J. D. McClatchy

J. D. McClatchy: On "A Hill"

[McClatchy’s essay focuses on "A Hill" as a poem profoundly representative of all Hecht’s work; the essay returns to the poem as a base by which to understand later work.]

… All of these anatomies of melancholy seem the most autobiographical of Hecht’s poems, even when they include the added displacement of characterized voices and plots. That might just make them the more identifiable as dreams. Like "Peripeteia," "A Hill" calls itsel a vision or dream. And it seems more of a private poem than a personal one. Its juxtaposition of images – piazza and hill – is evidently charged with private associations and meant to operate both within the poem and on the reader as dream-work will. The images are not superimposed, but displaced, the one by the other, the later by the earlier – and both recalled, as if by an analysand, a decade later. The poem cannot be read as any simple alternation of manifest and latent meanings. The action here is the emergence of a suppressed memory. The poem itseld does not offer any elaboration or explanation. But the reader who remembers a bit of Hecht’s biography may have some clues. The Roman setting, for instance. During the Second World War, Hecht served in the Army, in both Europe and Japan, and returned home to a slow and difficult period of readjustment. "Like most others who saw any combat at all," he writes, "I experienced a very pronounced and fully conscious sense of guilt at surviving when others, including friends, had not." Then, in 1951, he was awarded the first Prix de Rome writing fellowship ever granted by the American Academy in Rome, and he returned to Europe. Rome, then, carried for the poet a sense of triumph and guilt. And it is not just the burden of history or of artistic tradition (mention of the Farnese Palace focuses that) that presses on the poet until, like Dante, he faints at the intensity of his own imagining but the fact that Rome is where he has been sent, as if in luxurious exile, that makes it appropriate as a scene of instruction.

And what of the hill, the infernal landscape? Poughkeepsie? Perhaps. A state of soul? More likely. And with its factory-wall and hunter, it is a landscape out of [W. H.] Auden as well. Let us say it is actual and literary, psychological and metaphysical. And with only slightly altered topography it recurs in several other poems [McClatchy cites portions of Hecht’s "Exile" and "The Short End."]

Such memories hover over the landscape of "A Hill." But for Hecht himself, though he rigorously excluded them from the poem, there are specific personal associations. In a letter to me, he once explained:

As for "A Hill," it is the nearest I was able to come in that early book to what [T. S.] Eliot somewhere describes as an obsessive image or symbol – something from deep in our psychic life that carries a special burden of meaning and feeling for us. In my poem I am really writing about a pronounced feeling of loneliness and abandonment in childhood, which I associate with a cold and unpeopled landscape. My childhood was doubtless much better than that of many, but my brother was born epileptic when I was just over two, and from then on all attention was, very properly, focused on him. I have always felt that desolation, that hell itself, is most powerfully expressed in an uninhabited natural landscape at its bleakest.

… [T]he poem then ends abruptly, even melodramatically, as if further to arrest the action of interpretation. The speaker reverts to childhood, and stands – as, in a sense, the reader does too – before the hill in winter, blank as a page. The clarification and connections we might expect to follow are omitted. But the point of the poem, what the reader is invited to contemplate, is not really the explication of personal experience, but an understanding of the forces of experience itself – forces that are embodied in the poem’s contrasting styles. The poem ends with an image, not a moral. The tense of the last line could as well have been changed from the historical past to the present indicative – "It is winter. I am standing, for hours, before it " – to underscore the fact that he is describing a condition rather than an occurrence. …

J. D. McClatchy on: "The Truth the Dead Know"

All My Pretty Ones opens on "The Truth the Dead Know," which is their absolute isolation, against which the poet fights to save both herself and her dead parents. Her father's death, three months after her mother's, intervened not only between the different concerns of these first two books but also between the completed realization of her inheritance: in the fine print of their wills, the poet fears to find her father's alcoholism and her mother's cancer, which would at the same time prove her their daughter and destroy her. The sins of the father are revisited in the title poem, which blends memories and objects like snapshots out of order to invoke the man's loss and, again, her guilty. . . .

From Anne Sexton: The Artist and Her Critics. Ed. J.D. McClatchy. Copyright © 1978 by J.D. McClatchy.