Edward Hirsch is the author of ten poetry books, most recently Stranger by Night (2020). His debut, For the Sleepwalkers, published in 1981 when he was thirty-one, won the Lavan Younger Poets Award. It was followed by 1986’s National Book Critics Circle Award– winning Wild Gratitude. These first collections set the stage for others, such as On Love (1998) and Lay Back the Darkness (2003), that spotlighted a poet of both emotion and intellect, a poet as able to explore metaphysical subjects as to give voice to the disenfranchised.
Gabriel (2014), Hirsch’s ninth book, is a virtuosic confessional sequence in tercets about the life and death, at twenty-two, of his troubled son. The National Book Foundation noted, “Gabriel enters the broad stream of human grief and raises in us the strange hope, even consolation, that we find in the writer’s act of witnessing and transformation.” When I asked Hirsch to identify a common undercurrent in all his books, he said, after some thought, “Human suffering.” But grief is not his only register—the elegies that weave his collections are complemented by love poems, poems informed by history and politics, and poems afer art and artists.
Hirsch, whose honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Prix de Rome, and a MacArthur Fellowship, has also written several books about poetry, most notably the encyclopedic A Poet’s Glossary (2014), which was spawned by the popular How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry (1999). As editor and critic, he has taken on subjects including John Keats, Galway Kinnell, Philip Levine, William Maxwell, Theodore Roethke, Wislawa Szymborska, nightingale poems, the sonnet, and visual art. He has conducted five interviews for The Paris Review, among them conversations with W.S. Merwin, Derek Walcott, and Susan Sontag. “My most stressful one was with Sontag,” he recalled. “She considered it the definitive interview with her as a novelist, but it took me several days to get her to cop to the fact that she was an essayist, too.”
Between 2017 and 2019, I met Hirsch four times at the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation’s office in Midtown Manhattan, a stone’s throw from Grand Central Terminal. He was proud to point out his book collection, lining the walls of a foyer, a reception area, and his large office. “You can tell they’re poetry by how thin they are,” he joked. I was treated to a spectacular view as we talked, before me a large southern exposure, the Empire State Building looming on the right, the East and Hudson Rivers visible beyond skyscrapers. Hirsch, who spent more than twenty years teaching at the University of Houston and Wayne State University, has been the foundation’s president since 2002, the first practicing artist to be appointed to the role. “Suddenly, I had a different kind of day job,” he said. “There’s a staff, there are budgets, there are hundreds of outside readers, there are art juries, there’s a board of trustees. I was no longer on an academic timetable. But I’ve adjusted.”
Hirsch was born in Chicago in 1950 and grew up there. Broad-shouldered and tall, a competitive athlete in high school and college, he naturally transmits his physical presence to his words, imbuing them with gravity even when he is joking. His gaze is concentrated and powerful. His considered responses reflected a no-nonsense approach to work, and only briefly, when my questions turned to Gabriel, did I sense in his voice a surge of emotion, on the brink of overflowing but kept in check.
INTERVIEWER: What’s so funny?
EDWARD HIRSCH: I was thinking of something—it always makes me laugh—that Joe Brainard said to a friend of mine on the phone and my friend shared with me. It was a very sad call because Joe was dying of AIDS-related pneumonia, but then he brightened up a little. “Well,” he said, “at least I don’t have to go to any more poetry readings.” He paused. “But you do.”
INTERVIEWER: How many poetry readings do you think you’ve gone to?
EDWARD HIRSCH: Let’s just say that I’ve put in my ten thousand hours.
INTERVIEWER: What’s wrong with poetry readings?
EDWARD HIRSCH: Nothing. I just don’t like to be bombarded. Most readings just make me slink farther and farther down in my seat. But I’ve had a few transformative experiences and so I keep coming back for more. Once, at Bread Loaf, I heard Brigit Pegeen Kelly read her poem “Song.” It was mythic. I heard C. K. Williams read his shocking poem “ The Gas Station” in Philadelphia, and Philip Levine recite his great poem of rage “They Feed They Lion” in Detroit. I once listened to Mark Strand read his entire book Man and Camel in an apartment in New York City—it was both droll and magisterial. When I was in graduate school, I heard Elizabeth Bishop read “The Moose” at Bryn Mawr. She seemed like a very unwilling reader, but the poem is spectacular. I was fixed to my chair.
INTERVIEWER: When did you give your first reading?
EDWARD HIRSCH: I was twenty-five years old. I’d just gotten hired for a job in the Pennsylvania Poetry in the Schools program. I was then invited to read outside on the parkway in Philadelphia. It was very loud, and I raced through my poems. All the pent-up feeling made me nervous and I felt exposed. It couldn’t have been enjoyable for the twelve or thirteen people who were there.
INTERVIEWER: You were obviously undeterred by the unnerving experience. Eventually, you even overcame a crucial challenge of validation by publishing a book.
EDWARD HIRSCH: I don’t think “challenge” adequately describes what you go through in your twenties as you try to make your way as a young poet. It takes a long time to create a first book, which goes through so many different iterations. You face so much doubt, so many rejections. You’re not at all sure that you are going to be able to have the life you’ve imagined for yourself. I wrote the earliest poem in For the Sleepwalkers in 1975, when I was twenty-five, and the last poem in 1980, when I was thirty. Those were certainly “challenging” years.
