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April 25, 2014

The Life of Poet Ed Hirsch

Edward Hirsch isn't the first American poet to say that poetry is not part of the fabric of culture in the United States. Muriel Rukeyser detailed this problem in her book The Life of Poetry in 1949. Still, the message Hirsch delivers--that "poetry is a form of necessary speech"--is every bit imperative now as it was for Rukeyser at the end of World War II. Americans, especially men, are embarrassed by, if not fearful of, their feelings, which is what poetry confronts.Hirsch-Charles2.jpg

On April 23, 2014, the Dresser attended a tightly packed room in Washington, DC's Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital to hear Hirsch being interviewed by Washington Post critic and editor Ron Charles. The program is part of the series sponsored by the Library of Congress and The Washington Post known as "The Life of a Poet." Ever since the Dresser read his celebratory poem "Wild Gratitude," she has been a fan of this man from humble origins.

Among the many questions Charles asked, one led to Hirsch relating the story about how he as an eight-year-old boy came across poems his recently deceased grandfather had handwritten in the back of his books. The grandfather's books led to a misunderstanding that followed Hirsch to high school when he discovered that Emily Bronte had written some of the poems that Hirsch believed were by his grandfather. It's a story he has told many times, but Hirsch's introduction to poetry bears repeating, given that American men think poetry is for sissies.

So why did Hirsch, who had played college football and worked in factory jobs to pay for his college education--something his parents never had, why did he give over his life to poetry? He answered, "It delivers something you cannot get elsewhere."

At this juncture, Charles challenged Hirsch, who has written passionately on how to access poetry (e.g. his book How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry), to explain how metaphor works. Hirsch said while metaphor equates one thing to another, it is the way a metaphor functions that binds the poet and the reader together. "Right away there is a contradiction," he said in dealing with the metaphor Charles asked him to talk about--the heart is a pomegranate. Why? Because we know our heart isn't a piece of fruit, he explained. However, what a poet does with the extended metaphor is when the conversation with the reader becomes crucial. If the reader cannot participate in joining these unlike things together then the metaphor fails. And Hirsch has this kind of information ready for his readers in his new book A Poet's Glossary.

In answering many of Charles' questions, Hirsch emphasized how much he considers the dramatic situation that arises out of his subject matter. For example in his recurring theme of insomnia and how that wakefulness comes with a "roaming consciousness," the drama of facing one's aloneness and proverbial "dark night of the soul."

This subject of dramatic situation always comes up in writing about love but Hirsch cautioned that a love poem is not a love letter. Love letters should always be private.

Dramatic situation is also how he handled the subject of his mother-in-law's death in the poem "Blunt Morning." Here are the opening stanzas.

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The poem and the way Hirsch read it in his boyish and sad voice made the Dresser feel like the distance between her chair and the poet's had become so small that he, the poet, and she, the audience, had joined together in private lamentation, such that there was no one else in the room.

What came next from Ron Charles was breathtaking. When Rob Casper from the Library of Congress introduced this poet of many substantial awards, including the five-year MacArthur Fellowship that most of know as the genius award, Casper said Hirsch's forthcoming book, Gabriel, was an elegy for his son. Without pulling any punches, Charles asked Hirsch to tell the audience about his son and this book. Hirsch seemed taken by complete surprise and said he wasn't sure how to talk about this subject, which he considers "unnatural," that is writing elegies for a child who was 22 in 2011 when he died. The forthcoming book is an 80-page poem about a boy who was adopted as a baby and who had suffered troubles ever since. Hirsch said, before Gabriel came into his life he believed in nurture over nature, but he came to learn sadly this would never work with his son. There was "no escape from unbearable grief" and Hirsch as a father had to do something with this pain so he wrote this poem because he didn't want Gabriel to be forgotten. As with poems that Hirsch wrote mourning for his father, the poet established an ongoing argument with God over the injustice of such loss. Hirsch says he can't believe in God, but the fact that he continues to have these conversations with God contradicts his stance on religion. Then he referred to this poem,


Traffic was heavy coming off the bridge
and I took the road to the right, the wrong one,
and got stuck in the car for hours.

Most nights I rushed out into the evening
without paying attention to the trees,
whose names I didn't know,
or the birds, which flew heedlessly on.

I couldn't relinquish my desires
or accept them, and so I strolled along
like a tiger that wanted to spring,
but was still afraid of the wildness within.

The iron bars seemed invisible to others,
but I carried a cage around inside me.

I cared too much what other people thought
and made remarks I shouldn't have made.
I was silent when I should have spoken.

Forgive me, philosophers,
I read the Stoics but never understood them.

I felt that I was living the wrong life,
spiritually speaking,
while halfway around the world
thousands of people were being slaughtered,
some of them by my countrymen.

So I walked on--distracted, lost in thought--
and forgot to attend to those who suffered
far away, nearby.

Forgive me, faith, for never having any.

I did not believe in God,
who eluded me.

--Edward Hirsch

The Dresser wonders if the next Poet Laureate of the United States will be Edward Hirsch. Like the current Laureate Natasha Trethewey and such past Laureates as Philip Levine, Hirsch knows how to reach people in the general American population who do not usually read poetry.


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