Judith Harris: I assume that in the years between high school, when you first started writing poetry, and the publication of your first book, when you were thirty-one, your work was changing as you developed your craft. What were the earliest poems that appear in For the Sleepwalkers, and at what point did you write them? How were they a departure from your previous work?
Edward Hirsch: I sometimes wonder what I was doing all those lonely years of writing, which now seem so short, but I suppose I was putting myself through my own difficult apprenticeship, trying out all the forms, soaking up everything, imitating everyone from John Donne to John Berryman, excitedly learning my craft. I took seriously Pound’s idea that all poets are contemporaneous. I didn’t know many actual poets for a long time—I certainly didn’t know them intimately—except the ones I read, and so my sense of poetry came entirely from reading poems, which befriended me, and from my own inner life. My diction was wobbly, sometimes antiquated, and the intensity of my feelings often overwhelmed me. I had to learn how to marshal my forces and contain my feelings, how to structure and craft words into a poem, a made thing. I think I put my first manuscript together after I spent a year traveling around Europe after college. For a couple of years I was calling my book Songs and Voices. I was calling out, trying out different voices, but I couldn’t get my poems to sound the way I wanted, the way I heard them in my head. I just didn’t have the chops. But then I had a breakthrough when I was twenty-five years old. That summer I wrote three poems that immediately struck me as better than anything I had written before: “Still Life: An Argument,” “Song Against Natural Selection,” and “Song.” I liked the way they turned what I had learned from metaphysical poetry into something contemporary, something that seemed like my own. I should say that the thorny metaphysical poets were my first crush in poetry. The modernists gave them back to us. I’ve always liked the extremity of their work—the way they turn metaphors into conceits and structure poems as arguments, especially about love. The subject is hot, the structure cool. “Still Life: An Argument” set out to be a refashioning of the Renaissance seduction poem. My first idea of poetry was set by lyrics such as Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” and Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” argumentative lyrics. “Still Life: An Argument” is an anti-seduction poem. The whole poem works as an analogy between a new love affair and a still life painting, one of those Dutch still lives where everything is so vividly alive, so poignantly shot through with death. It sets a still life into motion, turning something frozen into something dynamic, an argument that unfolds in time. “Song Against Natural Selection” is a playful refutation of the Darwinian idea of the survival of the fittest. Natural Selection is a proven scientific truth, but I thought it would be telling to take natural selection as a metaphor and then stand up for the underdogs, the losers, the unfit ones. All of us are included in the end since we come to know ourselves not just by what we’ve found but also by what we’ve lost. I later placed “Song Against Natural Selection” as the first poem in For the Sleepwalkers because it lifts up a banner: “The weak survive!” The poem “Song” takes up the American paradox, the Whitmanian position, of dedicating a poem to those who don’t or won’t or can’t listen to it. The whole poem is a comic democratic catalogue of neglected and forgotten things that are not listening to poetry, but nonetheless need it. I make a community of the non-listeners. I recognized my own voice in these three poems, my own idiomatic note. That’s when I decided to scrap everything I had written before—that was a hard realization—and follow these poems, all of them urban, playful, desperate, all arguments about loss. My first book changed many times over the coming years, but those three poems always remained, a way of thinking, a signpost.
Judith Harris: For the Sleepwalkers contains many poems about European poets, such as Rimbaud and Nerval, Rilke and Hikmet, Lorca and Vallejo. And those are just a few of the named presences. When did you start reading international poetry?
Edward Hirsch: I recognize something in Osip Mandelstam’s definition of Acmeism as “nostalgia for world culture.” I cut my teeth reading Eliot and Pound, who viewed American poetry as part of a larger European culture. That’s just what infuriated William Carlos Williams, perhaps rightly. But I came to Williams later along with Stevens and Crane, great modern romantics. Eliot and Pound sent me to the Greek and Latin poets, to Dante and the troubadours, to the Chinese poets of the T’ang Dynasty—I still love Cathay. But I felt betrayed—I am still repelled—by their anti-Semitism, their disfiguring hatreds. They are deeply feeling poets—Pound said, “Only emotion endures”—but they were also defended against feeling itself, especially certain feelings, certain vulnerabilities, which they considered too romantic or womanly, whatever. They aspired to coldness, sculptural form. I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for in turning to other poets, other poetries, but it seems to me now that I was looking for different models, poets who are equally intellectual but also more intimate and passionate. I loved the imaginative freedom of the French surrealists, but I found even greater depth of feeling in Spanish language modernists, such as Lorca and Hernandez, Vallejo and Neruda. The human subject isn’t very fashionable anymore, but I aspired to Vallejo’s notion of Poemas Humanos, Human Poems. My poems about Lorca and Vallejo are poems of self-conscious apprenticeship. I fantasize walking around the Upper West Side with Lorca and around Paris with Vallejo. In the end, they leave me, as all mentors must, to my own devices, my own poems. In my early twenties, I also found what I was looking for in various Eastern European poets, especially the Hungarian poets Attila Jozsef and Miklos Radnoti, and the Polish poets, Czeslaw Milosz and Zbigniew Herbert. History was vitally personal, vividly alive for these poets, whose scale appealed to me. My chapter on Polish poetry in How to Read a Poem pays back an old debt to writers who, in my view, were metaphysically minded poets compelled by circumstance to become historical ones. One of my first critical pieces in mid-twenties was about Yehuda Amichai’s Amen. I like the way he intimates the erotic and the personal in the political and the historical. I was never quite the same after reading Nazim Hikmet’s prison poems, especially “On Living.”
