Sunday, March 14, 2010

`And Never Will'

“There is much about this I have never spoken about, and never will.”

These poignantly revealing words, eloquent in their refusal of eloquence, were spoken by Anthony Hecht in the book-length interview Anthony Hecht in Conversation with Philip Hoy (Between the Lines, 1999). Hecht recounts atrocities he witnessed while serving with the U.S. 97th Infantry Division in Europe during World War II. He was among the troops in April 1945 who liberated the extermination and slave-labor camp at Flossenburg, an annex of Buchenwald, where 500 prisoners a day were dying of typhus. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, unknown to Hecht at the time, had been hanged there for “antiwar activity” a few days earlier. (His final words, as the executioners took him away: “This is the end – for me, the beginning of life.”) Hecht says:

“The place, the suffering, the prisoners’ accounts were beyond comprehension. For years after I would wake shrieking.”

Hecht’s poems famously describe gruesome events – decapitation, flaying, live burials, gas chambers – and yet never shriek. He was a master of prosody and form. The grimness of his subjects is matched by the elegance of his formal designs. A shriek – or howl – is never poetry. Consider this opening stanza of a poem Hecht published in The New Statesman in 1982:

“The dowsed coals fume and hiss after your meal
Of grilled brook trout, and you saunter off for a walk
Down the fern trail. It doesn't matter where to,
Just so you're weeks and worlds away from home,
And among midsummer hills have set up camp
In the deep bronze glories of declining day.”

The scene is golden and elegiac. Only rereading discloses covert suggestions of horrors to come – “weeks and worlds away from home,” even “camp.” This is from “The Book of Yolek,” (collected in The Transparent Man, 1990). The poem is a rigorously fashioned sestina, the most difficult-to-write of forms. We marvel at the poem’s formal perfection as the horror – the murder of a 5-year-old boy by the Nazis -- approaches.

I reread Hecht’s poem after an anonymous reader sent me an “antiwar” poem that includes the lines “waterboard is meant to sound / like a seaside game.”


Anonymous said...

There's a very good article about Hecht's war experience in the July 2008 Yale Review, "Anthony Hecht: Private First Class" by Geoffrey Lindsay. If you admire Hecht, it's a must read.

Anonymous said...

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is, of course, counted a twentieth century Christian martyr. There is a lovely essay about him in Malcolm Muggeridge's book, "A Third Testament". The other essay subjects in this book include other well-known writers: Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky and Pascal for starters. Too bad he didn't throw in an essay on Dr. Johnson.


Paul said...

Two more excellent articles on Hecht's war poetry: David Mason's "'The Contemplation of Horror Is Not Edifying': Anthony Hecht as a War Poet" in Mason's collection of essays, Two Minds of a Western Poet (2011). The second is Geoffrey Lindsay's "Anthony Hecht in Occupied Japan" in the Fall 2011 issue of The Sewanee Review .