How to Fall in Love with the Poetry of Edward Hirsch

Edward Hirsch | Photo by Michael Lionstar

Edward Hirsch | Photo by Michael Lionstar

by Mark Schorr
This is the first in a series of stories on the headline poets of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, May 1-3 in Salem, MA.
Attend Edward Hirsch's events at the festival.

Perhaps the best way into the poetry of Edward Hirsch is to pick up How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, Hirsch’s bestselling handbook. There’s a short version of this on the Poetry Foundation website that gives you the core of the first chapter. This article is based on that core, with the headings suggesting his advice. The italicized words are Ed Hirsch’s, not mine.

Go to the Heartland

Poems are like messages in a bottle sent out with little hope of finding a recipient.
 Those of us who find and read poems become their unknown addressees. 

Open one of Edward Hirsch's early collections, Wild Gratitude, Night Parade, Earthly Masters, or the one I opened, For the Sleepwalkers, and thumb through the titles of the poems. Let your imagination select the title of the poem you will read, and you will be making a pilgrimage to New York ("Walking the Upper West Side, with Lorca") or to Russia ("With Isaac Babel in Odessa") or to Paris ("A Walk with Vallejo in Paris") or on a river journey in China ("The River Merchant: A Letter Home").

To peruse these titles is like receiving a stack of personal mail from exotic places. And every one of these letters is addressed to you. When you read the poem you will find yourself in the company of a living poet. Hirsch is your guide to an artist's spirit, such as Vallejo, Lorca, Monet, or Marianne Moore. Through Ed Hirsch's great heart and empathy of his words, you will find yourself closer to these artists than you have been before.

Be a Pilgrim

Your selection of poems allows you to be a pilgrim as you read poetry, Hirsch tells us.

The reader of poetry is a kind of pilgrim setting out.  To read a poem is to depart from the familiar, to leave all expectations behind.

Soon you are walking with Ed Hirsch as he spies Vallejo. "I am trying to decide what to do when suddenly I see César Vallejo with his hand thrust into his pockets standing undera street lamp.  He nods to me..."

As you read the words, your imagination soon catches up, and you will know Vallejo's story almost as well as your own by the time you are through because of this personal pilgrimage with the poet Ed Hirsch, who has been so willing to share his poetic life with you.

Expect a Special Communication

A lyric poem is a special communiqué between an I and a You. It speaks out of solitude to a solitude; it begins and ends in silence.

Such a poem is “Boy with a Headset,” a poem that describes Hirsch’s relationship to his son Gabriel. 

He is wearing baggy shorts and a loud T-shirt
and singing along to his headset on Broadway. 

The poem to his son stands out like an unfinished symphony at the end of the selected poems. In real life, Gabriel, who was diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome, did not fit any of the myriad treatments that Hirsch tried to arrange. If you want to explore this part of Hirsch’s quest as a parent and a human being, you can continue your pilgrimage to a long book-length unsentimental elegy called Gabriel A Poem— an example of what Hirsch calls “The Immense Intimacy, the Intimate Immensity of poetry" that cannot be duplicated in any other medium.

Ask How the Magician Does It

A poem has stored magic.

Finally, if you are writing poems yourselves, the stored magic of every Ed Hirsch poem will appeal to you like the tricks of a master magician whose skills you want to learn.

Two such poems are “An Elegy for the Jewish Villages” — reciting the names of villages that no longer exist after World War II, and “Two Suitcases of Children’s Drawings” — from Terezin concentration camp.  As he picks up each piece of children's art, he gives us outlines of the lost world at Terezin.

In the elegy, as Hirsch recites the names of four actual Jewish villages lost during the World War II era, he imagines a lost world that cannot be brought back:

Gone are the towns where a shoemaker was a poet,
the watchmaker a philosopher, the barber a troubadour.

As it evokes the village, this elegy is a poem that “walk[s] the line between singing and speaking, not speech exactly and yet always in relationship to speech, to the spoken word.”

Or look at his lyric poems that seek to mesmerize time. Two of these are “The Poet at Seven” that invokes his childhood and “Branch Library” through which Hirsch says he “tries to get back to the feeling for poetry that I had as a teenager.”   In this case, the lost world can at least be brought closer by a beautiful metaphor.

I wish I could find that skinny, long-beaked boy
who perched in the branches of the old branch library…

I’d give anything to find that bird boy again
bursting out into the dusky blue afternoon

with his satchel of scrawls and scribbles,
radiating heat, singing with joy.

Through the beautiful bird-boy metaphor, we can at least swoop in on the boy during those years when the library was a retreat, a place of discovery, a sanctuary.

Hirsch’s poetry has cast its spell, by “wrenching words from the family of habitual contexts,” that keeps us reading this remarkable poet who will not let us sleep until we complete the book we have started.  In fact, your pilgrimage will show you that most of what Hirsch tells us in How to Read a Poem, he also shows us in his own work.

Mark Schorr, the Director Emeritus of the Robert Frost Foundation, has produced Ben Mazer’s verse play, A City of Angels, at the Grolier Poetry Book Shop and has opened for Jim Vrabel’s one-man show of John Berryman with dream songs from Schorr’s second collection, Recovery(2011) in a poets’ theater production.