Letters by Anthony Hecht: In the Atelier

A heaping plateful of correspondence by poet Anthony Hecht is served up by Jonathan F. S. Post in the current issue of The Hopkins Review.  Thanks to the editors for allowing us to pass on three letters that offer a glimpse into the poet’s atelier.  In the first, as a mere lad of twenty-seven, Hecht responds to a meticulous unwrapping of his poems by W. H. Auden; of course Hecht later spent a whole book reflecting on Auden and the demands of his medium (The Hidden Law: The Poetry of W. H. Auden, Harvard, 1993). Order the full trove of letters from The Hopkins Review here.

Photograph of Anthony Hecht by Lotte Jacobi, courtesy of the American Academy in Rome

October 4, 1951
American Academy, Via A. Masina 5, Rome, Italy

Dear Parents:
[…] Let me tell you about my interview with Auden. It lasted two and a half hours, and he went over each one of my poems very carefully with me. It was a slightly tense business, as I had anticipated, because he was naturally concerned that I shouldn’t take offense at any critical comment he made, and at the same time he wanted to be as honest and scrupulous as he could be. I took no offense at anything, of course,  but when I tried to defend certain things I had done, he behaved as if he thought I resented his criticism, and he would modify his position and qualify his comments into oblivion. He told me he liked the poems very much, though I don’t know what that really means, since I think he would have said that in any case, providing he didn’t actually dislike them. Some of his comments about details were very apt and helpful, but he has a totally different way of conceiving a poem from the way I have, and he feels that I’ve been too much influenced by Ransom and Tate not in style but in theory. He feels that details are an ornamental embellishment to verse, and should never be allowed to distract the reader’s attention from the main line of discourse, whereas I believe that the details should be made to subsume, to contain, to embody, to incarnate the point and meaning of the poem. In a way, I think we’re working towards the same goal from opposite directions, but my way is better suited to me than his. He said of the “aubade” for example (the one coming out in Kenyon ) that [t]here was too much detail, that the poem could have been written in the same number of stanzas, but with each stanza of four lines instead of ten. He liked best of all the poem I sent to Poetry called “La Condition Botanique.” And he told Ray and Elsa Rosenthal the next day, that he thought my poetry was better than most of the younger poets, specifically [Richard] Wilbur’s and [Karl] Shapiro’s—though, I don’t see how Shapiro gets into the “younger” category any more. You must not misunderstand me; the whole interview was carried on in the most cordial terms; it’s just that there was a difference of opinion on some points which we sensed more strongly than we declared. And now, upon reflection, I feel that there’s much in Auden’s point of view that’s valuable; which is what I mean when I say that we are working towards the same goal from opposite directions. And I think he may be right most of all in saying (as he said to the Rosenthals but not to me), that my verse was perhaps too formal—not in the metrical sense, but in being somewhat impersonal in tone, disengaged from the central emotions of the poems. This is mainly what he has against Ransom and Tate, and with many qualifications, he’s right. In any case, it has given me something to think about, and that’s a good thing. . . .


June 16, 1978
19 East Blvd., Rochester, NY

Dear Joe [Summers, a scholar of seventeenth-century literature colleague at the University of Rochester],
It’s not easy to tell you how grateful I am for your letter about “The Short End,” and how heartened. If I have a grim fantasy about what the undetected onset of senility may be like it involves my writing a poem I myself regard as very good by the standards at least of my own work, only to find that friends cough and avert their eyes, unable to tell me straight out that, like late Wordsworth and others, I’ve gone into obvious literary decline. The fantasy was vividly present for me just these past weeks. Helen, of course, professed to love the poem and to think as well of it as I myself, but I can scarcely trust Helen in these matters, her objectivity being cast out the window with regard to me. I took the poem to Syracuse when we paid a visit to George and Mary Emma Elliott, who seemed not to know how to react to it. Mary Emma read it in private, and contrived with grace to avoid saying anything to me about it. George’s first words were interrogatory, a group of questions about various details; he had his enthusiasm well in check. That in itself was mildly disappointing. But then I sent a copy to my editor in New York [Harry Ford], who wrote as follows. “Having read The Short End several times, and admiring it in an objective fashion, although in no other, the question that’s uppermost in my mind is whatever gave you the idea to write it. The subject matter brings to mind early John O’Hara (Butterfield 8, for instance). I admire the technical mastery with which you have brought the whole thing off; it’s dazzling; but I do find the poem emotionally bizarre and murky. Have you shown it to anyone else? Howard Moss? Harold Bloom? I’d be fascinated to know what others think of it.” That letter, coupled with the non-committal behavior of the Elliotts, suggested that my mind was giving way, since it still seemed to me (but might it be to me alone?) that the poem was really quite good. You may judge my relief then, when your generous, warm and appreciative letter arrived. (I have, in fact, sent the poem to Howard Moss at The New Yorker—from whom I have not yet heard—but without much confidence that they will take it for publication. Aside from considerations of length—I think it might well be longer than any poem they’ve ever published—the grossness of the language here and there, the explicit vulgarities, would violate the magazine’s carefully secured tone. The suggestion of Harold Bloom was made probably because he has said some kind things about my work, both in print and in private, in the past; but he is not one to whom I have ever sent any of my work for an opinion. Since I pretty much expect The New Yorker to turn it down, your good letter will at least relieve me of supposing that their rejection confirms what everybody but I can see: that I’ve taken to blathering, and, what’s worse, at length.) . . .