Judith Harris: What about Isaac Babel? I notice you have two poems dedicated to him, an early poem, “With Isaac Babel in Odessa” and a later poem, “Reading Isaac Babel’s Diary on the Lower East Side.”
Edward Hirsch: I love Babel’s stories. He’s one of my models of a Jewish writer. I think I must initially have identified him with my Latvian grandfather, who also had spectacles on his nose and autumn in his heart. I admire the unflinching way that Babel looks at the relationship between Jews and Cossacks. My first poem imagines being with him in Odessa. Later, I was fascinated by his Diary 1920. I liked the staccato style, the keen observations, the hunger to describe everything. I tried to imitate it all in a poem. Babel’s observations were so acute, so contemporary, that I felt I could still find the same people that he was writing about on the lower East Side of New York. Joseph Brodsky was a dear friend, but we had a few literary disagreements. One of them was about Babel. He considered Babel a local colorist. I think of him as a true cosmopolitan.
Judith Harris: You have intermittently written poems about insomnia, such as “Insomnia,” “I Need Help,” the third section of “The Night Parade,” and “Four A.M.” Is that one of your necessary themes?
Edward Hirsch: Well, you cannibalize your own experience, and I’ve had serious bouts of insomnia at different points in my life. But, even more than that, I like the dramatic situation that insomnia creates within a poem. It is a way to deepen a feeling of loneliness, to establish the sense of a solitary speaker, a sole consciousness, alone in the world while everyone else seems to be asleep. Sleeplessness becomes a metaphor for a kind of watchfulness, a restless consciousness. The poem of insomnia, as I understand it, is set at an epiphanic hour and seeks illumination in the darkness. It has an inner turbulence and outer calm. It loosens our ordinary or commonsensical way of thinking, and creates a wider space for reverie. It is not a dream poem, but it is a poem of night mind.
Judith Harris: Your second book, Wild Gratitude (1986) seems more cohesive than your first book. How is it structured?
Edward Hirsch: Robert Frost said that if there are twenty-nine poems in a book, then the book itself is the thirtieth poem. I’ve tried to assemble my books accordingly, to make them more than the sum of their parts. Wild Gratitude is filled with individual lyrics, but it is also structured as a journey, a descent into the abyss. It begins with a cry for help—comical, serious—and creates a feeling of falling. There is a diversity of subjects, but an underlying coherence of feeling. The personal, the artistic, and the historical are all inter-braided. Some of the poems that seem distanced by time, for example—a poem about an exhibition of Chinese paintings of the Yüan Dynasty (“The Emaciated Horse”) or about a figure out of European folklore (“The Village Idiot”)—take radically personal turns. The poems about art and artists are situated in life. Some of the personal poems are seen through a lens, darkly, as if filmed from above. History is experienced on the pulse (“Fever,” “Ancient Signs”) and my beloved poets are caught up in the nightmares of the twentieth century (“Curriculum Vitae (1937),” “Paul Celan: A Grave and Mysterious Sentence”). The third section ends on the siege of Leningrad (“Leningrad (1941-1943)”). I had a strong feeling that American poets were somehow undervaluing history, and I wanted to make it part of the personal fabric of my work. The book turns in the last part and tries to move beyond negation and despair, to recover (“Recovery”) and ascend (“In Spite of Everything, the Stars”). It ends on a note of affirmation (“Dawn Walk”). It closes with a feeling of grief and wonder, the cold cleansing of a snowfall, the miracle that we are still here.
Judith Harris: A few of the poems in Wild Gratitude, including the title poem, rely on a parallel structure. Is that one of your recurring strategies?
