Monday, April 25, 2011

Poetry's living fire

Originally printed April 20, 2010.

Reading the first section of Edward Hirsch's "The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems" it's clear that the 60-year-old Hirsch has been meditating on his longing for absent things lost to time and to the imperfections of memory.

He's contemplating "The Beginning of Poetry" (in a mere four lines) and dismissing "The Case Against Poetry" (in eight lines). He's ruminating on "The Anniversary of Joseph Brodsky's Death" (in which "snow occupied the city"). He's mourning the lost London of decades past as he walks the same streets and finds they no longer hold the mysteries he once found so unreadable ("Isis Unveiled"). He compresses his European trip, his "Dark Tour," into three-line descriptions of 30 cities that begin and end with Concord. He's coming to terms with how "I used to mock my father and his chums ... but now I'm one of those chumps" ("Early Sunday Morning"). He sees "Forebodings" everywhere, and he leaves his readers imagining "What the Last Evening Will Be Like."

But then "The Living Fire" takes us back in time by providing selections from Hirsch's earlier collections. And starting with his 1981 collection, "For the Sleepwalkers," it quickly becomes clear that Hirsch has been trying to imagine that "Last Evening" for decades. Back then, he was singing a "Song against Natural Selection" and viewing the "Dusk" as if he had all his poetic life behind him rather than ahead of him. And just as a 21st-century Hirsch can't go back to the London of 1977, the 1981 Hirsch doesn't know "How to Get Back to Chester" -- a poem that ends with the poet haunted even then by his father's words, "Don't come back, son. And welcome."

Hirsch's poetry -- always as crisp and accessible as an Edward Hopper painting or a Leonard Cohen song -- is filled with insomniacs, sleepwalkers, an "Omen," "Commuters," "The Village Idiot" and images of "Still Life" (echoing both a profound stillness and the dead opportunities of the still born).

Even the joyful tone of the title of Hirsch's 1986 collection, "Wild Gratitude," is filtered through the poetic madness of the 18th-century Christopher Smart, who found evidence of God in movements of his cat, Jeoffrey.

"And only then did I understand," Hirsch writes in the title poem of that earlier collection, "It is Jeoffrey -- and every creature like him -- / Who can teach us how to praise -- purring / In their own language, / Wreathing themselves in the living fire."

The only way to describe the experience of reading a Hirsch poem is to quote it. And the best analogies are same ones Hirsch uses to describe how "the stars surprise the sky" in the opening lines of "In Spite of Everything, the Stars": Reading a Hirsch poem is "Like a stunned piano, like a bucket / of fresh milk flung into the air / or a dozen fists of confetti / thrown hard at a bride / stepping down from the altar."

Hirsch's poetic career has been focused on describing "The Night Parade" and showing his readers the "Incandescence at Dusk." He goes to great lengths to say that the spiritual experience he finds in poetry isn't a religious experience -- in "The Reader" he talks about "An emptiness, which he would not call God." But Hirsch also recognizes "Poetry Would Be a Way of Praising God if God Existed."

And that's why it's no surprise to learn that Hirsch is also the author of the prose best-seller "How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry." After all, the poems included in this collection show how "The Living Fire" continues to spread.

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at or 319-887-5435.

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