INTERVIEWER: You’re a Midwesterner. Was it the job that brought you East?
EDWARD HIRSCH: No, I had just started graduate school in the folklore program at the University of Pennsylvania. I applied for a job at PITS and Gerald Stern interviewed me, if you could call it that, at Horn & Hardart in downtown Philadelphia. I had never met anyone like him. I was wearing my one coat and tie, he was wearing a ratty sweater. We got in line to buy coffee and he started singing and carrying on, talking to everyone. He left me to pay. When we sat down, he said that we had both written poems about salt. I was hired. I started to argue with him. I told him that I had a lot of ideas about teaching poetry and he should ask me about them. That wasn’t necessary, he said, he would train me to teach. He wanted to tell me about a long poem he’d written about the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. I protested again. “Look,” he said, “do you want this job or not?” I shut up and learned about “The Pineys.”
That was my first poetry job and I was excited to have it. Jerry had a gift for treating young poets as equals and we became friends immediately. He was writing the breakthrough poems of his second book, Lucky Life. I loved the exuberance of those poems, the way he faced and embraced failure. I’ve looked up to him as an older brother ever since.
INTERVIEWER: Did any family, adopted or inherited, influence you before Stern?
EDWARD HIRSCH: I’m not sure that “influence” is quite the right word for the effect that my mother’s father had on me. My grandfather Oscar Ginsburg scribbled poems into the backs of his books. He died when I was eight years old. I don’t really know anything about those poems, because after he died, my grandmother gave away all his books. No one in my family seemed to know if those poems were written in Hebrew, Yiddish, or English. Or if they were original. Or what they were about. But the idea stuck. I had it in the back of my mind that it was possible to write poems because he had done it. Otherwise, no one was writing or reading poems when I was growing up.
I had some family traumas as a child—who doesn’t?—and they made me intensely emotional. I had trouble figuring out what to do with my feelings. I started writing in high school to make myself feel better. I wrote the way a lot of teenagers write, out of emotional desperation. I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. I hadn’t really read anything. But when I wrote things down in lines—it would be generous to call what I was writing poetry—I felt consoled. And so I kept doing it.
INTERVIEWER: Your grandfather appears as a persona in “Oscar Ginsburg” and is the subject of “My Grandfather’s Poems,” and your grandmother is the subject of “My Grandmother’s Bed.”
EDWARD HIRSCH: I adored my grandmother, who was kind-hearted but tough-minded. Sometimes I used to sleep over in her studio apartment. I tried to capture the magic of pulling down her Murphy bed and sleeping next to her. When we were young, our grandparents sometimes babysat for us, and my sister and I remember our grandfather copying poems into his books while we raced wildly around the house—that’s the impetus for “My Grandfather’s Poems.” Rainer Maria Rilke, who had such a traumatic early life, called childhood “a treasure house of memories” and told the young poet to “raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past.” That’s what I was trying to resurrect.
INTERVIEWER: Family, which later surfaces again in Gabriel, has been important to you.
EDWARD HIRSCH: I didn’t set out to write about my family. In fact, that was the last thing I wanted to write about. There isn’t much about it in my first book. I was much more interested in writing about Paul Klee and Edward Hopper, about Gérard de Nerval and Christopher Smart, about the cultural world I was discovering. It’s true that For the Sleepwalkers has key poems about factory workers and waitresses. I thought it was important to write about people from different class backgrounds and to put them next to the artistic figures who mattered to me. I’m aware of and amused by something that Czesław Miłosz said—once a writer is born into a family, the family is finished. But at a certain point you begin to feel resigned, and I’ve sometimes been moved to write poems about family. You need to write about the life you’ve lived. It can’t all be aspirational. It’s part of your job, as a poet, to write out of experience. To name what matters to you. You’ve only got one life to draw on.
INTERVIEWER: When did you start formally studying poetry?
EDWARD HIRSCH: Never. But when I was a freshman at Grinnell College in Iowa, I brought my poems to my Humanities 101 teacher, Carol Parssinen. She was the only person I had ever met who spoke in fully formed sentences, like Henry James. I was pretty rough around the edges and Carol encouraged me to learn something about the craft of poetry, to become a maker. She started floating me reading lists. I dove in and decided that I would rather fail at poetry than succeed at anything else. Looking back at it now, I feel that it all had an air of desperation—as if I were drowning and saw an oar going by and grabbed on for dear life.
INTERVIEWER: Who were the poets then casting their shadows on you?
EDWARD HIRSCH: The English Metaphysical poets. I was also reading the Modern poets, who took me back to them, too. I couldn’t help but notice that they were all Christian, and I was a little alienated by their religiosity. But I’ve always liked the way that John Donne, George Herbert, and Andrew Marvell construct poems and think through metaphors. That led me to the praise poems and desolate sonnets of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who turned me back to Saint John of the Cross and his “Dark Night of the Soul” poem. I never expected to find kinship with a sixteenth-century Carmelite friar, but that’s the magic of poetic encounter. You ßnd commonality in unlikely places.
INTERVIEWER: Who was the first poet you met? That must have been another beginning.
