Big Think Interview With Edward Hirsch
Edward Hirsch's first collection of poems, "For the Sleepwalkers," was published in 1981 and went on to receive the Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets and the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award from New York University. His second collection, Wild Gratitude (1986), received the National Book Critics Circle Award. Since then, he has published several books of poems, including "Special Orders" (2008) and "Lay Back the Darkness" (2003). His latest book, "The Living Fire" (2010), his first retrospective collection, selects from each of his seven previous collections, published between 1981 and 2008.
He has been a professor of English at Wayne State University and the University of Houston. Hirsch is currently the president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, as well as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
Question: What was the first thing you read that made you want to become a poet?
Edward Hirsch: When I was eight years old my grandfather died and I knew that he had written poetry because I used to see him writing poetry in his books and I was very close to him. And after he died I went down to the basement of my family house where my family kept books, anthologies and things and there was an anthology without any names attached to it and I read a poem called Spellbound and I somehow attached it to my grandfather’s death and I thought my grandfather had written it. In fact, I was sure he had written it and it was a great consolation to me and something planted in my mind that you could write poetry, that you could read poetry, that poetry could somehow console you. I didn’t sit down then and start writing poems, but it was in the back of my mind.
Now, when I was in high school I was leafing through an anthology that our teachers had given up and I found a poem, I go, “That’s so strange. This poem looks so much like my grandfather’s poem.” Then I found another one, grandpa’s poem. It turned out it had been written by Emily Brontë and it wasn’t my grandfather’s poem at all, although my response to it, I think, was pretty much the same, I just had the author wrong. But, that was the beginning, though I didn’t start writing until I was in high school and when I was in high school I really began to write poetry with great energy and enthusiasm.
Question: When did you begin showing people your poems?
Edward Hirsch: When I was in high school I used to show them to my sister and I thought everything I wrote was so great and my poor sister who is a year younger than I am couldn’t understand them at all. But, she was enthusiastic about my writing them. When I was a freshman in college I went to Grinnell College in Iowa. I brought my poems to my freshman humanities teacher whose name was Carol Parsinan, a wonderful teacher. And Carol did a really great thing for me. She taught me more than anyone. She somehow read my poems and came back to me and convinced me that I could be a poet, that I had the passion and the enthusiasm and the creativity to become a poet, but that what I was writing was not poetry because I was just expressing my feelings and I wasn’t try to make anything.
The oldest word for poetry in Greek is “poesis,” which means making. A poet is a maker and a poem is a made thing. And Carol somehow convinced me that I could become a poet but that I was not writing poetry and that I would have to try and make something to write poetry. I started then to try and shape something rather than just express it and when I started to shape something and to imitate other poems that were written by other people, when I had tried to integrate my reading and my writing I was on my path. I guess that would have been 1968. I was a freshman in college and I wasn’t writing good poems, but I was at least trying to write poems then.
Question: What is the best way to learn how to write poetry?
Edward Hirsch: There's been no poet, no great poet in the history of poetry who hasn’t also been a great reader of poetry. This is sometimes distressing to my students when I tell them this. Now, I do say, “It’s possible. You might be the first. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but the odds are very much against you.” All great poets have been great readers and the way to learn your craft in poetry is by reading other poetry and by letting it guide you.
A great model for this is the way that Dante calls on Virgil at the beginning of The Inferno, The Divine Comedy, to help guide him through the underworld. And, in a way, that’s also a recognition that Dante needs Virgil and that the Inferno needs the Aeneid and that the epic needs a model and that for Dante to write this great poem he needs someone to come before him and he turns to Virgil’s text, especially book six where Aeneas goes down into the underworld. And for me, that’s a model of the poet’s relationship to previous poetry, to another poetry as calling out for guidance.
Question: Which poet stands out as your model?
