By Anthony Hecht

Knopf. 75 pp. $18.95


By Anthony Hecht

Knopf. 272 pp. $22.95

POETS ARE our best authorities on death. Religion would like to have the job, but by its very doctrinal confidence it avoids the nagging question pondered by Hamlet, that archetype of the poetic character: What if, after we're dead, there isn't anything else, just our actuarial allotment and then the Big Sleep? Is that a consummation to be wished? One of poetry's tersest answers is to be found in a chorus from Sophocles's "Oedipus at Colonus":

Not to be born is, past all yearning, best.

And second best is, having seen the light,

To return at once to deep oblivion . . .

Among contemporary poets writing in English none has fixed a more unwavering gaze on this cheerless theme, nor sounded that Sophoclean note so truly as Anthony Hecht (from whose latest collection, The Transparent Man, the above translation is drawn).

Hecht does have other notes to sound: He paints admirable land- and seascapes; he has a Mozartean vivacity in depicting affairs of the heart; he can be consummately civilized and witheringly cruel. But in all these other modes there is a darkness to Hecht's poetry that derives from his lifelong intimacy with death, as though paintings by Boucher or Monet were to be filtered through the palette of Marsden Hartley.

We Americans are supposed, as a rule, to be squeamish about death, but that rule surely doesn't apply to American poets. Hecht is one of a long honor guard led off by William Cullen Bryant, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. That lineage noticeably thins out with the advent of modernism (except for the separate category of the suicides: Crane, Plath, Berryman, et al.). Perhaps a pronounced interest in death is essentially at odds with the modernist injunction to make it new. Hecht, at any rate, is the most adamantly old-fashioned of all contemporary poets of the first rank.

This has been evident since his first collection of 1954, A Summoning of Stones, which manifests his traditionalism not only in the topiaried elegance of its formal verse but also by its donnish allusiveness to the whole gamut of West Civ. Hecht jests with Plato, tells a ballad tale of 18th-century London, discourses on a painting by Memling and writes a rhymed epistle in the manner of Byron's "Childe Harold," which begins:

I write from Rome. Last year, the Holy Year,

The flock was belled, and pilgrims came to see

How milkweed mocked the buried engineer,

Wedging between his marble works, where free

and famished went the lions forth to tear

A living meal from the offending knee,

And where, on pagan ground turned to our good,

Santa Maria sopra Minerva stood.

To appreciate such poetry one must first of all have read enough history to know what is being discussed, and enough poetry to appreciate the Augustan balance of "A living meal from the offending knee" and to relish the double-take set up by that archly precise "offending." Readers not schooled for such tasks (most, probably) or those who prefer poetry to serve as an introduction to new friends (the commonest mission of poetry in our time) will resent Hecht for being such a smartypants or feel miffed by his reticence. Even when he writes about himself, as he does, unsparingly, in "See Naples and Die," the long centerpiece poem in his new collection, Hecht is not at pains to have us like him. Indeed, he comes across as a difficult person. But what a poet!

Poem by poem, Hecht must be reckoned the peer of Richard Wilbur and James Merrill. At that level of dependably near-perfect accomplishment further comparisons are as nugatory as between Byron, Keats and Shelley. Hecht has been less prolific than Wilbur or Merrill, but that can be an asset from a readerly point of view, as it allows one the pleasure of surveying Hecht's oeuvre without assuming the rigors of a graduate seminar, a civility not be enjoyed in the company of busier writers.

It is a commonplace in reviewing poetry to salute each subsequent book as better than the last, but Hecht's last, The Venetian Vespers of 1979, was so good that virtually every poem in it (except the translations of poems by Joseph Brodsky) seems destined for decades of anthologization. Not every poem in The Transparent Man is of the same unequivocal excellence, only a majority. But on his peculiar theme of death Hecht has produced a sheaf of elegies -- the fifth section of the book -- that are quietly, sublimely beyond all praise. Perhaps not to be born is best, but second best is to have lived long enough for Anthony Hecht to have written one's epitaph.

Thomas M. Disch is a poet and novelist whose books include a children's fairy tale, "The Brave Little Toaster," and a forthcoming collection of poems, "Yes, Let's."