EDWARD HIRSCH: Carol put me on to the Montana poems of her teacher, J. V. Cunningham, and so I decided to crash his office hours at Brandeis University to tell him how much I loved them. I was twenty years old and thought it was a good idea. I saw him coming down the hallway and immediately lost my nerve—he was gaunt and lined, slightly bent over, and wearing a string tie—but a friend of mine pushed me forward and suddenly I was standing in front of him. He seemed ancient to me—he was fifty-nine. I asked him about Yvor Winters, his teacher at Stanford, and he said that Winters was a great man with great faults, like Dr. Johnson. I asked him what modern poet he returned to most often and he said Edwin Arlington Robinson. I asked him how he felt about undergraduate verse and he looked at me wryly. Then he said that he would be glad to read my poems.
INTERVIEWER: Who was the second poet you met?
EDWARD HIRSCH: Donald Hall came to Grinnell when I was a senior. I played football and baseball all through high school and college, and I had to rush over from baseball practice to hear him talk on a Friday afternoon. I was still wearing my uniform. I didn’t know that he loved baseball, but it seemed to make an impression on him. It turned out that he’d already decided to award me the college poetry prize. Naturally, I was thrilled. It gave me confidence that I was on the right path.
INTERVIEWER: How did you handle being a jock and a poet at the same time? In a workshop of hers, Marie Ponsot—perhaps to make me and the one other male participant not feel unheroic—addressed the predicament this way. “Poetry,” she said, “we’re sadly told early on in our culture, isn’t for boys.”
EDWARD HIRSCH: Yes, you can feel this anxiety permeating the work of many hetero American male poets, like Wallace Stevens and T. S. Eliot, who can seem panicky about their masculinity.There’s a palpable terror in some of our male poets, who then overcompensate in discomforting ways. Personally, I was lucky because my high school football coach said that he wanted to ind a college where a “freaky” kid like me could play football. He found the Midwest Conference, which encouraged scholar-athletes. We liked Grinnell because it had a strong passing attack. The academics were good, too, he said. A scholarship made it possible. At Grinnell, everyone seemed to like the idea of my being a poet and a football player, this kind of alternate masculinity. I’m not under the illusion that the larger culture is like that, but I found a place where people thought it was a good idea.
INTERVIEWER: You have some sports poems—“Execution,” “Fast Break,” others.
EDWARD HIRSCH: “Execution” is an elegy for Coach Basrak. I remember the way that he used to fill up the blackboard with X’s and O’s. In the poem, that becomes a metaphor for the way that cancer carved up his face. A football term, execution, takes on a larger meaning. I had learned something from the Metaphysical poets, after all. I suppose that’s also when I discovered I could use my experience in sports metaphorically. As a long one-sentence poem, “Fast Break” uses language to imitate a fast break in basketball, but it’s also an elegy for my friend Dennis Turner, who loved basketball. We played a lot of pickup games together in our thirties. I also have a couple of poems about playing baseball, “The Poet at Seven” and “American Summer.” I think of these as quintessentially American poems, American experiences. All of them try to bring the specialized vocabulary of sports into poetry.
INTERVIEWER: The glossary in How to Read a Poem is a gem. It’s practically a book in itself. It also led to your larger book, A Poet’s Glossary. How did those projects happen?
EDWARD HIRSCH: How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry grew out of a community seminar on reading poetry that I conducted at the Menil Collection when I was teaching at the University of Houston. I was speaking to a group of people with good intentions who had no idea how to read a poem. They felt lost. Later, I wrote it up as a talk for a writers’ conference and called it “How to Read These Poems.” It seemed to speak to both groups. I was also fed up with the way that most literary theorists condescended to lyric poetry— I felt that poetry criticism could use an intervention. That’s when I decided to write a book that spoke to both initiated and uninitiated readers of poetry. When I wrote the book, I tried not to use a specialized language. But there were terms and concepts that seemed unavoidable, things I needed to explain. My editor, André Bernard, encouraged me—well, he insisted, really—that I create a glossary of terms that I’d employed in the book. I homed in. I was all too aware of everything I had left out. Over time, the glossary became one of the most widely used parts of the book, especially by teachers, and I kept getting questions about terms I hadn’t included. I also knew that I hadn’t really applied my knowledge of folk and epic poetries. Finally, I decided to go all in and compile my understandings. The result, A Poet’s Glossary, is a giant doorstop. It can be used to ward off unwelcome intruders.
INTERVIEWER: Can you recall examples of entries not commonplace that you thought it important to incorporate into the larger Glossary?
EDWARD HIRSCH: Don’t get me started! I like the Scottish flyting, a contest of witty put-downs, cursing matches in verse, which is kin to the dozens, an African American verbal street game of escalating insults. Poetic contests turned out to be much more prevalent worldwide than I had realized. I don’t know another glossary that includes bird-sound words—the Kaluli people of Papua New Guinea speak a Bosavi language, and for them, “poetic language is bird language.” I’m moved by keening and coronach, which means “wailing together” in Gaelic, Irish forms of lamenting the dead. The West African griot, called a jeli in northern Mande areas, is a praise singer, a poet-historian who preserves the genealogies, historical narratives, and oral traditions of a people. I like the bhakti poets, ecstatics who tended to come from the lower rungs of the Hindu caste system, and the kobzari, blind Ukrainian minstrels who wandered from village to village. Bedouin women sing ghinnawas, which are usually dark and plaintive love songs, like the blues. I’m probably too fond of the term cacoethes scribendi, which means “writer’s itch,” a mania for writing. Shelley wrote to his friend Thomas Peacock, “Your anathemas against poetry itself excited me to a sacred rage, or cacoethes scribendi of vindicating the insulted Muses.”