Edward Hirsch: Yes, it’s a move I like. The idea behind “Wild Gratitude” is simple. I start playing with my cat Zooey, now long dead, and this puts me in mind of Christopher Smart playing with his cat, Jeoffry. I’ve always adored the section about Jeoffry in “Jubilate Agno,” which has a kind of comic holiness. The strategy is a bit outlandish, really, but it gives me the chance to think about a couple of things, such as daily life, cats, praying, the experience—the extravagance—of Christopher Smart himself. I came to feel that daily life, quotidian things, may have resonated so deeply for Smart precisely because so much was taken away from him when he was locked away in the mad house. Everything happens at a magical remove and the ordinary takes on a sacred air. Something similar happens in the poetry of James Schuyler, by the way. My idea was to press the parallel as far as possible to see what it would yield, in this case a lesson about praise, one of the ground notes of poetry.
Christopher Smart and John Clare are two of the holy eccentrics of English poetry who mean the most to me. The poem “Three Journeys” takes Clare’s fabled escape from the mental asylum, which he details in “The Journey Out of Essex, 1841,” and parallels it with the movement of a homeless woman walking around the city of Detroit, where I was living at the time. Part of the pleasure was in going back and forth between the nineteenth-century English countryside and the twentieth-century American metropolis. I wanted to see how far I could push the comparison. The poem was initially called “Two Journeys,” but in the process of writing it I came to feel that I was using the bag lady as a prop to talk about John Clare, which bothered me no end. I finally decided to make my realization part of the poem itself, which reverses itself. The third journey becomes my own.
Judith Harris: You have mentioned memory and childhood as extremely important catalysts for emotions and the desire or exigency to write—and The Night Parade (1989) proves how beautifully poems rise from the ashes of the past and transform personal, even idiosyncratic experiences into those immediately relatable to other people. The Night Parade is a book about recollection, but it is more than that. These are spots of time, flashes of recognition. What got you going?
Edward Hirsch: It’s striking to me that I didn’t really write any poems explicitly about childhood until The Night Parade, my third book, the collection that still makes me most apprehensive. Before that, I was more interested in escaping my childhood than in writing about it. My Chicago childhood was there driving me, but it was an unspoken fuel. I deflected my feelings about childhood, tenderness and rage, into poems about artists of childhood, like Jean Cocteau, who said, “There are poets and grown-ups,” Paul Klee, and Rainer Maria Rilke, who believed that there are two inexhaustible subjects for poetry: dreams and childhood. I had to figure out that childhood was completely lost, perhaps irretrievably, before it interested me as a subject. By then, I had been reading Wordsworth with growing fascination and awe, and I was trying to figure out how he dramatized those spots of time, those intense, rupturing, a-temporal moments, which are sudden, unexpected, dangerous. And I was stimulated by Proust’s distinction between voluntary and involuntary memory. By voluntary memory he meant that which is intentionally and consciously recalled; by involuntary memory he meant that which is given back to us, as if my magic, unconsciously. Involuntary memory is sacred. In my late thirties, I tried to woo it.
Judith Harris: I’ve noticed that you have a number of poems about work scattered throughout your books. Is that as one of your key subjects?
Edward Hirsch: It’s part of my arsenal. I’ve always worked. It was just a given when I was growing up that everyone worked hard, sometimes at jobs they disliked. I had a lot of lousy manual labor jobs when I was young—working as a bus boy, as a garbage man, as a brakeman on the railroad, in a chemical plant, in a box factory—and you never forget those experiences, or the people you worked with, or what it means to punch a clock. I recognize that white collar jobs are jobs, too. And so is teaching, managing a program, running a department, a foundation. I’ve always seen it as a challenge for lyric poetry to accommodate the actual experiences, and the rich lingo, of the working world. It has been important for me to try to keep the subject of working, labor itself, in the mix of my poems, sometimes in unexpected ways. My experiences have also led me to try to think about the work of art, about work songs, and about the work that poetry does—or could do—in the world.
Judith Harris: How did you come to write about the Dutch masters in “Earthly Light,” the last poem in your book Earthly Measures (1994)?
