January 16, 1923, is the birthdate of Anthony Hecht, whose career as a poet spanned the second half of the 20th century and included a stint as poet laureate of the United States. Some of his best work, most critics agree, was informed by the indelible experience of being a liberator of a German concentration camp during World War II.
Anthony Evan Hecht was born and raised in New York, the older of the two sons of Melvin Hahlo Hecht and the former Dorothea Holzman. The father was a banker who got into serious financial difficulties during the Depression, while his mother was a homemaker who during World War II worked in a classified position in the military censor’s office. Both of his parents were descended from German-Jewish families that arrived in America in the mid-19th century.
Hecht’s upbringing was privileged. He attended several of New York’s most exclusive private schools (at Horace Mann School, Jack Kerouac was a classmate), though his academic mediocrity, he later observed, was “conspicuous.”
At age 17, Hecht entered Bard College, at the time a branch of Columbia University, where, in his first year he had his initial encounter with poetry and “fell in love” with it, as he testified.
No cure for poetry from Dr. Seuss
His parents were concerned when their son announced his plan to make poetry his profession, and asked a family friend, Theodor Geisel, to try talking him out of his plan to become a professional poet. Geisel – better known to the public by his pen name, “Dr. Seuss” – tried, to no avail.
Hecht was drafted in 1943, shortly before his college graduation (he received his degree in absentia), and was sent with the U.S. Army’s 97th Infantry Division to Europe. He saw action in France, Germany and Czechoslovakia – and was present on April 23, 1945, when the Flossenburg camp in Bavaria was liberated.
Hecht was assigned to interview French-speaking prisoners, and to collect evidence to be used for the prosecution of the camp’s commanders. Later he said that the things he heard “were beyond comprehension. For years after I would wake shrieking.”
Mental illness and double dactyls
Hecht suffered several episodes with mental illness in the decades that followed, but this did not prevent him from publishing seven books of poetry and several additional volumes of literary criticism; or from a long career of teaching at the University of Rochester as well as the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Yale, Bard, Georgetown and Harvard. His appointment as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, commonly referred to as “poet laureate,” was in 1982-84. Hecht was married twice, and had three children.
His writing was formalist in structure, and often revealed great literary erudition. He could also be playful when he wrote humorous verse, such as “The Dover Bitch,” a response to Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” or in the limerick-like form he helped invent called the “double dactyl.” In 1967, he and John Hollander co-edited “Jiggery-Pokery: A Compendium of Double Dactyls.”
Probably Hecht’s most acclaimed book was the 1967 collection “The Hard Hours,” which earned him a Pulitzer Prize. It was only now, more than two decades after the end of the war, that the poet began to process what he had witnessed, through his verse.
The poem “Rites and Ceremonies,” declared the New York Times in its obituary for Hecht, “marks his coming into his own,” in which the poet “was announcing his serious taking up of his profession,” as he addressed the Holocaust head on. “More Light! More Light!,” from the same volume also described the Holocaust directly.
Speaking to the Washington Post at the time of Hecht’s death, Dana Gioia, then the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, said that the poet “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.”
Anthony Hecht died of lymphoma in Washington, D.C., on October 20, 2004.