INTERVIEWER: What was the process of the book’s making?
EDWARD HIRSCH: Long and involved. Initially, I was going to do something much narrower, but I found that the things I was most interested in were the things that were outside the range of other standard dictionaries and glossaries. I wanted to include what I’d learned from the ethnographic literature about poetry. I loved the stuff about contests and epics, all the different terms for poets in different cultures. For example, in Náhuatl, the language of the Aztec world, one key word for poet was tlamatine, meaning “the one who knows,” or “one who knows something.” Poets were considered “sages of the word,” who meditated on human enigmas and explored the beyond, the realm of the gods. The Aztec poets sang of cahuitl, “that which leaves us.” I wrote the book one entry at a time. I’m afraid it ended up taking me more than a decade to complete.
INTERVIEWER: How did your desire to share your acquired knowledge come about?
EDWARD HIRSCH: I set out to learn everything on my own so that I could become a poet. That was my goal. I didn’t know another way. For a long time—I’d say all of my twenties and much of my thirties—I was simply reading everything I could and trying to assimilate it. I visited a lot of countries, but I had no idea of the larger map. But then at some point—I had already been writing for years—things started to fall into place. I began to sense how things might fit together. I developed some theories. That’s when I decided it would be good to pay something back, to put my learning to good use. I was already a poet and critic, but I also started to reach out and become an advocate.
INTERVIEWER: You had also been teaching.
EDWARD HIRSCH: Yes, I love teaching poetry. It’s one of the things I was meant to do. I’ve mainly taught at two working-class schools, Wayne State University, in Detroit, and the University of Houston. I’ve never gotten too far up in the tower. I’m from Chicago and think of myself as a Chicago intellectual, which is different from an East Coast intellectual. After I published my first book, Studs Terkel generously invited me onto his radio program. I was very nervous and excited. He sized me up immediately and said, “Don’t worry, with our accents, we can never sound too learned.” Recently I found myself writing a group of poems about my first teaching experience in Poetry in the Schools in small towns in Pennsylvania. It’s about the interchange between poetry and those working-class kids, whose parents mostly worked in the coal mines, and how much I learned from them. I suppose I wrote them because I’m moving toward the end of my teaching life.
INTERVIEWER: They appear in Stranger by Night, along with poems about traveling and writing, though not chronologically.
EDWARD HIRSCH: The poems in Stranger by Night take up the past. I initially began with the poems that were about the earliest part of my life and moved forward toward the present. Then Laurie Watel, my partner, a marvelous writer who also happens to be my closest and toughest reader, thought that it would be more interesting to reverse that, to begin in the present and move further back into the past. Then the book moves back toward the present. I decided to structure the poems around that journey through time.
INTERVIEWER: I love “Windber Field.” It’s a little ars poetica.
EDWARD HIRSCH: Yes, thank you, that poem surprised me. It’s a memory that leads to an opening, a vision. I remember how desperate I was to connect with a tiny group of high school students, and stumbled on the idea of bringing them a poem by Wilfred Owen, which connected them to their lives. In the poem, I’m standing at the blackboard writing down their memories and assembling them into a collage. I was excited by the liftoff of the poem. “Night Class in Daisytown” works the same way, but now I’m teaching the parents. Both poems start with failure—“I don’t know why / I thought it was a good idea” and “I was failing / my night class”—and somehow stumble into the light.
INTERVIEWER: What are your views on reading and the use of language outside the tradition? Your poem “Mergers and Acquisitions,” for instance, is informed by finance, and “A Short Lexicon of Torture in the Eighties” is informed by human rights.
EDWARD HIRSCH: I don’t think it’s a good idea to read poetry to the exclusion of other things. THat would be like eating only one kind of food. I tend to read all kinds of things that interest me as a person. Naturally, those readings influence my poetry. Poetry needs to continually enlarge its vocabulary and its subject matter. In every era, it tends to get circumscribed. The conventions can be invisible and so poetry is always in danger of becoming bound by rhetorical codes. Poets don’t even realize that they are speaking to each other in encrypted ways.
I got the idea for “Mergers and Acquisitions,” a poem about greed, crazed materialism, from a Wordsworth line—“Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers”—as well as from reading the business section of the newspaper every day. I found myself suddenly alert to the egregious specialized language of capitalism and the finance industry. There’s a whole terminology that serves to hide the ways that people are being exploited.
We have a responsibility to the words we employ, since, as poets, language is in our care, our keeping. I’ve been shocked by certain abuses of language. I wrote “A Short Lexicon of Torture in the Eighties” aãer reading an Amnesty International report about torture around the world. In those days, the United States wasn’t officially included, but then the Bush administration decided to endorse and implement torture overseas, too. It became our official policy. But you’d have to say that we’ve always had domestic torture—we just called it something else. It’s part of our historical DNA, our barbarous racist history, our legacies of genocide and slavery. I got the idea for my own lexicon because the report alerted me to how ordinary language was being co-opted in the most heinous ways by authoritarian governments. I wanted to expose the linguistic manipulations and sinister euphemisms of the torturers. I was thinking especially about torture in Argentina where so many people were “disappeared.” Our current government has introduced a whole new appalling lexicon.