Edward Hirsch: It’s funny how I came to write that poem. I’ve always loved the seventeenth-century Dutch painters. I’m moved by the way they dignify the ordinary, or, perhaps more accurately, recognize the dignity in the ordinary. The light in those paintings just goes through me. I like all those scenes of daily life, all those mirrors and windows, drawers and curtains, cobblestone passages. I like to breathe that watery blue air. But I hadn’t thought about writing about Dutch painting in particular until I reviewed the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert’s marvelous book about Dutch art for The New Yorker. I had a long lyrical descriptive list of Dutch paintings at the end of the review, which the editors made me cut in half. I decided to try to save the descriptive phrases and put them into a poem, to find out what happened when I lineated them. That was the beginning, which sent me back to the paintings themselves. By that time, I had written most of the poems that would go into Earthly Measures. There is so much longing for transcendence in these poems, a great desire for the unearthly. I had written two poems about Simone Weil, including one that dramatized her three mystical contacts with Catholicism, and I embraced—I still embrace—her notion that “Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” But I also began to see that the Dutch painters provided a critique of my own longing for transcendence, even a renunciation of it. That’s when I hit upon the lines, “Because this world, too, needs our unmixed/attention, because it is not heaven//but earth that needs us.” I think of the book Earthly Measures as an ongoing argument about immanence and transcendence, often worked out through other figures. I decided to refute my own longings, to tip the scale, to close the argument—and the book—by landing on limited, sensuous earth.
Judith Harris: On Love (1998) seems to take up where Earthly Measures left off, with a return to the human, and the fleeting, and the mortal, with our condition on earth.
Edward Hirsch: That’s well put. I was coming down onto hard ground, turning away from the heavenly realms. I was trading in the clouds for the streets crowded with people and trying to take the next step, to find my next true subject, after the ongoing dialogues, the irresolvable arguments, of Earthly Measures. My poems had been God haunted. Now I became more and more obsessed with the subject (the subjects!) of human love.
Judith Harris: On Love explores the variations on human love beginning with the self-portrait of the poet at seven, a poem about individuation as the child begins to feel the burden of his story, especially the legacy of Jewish wandering through his own personal experience, which is on one hand, free, and yet, on another hand, inherently labored by suppression and restraint. Why begin with this poem?
Edward Hirsch: It sets the course. There is a precursor poem by Rimbaud called “The Poet at Seven.” I decided to write my own version, something self-consciously American. And what could be more American than baseball, which I played with ferocious intensity all through my childhood and adolescence? I like the technique of taking the autobiographical and distancing it through the third person. I was trying to think through a problem. Here is a kid who seems to be having a typical middle-class American childhood, something lived entirely in the present, without any particular history. As Americans, we like to think that we just make ourselves up. But there is also something else working inside this kid, something related to his ancestry, which links him to the past, to those who have come before him. I hit upon the sonnet structure to enact the conflict, the argument. This boy is riven by his fate. He dwells in the present, but he also feels something alien working inside of him that he doesn’t understand—an exiled longing, a vague memory of wandering in the desert, an anguished quest for freedom, which is his inheritance. This duality is the making of an American Jewish poet.
Judith Harris: What was the genesis of your sequence “The Lectures on Love,” a stunning sequence of grouping of historical personages reflecting on love and its meanings?
Edward Hirsch: I kept turning back to the subject of erotic love, a very earthly love, if you will, one of the most piercing and mysterious of the many different kinds of love. It has certainly troubled me. One night I was reading Baudelaire’s late squibs and came across his statement that Love greatly resembles an application of torture or a surgical operation. I loved the brutal un-sentimentality of the assertion. I wanted to develop the analogy and so I decided to call Baudelaire to the podium, as it were, and have him explain the complex relationship between love and power. I tried to write an unflinching Baudelairean poem. And then I got the entertaining idea of bringing Heinrich Heine, one of the wittiest men in Europe, still on his bed, his so-called mattress grave, into the lecture hall, to see what he would say. I called these poems “Two Lectures on Love.” Then I expanded the group to seven, which I named “The Lectures on Love.” The sequence kept growing. I only picked figures—or they picked me—that I already cared about. To me, the fictive format of the lecture takes you in one direction, but the subject of erotic love takes you in another. Reason falters. Memory and desire take over. The intensity of the subject keeps rupturing the formality of the occasion.
Judith Harris: Would you consider these poems—from Margaret Fuller, to Gertrude Stein, to Marina Tsvetaeva—“dramatic monologues?” Or are they readerly incarnations? And would you say something about the formal nature of these poems? The “Prologue” establishes the pattern:
I woke up to voices speaking of love,
always leading me forward, leading me on,
taking me from the bedroom to the study
in the early morning or late at night,
emanations that seemed to come from night
itself, from leaves opening in the study
where many lives flow together as one
life, my own, these ventures in love.
