Anthony Hecht, An Epilogue: A Conversation with David Yezzi

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In the fall of 2023, the poet Ernest Hilbert interviewed David Yezzi for Literary Matters about his new biography of Anthony Hecht and his recent volume of new and selected poems.


Literary Matters: Let’s begin at the beginning. How did the idea of the Hecht biography come about?

David Yezzi: I was asked by Hecht’s widow, Helen, if I would be interested in writing his life. I had written a bit about Hecht’s work in The New York Times and elsewhere, which she had read, and I think she felt that I had sort of gotten him right. We met for dinner at the Colony Club in New York, and I remember thinking, well, if I’m going to spend five years of my life writing about a poet, Hecht would be worth the zitsfleysh. Of course, it turned out to be more than ten. Hecht has always meant a great deal to me as a writer, more, possibly, than I even care to admit at times.

LM: Hecht died in 2004 at age 81. Did you know him personally?

DY: I met him on a handful of occasions, mostly at the Poetry Center at the 92nd Street Y, where he read his work and introduced other poets and where I was director at the time. In the fall of 2003, we did an eightieth-birthday tribute to him, with a host of poets and culminating in Hecht reading from his work. I visited him at his house in Washington, D.C. for a profile I wrote for The New York Sun.

Another time was pretty embarrassing for me, though I’m sure he didn’t remember it. It was one summer afternoon at the West Chester poetry conference, and I was sitting on a bench playing the banjo, which my parents had recently given me for my birthday. (Musicians used to bring their instruments to the conference and jam during downtime.) Hecht, who loved music of all kinds, came out of the conference hall and sat by himself on a nearby bench where he might enjoy the sunlight. Well, I was fumbling around on this thing, really sort of making a mess of it. Hecht quickly realized he had made a grave miscalculation. He sort of froze. His back stiffened. And very slowly, so as not to be noticed, he rose and slid away out of earshot. He was right to do it!

LM: How did the biography wind up at St. Martin’s Press?

It was the usual process, though new to me. I wrote a proposal, which was picked up and shopped by the agent Irene Skolnick. There was interest at Harvard UP, I remember, but St. Martin’s offered a slightly larger tiny advance.

LM: George Witte served as editor of the book. What was it like working with him?

George was wonderful. He himself is a poet, and he understood Hecht’s importance and was willing to take a risk on a first-time biographer. Similarly, Irene knew Hecht from her time at The Hudson Review, so there was a personal connection there as well. I suppose the life of a poet, unless it’s Robert Lowell or Elizabeth Bishop, will always be a labor of love from a publishing standpoint. I feel very honored to have been entrusted with the project. It was unclear to me at times if I would be able to pull it off; there was a steep learning curve. Helen, too, took a leap of faith in this regard. During the decade it took me to write the book, she may well have come to question the wisdom of her decision. But, if she did, she never hinted at it to me. Even when the work was going slowly, she was a model of patience and restraint.

LM: You worked closely with her on the book?

DY: Helen was hugely helpful. Along with Sandy (J. D.) McClatchy, who was Hecht’s first literary executor, she is the finest, most perceptive reader of the poems. When Sandy died in 2018, Helen assumed all the responsibilities of handling the estate. She never overruled any of my assertions about Hecht’s life or poems, but she was invaluable in letting me know when I was on the right track, as it seemed to her. That meant a lot to me. She and Tony were extremely close, inseparable really, so her memory of events was invaluable.

LM: Can you describe what it was like to enter the archives? What sort of materials did you have at your disposal?

DY: The Hecht Archive is housed at Emory University, and I made several trips there, as well as requesting materials remotely on occasion. Hecht had begun gathering his correspondence late in his life, and after he died Helen continued that work with remarkable dedication. As a result, the archive feels quite complete. There are family photo albums, several scrapbooks with clippings and programs from Hecht’s career, as well as thousands of letters.

LM: Did it take long for a portrait of the young Hecht to emerge?

DY: Yes and no. It took a good while for me to trust the portrait that was emerging, though there was lots of documentation, far too much to include. For example, Hecht had a complicated relationship with his parents, to say the least, marked by both affection and aversion, which was hard to reconcile. He was always a faithful correspondent, beginning with his letters home from summer camp in Maine when he was twelve. These early, often jocular letters are filled with his activities and opinions. A few of his more autobiographical poems, such as “A Hill,” “Apprehensions,” and “A Certain Slant of Light” provide important clues to his childhood as well.

LM: What, if anything, surprised you about Hecht as you learned more?

