This Old Poem #52:
Anthony Hecht’s Curriculum Vitae
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/5/03

  Anyone familiar with Anthony Hecht’s poetry will not be taken aback by the title of the poem I’ve decided to focus this essay on. AH is the consummate Gentleman’s Gentleman of poetry- always nattily attired for ‘events’ in a bowtie & looking every bit the avuncular, if dim, professor. AH is just that- his poetry is relentlessly formal, rarely good, but he takes great pleasure in carping that he does not get ‘recognition’ from the Academic establishment. Of course, this is nonsense. AH has been feted with Pulitzers & Bollingens. What he means in his plaintive wail is that the free verse doggerelists make sly fun of his formal doggerel, & he is seen as a bit backward. This would be a good thing if he ever said a singular original thing in his poems- he does not. Because he does not he will never be championed posthumously, merely seen as a fading curio of a bad poetic time, who was just as bad in his own way. The image will be of a rumpled old relic clapping his way through stilted meters in an attempt to be Classical & relevant. Tsk-tsk.
  But do not weep for Padre Tony. A quick check of his ‘real’ curriculum vitae & biography will assuage any sympathies, I assure you:

  Anthony Hecht (b. 1923). Born in New York City, Hecht attended Bard College (B.A., 1944). After three years in the U.S. Army, serving in Europe and Japan, he continued his education at Columbia University (M.A., 1950). Hecht has taught at several universities, including the University of Rochester, where he was professor of poetry and rhetoric in 1967. He is presently a professor in the graduate school of Georgetown University. His awards include a 1951 Prix de Rome, and Guggenheim, Rockefeller, and Ford Foundation Fellowships, as well as the Bollingen Prize in Poetry.
  His first book of poetry, A Summer of Stones (1954), was followed by Hard Hours (1968), which won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry, Millions of Strange Shadows (1977), Venetian Vespers (1979), and The Transparent Man (1990). His most recent collection of poems is Flight Among the Tombs (1996). Hecht is also the author of a collection of critical essays, Obbligati (1986).

  Acclaimed for his technical expertise, Hecht was first devoted to traditional poetic forms, and his work was sometimes described as "baroque" and "courtly." More recently, his work has become less decorative.


  Well, not really. This is a kind of backhanded compliment given to those who serve some purpose but are not invited to the dance. Wallflower Tony’s poetry is really being called ‘dull, without even a remnant of attempted verve’.
  Here’s a typical snippet of his verse from a poem called ‘Saul And David’:


A shepherd boy, but goodly to look upon,
Unnoticed but God-favored, sturdy of limb
As Michelangelo later imagined him,
.......Comely even in his frown.


  Not terribly constructed, & a sturdy sound- but, Jee-zuss- could this be anymore trite? Anymore Elizabethan? Well, fortunately, AH is not only putrid in Elizabethan ways. This piece from a poem called ‘Witness’ is AH trying to do his best to rehabilitate a Robinson Jeffersian ideal in a more ‘formal’ manner:


                                   ….at each attack
The impassive cliffs look down in gray disdain
At scenes of sacrifice, unrelieved pain,
Figured in froth, aquamarine and black.


Something in the blood-chemistry of life,
Unspeakable, impressive, undeterred,
Expresses itself without needing a word
In this sea-crazed Empedoclean Strife.

  Note the clichés: ‘impassive cliffs’, ‘unrelieved pain’, the sea as ‘aquamarine and black’, the reference to blood, & how it’s phrased & the capitalized reference to a historical personage. & this snip has a much more thudding music than selection 1. This next ghastly little piece is from ‘Late Afternoon: The Onslaught Of Love’. Did he even give a thought to the title?

At this time of day
Sounds carried clearly
Through hot silences of fading daylight.
The weedy fields lay drowned
In odors of creosote and salt.
Richer than double-colored taffeta,
Oil floated in the harbor,
Amoeboid, iridescent, limp.
It called to mind the slender limbs
Of Donatello's David.


It was lovely and she was in love….