Edward Hirsch: The poems are all meant to sound spoken, but slightly formal, as in a lecture. The reader is meant to imagine a speaker. The poems are almost all written in symmetrical stanzas, which use identical rhyme in an envelope structure, and so there are a lot of repetitions. These are also intermixed with other highly repetitive forms, pantoums and sestinas. My notion here is that poetic form can mirror, formalize, and ritualize speech, while also moving beyond speech, or above it. “Repetition inspires bliss,” as Roland Barthes said. The idea of the envelope is that the rhymes keep converging as they come toward the middle of a stanza, where they rub up against each other, and then start moving apart. Hence, the movement of the rhyme words: love, on, study, night, night, study, one, love. Every stanza enacts the accordion-like movement of two people moving towards fusion and then separating. They keep trying to intertwine, but it’s impossible for them to remain as one.
Each of the poems borrows something of the style of the individual writer who is its supposed speaker. I was immersed in different styles. Thus “Guillaume Apollinaire” mimics the movement of an unpunctuated Apollinaire poem, “George Meredith” borrows the sixteen-line sonnet structure that Meredith invented for his sequence “Modern Love.” At the same time, the identical rhymes are clearly my own structure, and thus the reader is meant to feel the authorial presence, the writer’s hand. My idea is that these poems are a kind of drag show. They’re dramatic monologues of a sort, but dramatic monologues in which you see the mask slipping and feel the presence of the performer behind them. I think that’s what makes the sequence personal. There’s one speaker back there, a reader, who is using his beloved figures to try to figure out something about love.
Judith Harris: One of my favorites is “Tristan Tzara,” which is quite simply, hilarious.
Edward Hirsch: There is something inherently comical, at least to me, in the idea of a dada lecture. I’ve always appreciated the way that the Romanian Jew, Samy Rosenstock, reinvented himself as the European Dadaist, Tristan Tzara. The poem “Tristan Tzara” uses the pantoum, which propels you forward while compulsively repeating itself, to explore the contradictions of a nihilist in love. A playful nihilist, but a nihilist nonetheless. Love, especially obsessive love, has a way of breaking down theories, even of nothingness. “Love is irrational and you are the reason.” That’s my hobbyhorse.
Judith Harris: Who or what is an “encyclopedia of love”? Are we all encyclopedias of sorts?
Edward Hirsch: Somewhere along the way I got the idea that I was trying to write a lyric encyclopedia of love. That’s why the Enlightenment figure Denis Diderot, the first encyclopedist, initiates the sequence. The great rationalist understood that of all subjects love is the least susceptible to reason. Diderot stands in to suggest that everyone who has experienced Eros is an encyclopedia of love. Each of us contains multitudes, the one is all. It’s an outrageous trope: look inside yourself and you find the experiences of an Emerson, a Wilde, a Brecht, a Colette. All of the figures in “The Lectures of Love” are meant to be different masks of a single figure.
Judith Harris: In Lay Back the Darkness (2003) you have two sequences, “The Desire Manuscripts” and “The Hades Sonnets,” that reinvigorate classical myths. Are there some subjects that are too close, too anguishing, to be written about without mitigation? Those sonnets are technically so intricate and challenging.
Edward Hirsch: I was having trouble thinking through certain problems, agonies and anguishes, and so I decided to see what would happen if I looked at my own experience through the lens of a timeless story. Every poem in “The Desire Manuscripts,” for example, takes a personal subject and explores it through the scrim of a classical text, such as Book Ten of The Odyssey, Canto Five of the Inferno or Book Six of The Aeneid. The title flips the titular strategy of “The Lectures on Love,” and the word Desire is cooled by the word Manuscripts. I find a parallel pressure in “The Hades Sonnets,” which are all poems of the underworld, my underworld. It seemed fitting to use terza rima, which Dante invented for the Divine Comedy, starting with his journey through the infernal realms. I started crafting terza rima sonnets. My notion was that I would trust the classical stories and see where they would lead, what they would teach me. Formal poems are experiments, too. The fact that I could craft such intricate forms suggested to me that I was on the right track. I was driven by personal experience, but I let the myths guide me. I relied on stories that had registered deeply, especially when I was young, and so they were part of my lived experience. Some of those poems are pretty desolate—there are three self-portraits as Eurydice—but I was buoyed up by the obsessive forms, the spirit of my guides.
Judith Harris: How did you come to the mode of your shocking poem “Two Suitcases of Children’s Drawings from Terezin, 1942-1944”?