Edward Hirsch: There are many poets that use as my models. In my first book of poems, I had several for the “Sleepwalkers,” I had several poems that were apprentice poems like this in which I take a walk with a poet who is no longer alive. One of them is I walk with Federico Garcia Lorca around the Upper West Side in Manhattan because that was a neighborhood he lived in and I imagine walking around Paris with Cesar Vallejo, a great Peruvian poet who lived in Paris. And I kind of create the walk as a kind of drama of my apprenticeship.
Now, it is true that I think one of the things that distinguished my work from the beginning when I was in college was my turning towards poetry from other countries. That I didn’t ever consider poetry the province exclusively of English and American literature and I discovered a great amount in reading Polish poetry and other Eastern European poetry and reading Russian poetry and reading Latin American and Spanish poetry and I’ve always found models in those other poetries of poets who could help me on my path.
Question: How did your childhood shape your poetry?
Edward Hirsch: I think it shapes it in very deep ways that you don’t entirely understand. Rainer Maria Rilke said there are two inexhaustible sources for poetry. One is dreams, and the other is childhood. I think childhood is an inexhaustible source of your becoming who you will be and certain deep feelings are set inside of you. A certain construct of emotions that really define who you are and who you will become and I feel very much that my childhood is very alive inside of me, very close to me, very much part of me. And it’s a sometimes painful, sometimes joyous inexhaustible resource for poetry. And a lot of poetry is putting yourself back into the state of wonder that you have before things when you’re a child. It’s not only a joyous wonder, it’s sometimes a grief stricken wonder.
I have the idea that lyric poetry is a poetry that’s driven by a sense of the presence of death. That there's something unbearable about the fact that we’re going to die and that we can’t stand it and I think you find that out in childhood and you don’t really - at least I found it out in childhood and I found it hard to get over and now I’m 60 years old and I still find it hard to get over. And I think it’s one of the things that drive lyric poetry, our sense of mortality. Our sense that things are transient, that everything is passing and then if you want to save something from the endless flux of experience and the world’s movement, you have to set down a stake and try and make something that will last.
Question: What is your process for creating a poem?
Edward Hirsch: I think it’s changed over time. I mean, when I was young I could write all through the night and I loved to work late into the night. Now that I’m older I work really well in the early morning when your synapses are firing a little better. But I work at different times of the day. I don’t have a set schedule to work on poetry at any given time, at the same time every day, but I do try to work on poetry every day and I do find some time every day that I can with some exceptions to work on poetry. But, the best times I have found, in my life, are late at night or early in the morning and I think it’s because you’re outside the social realm. You're alone with yourself and your own feelings and that gives you deeper access to what you need to get in touch with to write poetry.
Now, the process of writing poetry is very messy. Not systematic, never quite the same. Sometimes I have a feeling that I just can’t get rid of. Sometimes there’s an experience that I want to write about that I have to get off my chest. Sometimes there are some words that appeal to you. Often you’ve read another poem that you think is so beautiful that you’d like to make something like that. And so you try to make a sonnet that works in a certain kind of way, or you try to make something that’s songlike, or you create a refrain, or you love the way a poem works in two line stanzas and you try to do that. And what I’ve found over time is that for me to write a poem that I think is worthy that I can live with, two things have to happen. One, something emotional has to be at stake. There has to be something important for me that I’m writing about. And then two, I have to have a formal idea. Something has to be being worked out in poetry. Now, that can be a traditional form or it can be something you're inventing. It can be the development of a metaphor, the working through of a metaphor. But, something has to be worked through formally as well as emotionally. Now, when those two things come together I’ve got something, I think, that I can be proud of.
Question: When do you think about the titles of poems?
Edward Hirsch: Sometimes the title comes to you at the beginning, sometimes it comes at the end. The very best way in my experience is when it comes in the middle. That you write a phrase or you think of something and it seems to have a deeper charge because the title has to be some kind of marker, something setting out a space, creating a space for what's going to come. And my experience is the best titles, for me, emerge in the process of writing. They don’t usually come at the very beginning and hopefully they don’t come at the very end because then it’s getting late in the day.
