A Summoning of Stones, 1954
The Seven Deadly Sins, 1958
The Hard Hours, 1967
Millions of Strange Shadows, 1977
The Venetian Vespers, 1979
A Love for Four Voices: Homage to Franz Joseph Haydn, 1983
Collected Earlier Poems, 1990
The Transparent Man, 1990
Flight Among the Tombs, 1996
The Darkness and the Light, 2001
Seven Against Thebes, 1973 (of Aeschylus; with Helen Bacon)
Poem upon the Lisbon Disaster, 1977 (of Voltaire)
Obbligati: Essays in Criticism, 1986
The Hidden Law: The Poetry of W. H. Auden, 1993
On the Laws of Poetic Art, 1995
Anthony Hecht in Conversation with Philip Hoy, 1999
Jiggery Pokery: A Compendium of Double Dactyls, 1966 (with John Hollander)
The Essential Herbert, 1987
Anthony Evan Hecht (hehkt) was born in 1923, the older of two sons in an upper-middle-class but financially unstable family in New York City. His parents argued constantly, their irritation with each other compounded by their problems with Hecht’s younger brother, who was disabled and epileptic. Hecht was an indifferent student in the New York City public school system, but he recalls that, as a child, he was entranced by nursery rhymes, which “began his literary education” and which he “instinctively knew to be about the unspoken and unspeakable.” During his freshman year at the experimental Bard College (then an adjunct of Columbia University), he declared his desire to be a poet. He found those days amid the congenial collegiate atmosphere “unquestionably the happiest time of life up to that time” but underwent a radical reversal in circumstances when he was drafted in 1943. He took several books with him when he entered the armed service but found basic training so fatiguing that he feared he would never be able to enjoy reading again, “a terrifying kind of pre-death.”
During World War II, Hecht’s unit, the Ninety-seventh Infantry Division, saw action in Germany, and more than half the soldiers in his company were killed or wounded. They liberated Flossenberg, an annex of the Buchenwald extermination and slave-labor encampment, where Hecht was assigned to interview French prisoners. “The place, the suffering, the prisoners’ accounts were beyond comprehension,” Hecht has said, his “anger and revulsion” compounded by his family’s Jewish ancestry. His wartime experiences became an inescapable aspect of his assessment of human civilization, and themes of cruelty and suffering have been paramount features of his writing from the publication of his first poems. Significantly, decades after the war ended, Hecht observed, “When I hear empty talk about that war having been a ‘good war,’ as contrasted with, say, Vietnam, I maintain a fixed silence.”
After his discharge in 1946, Hecht entered Kenyon College on the G.I. Bill and studied with John Crowe Ransom, whose deep knowledge of traditional poetic forms profoundly influenced Hecht’s developing poetic style. In 1947 he returned to New York, where he enrolled in tutorials with Ransom’s friend Allen Tate at New York University. When Tate moved to the University of Minnesota, Hecht assumed the teaching duties in his course, beginning a lifelong commitment to the profession, while completing a master’s degree in English at Columbia in 1950. Following four years as an instructor at Bard, where he completed his first book of poetry, A Summoning of Stones, Hecht accepted a position as an assistant professor at Smith College, where he stayed from 1956 to 1959 before returning to Bard as an associate professor from 1961 to 1967. His achievements as a writer were recognized with Guggenheim Fellowships in 1954 and 1959, and his reputation reached national dimensions when The Hard Hours won the Pulitzer Prize.
Hecht’s dark view of human experience, while alleviated at times by a sardonic sense of humor, was conveyed by many poems in The Hard Hours, which described what the poet called “arid and defeated landscapes” that were “a means to express a desolation of the soul.” In addition to the facility with language and form which suggest that there might be some degree of consolation in the exercise of poetic craft, Hecht’s Millions of Strange Shadows offered love poems that resisted the dread world of cruelty and tyranny that he confronted in much of his work. In spite of the darkness pervasive in his poems, Hecht formulated an approach to the consideration of poetry in an academic setting where “humor and kindness prevailed,” his classes characterized by “his jovial laugh and his distinct fondness for wordplay,” an aspect of the poetic arts that led to his adroit manipulation of the double dactyl–a light verse form that he invented with John Hollander and which is demonstrated by their collaboration, Jiggery Pokery.
Hecht was named John H. Deane Professor of Rhetoric and Poetry at the University of Rochester in 1968, where he taught until 1985, with terms as a visiting professor at Harvard in 1973 and Yale in 1977. He was named consultant in poetry to the United States Library of Congress from 1982 to 1984 and in 1975 was named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He won Yale’s Bollingen Prize in poetry in 1983, received the Eugenio Montale Award for poetry in 1984, and assumed the position of university professor at Georgetown University in 1985, when he moved to Washington, D.C. As a kind of capstone to his career, he received the Robert Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America in 2000.