  The whole stanza’s 1st ½  is atrocious, then it gets a bit interesting, only to slink back to the needless reference to art to show how cultured & couth AH is. Then the execrable beginning of another stanza. UGH! Next a bit from ‘A Hill’- a ‘dramatic’ monologue that is meant to be deep- in a Browningian sort of way. The start:


In Italy, where this sort of thing can occur,
I had a vision once - though you understand
It was nothing at all like Dante's, or the visions of saints,
And perhaps not a vision at all. I was with some friends….


  Trust me, it gets worse. Things happen &-

             ….It was very cold,
Close to freezing, with a promise of snow.
The trees were like old ironwork gathered for scrap
Outside a factory wall. There was no wind,
And the only sound for a while was the little click
Of ice as it broke in the mud under my feet.

  Violence breaks out- shock- grief- & stanza 2:


And that was all, except for the cold and silence
That promised to last forever, like the hill.


  I swear, I am not kidding- this is his stanza. The speaker forgets, matures, & looks backward:

All this happened about ten years ago,
And it hasn't troubled me since, but at last, today,
I remembered that hill; it lies just to the left
Of the road north of Poughkeepsie; and as a boy
I stood before it for hours in wintertime.

  This is a paste & cut sort of poem- using tried, true, & dull techniques from all over. Yet, even with the stricture of a villanelle old AH cannot dare to experiment a bit. Here’s a v. called ‘Prospects’:

We have set out from here for the sublime
Pastures of summer shade and mountain stream;
I have no doubt we shall arrive on time.


Is all the green of that enameled prime
A snapshot recollection or a dream?
We have set out from here for the sublime


Without provisions, without one thin dime,
And yet, for all our clumsiness, I deem
It certain that we shall arrive on time.


No guidebook tells you if you'll have to climb
Or swim. However foolish we may seem,
We have set out from here for the sublime


And must get past the scene of an old crime
Before we falter and run out of steam,
Riddled by doubt that we'll arrive on time.


Yet even in winter a pale paradigm
Of birdsong utters its obsessive theme.
We have set out from here for the sublime;
I have no doubt we shall arrive on time.

  Were this the titular poem I’d have had to underline almost the whole poem- clichés abound. If you disbelieve me, so what? You are obviously never gonna care for great poetry. Excelsior!

Curriculum Vitae


As though it were reluctant to be day,
.......Morning deploys a scale
.......Of rarities in gray,
And winter settles down in its chain-mail,


Victorious over legions of gold and red.
......The smokey souls of stones,
......Blunt pencillings of lead,
Pare down the world to glintless monotones


Of graveyard weather, vapors of a fen
.......We reckon through our pores.
.......Save for the garbage men,
Our children are the first ones out of doors.


Book-bagged and padded out, at mouth and nose
.......They manufacture ghosts,
.......George Washington's and Poe's,
Banquo's, the Union and Confederate hosts',

And are themselves the ghosts, file cabinet gray,
.......Of some departed us,
.......Signing our lives away
On ferned and parslied windows of a bus.

  Actually, this is probably the best poem of AH’s discussed in this essay- yet, still so much of it can be trimmed. I’m gonna leave most of the lines intact & deal with the stanzaic form. Stanza 2 is trite- both the description of fall, & its fall to winter. So too with stanza 4, an overdone description of schoolkids. Why? Stanzas 1 & 5 are good but let’s trim stanza 3 & squoosh the whole poem together.

Curriculum Vitae


As though it were reluctant to be day,
.......Morning deploys a scale
.......Of rarities in gray,
And winter settles down in its chain-mail,

Of graveyard weather, we reckon through our pores.
Our children are the first ones out of doors.

And are themselves the ghosts, file cabinet gray,
.......Of some departed us,
.......Signing our lives away
On ferned and parslied windows of a bus.

  Now, compare what both versions say- the rewrite says all the original did, but it is tighter & the abruptive rhythms are much better at mimicking a rumination than the predictable quatrains that the original had. In fact, the poem takes on an elegiac Thomas Hardy quality, as well as rhythm (in both of the best senses- for TH was often atrocious!). The ending of the poem is its strong suit & the condensation allows us to reach satisfaction sooner, with less descent into cliché. What’s been lost? Just AH’s penchant for logorrhea. I’ll take heed. Adios.

Final Score: (1-100):  

Anthony Hecht’s Curriculum Vitae: 65
TOP’s Curriculum Vitae: 80

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