Anthony Evan Hecht was an American poet. His work combined a deep interest in form with a passionate desire to confront the horrors of 20th century history, with the Second World War, in which he fought, and the Holocaust being recurrent themes in his work.
Hecht was born in New York City to German-Jewish parents. He was educated at various schools in the city - he was a classmate of Jack Kerouac at one point - but showed no great academic ability, something he would later refer to as "conspicuous." However, as a freshman English student at Bard College in New York he discovered the works of Stevens,Auden, Eliot, and Dylan Thomas. It was at this point that he decided he would become a poet. Hecht's parents were not happy at his plans and tried to discourage them; even getting family friend Rob, better known as Dr. Seuss, to attempt to dissuade him.
In 1944, upon completing his final year at Bard, Hecht was drafted into the 97th Infantry Division and was sent to the battlefields in Europe. He saw a great deal of combat in Germany, France, and Czechoslovakia. However, his most significant experience occurred on April 23 1945. On this day Hecht's division helped liberate Flossenbürg concentration camp. Hecht was ordered to interview French prisoners in the hope of gathering evidence on the camp's commanders. Years later, Hecht said of this experience, "The place, the suffering, the prisoners' accounts were beyond comprehension. For years after I would wake shrieking."
After the war ended, Hecht took advantage of the G.I. bill to study under the poet-critic John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon College, Ohio. Here he came into contact with fellow poets such as Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, Elizabeth Bishop, and Allen Tate. He later received his master's degree from Columbia University. Hecht also attended the University of Iowa.
Hecht released his first collection, A Summoning of Stones, in 1954. In this work his mastery of a wide range of poetic forms were clear as was his awareness of the forces of history, which he had seen first hand. Even at this stage Hecht's poetry was often compared with that of Auden, with whom Hecht had become friends in 1951 during a holiday on the Italian island of Ischia, where Auden spent each summer. In 1993 Hecht published, The Hidden Law, a critical reading of Auden's body of work. During his career Hecht won many fans, and prizes, including the Prix de Rome in 1951 and the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his second work The Hard Hours. It was within this volume that Hecht first addressed his own experiences of World War II - memories that had caused him to have a nervous breakdown in 1959. Hecht spent three months in hospital following his breakdown, although he was spared electric shock therapy, unlike Sylvia Plath, whom he had encountered while teaching at Smith College.
Hecht's main source of income was as a teacher of poetry, most notably at the University of Rochester where he taught from 1967 to 1985. He also spent varying lengths of time teaching at other notable institutions such as Smith, Bard, Harvard, Georgetown, and Yale. Between 1982 and 1984, he held the esteemed position of Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Hecht won a number of notable literary awards including: the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (for the volume The Hard Hours), the 1983 Bollingen Prize, the 1988 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the 1997 Wallace Stevens Award, the 1999/2000 Frost Medal, and the Tanning Prize.
He is buried at the cemetery at Bard College.
For Heinrich Blucher and Hannah Arendt
Composed in the Tower before his execution
These moving verses, and being brought at that time
Painfully to the stake, submitted, declaring thus:
I have been wondering
What you are thinking about, and by now suppose
It is certainly not me.
But the crocus is up, and the lark, and the blundering
A dying firelight slides along the quirt
Of the cast iron cowboy where he leans
Against my father's books. The lariat
Whirls into darkness. My girl in skin tight jeans
How simple the pleasures of those childhood days,
Simple but filled with exquisite satisfactions.
The iridescent labyrinth of the spider,
Its tethered tensor nest of polygons