Of course, Joe, you may keep the poem.


Little Star notes that “The Short End” has since been singled out by critics for especial appreciation.  Calvin Bedient, in The Sewanee Review, declared it “the masterpiece of the volume [The Venetian Vespers].”

October 4, 1992
4256 Nebraska Avenue, NW Washington, D.C.

Dear Sandy [McPherson, poet and professor, who had written to Hecht while preparing for a course on “Love and Desire in Contemporary American Poetry”],
Though it’s hard to remember the genesis of some poems written a long time ago, I think that “The Ghost in the Martini” had, as it were, two illegitimate parents. One was Max Beerbohm, who wrote a Foreword to a reissue of his early novel, Zuleika Dobson, in which he announced that he had not ventured to make any changes in the book because he was keenly aware of how its young author would have resented the supervision of some elderly fogy breathing down his neck. The other parent was Mark Strand, whose poem, “The Man in the Tree,” though it seems at first to have two characters, has actually, the more one studies it, only one. I once read “The Ghost in the Martini” to an audience in England which included W. H. Auden, who, after the reading was over, said that he was surprised I could get that drunk on one martini.

“The End of the Weekend” is based on an anecdote told to me by Ted Hughes at the time he and Sylvia Plath lived in Northampton, MA, when Sylvia and I both taught at Smith College, and where, it may be added, Ted was treated with chilling contempt. He applied for a teaching job there, and was told he was unqualified because he had no teaching experience.

“The Dover Bitch” started with its first sentence. I have always admired the Arnold poem on which it is based, and yet I also felt a marked impatience with Arnold’s way of making love into a form of redemption and substitution for any other form of transcendent experience. Putting that much weight on human fidelity in a love relationship is to burden it beyond the limits of any lightness or carefree spontaneity. It was to make love into something grimly solemn, like Victorian organ music, for which the word “lugubrious” could have been coined. The title of my poem was suggested to me by my friend, who at the time was also my colleague, Daniel Aaron. On the basis both of the poem and its title I have been accused of sexism, though when I wrote the poem I intended only to bring a spirit of levity and informality to the relations between men and women in the persons of Arnold’s poem.

With very best wishes,

Hear Anthony Hecht read “The Dover Bitch.”


For a real gift, hear Anthony Hecht read Sophocles’ “Oedipus at Colonus”

Read Christopher Ricks’ recent study of Hecht, inter alia, in True Friendship: Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht, and Robert Lowell Under the Sign of Eliot and Pound, first delivered as the inaugural The Anthony Hecht Lecture in the Humanities


This entry was posted in News and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

2 Responses to Letters by Anthony Hecht: In the Atelier

  1. Robert Babstock says:

    I have just finished a week in Atlanta perusing Mr. Hecht’s drafts and manuscripts. To see him continuously coming into his own is quite a thing to behold. Though these letters only hint at it, he is intimidatingly erudite. I am a high school English teacher; I would love to write something about my experience there. He really did make his way to Italy alot, junketing or no, and I was thinking of writing something called “Roman Holiday” (the name of one of his early poems and that Audrey Hepburn movie!) Also, how can I contact Mr. Post, who selected these letters

  2. Butark says:

    Great letters and why he is inquiring about poem rapping.