Anthony Hecht was born in 1923, which means he belongs to the generation of writers who served in World War II and hit their stride in the 1950s. From the perspective of the cultural anarchy that was about to break loose, the Fifties are usually dismissed as a timorous and conformist decade: the cold war was at its height, nuclear catastrophe seemed imminent, Senator McCarthy was on the rampage, and liberals everywhere kept their heads well below the parapet.
That, certainly, was how it felt in exhausted postwar England, but—for this Englishman at least—the atmosphere was altogether livelier in the US, McCarthy notwithstanding. Instead of being cowed or stifled by the ubiquitous sense of menace, the Abstract Expressionist painters and their poetic equivalents—Lowell, Berryman, Plath—responded to it by turning inward; they used their private troubles as a mirror for the troubles all around, and the work they produced was anything but conformist. As for intellectual life, the arguing didn’t stop or become less fierce, it merely changed focus: from Marx to Freud, from dialectical materialism to the New Criticism. For a brief period, literature seemed to replace politics and religion as a source of true values, just as Matthew Arnold had predicted, and even literary criticism seemed like a noble vocation.
In other words, the Fifties were a serious decade and the Fifties poets took their art seriously. It was a craft, a skill to be learned, a hard discipline, like drawing from life, that stayed with you no matter what you did with it later. That was one of its many attractions for Anthony Hecht when he was fresh out of the army and trying to put his life back together again, courtesy of the GI Bill of Rights. It was a long and difficult task and he had a lot to work at, starting with his childhood in New York. His family was upper-middle-class, but flaky and thwarted and downwardly mobile, always on the edge of financial ruin; his younger brother was crippled and epileptic; his parents loathed each other and didn’t much care for their two children, whom they manipulated relentlessly in their shameful squabbles. Then the war came. Hecht was conscripted into the army, fought as a GI in Europe, and was present at the liberation of the Flossenbürg concentration camp, an annex of Buchenwald—experiences that darkened his already bleak view of the world, eventually helped to precipitate a breakdown, and seem to have stayed with him ever since.
The GI Bill took him to Kenyon College, where he studied under John Crowe Ransom, began to teach, and published his first poems. Ran-som himself was a gifted poet, witty, tender, gentlemanly, and technically conservative. From him, Hecht has written, “one learned to pay keen attention to poetic detail.” He was also a master craftsman, which must have encouraged the younger poet’s fascination with poetic forms and their uses. But unlike Lowell, who had preceded him at Kenyon, Hecht …