Edward Hirsch: "You Have to Write The Poems That Only You Could Write"
I met Edward Hirsch a few years ago at the Indiana Writers Conference. He was a genial and generous workshop leader, blending a deep knowledge of poetry and its craft with easygoing humor. Along with his love of poetry, he's an avid sports fan: his poem "Fast Break" in the collection "Wild Gratitude" captures the essence of basketball.
Since meeting Edward at Indiana, I have followed his career, pursuing his poems in magazines like the New Yorker and avidly reading new collections when they appeared. He has received numerous awards for his poetry, including the National Book Critics Circle Award and a MacArthur Fellowship. Now the president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, he previously taught at Wayne State University and the University of Houston.
As the author of the best-selling prose work "How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love With Poetry," he played a major role in the revival of poetry's popularity among general readers. He recently published "The Living Fire, New and Selected Poems (Alfred A. Knoph)," which contains some of the best poems written by an American over the last 30 years.
He graciously agreed to answer several questions in the following Southern Bookman interview.
1. Your position as the president of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation is quite an honor for the art of poetry. How does your life as one of America’s best-known poets contribute to and enhance your position at the Guggenheim Foundation, or do you seek to keep them separate?
EH: The Guggenheim Foundation made a conscious decision to hire a working artist and scholar as its president. I try to live up to the trust that has been put in me, to exemplify what the Foundation is all about, what it represents. My writing life is private, of course, and my work as a poet is far from my work as the head of a major foundation. But there is a public space where the two roles come together, and I find that deeply fulfilling.
2. Guggenheim fellows include an impressive number of scientists, scholars, artists, filmmakers and writers. The common belief is that science and art fatefully split in the Romantic Age. Do you see bridging these cultures as an important part of the Guggenheim Foundation’s mission? Does the foundation seek to foster conversations among its fellows from different disciplines?
EH: The Guggenheim Foundation has always seen its mission as supporting individual writers and artists, scientists and scholars. We now give grants to individuals working in seventy-eight different fields, a very wide array. Many conversations occur across the different disciplines, but we don’t really see that as our purpose or mission. It’s a byproduct. We encourage, support, and advance the work of gifted individuals. We then leave them to their own devices to do the work that they were meant to do.
You recently released “The Living Fire, New and Selected Poems.” The book contains an astonishing variety of poems, from meditations on history and poetry to portraits of historic figures, to personal narratives of childhood and adulthood to frankly erotic love poems. The book gives the novelistic sense of the growth of a mind, a poetic consciousness. In selecting the poems, what did you see as their unifying quality?
EH: Robert Frost liked to say that if there are twenty-nine poems in a book, then the book itself is the thirtieth poem. I’ve tried to find that thirtieth poem in The Living Fire. While I was putting the book together, I kept thinking of W.B. Yeats’ mantra to himself, “Hammer your thoughts into unity.” I’ve tried to do that hammering. I think your question contains its own answer: there are many different themes, many different kinds of poems in the book, but the underlying subject is, in Wordsworth’s sense, the growth of a poet’s mind, the development of poetic thinking, poetic consciousness.
As “The Living Fire” shows, your work has a distinctive, unmistakable voice. Yet, your lines echo the cadences and language of English and American poetry through the ages. When I read your poems, I can hear traces of Shakespeare, Milton and Stevens, among others. (Some of your erotic poems sound a bit like Whitman and Ginsberg). Do you see your style and language as following a tradition of English poetry?
EH: I think of my poems, at least in part, as being in conversation with other poets, with the many poets who have come before us, the great dead who have enabled our practice, who have made our work possible. I think of the poet as a reader who has been incited by what he has encountered in books, whose work as a reader spills over into his vocation as a writer. I sometimes consider myself an American Romantic, and the different traditions of English and American poetry are dear to me. Unlike many contemporary poets, I consider myself on good terms with the tradition. I began with the metaphysical poets in college, and I’ve moved forward — and backward — from there. I’m also a devoted internationalist, and I hear the echoes in my work of many European and Latin American poets, who have meant a great deal to me. But in the end you have to leave your models behind and strike out on your own. You have to write the poems that only you could write. I’ve tried to do that.
In your poem “Krakow, Six A.M.,” from “Special Orders,” you compare old-world Poland to America, which you see as a “gangly teenager,” whose dreams are “innocent and bloodthirsty” and who is “dreaming of glory.” As the administrator of a prestigious grants program and a prominent poet, how do see America today? Will the country ever achieve maturity, or will it always be an eternal adolescent, despite its world leadership?
EH: That’s too large a question to be able to answer quickly, gracefully, or fully. America is a very great country — what other country has such a highly developed tradition of philanthropy, for example?—and yet it is also a new country, very young, as countries go, very new. We’ve got some growing up to do. But I have high hopes that we’ll continue to ripen and mature.