writers Conference, where Sidney Burris and others talked about him as America's leading master of poetic art. Hecht took on a magical power for me, a "poet's poet" whose work would reveal the secrets of technique. I plunged into studying Hecht's work, and later had a chance to study with him, which I ended up not accepting. He died soon after.
Hecht's most celebrated poem is "More Light! More Light!," a grisly study of man's inhumanity and how it clashes with enlightened ideals. While the poem often turns up in anthologies, I prefer Hecht's witty love poems and meditations on urban life.
But "More Light! More Light" likely will be the poem for which Hecht is most remembered. It's received strong critical recognition for its dry, matter of fact language that effectively contrasts with the horror it depicts.