By any standard, Edward Hirsch is a bigshot in the literary world. So what a pleasant surprise that he doesn’t act like one!
The award-winning poet, author of the best-selling How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, MacArthur “genius” fellow, president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in NYC, is actually a modest, gentle, and affable kind of guy. Or so he seemed at last week’s reading at the Humanities Center, followed by a discussion in the Terrace Room the next day.
“It was not (to start again) what one had expected…” For one thing, the accent was vintage Jewish Chicago — land of Saul Bellow and Isaac Rosenfeld. The facial features were large and friendly, and the boyish grin usually a few seconds away.
At the Monday night reading, he received fulsome praise from Eavan Boland, before coming to the podium and joking, “I feel understood.”
The 45-minute wide-ranging reading, largely from his new The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems, included poems about the electric green couch that he inherited and shuttled from house to house, city to city; Christopher Smart and his cat Jeoffry; his disillusionment and anger with God (and vice versa); Czesław Miłosz; and one poem, “In Memoriam: Paul Célan,” which concluded:
Lay these words on the dead man’s lips
like burning tongs, a tongue of flame.
A scouring eagle wheels and shrieks.
Let God pray to us for this man.
“If only I could sweat this much at the gym,” he said afterwards.
And then there were the questions and answers.
Question from Tobias Wolff: “The couch. I want to know more about the couch. Aside from its color, was it comfortable?”
Hirsch: “You can always tell a fiction writer. No wonder they need the whole page … No one ever asked me about the couch.”
Question: “About the books you were reading on the green couch, you were reading a lot of philosophy.”
Hirsch: “Are you upset with me for that?
Question: “Ah, yeah.”
Hirsch praised Martin Buber, and noted the “ancient battle between philosophers and poets – and we’re right.”
Question: “How do you know when your poems end?”
Hirsch interpreted this question as: “Your poems to seem to just stop.”
“You’re working through something in a poem,” he said, and need to “come to some satisfactory conclusion.”
Sometimes, he said, he hadn’t “had the chops to make it conclude, haven’t had the emotional material…”
Question from Nicholas Jenkins: “The past is a huge theme in your poetry … I wonder whether you have a vision of your future as a poet.”
Hirsch: “You ought to be a professor!”
Prof. Jenkins: “It didn’t work out.”
Hirsch said he wanted his future to include “the largest possible embrace in terms of the world” … “suffering and joy, agony and exultation.”
Question from John Felstiner: He flagged “In Memoriam: Paul Célan,” as “standing out almost completely — the reach and the surprise.”
“How does that sound to you?”
Hirsch: “That sounds swell.”
“Every so often you write something that shocks you. This is the gift of writing properly, and it still startles you.”
Question: The questioner raised the subject of God in Hirsch’s poem, specifically “A Personal History of My Stupidity,” a poem that begins with traffic and ends with: “I did not believe in God, who eluded me.”
Hirsch: “I’ve thought about God – about why and how I’m still angry at him for no longer existing.”
“I can’t give you a full answer to my struggles with belief. I don’t feel I have been gifted with belief, but I haven’t given up the longing.”
“What you might be hearing is a deep quest in me for something transcendental. … a longing for something else, and a critique of that longing.”
“It’s the poetry of a yearner – does that seem fair?”
In that spirit, two supernatural events occurred during the evening and the Tuesday discussion that followed the next day:
The first occurred during the Monday reading, as he discussed a 2001 trip, sponsored by the State Department on the fifth anniversary of Joseph Brodsky’s death, that took him to the Russian poet’s place of internal exile, Archangelsk. “I was shocked about how cold it was!” said the native Chicagoan, who knows something about cold. Suddenly, the lights flickered briefly.
“Those Soviets still have a lot of power,” he said, and recovered quickly, just as the lights did. “If only I’d been reading James Merrill, I could have mistaken it for contact.”
The contact occurred instead the next day, during his Tuesday presentation. In addition to extolling one of his favorite philosophers, Buber, he praised Pascal: “I love Pascal!” His microphone began to hiss with static. “Whenever I say this, he gets my microphone. ‘If you love me so much, why are you Jewish?'”