Edward Hirsch: I had been harrowed by those holocaust children’s drawings for many years—I consider them sacred art—but I never intended to write a poem about them. They were literally packed into two suitcases and discovered in someone’s apartment in Prague after the War. One afternoon when I was re-visiting the museum in Terezin where many of them are housed, I began to feel that there must have been a particular teacher who taught those children to make art in such vile circumstances. I decided to do some research and that’s when I discovered Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who had been educated at the Bauhaus and deported with her husband to Terezin. The more I read about her and looked at her work—she had studied with Kandinsky and Klee, she believed that children’s drawings have a kind of native genius—the more I felt she was someone I could know, someone I had known, someone like some of my friends who have dedicated themselves to fostering creativity in children. She was my entry. The poem is dedicated to her.
“Two Suitcases” is a documentary poem, a poem in fragments. It tries to be true to the fragmentary nature of the material, those children’s poems and drawings, so many of them mere wisps, unfinished line drawings, cut pieces of paper. Many of them are anonymous, some only signed with first names. Every one of those heartbreaking drawings represents one child. It’s important to keep in mind the unbearable truth: there were around fifteen-thousand children in Terezin and only one hundred of them survived. Friedl Dicker-Brandeis was shipped off to Auschwitz and murdered. Art didn’t save anyone. But they did make art; they did create something in the face of devastating horror. They left something partial behind. That seems worth honoring.
Judith Harris: How would you characterize Special Orders as a book?
Edward Hirsch: After Lay Back the Darkness, I decided to give up my reliance on previous texts and try to face things head on, directly, without any mitigation, without the structure of previous texts. I was ready to move on and walk the tightrope without a net below. I like ruthless authenticity in poetry. That’s what led me to the aggressive directness, the forthright style, of Special Orders, which is a book of reckonings, of late middle age. It’s shadowed by mortality, by a sense of coming to terms with things, or trying to. It bridges the past to the present. It is filled with memorials and elegies, some of them angular, grief that is at once personal and more than personal, historical, but it also tries to get back to the wondrous feeling I had when I first started writing poetry (“Branch Library”). It’s playful but relentless in its self-interrogation, its sense of self-division, especially in poems like “Self-Portrait” and “A Partial History of My Stupidity,” but there are also poems of friendship and connection (“The Swimmers,” “The Chardin Exhibition”), and it’s all set against the backdrop of our American moment (“Krakow, 6 A.M.”). There are a couple of wild love poems (“A New Theology,” “I Wish I Could Paint You”). The book is divided into two equal two parts, which are signaled by the titles of the sections, “More Than Halfway” and “To the Clearing.” I hope there is a sense of movement, of emergence, in the passage from one to the other. The speaker in these poems keeps looking backward while moving forward. He keeps coming out into the brightening air.
Judith Harris: Could you tell me about the poem “Special Orders,” which I’ve always read as an allegorical poem about creation, containment, and poetry itself?
Edward Hirsch: The poem just started out as an elegy for my father, a box salesman. He always preferred “special orders” to “standard orders.” He enjoyed the practical problem of designing new boxes. More room for creativity, better fees. “Special Orders” is a business term, but I also heard a religious tonality in it, which seems fitting for the ritual of an elegy. I had grown up around boxes, and box-making, but I had never seen a particular analogy to poetry, which was my escape hatch, my route out. It was while I was writing the poem that I began to see the allegorical dimensions of my father’s work. I fixed on the idea of the poem as a container, an act of containment. It was when I found myself writing, “I don’t understand this uncontainable grief,” that the poem dropped into place for me, and I understood that I was writing a poem not just about my father but also about containing the uncontainable, about the work of poetry itself.
Judith Harris: How did the project of writing How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry come about?
Edward Hirsch: The book grew directly out of my teaching, which is the outgrowth of my vocation for poetry. I’m a teacher at heart. I first taught in Poets in the Schools programs in Pennsylvania and New York. I then taught for five years at Wayne State University and for seventeen years in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston, where I honed my skills and lived into my ideas. I made a lot of friends in the community at Houston, and some of them asked if I could help them learn to read poetry. We had a little class at the Menil Musuem. I went through a few of my favorite poems with them and just spoke off the cuff about what’s at stake in the reading of lyric poetry. Then I decided to expand what I had said into a craft lecture at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, which I called “How to Read These Poems.” I had an equally gratifying response, this time from writers. I published the piece in DoubleTake magazine, and we got such a strong response that DoubleTake created a little pamphlet to give away to readers and teachers. It began, “Read these poems to yourself in the middle of the night.” This all gave me the idea of trying to write a democratic book that would speak both to initiated and uninitiated readers of poetry. It would be for poets first of all, but it would also welcome novices, students, and general readers of good will. André Bernard at Harcourt offered me a contract for the book, and I was on my way. In the end, I tried to put everything I knew about poetry into How to Read a Poem, which I felt that I had been preparing to write my entire life.