Now, sometimes I change the title. I was surprised recently to find a book called “Poetry in Persons” that’s coming out about visit to poets to a class that Pearl London gave. And when my second book had come out, “Wild Gratitude,” I went to Pearl London’s class and she worked through different drafts of poems and there were the drafts of my poem, Wild Gratitude, and I saw that I had begun the poem with the title August 13th. And it was the title August 13th for most of the way and then near the end, sometime in the process, I got the idea that maybe that would be a somewhat bland title and I got the idea for wild gratitude, which I’m very proud of as a title. So, I think it works best when you find it in the process.
Question: Does it take a certain wealth of experience to write a poem, or is it more effort and practice?
Edward Hirsch: Well, I would say there are different kinds of poems. There are things that poets in the history of poetry hit upon when they're very young that can never be outdone and it’s a remarkable, strange experience when you think of say Arthur Rimbaud who write poetry between the ages of 17 and 21 whose career was over by the time he was 22. Or John Keats who notoriously died in his 20’s and yet had packed a wealth of experience into his poems before then.
Scholars of the Hebrew bible define something they call wisdom literature and I would say clearly the poetry of wisdom is something that comes with age or that might come with age which has to do with reflecting on experience. And a certain kind of poetry looks back at experience from an older perspective. It’s hard to think that say Shakespeare could have written “The Tempest” when he was young. It seems to be reflective work or retrospective work.
At the same time there's the brilliant audacity of youth that poets strike upon in their earliest work sometimes that they never can hit upon again. And sometimes you look at the first poems by someone and you go, “They have freshness and a sense of wonder that is never recaptured again by that poet.” So, I think there are different kinds of poetry for different stages of life and there's the wild, exuberance of youth, there's the painful agony of midlife experience, there's the late poetry in the presence of death and I think what you hope for is that at different times of your life you’re able to write the poetry that reflects the moment that you’re in on your own journey.
Question: What is your revision process like?
Edward Hirsch: I was once doing a question and answer period with the novelist Jane Smiley in a bookstore and someone asked us what our processes were and Jane said hers and then I said mine and Jane said, “Well, if I had a student like that I’d force him never to write like that again because you could never write a novel in the way that you write poetry,” which is: I wish I wrote drafts and then revised them, but I don’t. What I do is I seem to revise as I go. And so, I write a line and then I revise the line and then I write two lines and then I revise lines one and two and then I write one, two and three and I revise one and two and then I write seven and eight and then I see that should be line four and I continually work it over as I go. So, it’s a continual process of trial and error and then I find things and I throw it out and start again, but I keep writing it over again.
So, the result though is by the time I’ve got something, it’s been worked over so many times that although I do make changes as the end, often by the time I’ve gotten it, it’s pretty much completed. Now, that can take two days, it can take three weeks, it can take four months depending on how the process is going. Now, as I’ve gotten older I’ve been able to write more quickly. Sometimes I get in the space of something and I can do a lot in a day.
The mysterious thing about writing poetry is that when you're - when things are going poorly, when you're not thinking well, even making two sentences together is extremely hard and I just can’t make the connections. And when I’m writing well and when I’m inside the feeling, then I can do fairly complicated things with some fluency. So, some of the most difficult formal poems that I’ve written, say one sentence sonnets, I’ve been able to do those fairly quickly whereas some of the clearest, simplest lyrics that I’ve written have taken me the longest to get to the clarity of feeling that you're looking for.
So, the process of revision, it’s not systematic. But for me, I mean, I know a lot of poets who write out a draft and then revise it and I think they're happier people. But, I’m just not able to do it that way. I need to just continually examine it as I do it.
Question: In this age of digital media and short attention spans, what is the future of poetry for young people?
