The 1968 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry: Anthony Hecht’s “The Dark Hours”

1968 was undoubtedly a year filled with political and social chaos, but also influential and defining moments in poetry. Especially during a time where uncertainty and unrest had become the norm, various forms of literature like poetry served as an essential means for individuals to express themselves, their discontent and reflections regarding the events that were happening around them, in both subtle and unambiguous manners. While Anthony Hecht’s The Hard Hours may not explicitly provide commentary on the chaotic events unfolding in 1968, its overarching theme of supporting order in times of chaos eloquently encapsulates the sentiments felt by many during these trying times.

Pulitzer Prize

The Pulitzer Prize is an American award that celebrates and honors notable works of literature, magazines, newspapers, online journalism and musical composition [1]. The Pulitzer Prize was established in 1917 by Joseph Pulitzer, a distinguished newspaper publisher [1]. Some notable poets that have won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry include Robert Frost, Robert Lowell and Richard Wilbur [2]. The memory site analyzed in this post is the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, which was awarded to Anthony Hecht for his book of poems, The Hard Hours [3].

Anthony Hecht’s mastery of linguistic control and traditional forms has earned him the status of being one of the most influential American poets of the 20th century. According to The Poetry Foundation, Hecht is described by many as a “Traditionalist”, as his pieces often featured references to traditional works of French Literature, Greek myth and tragedy, and English poetry – nevertheless, his poems successfully incorporated his own creative and individual voice while utilizing and contributing to traditional themes [4].

Anthony Hecht

Hecht’s The Hard Hours (1967) is often referred to as his “break-through” volume and won him the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1968 [4]. In The Hard Hours, Hecht utilizes his traumatizing and disturbing experiences as a soldier in Europe during World War II to provide commentary on the evil and wicked components of human nature – Hecht accomplishes this in this collection of poems through the use of his trademark lucid and flowing verse [4].

Dana Gioia (American poet and writer) on Anthony Hecht:

“Hecht exemplifies the paradox of great art. … He found a way to take his tragic sense of life and make it so beautiful that we have to pay attention to its painful truth.” [4]

Hecht’s poetic pieces prior to The Hard Hours (i.e. A Summoning of Stones (1954)) were described by critics as “mannered” and “dated” [4]. The Hard Hours was a defining and pivotal piece for Hecht because it marked a departure from the style he was previously criticized for using and transition to a more limpid and natural writing style [4].

“The Hard Hours” by         Anthony Hecht (1967)

Laurence Lieberman (American poet and professor) from Yale Review on Hecht’s writing style:

“In contrast with the ornate style of many Hecht’s earlier poems, the new work is characterized by starkly undecorated – and unpretentious – writing.” [4]

Hecht’s The Hard Hours represents a significant site of memory that characterizes the tumultuous year of 1968 due to its primary theme of asserting order over chaos. During such a tumultuous period, it is not hard to imagine that individuals could easily empathize and relate with such an idea. Perhaps the clearest parallel between the contents of The Dark Hours and the events unfolding throughout 1968 is the atrocities of war. The Dark Hours recounts Hecht’s first-hand experiences with World War II (i.e. collecting evidence from French Prisoners, liberating concentration camps) – on a related note, 1968 was a pivotal year in the Vietnam War with the Tet Offensive. Given the growing resistance and adverse sentiments towards the Vietnam War from the home-front, having a collection of poems that explicitly speak to the darkness of human nature and the atrocities of war win the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry represented a timely reminder to the American people of how brutal war can be and make people behave.

With regards to the legacy of Hecht’s “The Hard Hours” 50 years later, the memory of his 1968 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry may be considered partial in the sense in that on the official “The Pulitzer Prizes” website for 1968 Pulitzer Prizes, some awards (i.e. journalism) receive brief blurbs explaining why the respective recipients were awarded, but Hecht’s The Hard Hours did not receive such a description. Through navigating the website, one cannot find what The Hard Hours is about or why it was deserving of this award, indicating that the memory of his award is less accessible than others [5].

Additionally, in an article written by David Biespiel in the Rumpus that recounts 1968 as a historic year for poetry, Biespiel states that he believes that Hecht’s The Hard Hours had little influence on modern American poets – this speaks to the partial and unpredictable nature of memory as the audience of Biespiel’s article may be influenced by his opinion and there was/is no way of telling whether or how The Hard Hours, written in 1967, would  influence the American poets of today [6]. Nevertheless, the memory of Hecht’s The Hard Hours lives on through websites such as goodreads, where individuals come together to continue the discussion on Hecht’s poetic style, along with their opinions on his works.

Sources:

  1. Topping, Seymour. “History of the Pulitzer Prizes.” The Pulitzer Prizes. The Pulitzer Prizes. http://www.pulitzer.org/page/history-pulitzer-prizes.
  2. “Poetry.” The Pulitzer Prizes. The Pulitzer Prizes. http://www.pulitzer.org/prize-winners-by-category/224.
  3. Staff, Harriet. “1968: Poetry’s Year of Years.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. 22 Feb. 2013. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2013/02/1968-poetrys-year-of-years.
  4. “Anthony Hecht (1923-2004).” Poetry Foundation.  Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/anthony-hecht.
  5. “1968 Pulitzer Prizes.” The Pulitzer Prizes. The Pulitzer Prizes. http://www.pulitzer.org/prize-winners-by-year/1968.
  6. Biespiel, David. David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: Going Back to 1968. The Rumpus. 20 Feb. 2013. http://therumpus.net/2013/02/david-biespiels-poetry-wire-going-back-to-1968/.

Media:

Image, “Pulitzer Prize”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pulitzer_Prize#/media/File:Gen_pulitzer.jpg

Image, “Anthony Hecht”: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/anthony-hecht

Image, “‘The Hard Hours’ by Anthony Hecht (1967)”: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1868167.The_Hard_Hours

 

Eric Mai