Judith Harris: The “how” in How to Read a Poem suggests a particular approach to reading poetry. Is there a mode of reading that you wanted to “correct” or improve upon?
Edward Hirsch: Not exactly. But I confess that I dislike most poetry textbooks, which never explain why anyone would actually care about poetry. They teach undergraduates about the craft of poetry, but they just don’t create readers. Most kids graduate from college and never look at another poem. They don’t recognize that poetry is for them. That’s a loss. At the same time, I had become dissatisfied with the guild mentality of the most advanced literary criticism and theory, which tends to speak only to rarified readers. I have learned so much from literary theory, especially reader-response criticism, but I wanted to see if I could write a different kind of book about poetry, a book in which I was always emotionally present without sacrificing any erudition or intellectual reach. Why would people like us go off and spend their lives writing and reading poetry, thinking about these things? Hence, the duality of the title: there is something cool and instructional about How to Read a Poem, something wilder and more passionate in and Fall in Love with Poetry. The question is how to get from one to the other. My method is to enact the role of the reader, to stand-in for the reader. My goal was to welcome everyone into the open-air tent. We would all be pilgrims setting out, lone readers, scholars of one candle, strangers. I’m aware that the book has what one of my friends called “a desperate American friendliness.” Emerson and Whitman are two of my democratic touchstones. It’s self-evident to them that strangers who pass each other on the road ought to be able to loiter and speak, to connect and understand each other.
Judith Harris: How is the book structured, and how did you decide which topics to cover in the individual chapters? Would you like to see it used as a textbook?
Edward Hirsch: The book tries to think through the particular relationship that is established between a poet, a poem, and a reader. The question is: what’s at stake? I take my lead from Osip Mandelstam and Paul Celan’s idea of the poem as a message in a bottle. The overall structure is a little weirder than it may initially appear. It’s all personal, the record of my initiations, a lifetime of ecstatic reading. My idea was that I would simply start writing about poems that I already cared about deeply, poems I lived by. I would choose poems from any country, any century. Some would be familiar, some unfamiliar. All that mattered was that the poems truly mattered to me. I would then go through them closely, scrupulously, contextualizing them, biographically, historically, generically, letting larger subjects emerge. The poems would take me—wherever. My hunch was that the subjects of poetry—the various techniques, the different terms, the historical genres, the abiding concepts—would eventually deliver themselves up in this way. It would all be initiated by contact, animal to animal, with the shining body of the poem itself. Poetry itself would provide the education. Eventually, I started to shape the chapters so that the book flowed fluently from one part to the next. I made sure that what I cared about most was mostly covered. It wasn’t written as a textbook, but as a work for readers, though over the years, a lot of poets have taught the book with great success both to undergraduate and graduate students. It makes me happy that poets recognize my vital lessons.
Judith Harris: What are some of those vital lessons?
Edward Hirsch: Poetry is a human fundamental, like music, which we inherit from our ancestors and pass on to our descendents. Poems disturb and console us. Reading is relational. Poetry delivers on our spiritual lives precisely because it gives us the gift of intimacy and interiority, privacy and participation. A poem from the past is a form of what Robert Graves called “stored magic.” It releases itself inside of us. Poetry takes us deeper into ourselves while opening us up to the larger world, which is inescapable. We live inside of history. The poet wants justice, the poet wants art. In poetry, you can’t have one without the other. There is no great writing without deep reading. Poets are people who are so induced by what they have read that they need to respond in kind. The notion of how to write a poem can be inferred from how to read one. The sound of the words, as Wallace Stevens said, “helps us to live our lives.” Poetry deepens our personhood.
Judith Harris: I was so struck by your discussion of last poems, even the last stanzas written by dying poets. Could you comment on what led you to think about these poems in conjunction with a poet’s mortality? What does that say about poetry?
