Issue 235, Winter 2020
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 after 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, Wisława 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.
What’s so funny?
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.”
How many poetry readings do you think you’ve gone to?
Let’s just say that I’ve put in my ten thousand hours.
What’s wrong with poetry readings?
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.
When did you give your first reading?
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.
You were obviously undeterred by the unnerving experience. Eventually, you even overcame a crucial challenge of validation by publishing a book.
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.
You’re a Midwesterner. Was it the job that brought you East?
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.