INTERVIEWER: Your elegy for your son, Gabriel, also adopts language from outside the tradition, informed as it is by disability.
EDWARD HIRSCH: That’s a different story. The poem is completely driven by grief, by my own raw feeling, my bewilderment, my sense of a sudden, inexplicable, overwhelming loss. It’s a father’s grief-stricken book. But once I committed to writing a book-length elegy, going all in, I became acutely aware that I didn’t have a poetic vocabulary to describe Gabriel or his friends. There aren’t any kids like them in our poetry—or I couldn’t find them. I wasn’t just writing about his death, I was also trying to describe his life. Where are all the troubled teenagers in American poetry?
I needed to find a new vocabulary for lyric poetry. I wanted to find a way to write about all the special schools he’d gone to, the medications he’d taken, the stories he’d lived, the other kids he’d known. I felt that I had to make it up. That’s why I borrowed from other sourcebooks. We need poetry to keep expanding so that it can account for the actual lives that people are living. It can’t all be just about love, death, and the changing of the seasons.
Part of the challenge was to try to make a poem that sounded the way Gabriel sounded, to see Gabriel and his friends in a new framework. The idea wasn’t to make Gabriel and his friends sound more like lyric poetry, it was to make poetry sound more like Gabriel and his friends. I wanted to write a poem that was large enough to include them, to explore their world.
INTERVIEWER: The tercets in Gabriel suggest that terza rima is an important stanzaic form to you.
EDWARD HIRSCH: Dante is my great model for the journey to the underworld—I love the machinery of his form. He invented terza rima for the Commedia, and I used it as a model for my own unpunctuated three-line stanzas in Gabriel. The form is like a spiral staircase. You’re always going forward while looking back. And there’s something abject and beautiful about the way he calls on Virgil at the beginning of the Inferno. He recognizes that he can’t make the journey—or write his book—without a sponsoring model. He’s inventing Virgil as his guide, but he’s also confessing that the Inferno needs a precursor text and advertising its dependence on the Aeneid.
Dante picked up the motif of the journey to the dead from Book 6 in Virgil’s epic, and then found a distinctive way to imagine getting through to the other side. He also knew that Virgil had taken his idea from Book 11 of the Odyssey. The notion of calling on a poet from the past to lead you is important to me because it suggests that you can call on other poetry, other poets, to help guide you on your own journey.
INTERVIEWER: A lot of poets make their way into Gabriel. It’s a modern “Lament for the Makers,” of sorts.
EDWARD HIRSCH: I needed to tell Gabriel’s story from my own point of view as a father, but at the same time I was all too aware that I’m not the only one who has lost a child. Many people have suffered losses far worse than mine. No one escapes unscathed. I wanted my elegy to show some awareness of that dark truth. But, of course, I couldn’t write about all of them. Where to start? Finally, I got the idea of calling on my people, all those other poets who had lost children.
INTERVIEWER: What do you mean “calling on”?
EDWARD HIRSCH: I mean summoning their examples. I was thinking about how other poets had dealt with their grief, how they had suffered and written about it. I think of them as a kind of chorus—from the English poet Ben Jonson to the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé and the Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa, from Jan Kochanowski, the inventor of Polish poetry, to Margaretha Susanna von Kuntsch, a seventeenth-century German poet who lost eight sons and five daughters. There’s also a leitmotif of poets as parents—that story isn’t particularly heartening. I wasn’t rereading the work of all these poets, but I was recalling their stories and how they had managed their grief. That seemed instructive. And it enlarged the frame of reference.
INTERVIEWER: One of the strongest passages is about the nature of mourning.
EDWARD HIRSCH: For much of the time that I was writing about Gabriel I was searching for a metaphor for the work of mourning. Finally, I got the idea that it’s “like carrying a bag of cement / Up a mountain at night.” I believe in the enlargement.
Look closely and you will see
Almost everyone carrying bags
Of cement on their shoulders
That seems true to me—everyone carries around an enormous weight. It’s just not always visible.
INTERVIEWER: In an article on Gabriel, Richard Howard was quoted as saying that your work embraces “material that is psychically dangerous,” which echoes an interviewer twenty-five years earlier referring to one of your poems as representing “a dangerous kind of material.” What do you make of their use of the word dangerous?
EDWARD HIRSCH: Poetry partly comes out of dark underground forces. Writing it is a bit like psychoanalysis. You’re supposed to go where it’s psychically troubling. It takes a certain kind of recklessness to face oneself. The more upsetting it is, the more you’re supposed to fly toward it, like a moth to the flame.
INTERVIEWER: But dangerous?
EDWARD HIRSCH: You’re facing things that are emotionally red hot, psychologically dangerous. There’s a burning coal inside of us—the poet’s job is to unearth it. E. M. Cioran’s essay “Thinking against Oneself ” helped me think about the risks and dangers, and I’ve tried to emulate Dostoyevsky’s credo, Convict thyself.
INTERVIEWER: So, poetry can take one to where it took John Berryman. And Sylvia Plath. And Paul Celan.
EDWARD HIRSCH: It can take you to the far edges, but I don’t think that poetry leads to self-destructiveness. It’s life that gets people there. If anything, I believe that poetry is transformative. You can take the muck and mire of your own life and turn it into something. That seems to me a noble enterprise, if I can use such an old-fashioned word.