Edward Hirsch: I suppose it started with the ferocity of Keats’ untitled eight-line fragment, “This living hand,” which I write about early in the book. No one who reads that little poem ever forgets its handprint, its human presence. In the chapter “Five Acts,” I write about the dramatic monologue by going through five possible stages of a poet’s life, as in a five-act play. The last act inevitably led to me to last poems, which give us an art stripped down to what is absolutely essential, art made at the edge of a void where everything is unmade. I decided to focus on three of the poems that had meant the most to me: the poem by Chidiock Tichborne conventionally called “Tichborne’s Elegy,” which relies on the language of paradox to create a sense of final reconciliation between opposites, Miklos Radnoti’s fourth “Postcard” poem, which he wrote just before he was murdered and tossed into a mass grave, and Sylvia Plath’s “Edge,” which seems to embody a final feeling of catharsis and incarnation. All of these poems seek completion. These poems are models of poetic making in extreme circumstances. They are written at the edge of the grave. They teach us what’s at stake in the writing of lyric poetry. Elizabeth Bishop said that “Surely there is an element of mortal panic and fear underlying all works of art.” That’s certainly true of poetry, which is written out of the body as well as the mind. It recognizes the presence of death in our lives. It numbers our losses and speaks against our disappearance.
Judith Harris: What is the source of your book The Demon and the Angel (2002)? Why did you write it?
Edward Hirsch: Federico García Lorca’s lecture “Play and Theory of the Duende” (1933), which amazed me in my early twenties, was the creative stimulus. Lorca was trying to think about dark, irrational inspiration, a fiery inspiration that comes out of the earth and enters the body from the ground up. He used the word duende in a special Andalusian sense to suggest the obscure power and penetrating inspiration of art. We don’t have an equivalent word in English for what Lorca means, which is something like artistic inspiration in the presence of death. Lorca can be vague, and I thought it would be useful to tease out some of the implications of his Spanish concept of duende. Lorca provoked me into trying to say something about a mysterious creative power, an invisible force, which we sense but cannot explain. I try to locate and limn the mystery. The figure of duende inevitably led me to other figures and forces of inspiration: the demon and the angel. They represent two sides of our selves. One emerges from underneath, one descends from above.
How to Read a Poem doesn’t really deal with the subject of artistic struggle or inspiration. I thought I would try to give a name to something that is almost unnamable, to something rich and strange that seems to me an essential part of artistic making. I found myself pairing Lorca’s lecture with Emerson’s essay “The Poet.” My starting point was Emerson’s idea that “Art is the path of the creator to his work.” That intrigued me. I decided to see if I could trace something of that American notion of art as process. I began with poetry, of course, my native land. But one of the incitements of the concept of duende is that it flows through all the arts. Lorca’s notion of duende—“all that has black sounds has duende,” he says—led me to some particular American arts, especially modern jazz and abstract expressionist painting. Duende has something in common with soul. It was a challenge for me to try to describe what I heard in music, what I found in painting. I used to live a block away from the Rothko Chapel in Houston, and I would sometimes go there and sit with those paintings, those large black shapes, until I began to feel that they were presences looming around me. It could get a little spooky. Then I would go home and write.
Judith Harris: Your newest book is The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems (2010). Why did you decide to begin the collection with your most recent poems?
Edward Hirsch: Putting together a New and Selected Poems was more difficult than I anticipated. You’re wrenching the poems from their original context. Some meaningful poems are excluded—I remember where I wrote each one of them, what they meant to me at the time. Some pairings and resonances are inevitably lost. I decided to try to compensate by creating a new through-line for my work. I hope the new poems, which begin with “The Beginning of Poetry” and end with “What the Last Evening Will Be Like,” help to establish that line. They directly invite the reader into the world of my work. They circle back to the beginning, my first fevers, and take you toward Special Orders. They declare my passions. They are filled with memories, travels, and forebodings, the feeling of reconciliation, the sense of what can never be reconciled, the Cold War between Poetry and Time. Mortality hovers closely over them. They bring you right up to the terminus.
Judith Harris: I’ve mentioned that the last poem (reprinted here) “What the Last Evening Will Be Like” is for me not only a consoling poem, but also a poem that achieves what great metaphysical poems do: showing how the oppositions such as life and death are interdependent on each other for their very existence. The poem brings fullness into emptiness, and presence into absence, and endlessness into the end of life. What led you to it?
Edward Hirsch: Life itself. I’ve been instructed by poets who recognize death as an integral part of life. Rilke was close at hand. He says that we all have to live our own deaths. I had been reading Gottfried Benn, who gives you such a sense of cramped spaces, which I wanted to widen out into a feeling of greater expansiveness. I’ve always loved the American seashore lyric—“Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” “The Idea of Order at Key West,” “The End of March”—and how the naked self faces the abyss. There is a sense of merging in so many last poems, of paradox resolved, of fullness and completion. My poem compresses and fantasizes a narrative. It is decisive, anticipatory, fateful. It says goodbye. The goal is a feeling of lyric timelessness, a moment in time that stretches toward the infinite.