Edward Hirsch: The attention deficit disorder of the culture is very distressing in America now and I think it puts a lot of things at risk, not just poetry. There's never been a culture without poetry in the history of the world. In every culture, in every language there is expressive play, expressive word play, there's language use to different purposes that we would call poetry. So, I think poetry will survive and I don’t think it will be the end of poetry. Our tremendous onslaught of mass media all the time that we’re suffering and we don’t really know how to think about, I think that puts certain things at risk. I don’t think poetry will die, but I think that poetry does demand a certain kind of attention to language. It does demand a certain space in order to read it and I think that space is somewhat threatened by the lack of attention that people have and the amount of time that they give to things.
So, I just think that limits the kinds of experiences that people can have with poetry. But, poetry will survive; I don’t worry about that. But, I do think that it may save fewer souls if people can’t pay attention.
Question: Do MFA programs help or hurt poetry?
Edward Hirsch: I think they can do both things depending on the poet. I think that the dark side of MFA programs is that they're generating more poets than the culture can absorb and there are more people writing poetry than possibly read it or can certainly earn a living around it and so that’s a stress on the system and I think a painful thing for many young poets who are looking to find a life in poetry that they're not going to be able to find.
The very good thing about MFA programs is their democratizing. They bring a lot of different people to the table. It’s not - I mean, in the history of poetry there have been a lot poetries where you have to inherit the position of poet from your ancestors and I think that if you just leave anyone to become a poet based on an aristocratic society, then a lot of people are left out who might have something to offer. And I think the MFA program is a way of bringing a lot of different people to the table and inviting them in. So I think that’s very good.
I would be happier if people who went through MFA programs also were already, by then, deeply committed readers of poetry because we need readers of poetry as much as writers of poetry. And I think in terms of educating a group of readers, MFA programs are very good. I just think the model of MFA programs in which a young poet goes through the program, publishes a series of books, gets teaching jobs, that’s a bit at risk. I think the culture can absorb so many people writing poetry and trying to earn their living in poetry.
Question: What is your advice for an aspiring young poet?
Edward Hirsch: First of all I think that poetry is very noble and I always have with me the sense of the nobility of poetry. And when you are entering into poetry, whatever stage you're at, you are participating in something with a very long and noble tradition. And so, I would keep in mind to a young poet that you are entering into something that is very important, that has always been important in terms of human concerns.
The way to become a poet is to read poetry and to imitate what you read and to read passionately and widely and in as involved a way as you can. It’s not important - it’s not necessary that you read everything. What is necessary is that you care about things that you read and that you find something that really matters to you and you try and make something like that. And I think that as long as you have other poets before you and that you can learn from them, then it’s always open ended for you. There's always some place to go. You don’t need workshops, you don’t need friends necessarily, you can be befriended by literature itself. Emily Dickinson calls previous poets her kinsmen of the shelf. You can always be consoled by your kinsmen of the shelf and you can participate in poetry by going to them and by trying to make something worthy of them. Gertrude Stein said, “I write for myself and strangers.” I would say I write for myself, strangers and the great dead.
Question: For someone who might not be familiar with the genre, what is the best way to read a poem?
Edward Hirsch: Double Take Magazine once printed a little pamphlet in which I listed ten different things that you should do. I can’t remember all of them, but the first one was turn off the television set. I don’t think you can read poetry while you're watching television very well.
The idea of how to read a poem is based on the idea that poetry needs you as a reader. That the experience of poetry, the meaning in poetry is a kind of circuit that takes place between a poet, a poem and a reader and that meaning doesn’t exist or in here in poems alone. That readers bring their own experiences, their own range of - their own wisdom, their own knowledge, their own insights to poem and the meaning of a poem takes place in the negotiation between the poet, the poem and the reader. And that as a reader you have a task to do, you have something to do. You bring your experience to it. It’s not all inherit in the poem.
