collected later poems

By Anthony Hecht

(Knopf, 256 pages, $25)

Anthony Hecht wrote poetry of a distinctly dour cast, and Collected Later Poems, the last book he published before dying of lymphoma last Wednesday, is a somehow fitting goodbye. This elegant omnibus edition, winner of the 2004 Los Angeles Times Book Prize, contains bitter poems about marriages lost and remembered. It also indulges the poet's enjoyment of death's ironic ubiquity. Even the poems from The Darkness and the Light, the volume that rounds out the collection, reveal Hecht regarding his hours with an accountant's toe-tapping impatience. How to rid himself, he seems to wonder, of the "merry, garish, mirthless carousel" of the day-to-day?

Hecht was born in New York in 1923, the same year as Denise Levertov, Louis Simpson and James Merrill. If his seriousness of purpose seemed out of date, that was always more an indictment of our times than of his refusal to adapt to them. After all, we live in an era when poetry has expanded to include everything from spoken word to the "lyric essay." Unlike poets working in these relatively new traditions, Hecht willingly donned the straitjacket of rhyme and meter, and proved how unquiet formal beauty could be.

Dip into Collected Later Poems, however, and a reader will quickly realize why Hecht was more than just a land bridge to tradition. There was always a wry, modern amusement to his verse. Sure, Hecht wrote of death and old age and darkness, but he was also willing to get down in the dirt and complain about his first wife taking him to "the cleaners." One senses a continuation of this event in "See Naples and Die," the beautiful narrative poem that unpeels the niceties from a marriage to discover its fatal flaw: "the agreement, upon instinct, of two people/Grandly to overestimate each other." Much of what redeems Hecht's poetry from becoming lugubrious can be found in this single line.

We are doing the best we can in spite of some terrible blind spots, Hecht suggested time and again in his poetry. "Flight among the Tombs" has some fun with this human failing by giving Death the voice and personality of an overworked beekeeper. "Ah, my poor erring flock," he drawls. Hecht's grim reaper would be ghoulish were his prey not so comically convinced they were immortal.

Hecht certainly did not share this hubris; death as a topic fascinated and obsessed him in his later work, and drove to him to write poems that achieve a level of portent similar to Poe's. In the end, however, his best work is neither derivative nor gloomy. Instead, it blesses us with a plangent deliverance that can only come from knowledge. When Hecht wrote about the "epaulets" of snow that winter sews onto shrubbery, we feel in our bones--not just our minds--why he once chanted, "Forlorn I make my threnody." This world is not just fallen, but brief, too. With Collected Later Poems, Anthony Hecht composed his own mournful elegy for it.