Taking its title from Psalms 139:12, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anthony Hecht’s latestand eighthbook of poetry, The Darkness and the Light, explores the simultaneity of good and evil. “The phrase in Psalms has to do with the difference between mortal and immortal sense of time and eternityand the fact that human beings are subject to views in which darkness is ignorance and danger and sadness…whereas light is wisdom and happiness and joy,” Hecht says of his first collection of poetry since 1996’s Flight Among the Tombs. “But, from a divine point of view, they are all subsumed into a single vision.”
That theme runs throughout Hecht’s new book, perhaps culminating in “Sarabande on Attaining the Age of Seventy-seven,” which is both an impressionistic celebration of the poet’s life and a resonant elegy for departed friends. “I’m now 78 years old, and certainly the most terrible event in my life was the Second World War and everything that went with itwhich included the atom bomb and the concentration camps and all sorts of brutalities,” the D.C. resident says. “That had the greatest impact on me of…anything that happened in the course of history during my lifetime.”
Hecht’s vision of World War II, which crops up frequently in his writing, does not share the Greatest Generation sentimentality of Tom Brokaw’s. In Hecht’s war, women and children were slaughtered in cold blood, and young soldiers were senselessly annihilated. “When we were trained in the United States before going overseas,” the veteran says, “soldiers were toldand this was meant to raise their moralethat for every man at the front, there were nine soldiers behind the lines doing everything to make sure that they had everything they needed. The truth, however, is that it can be read another way: that only one out of 10 was exposed to the dangers of war.” And Hecht, whose infantry division discovered the Flossenburg concentration camp, was one of those sweating the horrors of the front line: “I’ve written about [some aspects of the war] that not everybody who was in the service knows about.”
Upon returning from postwar occupation duty in Japan, Hecht studied with poet John Crowe Ransom at Ohio’s Kenyon College, where he began teaching and publishing his W.H. Auden- and T.S. Eliot-influenced poetry. Hecht’s workwhich has appeared everywhere from the Sewanee Review to the New Yorkerearned him a wealth of honors in subsequent decades, including a Pulitzer for 1967’s The Hard Hours and fellowships from the Ford Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Academy of American Poets.
Thirty-five years after first publishing in the Kenyon Review, the native New Yorker moved to D.C. to serve from 1982 to 1984 as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress (now called poet laureate consultant in poetry). But it was Hecht’s academic life that kept the poet in D.C. “During that time [at the Library of Congress], I became acquainted with Father Timothy Healy, who was the president of Georgetown [University], and he wondered whether I would be interested in coming to teach.” Hecht joined the faculty in 1985 and taught courses on Shakespeare and poetry.
After retiring from Georgetown in 1993, at the age of 70, Hecht and his wife decided to stay put in their adopted home, where he has been writing full time. “I’m very pleased with this city,” Hecht says. “It’s beautifully laid out; the plantingsthe groundsare beautifully kept up. The monuments are handsome; the museums are superb. The food is…pretty good.” Brent Burton