Significant sound and fury

After a half century, Anthony Hecht still speaks with eloquent rage

Anthony Hecht's first book of poetry was published more than 50 years ago. He won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry more than 30 years ago. His steady output chronicles his times. Throughout his career, he has faced the worst the 20th century had to offer; not even the Holocaust has silenced his eloquent rage.

Each volume explores a range of public and private themes in a variety of measures, and "The Darkness and the Light" is no exception. Above all, Hecht is a musical poet. His tastes run to Bach and Vivaldi. His lines surprise by fulfilling our expectations and then some.

It is as if formal perfection is requisite to give voice to extremity. This paradox will be lost on poetasters today, who continue to be seduced by the notion that strong emotion can be expressed only in broken forms. Hecht's verse, among other public services, rebukes this modernist escapist fallacy.

Indeed, only the human resort to musical means allows the world to be shown in all its wild excessiveness. In the opening poem, "Late Afternoon: The Onslaught of Love," Hecht writes, "Nothing designed by Italian artisans/ Would match this evening's perfection./ The puddled oil was a miracle of colors."

Word play - itself a formal device which reveals shades of self-awareness - is featured in "Sarabande on Attaining the Age of Seventy Seven":

And I myself have whitened in the weathers

Of heaped-up Januarys as they bequeath

The annual rings and wrongs that wring my withers,

Sober my thoughts and undermine my teeth.

Fulfilling the poet's contract to renew the old stories, Hecht creates new music out of biblical stories - Lot's wife, Saul and David, the witch of Endor, and Abraham; and he speaks as Bible characters. These are not mere retellings, but ferocious reinterpretations. Haman, villain of the story of Esther, is frighteningly eloquent as a hangman serving the Third Reich. Among his other virtues, Hecht can make the reader feel terror, a timely and relevant emotion, but one which few poets know how to convey.

Along with old stories made new, there are also translations from Horace, Charles d'Orleans, Vaillant, Goethe, Baudelaire. His translation of Baudelaire's "Le Jet d'Eau" is as sumptuously beautiful as anything he's written:

A spray of petaled brilliance

That uprears

In gladness as the Moon-

Goddess appears

Falls like an opulent glistening

Of tears

In a book noisy with the caustic, burning emotions of an old man, it is notable that the piece de résistance is a love poem. "Rara Avis in Terris" is an astonishingly nimble, even dizzying display of a full range of tones, from adoration to sarcasm, fury to awe. "Hawks are in the ascendant," it opens: and he does mean "some jihad, some rash all-get-out/ Crusade" such as we are accustomed to in the New World Order of the 21st century. But this gives way to a different scene, brilliantly pointed before rising to its own occasion: "But where are the mild monogamous lovebirds...." Such is Hecht's art that we see them: "Lightly an olive branch they bear,/ Its deathless leafage emblematic of/ A quarter-century of faultless love."

Very few poets today, perhaps only Hecht, could end it precisely there. We're in debt to him for reminding us that poetry is words set to music, and that the music is what remains.

Thomas D'Evelyn is an editorial consultant in Providence, R.I.

The Darkness and the light

By Anthony Hecht Alfred A. Knopf 67 pp., $23

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