Poet Anthony Hecht, winner of a Pulitzer Prize, told a packed audience in Calhoun College Thursday about the overwhelming self-doubt he used to face. When he compared himself to other poets, he said, he found it daunting to compete with them. But after years of learning from the styles of others, he said, he learned to speak in his own voice.
“You can still learn from Milton without writing an epic,” Hecht said, at the Calhoun Master’s Tea.
As students and faculty sat in silence, many with mouths agape, Hecht read selections from his poetry, including “Proust on Skates” and “Death the Film Director,” and a dramatic monologue. His writing explored themes of love, mortality, youth, and nature.
Though Hecht’s descriptions, such as “the puddled oil was a miracle of colors,” left audience members temporarily immobile, he made the crowd laugh with several comments. He introduced his poem “After the Rain” with an anecdote about a reader who sent him an angry letter in objection to his rhyming of the words “neuter” and “pewter.”
Hecht, who has taught at colleges and universities including Kenyon, Bard, the University of Rochester, Harvard, Yale and Georgetown, won the Robert Frost Medal in 2000. He also won a 1968 Pulitzer Prize for his poetry collection The Hard Hours.
Hecht answered audience questions about his accomplishments and personal experiences as a poet, and gave his opinion on the value of poetry in society.
“Poetry has no distinctive social function, but it provides the impulse toward meditation,” Hecht said.
He said it is essential for every writer to believe he is getting better as years pass. On the subject of aging, he said growing old occupies his mind, but doesn’t prevent a youthful point of view in his poetry.
Hecht, who is known for acknowledging other writers and artists in his work, also mentioned T.S. Eliot, Robert Louis Stevenson, William Shakespeare, W.H. Auden, W.B. Yeats and John Keats during his talk Thursday. While he did not hide his appreciation for writers of the past, Hecht said that he finds value in modern poetry.
“I am enthusiastic and hopeful about poetry today,” Hecht said.
He named a number of contemporary poets, including Mary Jo Salter and Joseph Harrison, whose work he admires.
Katherine Collier ’05, who attended the talk, said she became interested in Hecht’s poetry after doing a project about him in high school.
“Though I know little about poetry, I truly admire his craft and his interest in the classics,” she said.
Other audience members expressed similar appreciation for Hecht.
“He is the poetic father I never knew I had,” said David Gorin ’04, who plans to write his senior thesis on Hecht. “He has an incredible narrative and epic mode of writing, while using contemporary diction.”
Other students, such as Brock Forsblom ’07, were not familiar with Hecht’s work before the Master’s Tea, but said they enjoyed his readings. Forsblom first discovered Hecht’s name while reading his review of Robert Fagles’s translation of The Iliad, and decided to come to the Master’s Tea to learn more about Hecht as a poet.
“He conjures these fabulous, almost picture painted images with his words, even though he writes so intellectually,” Forsblom said.