Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Hecht & the Holocaust.

Anthony Hecht was one of the most accomplished American poets of his generation. Hecht's work combined a passionate interest in form with an unflinching determination to confront the horrors of 20th-century history, in particular the second world war, in which he fought, and the Holocaust. 
Hecht was drafted into the 97th Infantry Division and dispatched to Europe. The horrific experiences of his war years permeate many of his most moving poems. His division helped liberate Flossenb├╝rg, a concentration camp near Buchenwald. Hecht was instructed to interview French prisoners in the hope of assembling evidence with which to try the camp's commanders. He later commented: "The place, the suffering, the prisoners' accounts were beyond comprehension. For years after I would wake shrieking."

His first collection, A Summoning Of Stones (1954) revealed his mastery of a complex range of forms and an impassioned awareness of the forces of history. It was in 'The Hard Hours' that Hecht began to explore his memories of the war - memories so potent they had resulted in a nervous breakdown in 1959. The title poem of his 1979 volume, The Venetian Vespers, is a dramatic monologue spoken by a "mentally unsound" American who has settled in Venice in the hope of escaping his memories of the war. Hecht plays off his suffering and stoic resolve against the city's decay and dignity and beauty and history.
The long poem Rites and Ceremonies is Hecht's most disturbing response to the Holocaust:

But in the camps, one can look through a huge square 
Window, like an aquarium, upon a room 
The size of my livingroom filled with human hair ... 
Out of one trainload, about five hundred in all, 
Twenty the next morning were hopelessly insane. 
And some there be that have no memorial, 
That are perished as though they had never been. 
Made into soap.
In comparison with his hero, Auden, Hecht wrote slowly and relatively little: in the course of a 60-year career, he published only seven collections of poetry, and his complete works would fill only 500 pages. However, nearly all of Hecht's poems, even his lighter verses, strike one as so carefully worked as to be unimprovable.
Hecht's poetry will stand, along with that of James Merrill, Richard Wilbur, John Hollander and Richard Howard, as exemplifying the virtues of a commitment to the formal that produced some of the finest American poetry of the 20th century. His work has also been influential on the younger generation of formalists, poets such as Brad Leithauser, Mary Jo Salter and JD McClatchy. Over the last two decades he was the recipient of almost every honour in American poetry including the Bollingen Prize (1983), the Tanning Prize (1997), and the Poetry Society of America's Frost Medal (2000).

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