Anthony Ivan Hecht was born on January 16, 1923, in New York City, to German-Jewish parents. His literary career, he once said, would begin soon after, with the intrigue and enchantment of nursery rhyme songs that he dwelt upon and tried to envision. With “My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean”—which he misheard as “My Body Lies over the Ocean”—his visions of such ghoulish ditties, though frightening, encouraged his appetite for poetry. He instinctively knew poetry to be about the unspoken and the unspeakable, which would influence him for the next eighty years.
Hecht was an average student at three different New York grade schools and then entered Bard College in Annandale on Hudson—a progressive branch of Columbia University—in 1940. It was there Hecht discovered the poetry of Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, and W. H. Auden; where he enjoyed the happiest years of his life; and where he found his calling—poetry.
However, his businessman father and mother recruited a family friend to dispirit Hecht in his poetic pursuits. They called Theodore Geisel and wife Helen to dinner, so that Ted (also known as Dr. Seuss) could dissuade the foolish teen. Geisel chatted with him, urging that he read Joseph Pulitzer’s biography first. Not knowing much about Pulitzer, save that he was a newsman, but guessing the book to be one of the most discouraging he could read, Hecht neglected the advice.
His writing ambitions were interrupted when, after the outbreak of World War II, Hecht was drafted by the U.S. Army in 1943. Though his father again tried to intervene, making what Hecht described to interviewer Philip Hoy as a “foolish and pitiful attempt” to get his boy discharged by reporting his own history of breakdowns, young Hecht—ashamed of his father’s actions and unwilling to fake insanity for a Section 8 discharge—expressed his sound hatred for the Army, displayed mild but meaningful insubordination by refusing to call a draft board officer “Sir,” and was admitted.
An active member of the 97th Infantry Division, Hecht toured in combat through Europe. Though he would later insist in conversation with writer Bruce Cole that his part in the war was a modest one, one he refused to posture with, his participation in the discovery and liberation of prisoners in the Flossenburg pogrom—a Nazi extermination and slave-labor camp in the Bavarian Forest near the Czech border and the infamous Buchenwald—provoked the haunting, recurring themes...
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