INTERVIEWER: Or turn the muck and mire of the world into something, as in “Two Suitcases of Children’s Drawings from Terezin, 1942–1944,” from Lay Back the Darkness.
EDWARD HIRSCH: I’d been thinking about the children’s drawings ever since I first visited the museum in Terezin. Why were there no such drawings in the other camps? I discovered that at Terezin there was a teacher, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, a protégée of Paul Klee’s at the Bauhaus, who loved children’s art. She inspired me. I hadn’t been enthusiastic about the way that so many American Jewish poets had approached the Holocaust. First, we have the sacredness of the subject. Then we have its various poetic representations. Was there a way to write about it without positing it as one’s own experience? I decided to write a quasi-documentary poem. There was no room for sentimentality. I cautioned myself to remember that almost all of the children were murdered. Dicker-Brandeis herself was murdered. She was transported to Auschwitz, and that was the end of children’s art of the Holocaust.
INTERVIEWER: Visual art and artists are everywhere in your work. Where did the interest in ekphrasis begin?
EDWARD HIRSCH: When I was in high school, I used to take the L downtown to the Art Institute of Chicago. I discovered art at the same time I discovered poetry. The two were mixed up in my mind and so writing about painting seemed natural to me. At first, it was a way for me to write about the artistic process, to write about writing, but at one remove. I didn’t know anything about the historical relationship between poetry and painting, the so-called sister arts. Later, I learned about ekphrasis. It took me a long time to develop a theory about it. Now I don’t think it’s sufficient to tell stories about paintings. The poet should bring something specific to the act of looking.
INTERVIEWER: Does one come before the other, a painting before the “something specific” or vice versa?
EDWARD HIRSCH: One work of art stimulates another. It’s all about the encounter. Sometimes a painting or sculpture or video piece enables a poet to think through a problem. For example, there was a period when I was grieving the loss of my friend, the fiction writer William Maxwell. He was the most lovable person I had ever known, and I was stunned by the grace with which he had died. I once told him that I was glad I had seen someone dying the way he was, but I didn’t think I could manage it myself. He said that he had lived a long life and it would have been greedy to ask for more. I remembered that during the last few days of his life Bill had been very intent on sending me off to see a Chardin exhibition at the Met. He had gone through it in a wheelchair. I was teaching a poetry workshop and hadn’t made time yet to see it. He had his nurse call and guilt me into going that day. I’m so glad he did. I ended up writing “The Chardin Exhibition,” a poem of simple parallels—while I was going through the exhibition, I was also thinking about what Bill was doing as he moved through his apartment on the last day of his life. Looking at Chardin gave me a way to access the experience.
INTERVIEWER: In the same book as the Maxwell elegy, Special Orders (2008), you have a different approach to ekphrasis in “Soutine: A Show of Still Lifes.”
EDWARD HIRSCH: I’ve always loved Chaim Soutine, but one summer I suddenly became obsessed with him. I wanted to write a capsule biography. The poem is personal because I was also trying to think through what it means to be a Jewish artist. He’s one of the great case studies.
INTERVIEWER: What motivated the use of dramatic monologue in On Love, in the middle of your career?
EDWARD HIRSCH: Those poems are fictive lectures. There were things I wanted to explore that I couldn’t manage in my own voice and so I decided to think about them from the podium. Richard Howard, our Browning, says that the dramatic monologue always contains a secret. The writer is creating another fictive layer. The persona enables us to say things that are otherwise difficult to say. At one point, for example, I ascribed one of my own adventures to D. H. Lawrence. I’m not sure we have the exact poetic term for this sort of monologue. As in a drag show, you see the performer peeking out from behind the mask, which slips. The reader hears a historical figure speaking—the poems are meant to be accurate—and also someone else who is costumed as that speaker. Most dramatic monologues infer a single listener, a sort of stand-in for the reader, but here the speakers are addressing an entire audience. That makes the intimate revelations a little bolder and weirder.
INTERVIEWER: The “On Love” sequence also uses form, whereas that did not appear earlier in your career. What did the use of form enable or inhibit in those poems?
EDWARD HIRSCH: In For the Sleepwalkers, you can find the ghost of iambic pentameter haunting many of the poems. But I had to break the forms in order to find something that was my own in poetry. I had to invent new structures. I’d put myself through a formal apprenticeship when I was young. I’d tried to write in all the major forms, but I felt that they defeated me, and it wasn’t until much later that I was able to get a better command of the forms that had instructed me. It took me a long time to find a way to make them my own. Robert Frost said that when he read a rhyming poem, he scanned the right-hand column to see who had won, the poet or the rhyme scheme. For me, in those early days, the rhyme scheme always won. I was waiting for the moment when my subject matter could be wedded to the form. And then I pounced.