The great post-Holocaust poet, Paul Celan, said that a poem is a message in a bottle sent out in the not always greatly hopeful belief that somewhere and some time it would wash up on land on heartland perhaps. The idea of a poem as a message in a bottle means that it’s sent out towards some future reader and the reader who opens that bottle becomes the addressee of the literary text. Celan was picking up something that the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam had written in 1916 called On the Addressee. And Mandelstam says a poet - you go down to the shore and you see an unlikely looking from a bottle from the past, you open it. Mandelstam says, “It’s okay to do so. I’m not reading someone else’s mail. It was addressed to whoever found it. I found it, therefore it’s addressed to me.” And that when you find it you become the secret addressee of a literary text and I felt that their reader had been left out of this experience of reading poetry or what the experience of poetry was.
And so, my focus is on the reader and that the poet’s job is not to inspire himself or herself. The poet’s job is to inspire some future reader. And so, as a reader you have a task to do in finding those bottles and opening up the messages and experiencing what's in them inside of yourself.
Question: How do you create that connection with your reader?
Edward Hirsch: I think that’s a connection that you can only hope for. It’s not something that you can make because it needs someone else. I find in Walt Whitman and in American tradition a certain kind of, I would say, desperate American friendliness in which the poet tries to reach out through the page to make a connection by the side of the road with some other person. But, ultimately that’s a longing, not a completion, that has to be made by other readers. You can seek clarity, you can seek warmth, you can try to make something for lasting. You can pack something in salt so that it’s well made and you can hope that it outlasts time. But, ultimately that’s not up to you. Ultimately you’re trying to reach across and find some other person, some other human warmth. But it is, especially in written poetry, it is inscribed in a text and the text can’t do that work by itself and you as a poet can only do your best.
Question: Can poets learn from fiction writers?
Edward Hirsch: When I taught at the University of Houston in the Creative Writing program we required the poets to take workshops in fiction writing and we required the fiction writers to take workshops in poetry. And the reason for that is because the fiction writers seemed to need to learn how to pay greater attention to language itself, to the way that language works.
The poets needed to learn to pay greater attention to character and to narrative. That is many poets don’t know how to tell a story and they don’t have a sense of how to put things in order to tell a story and we thought the poets could learn from fiction writers something about developing a character over time who wasn’t just you and also creating a narrative structure. So, I think it’s true that that’s something that poetry can go to school on fiction. I think poetry can go to fiction to learn.
I think the deepest thing is that many fiction writers tell stories but are not elegant writers. But, we’re not writing journalism when we’re making literature. We’re trying to make something that lasts in language and there's no question that many fiction writers began as poets and it’s hard for me to think of any good fiction writers who don’t also read poetry. That fiction writers learn about the development of metaphor, the use of rhythm, the way that language is compacted in order to express the feelings of - express their own feelings and the feelings of their characters. So, I think fiction goes to poetry for the intensity of its use of language.
Question: Have you tried your hand at fiction?
Edward Hirsch: When I was young I did. In fact, when I was young I wrote everything and I thought I would be an all around writer, that I would write everything. When I was in my early 20’s I still had that idea and I wrote an unpublished novel and I wrote a lot of short stories. But what I discovered about myself is that my temperament is so fiery in terms of what I think in literature, that I like so much intensity that too much was happening all the time. It was just like starting with too much adrenaline and you stayed at that adrenaline rush all the time.
Well, it turns out that doesn’t work for fiction. A novel takes place over time. It’s a historical narrative and it needs to have a series of peaks and valleys and the move through. You can’t just start at the highest pitch and stay there, but you can in a lyric poem. And so, I found my temperament is very much drawn to lyric poetry and for the compression of lyric poetry. So, it seems that I have the temperament of a poet, not entirely of a fiction writer.
Question: What words are you looking for as a poet?
Edward Hirsch: There's a debate in the whole history of poetry between the plain style and the golden or ornate style and that poetry is continually in some kind of relationship between these two pulls. Something more baroque and ornate, something more ornamental and something more plainspoken, something simpler. And I feel the tugs of those two traditions in, say, the 17th century or in Spanish baroque poetry or the work of John Donne who I admire very much.