DY: I think the biggest revelations for me had to do with Hecht’s Army service, and the way in which his experiences in training, combat, and at the liberation of Flossenbürg concentration camp haunted him for the rest of his life. I knew, of course, his great poems about the war and the Holocaust—“‘More Light! More Light!’”, “‘It Out-Herods Herod. Pray You, Avoid It.’”, “Still Life,” “The Book of Yolek,” and passages from “The Venetian Vespers”—but I was surprised to find the same motivating traumas underlying a great many of his poems. McClatchy had noted, and Hecht had talked about, the presence of war trauma and childhood trauma in “A Hill.” I learned that it runs through much of his work.

LM: Hecht was at the Horace Mann School with Jack Kerouac. Were the two friends?

DY: Yes, Hecht liked Jack, though they were quite different. Jack was cool. He liked jazz. These things appealed to Hecht’s burgeoning bohemian sensibility. Hecht was a bit of a “wild man” (Nicholas Christopher’s phrase) when he was young. He was an adventurous traveler and a copious drinker. Allen Tate, who was one of Hecht’s early champions, worried he might be drinking too much, around the time of his first stay at the American Academy in Rome in 1951.

LM: Hecht knew Auden in Italy. How did they get along?

DY: Hecht met Auden in Forio, a small town on Ischia in the Bay of Naples, where Auden spent his summers in the Fifties. Hecht had moved there in the winter of 1950 and was too shy to seek Auden out. Eventually they were introduced, and they got on well. Auden asked to see Hecht’s poems and liked them quite a bit. There’s quite a good deal in the book about their meetings.

LM: What role do you see Hecht’s poetry playing in the future of American poetry?

DY: I was heartened by an email I received from Shane McCrae around the time that Late Romance was going into production. Shane, who is an exceptional younger poet and someone I greatly admire, wrote to ask if he could write a blub, because he was a huge Hecht fan. Here’s part of what he wrote: “Now that almost twenty years have passed since Anthony Hecht died, the moment to recognize and come to terms with his achievements as a poet and critic might finally be upon us, . . . we need the examples of great poets perhaps more than ever now. . . .” If Shane and other poets of his generation are reading Hecht then I think his role in American poetry is assured.

LM: Do you have any words of advice for those contemplating a biography?

DY: Writing a biography costs money. There was a good deal of travel involved in researching Hecht’s life, beyond periodic trips to the archive in Atlanta. I gained invaluable insight from trips to Italy and Germany, as well as New York City, Washington, France, Riverdale, NY, and elsewhere. Some might argue that such trips are not completely necessary to writing the life. There are lots of secondary sources describing these places. But I don’t think I would have wanted to do it without walking in Hecht’s “footsteps” (Richard Holmes’s word).

LM: Do you plan to write any other biographies?

DY: That’s hard to imagine. It’s too overwhelming. It would have to be just the right thing, and I would want to feel that I was right for it.

LM: You recently published a volume of new and selected poems with Measure Press, titled More Things in Heaven. It contains selections from The Hidden Model (2003), Azores (2008), Birds of the Air (2013), and Black Sea (2018) along with new material. How does one begin selecting poems from a span of two decades to include? Looking back, is there anything you wish you had included?

DY: Dividing the poems into sheep and goats was fairly easy, I found. There might have been a few things that I should have included, but not much. It’s nice to see the strongest work together, with as little dross as possible.

LM: At what point should one consider a book like that? You drew from four commercially published collections and added new material.

DY: Oh, gosh. It’s different for everyone, I’m sure. I may have jumped the gun in that regard.

LM: Tell us about the painting reproduced on the jacket.

DY: It’s a street scene by John Dubrow called Prince and Broadway. Its dates are telling: 2002-2020. John is a New York painter, whom I’ve known for a long time. He didn’t work on the painting for eighteen years straight, but periodically over two decades he’d pull it out and rework it. It’s a fascinating process, I think. One thinks of Auden reworking poems he’d become dissatisfied with. John’s style has always existed on continuum between representation and abstraction. The two typically work together in his pictures, which sometimes lean toward volume, shape, and color and sometimes more toward narrative and direct reference. The general movement has been a move toward greater abstraction. It’s an awesome challenge that he sets himself, and requires, I think, a great deal of courage. In a portrait, for example—and John has many important ones, including portraits of Mark Strand, William Bailey, and Ruth Miller, as well as gorgeous renderings of lovers, colleagues, and friends—he works to represent his sitters with increasing economy. He sees into the life of the sitter, though facial features may be largely effaced. The miracle is that it looks exactly like the sitter, while suggesting a complete inner life—all done with a few marks. In fact, the more he removes the more true the image.

LM: What’s next for you?

DY: New poems, I hope. Though unlike the biography no one’s waiting for them! The good news is I can write what I like and how I like. There’s always an audience of some kind in mind, but there’s no one saying you can’t do it that way. I guess I’m like John in that I live for the discoveries, inching on to new ground, the surprise.