In On Love there’s a sestina and a pantoum, but most of the poems use the same form. I didn’t invent it, but no one has used it in such an extended or ongoing way. I put my mark on it. The form implements a kind of envelope rhyme. To get technical, it rhymes abba or abccba or abcddcba. The rhyming words are always identical and the form is accordion-like—the words get closer and closer together as they move toward the middle of the stanza and then gradually get farther and farther apart again. My idea was to mimic repeatedly the movement of lovers, who come closer and closer together, almost to the point of merging, a transcendent state. But then they inevitably separate again, as two different people. I called on a series of figures from the past for an imaginary conference on erotic love. You could say I was confused and really wanted to know what they might say. I imagined each one of them standing up, coming forward, and telling her or his story while thinking through the larger subject. Since I could invite anyone I wanted to, I sent out invitations to Charles Baudelaire, Heinrich Heine, and Guillaume Apollinaire, to Oscar Wilde, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Gertrude Stein. There were a lot of others, too. I even reserved a slot for my grandfather—I thought he should be included with the poets. No one turned me down. The subject was personal, and everyone said the most outrageous things in a public setting. Everyone brought her or his own experience to the subject, approaching it as an issue of power—Baudelaire—or powerlessness—Heine—and so on. I gave the last word to Colette, who seemed wiser about erotic love than everyone else. I discovered that the formality of the lecture could also mimic the way that people speak. The repetitions sound natural.
INTERVIEWER: A favorable review concluded, “How . . . firmly civilized much American poetry has lately been becoming . . . it may reflect a general nostalgia of civility and civilization as being in the end an inevitable source for poetic culture.”
EDWARD HIRSCH: I thought that was totally wrong. For me, the idea of using figures from the past to think about erotic love wasn’t an academic exercise. The subject is hot. What my figures are saying is often shocking. And I don’t think many American poets are nostalgic for some great European past. On Love is a sharply divided book. The first half consists of various personal poems. But those poems gradually turn toward the subject of love, which becomes the obsessive subject of the second half. I feel the “On Love” lecture sequence was misunderstood. Some people loved the figures, others were put off by the allusions.
INTERVIEWER: What’s motivated your engagement with criticism?
EDWARD HIRSCH: I’m old enough to remember the ideal of a Partisan Review intellectual. The poets I looked to when I was coming up all wrote criticism. I thought it was essential to being a poet. I considered it integral to my on-the-job education, my job description. Part of me believes it would be purer to write poetry and nothing else. But I always wanted to participate in the discussion about poetry. I wanted to contribute.
INTERVIEWER: Polish poets have figured extensively in your reviews and essays. How did that come about?
EDWARD HIRSCH: In my early twenties, I started looking for an alternative to the coldness of Anglo-American Modernism. I wanted something that was intellectually rigorous but with greater warmth, more emotionality. First, I happened upon the poets of the Spanish Civil War, such as César Vallejo, Federico García Lorca, and Miguel Hernández. I was thrilled by the wildness and surrealism of these Spanish and Latin American poets. Their work is more passionate than the work of the French surrealists, though later I discovered Robert Desnos, Paul Éluard, and Blaise Cendrars, who complicated my views. When I discovered Paul Celan and Yehuda Amichai, among others, and sought out the Russian poets, especially Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Osip Mandelstam, who called Acmeism “a nostalgia for world culture.”
Polish poetry was a special revelation—its gravity struck me. I’ve tried to learn from the ongoing dialogue or argument in Polish poetry between civic and metaphysical
concerns, between historical and philosophical subjects. I’m drawn to the seriousness of the conversation between what my friend Adam Zagajewski terms “solidarity” and
“solitude.” On the one hand, poetry is called toward solidarity, community, social issues, political issues, what’s happening to society at large, and on the other hand, poetry is called toward personal life, aesthetics, interior feelings, love, music, beauty. On the one hand the poets are aesthetes, who want to write about the nature of God and the passing of time. On the other hand, their little country was occupied by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, which they couldn’t ignore. So, there was a pull toward civitas. In Polish poetry, there’s a dialogue between the communal and the individual that’s not there in most other poetries.
INTERVIEWER: Do you identify as a somewhat displaced American poet who has connected to your subjects through international, especially European, figures?
EDWARD HIRSCH: I’m an American poet, but I’m on the side of American poetry that is internationally oriented. I’m stimulated by the conversation with other languages and other poetries. It probably stems from the provincial in me.
INTERVIEWER: Do you ever feel that our society is too affluent and comfortable —if not complacent— for an urgent poetry?
EDWARD HIRSCH: You’re kidding, right? American democracy is very much at risk now, and poets, like other citizens, have felt the need to respond. We feel an imminent threat. Racial injustice, the original American sin, has also galvanized poets, who very much feel the need for an intervention. When we were teaching together at Wayne State University, my friend Charles Baxter once came into my oÙce and read me Louis Simpson’s poem “On the Lawn at the Villa,” which has the funny, illuminating lines, “It’s complicated, being an American, / Having the money and the bad conscience, both at the same time.” Yes, okay, I understand, we took the money and have the bad faith. Some American writers have had aÜuent lives. But we can still open our eyes to what’s happening around us. We can respond to social injustice. We can see what’s happening to the environment. We can certainly think about what it means to be an American in the world today. It’s our responsibility.
INTERVIEWER: Not long ago, I heard a UK critic pose the question, Why can’t a poem be just a poem? American poets, he said, feel pressure to have poetry be about something.
EDWARD HIRSCH: I agree that a poem can be a poem, a thing of beauty unto itself. But I know that most American poets don’t think of it this way. Perhaps British poets take the purpose of poetry for granted. Maybe they think that everyone in the world already cares about poetry. I’m an American, we know better. There’s a witty polemic by the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz called “Against Poets.” He says, “The minute the poets lost sight of a concrete human being and became transfixed with abstract Poetry, nothing could keep them from rolling down the incline into the chasm of the absurd.” It’s good for poetry to keep human beings in mind.
