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Poet, Essayist Anthony Hecht Dies at 81

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 22, 2004; Page B07

Anthony Hecht, one of America's most distinguished poets of the past half-century, whose musically exquisite verse expressed dark observations about mankind, died Oct. 20 of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma at his home in Washington.

Mr. Hecht, who was 81, had won the Pulitzer Prize and many other awards when he moved to Washington in 1982 as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress -- one of the nation's highest honors for a poet. In 1985, after his two-year term expired, he became a professor at Georgetown University, from which he retired in 1993. He continued to write poems until near the time of his death.

Anthony Hecht, who taught at Georgetown University, won the Pulitzer and other prizes for poetry.

"Anthony Hecht is indisputably one of the greatest poets of his age," said Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and a respected poet. "He wrote unabashedly in the high style, but he did so with such emotional force and exquisite musicality that his poems went directly to your heart."

Mr. Hecht was a classicist in style, defying modern poetic conventions, in which a writer's unfiltered ruminations and fulminations sometimes go right onto the page. He wrote with gemlike precision, mindful of centuries of poetic tradition.

Mr. Hecht's poems contained allusions to Greek tragedy and myth, the English metaphysical poets of the 17th century, Shakespeare, 19th-century French symbolists and such 20th-century predecessors as T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens and one of his close friends, Elizabeth Bishop. But the poet he most modeled his work after was W.H. Auden, about whom he once wrote a book of essays.

In 1979, Michael Dirda of The Washington Post praised Mr. Hecht as "the most accomplished master of technique since Auden."

Mr. Hecht opposed biographical criticism, in which people make assumptions about a poet's life from his work, but in fact his poems often revolved around personal reflections, whether of love, lost opportunities or despair.

"Hecht exemplifies the paradox of great art," Gioia said. "He found a way to take his tragic sense of life and make it so beautiful that we have to pay attention to its painful truth."

The work of which he might have been most proud, according to his wife, was "The Venetian Vespers" (1979), a 26-page narrative poem in which his descriptions on the decay of Venice are transformed into a mediation on corruption, sadness and a deep, underlying sense of tragedy about, as he wrote, "Something profoundly soiled, pointlessly hurt."

But his vision was not unremittingly bleak. In the 1950s, he invented a humorous poetic form similar to a limerick called the double dactyl, which begins with two three-syllable nonsense words, such as "Higgledy, piggledy."

Mr. Hecht, who was born in New York City on Jan. 16, 1923, showed no great poetic promise as a child and later called his academic mediocrity "conspicuous." But as a freshman at Bard College in New York, he fell under the spell of Stevens, Eliot, Auden and Dylan Thomas and determined then and there to be a poet.

When he received his bachelor's degree in 1944, he already was serving as an Army infantryman in France, Germany and Czechoslovakia, where he saw a great deal of combat.

He also witnessed the liberation of the Flossenburg concentration camp near the Czech-German border, an event that affected him deeply, particularly because he was Jewish.

"The place, the suffering, the prisoners' accounts were beyond comprehension," he said later. "For years after, I would wake shrieking."

After the war, he studied at Kenyon College in Ohio with John Crowe Ransom, the mentor of many poets, and later received a master's degree from Columbia University. He embarked on a teaching career that eventually took him to the University of Rochester (N.Y.) from 1967 to 1985.

Over the years, he received numerous fellowships and awards, including the Bollingen Prize in Poetry in 1983 and, in 1997, the Tanning Prize. Mr. Hecht published his first poetry collection in 1954, and his second, "The Hard Hours," won the Pulitzer Prize in 1968.

His later books included "Collected Early Poems" (1990), "Flight Among the Tombs" (1998), "The Darkness and the Light" (2001) and "Collected Later Poems" (2003). He also wrote three books of essays, translated poetry from Greek and French and edited works of other poets.

"One of the remarkable things about Hecht's career," Gioia said, "is that he became more productive as he got older, with no diminution of his ability. That's really unusual. Most poets peak early."

Mr. Hecht was known for his commanding presence, with his white hair and beard, his well-tailored suits and his polished manner. He often wove learned references to art, music and history into his poems.

His first marriage, to Patricia Harris Hecht, ended in divorce. After their divorce, she took their two sons to Europe for several years, which led to a depression so severe that Mr. Hecht was hospitalized. He wrote about their absence in some of his poems.

Survivors include his wife of 33 years, Helen D'Alessandro Hecht, of Washington; their son, Evan Hecht of New York; the two sons from his first marriage, Adam Hecht of North Bend, Ore., and Jason Hecht of Northampton, Mass.; and two grandchildren.

Mr. Hecht was known for his dark, serious themes, but he also was capable of lyrical evocations of love, particularly in such poems as "Peripeteia," in which he compares his wife to Miranda, a character in Shakespeare's "The Tempest":

Miraculous Miranda, steps from the stage . . .

And leads me out of the theater, into a night

As luminous as noon, more deeply real,

Simply because of her hand, than any dream

Shakespeare or I or anyone ever dreamed.

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