And so, what I would say is I, myself, have a - especially as I’ve gotten older, I long for clarity and I long for the pure, clear word. But, by the drive of the feeling and the intensity of the expression and the thing you're trying to express and make you hope that the words have wings. That is, you're looking for something that will lift off. Now, how to get that lift is, no one knows exactly and there's no recipe for it. If there was, everyone would be writing great poems. Everyone would be going to school with Emily Dickinson and writing those remarkable lyrics of hers or writing Shakespeare sonnets.
But, what you're looking for is a kind of clear language that gets a depth charge that lifts it and gives it wings. So, you hear the phrase, “Brightness falls from the air,” and you know you're in the presence of poetry, that something has happened to the language. The words themselves, brightness falls from the air, are all very clear and very simple, but when they come together in this particular way they’ve got a radiance and a beauty that stands all alone. And I think that what is that, the observation of light, the clarity of the feeling, the sense of wonder the words give you. No one knows exactly, but you're seeking in this combination of words to find something new and fresh that will strike a deeply resonant chord so that when we read Sappho now, it’s as powerful to us as when it was written in Lesbos so many centuries ago.
Question: Special Orders
Edward Hirsch: This is the title poem of my book Special Orders.
Give me back my father walking the halls
of Wertheimer Box and Paper Company
with sawdust clinging to his shoes.
Give me back his tape measure and his keys,
his drafting pencil and his order forms;
give me his daydreams on lined paper. I don’t understand this uncontrollable grief.
Whatever you had that never fit,
whatever else you needed, believe me, my father, who wanted your business,
would squat down at your side
and sketch you a container for it.
Question: What do you want your legacy to be?
Edward Hirsch: Well, the first thing you’d like to be remembered for are for your poems and I’ve spent my life in poetry and I’d like my poems to last and I’d like be remembered for my poetry. And in terms of my legacy, I think everything radiates from that. And so, first of all, you’d like to be remembered as a poet and a poet who tried to bring the deepest feeling to poetry. And I’d like to be remembered as a passionate poet who kept what John Keats calls the holiness of the heart’s affections.
Secondarily, I’d like to be remembered for my advocacy for poetry and my trying to defend poetry in a time when poetry was at risk. And there have always been great defenses of poetry and I’ve tried to write mine and I think all of my work and criticism is a defense of poetry to try and keep something alive in poetry.
And then, as a teacher of poetry, I’d like that to be - I think the teaching of poetry is part of that legacy of trying to carry on the tradition of poetry everywhere in the world and keeping it going.
And then lastly, I think this has spilled over into my work in trying to support the arts, not just poetry, but all of literature and all of the arts, through the Guggenheim Foundation. So, that we’re trying to keep something alive in the culture. We’re trying to keep something going that we don’t want to die that seems important. And so, I’d like to be remembered for that work too.
Question: What keeps you up at night?
Edward Hirsch: You have a lot of worries. I think there are the things that keep me up aside from personal things which can always get you and keep you up in terms of your personal life. Are you doing your best? Is this the best work you can do? You’re shadowed by your own dream, especially as you get older, of trying to create something that will last in poetry. And so, you're working on its behalf.
Now, sometimes I’m awake at night brooding about a particular poem. Sometimes I’m awake with something less noble in terms of what happened in the day or in the days. One of the gratifying things for me about this is I’ve always written about insomnia and insomnia has been one of my subjects from the time I was in my 20’s because I've never been a very restful sleeper. And I like the metaphor of insomnia in poetry. That is, someone who’s awake in the middle of the night is a soul consciousness when everyone else is asleep and that creates a feeling of solitude in poetry that I very much like. So, sometimes when I’m awake - well, when I was younger I would just write right then, but now I just remember the feeling and think I can make something out of this, out of this sense of isolation or loneliness or desolation that you get at 4:00 a.m.
Recorded on February 4, 2010
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Barbara Alper / Getty
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