INTERVIEWER: What kind of rationale do you apply to structuring a collection? Most of your poetry books echo the preceding one while departing from it.
EDWARD HIRSCH: I tend to structure a book of poems as a journey or an argument. In making a book of poems, you’re looking for the whole that is larger than the sum of its parts. You’re writing individual poems, and then you’re trying to formulate the nature of the book you are writing. It represents something more than a period of your life. There’s an underlying argument going on. Every one of my books since Wild Gratitude—except perhaps Gabriel, which is unique—has come together this way.
INTERVIEWER: What’s an example of an argument?
EDWARD HIRSCH: In Earthly Measures (1994), there’s an argument running through it about the nature of transcendence. There are a lot of cultural figures in the book, such as Paul Celan and Simone Weil—Jesus, there are three poems about Hugo von Hofmannsthal—and many of them are looking for a way out, a way up. The final poem, “Earthly Light,” is a homage to the seventeenth-century Dutch painters; it’s also a rejection of transcendence in favor of something earthly. In other words, I end up ultimately critiquing my own longing for God.
On Love, which follows Earthly Measures, is an attempt to describe, discuss, and portray earthly love as opposed to unearthly love. It’s a response, therefore, to what’s come before. It’s the next step of the argument.
INTERVIEWER: What happens between the books? What motivates the next project? A backlog? Anxiety?
EDWARD HIRSCH: Initially, there’s a terrible blankness, a void. I feel my creativity is over and try not to despair. Slowly but surely, I come back to life—at least that’s how it’s happened in the past. I find something that moves or torments me, something that’s on my mind, something unexplored. My desperation gives way to curiosity and something begins to emerge. I feel I ought to do what I can.
INTERVIEWER: When you start, what do you do? Do you write something on paper? On a computer?
EDWARD HIRSCH: I always begin with pen and paper. I write by hand. I used to type up my poems, then revise them by hand, then retype them. Now I move fluently between writing by hand and revising on the computer. It’s a hybrid way of writing that is subject to constant revision.
INTERVIEWER: By “revision,” you mean everything . . .
EDWARD HIRSCH: I mean thinking through a subject. I write by the line. I continually revise the lines and stanzas as I go. I’m listening to what I’m making and changing it all the time. I was once doing a question-and-answer session at a bookstore with the novelist Jane Smiley. Someone asked me a question and I explained how I wrote. Jane said, “Oh, I would never let my students write like that. You could never write a novel that way. You’d never get anywhere.” I know what she meant. My process is excruciating. But I can’t help it—that’s the way I work. I was also amused when someone asked her if she wrote poetry and she said, “No, I leave that to him. I don’t want to live like that.” It’s all about the intensities.
INTERVIEWER: So you feel there’s a different requirement when you’re writing poetry than when you’re writing prose?
EDWARD HIRSCH: Yes. I feel that poetry is never at the dispensation of the will. “Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will,” Shelley says. He knows that not even the greatest poet can say, “I will compose poetry.” That’s true. Writing critical prose is a little different. You take your lunch pail to work and fasten yourself to the chair. It requires great concentration but it’s a little less whimsical in its inspiration.
INTERVIEWER: Where do you write?
EDWARD HIRSCH: Most of my life I’ve worked in coffee shops, cafeterias, fast-food joints. I like to go to public spaces and settle down to work. I’ve almost always started a poem while sitting in a coffee shop or walking. If something kicks in, once I’m working on it, I open the computer. I can go on working in my study or in my office. Sometimes I head back to the coffee shop.
But now, with the pandemic, no one can work in a public space any longer. It’s one more small loss in the midst of a large calamity. Like everyone else, I’ve had to learn to adjust. I’m riding out the quarantine with my partner in Atlanta, and she has generously turned a small bedroom into a workable space. My consolation is very long daily walks.
I’ve always felt the connection between poetry and walking, and the drift helps put me into a state of reverie. I know where all the benches are now, and sometimes I pause to write something down. The French poet Paul Valéry, who paid more attention to the way his mind worked than most of us, noted that there was “a certain reciprocity” between his pace and his thoughts. “My thoughts modify my pace;” he said, “my pace provokes my thoughts.” It’s all in the pacing.
I work in the daytime now, in what Henry James calls “sacred mornings,” and that’s a terrific help. In my twenties, thirties, forties, I used to work deep into the night. I did my most serious and difficult reading at night and I wrote many of my poems at night. I liked the concentration, the solitude, the sense of being the only one awake. Hence all my poems about insomnia.
INTERVIEWER: Do you have a reader in mind as you write?
EDWARD HIRSCH: A poem is a dramatic experience. It carries its own meaning. I won’t be there to explain it. It’s an orphaned creature that must make its own way in the world. While I’m writing it, I’m also trying to live up to the models of those who came before me, my poetic exemplars.
I write for myself and others. At first, I’m just trying to think through something crucial for myself. That’s hard enough. I’m trying to make something, to remember and express something, to find something out. Along the way, I start trying to unpack and articulate, to dramatize and transform it in such a way that it will be meaningful for someone else, someone unknown to me who may not even be alive yet, who doesn’t have any idea about who I am. I’m writing to a stranger in the future.