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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In the formal, unflinching intensity of his expressionistic sestinas, which have often been misrepresented and misunderstood, Hecht employed literary and rhetorical devices that contribute to and convey the themes of remembering and paying tribute to memory. Hecht exacted the moral imperative of representing ideas and acts, combining them with visions and the memory of visions, to define, dignify, and reconcile the ethos of an era.
Anthony Evan Hecht was born in New York City on January 16, 1923. He was graduated from Bard College in 1944 and spent the next three years in Europe and Japan as a rifleman in the U.S. Army. He was also briefly in the Counter-Intelligence Corps. With his unit, Hecht discovered the site of mass graves in an annex area of the Buchenwald concentration camp. This shattering experience would shape his worldview and influence the direction of his poetry.
Upon his return from Europe, Hecht took several teaching jobs, moving around from the Middle West to New England and finally back to New York. He spent a year at Kenyon College between 1947 and 1948 and studied with John Crowe Ransom, who was editing Kenyon Review and published several poems by the young poet. Hecht embraced Ransom’s New Critical perspective and soon afterward continued his tutelage under the Fugitives, working informally with Allen Tate. He went on to take a master’s degree from Columbia University in 1950.
His first book, A Summoning of Stones, appeared in 1954, the same year as his marriage to his first wife, the mother of their two sons. In 1971, Hecht was married to Helen D’Alessandro, who bore his third son. Over several decades, Hecht taught in a number of colleges and universities, including Kenyon College, the University of Iowa, New York University, Smith College, and Bard College. At the University of Rochester, he was the John H. Dean Professor of Poetry and Rhetoric from 1967 to 1982; during this time, he also spent brief periods as a visiting lecturer at Washington University, Harvard University, and Yale University. In 1982, for two years, Hecht was appointed poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. He went on to join the graduate faculty at Georgetown University. His career also led him to spend some time abroad, as a Fulbright professor in Brazil and a trustee of the American Academy in Rome.