Poetry tries to take a stand against time.
It speaks against our vanishing, it speaks on behalf of our living. It takes sides”, says Edward Hirsch, in a sentence that sides with the title of his new book, The Living Fire (Knopf, 2010), a collection of new and selected poems written between 1975 and now. In an intimate book like this – driven by experience, actual and intellectual— reading becomes a journey, a mystical one, a relationship. The poet is destined to communicate, a kind of compulsory honesty and generosity that leaves him vulnerable as much as it empowers him. He can’t but feel and articulate his feelings. Poetry takes his side, and language is what feeds the fire.
Edward Hirsch kindly gave Rattapallax permission to publish a selection of his new poems from The Living Fire. You will have the privilege to read, see and hear him talking about subjects that matter to him in poetry in an exclusive interview that accompanies this section, and will find a special video with his thoughts about one of the worlds’ most beloved poets, Pablo Neruda – with the delicate perception, easiness and eloquence that the author of How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry always charms us with.
Rattapallax asked Edward Hirsch to talk about six concepts in poetry that the reader may find familiar while reading “The Living Fire”. These words certainly carry a history of meaning. Although in true poetry feeling and language come before any concept, poets seem to rethink them over and over again. They keep “flooding back” (to use a Hirsch’s expression), calling for more, new poems.
“I’ve always liked night as a setting for poems. It’s the mystic hour. So many of my poems try to move from the ordinary to the mystical, from the quotidian to the spiritual. Night is a good springboard for that, because the ordinary senses are suppressed, and other things are heightened. You don’t try to get eyesight, you try to get vision. So you move both outward and inward, in terms of deeper internal spaces by setting poems at night. There is a long history of mystical poetry, beginning with the notion of the dark night of the soul. Night is the embodiment of that moment of mystical contemplation.”
“It’s hard to address memory as a subject because it is so much woven in what poetry is and what we are. I was very struck in reading Proust when I was young, by the distinction that Proust makes between voluntary and involuntary memory. Voluntary memory is when you sit down, and you think back, and you willfully, consciously try to remember something that happened. That’s very useful, but it’s not magical. What Proust calls involuntary memory is magical (in his case, remember, he eats the petit madeleine and suddenly his entire childhood memory comes flooding back to him). There are moments in scraps of conversation, hearing a piece of music, smelling something, when the past is suddenly present to you, it’s suddenly there. Those are magical moments in life and in literature, those moments of involuntary memory, when the past comes flooding back to you so powerfully that it’s no longer past.”
“The notion of encounter is driving my very idea of poetry. The word that is more important to me here is relationship. Martin Buber starts “I and Thou” talking about the relationship between oneself and others and God. Instead of “in the beginning was the word”, he says, “in the beginning was the relation.” The relation precedes the word, because it’s offered by the human. And I believe that my own poems, which are so much written out of loneliness, seek a reader, seek to find someone, seek the stranger, or the beloved, to use a Sufi term. This quest for the beloved, this quest for connection, is what drives my own poetry. So it’s not the notion of an encounter with another person in the presence, but that of creating a kind of poem, of text that will act as a surrogate for the relationship established between the poet and the reader. I seek poems of deep intimacy.”
“This is a complicated term in poetry because it was hijacked by M. L. Rosenthal’s designation of the so-called “confessional poets”, the group of Robert Lowell, Susan Plath, Anne Sexton. Lowell and his progeny, if you will. None of those poets liked the term “confessional poetry.” The term is loaded. But the idea that Lowell was using, that he would give you the experience, create the fiction— if you will— of a real Robert Lowell using biographical effects, that is very useful in poetry. It’s important to remember that you’re not getting the real Robert Lowell, you’re getting a fictive construction, but the poem means to give you the feeling that you are. And there is an honorific sense of confession that goes back to Saint Agustine in which the autobiographical “I” is meant as a stand in for a certain kind of experience. I believe that it’s important to get down to what your own obsessions are in writing poetry and there is always going to be a place in poetry for the lyrical “I”. What is wrong with the idea of confessional poetry is the notion that it’s just meant to shock or to expose. I don’t think it’s useful or important to write shock poetry. The honorific sense of confession— to tell the truth, to express things as they really happened— that is very useful and important, and that has been a model for me.”
“My work is a bit God-haunted. I can’t say that I am gifted with belief. I am not a believer. But I’ve never been able to give up the idea of God, or the quest for God. I would say that a lot of my poetry is in some kind of spiritual quest for something beyond. Ever since the romantic poets, that something beyond is also something within. But I’ve always thought of something beyond ordinary consciousness, some kind of quest for the transcendental. It’s what Emerson calls “beyonding”. For me it’s a process. There is a moment in my poem “A Partial History of My Stupidity” in which I list through the poem all the mistakes I made: it begins with traffic: “Traffic was heavy coming off the bridge,/and I took the road to the right, the wrong one,/and got stuck in the car for hours.” and it ends with God: “I did not believe in God,/who eluded me.” It makes a claim that you don’t believe in God, it suggests that God exists but you just can’t find Him. Whatever you want to call God, whatever you want to name Him, or the force beyond or It itself, I always sought it, but I can’t say I ever found it.”
“There is love with a small “l” and there is Love with a large “L”. The love poem seeks the beloved, but it’s always been haunted by figuration, by trying to find appropriate similes and comparisons for the beloved, and by the poet always stating his or her inadequacy in doing it. Strikingly in the history of poetry, the question of comparison or analogy is always both something that is original and that wears out. The early Shakespeare writes “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” and the whole poem is based on the Petrarchan convention of comparing the beloved to a summer’s day, but in a late poem he says “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;”, meaning there’re been so many Petrarchan sonnets, the analogy is so worn out, that no longer means anything. He denies it in order to try to get something more real about the beloved. The figures of poetry always come into play in thinking about the love poem and the shadow of the beloved. I think there are two different kinds of love poems. In the majority of them, the beloved is absent; these are poems of longing and desire. But there are also a few love poems of attainment, to use the Sufi maxim “the beloved are I and one”. These are very moving poems in which desire is momentarily fulfilled. I’ve tried to write a few of these myself. When a love poem shadows a larger subject, greater than love— it is love with a capital “L”. The love poem here too is often shadowed by the mystical longing for some kind of God figure. This is the tradition of courtly love, the way Dante uses love in the “Divine Comedy”. Beatrice stands in for a larger figure. I’ve been aware of that allegorical possibility, that dream, that fantasy of using the beloved and the love poem as a kind of springboard towards something else.”
The Beginning of Poetry
Railroad tracks split the campus in half
and at night you’d lie on your narrow cot
and listen to the lonely whistle
of a train crossing the prairie in the dark.
These ravens gathering on the breach
in the battered blue light of dusk
are a sudden unkindness
The path heading up the house
strays off into a vague straggle
like a thought that has gone too far
That sliver peering through the clouds
looks like a bell that can no longer ring
in an abandoned church steeple
I don’t mind the mindless fog
but my room at the top of the stairs
tilts like a broken boat at sea
All night I feel the homesick waves
and I hear ravens scavenging in my sleep
Anything but Standard
It was the two of us, wasn’t it, on those steamy nights
circling the low-slung museum across the street
and lingering by the pond behind the chapel.
It’s how the southern clouds passed slowly
overhead, season after season, year after year,
as you followed a low intricate scent
across the stately lit lawn,
and studied the squirrels in the live oaks,
and waded into the brown reflecting pool
with the broken obelisk.
You were a descendent of water dogs
and anything but standard
when you materialized out of the sticky heat
with your dripping black forehead
and delinquent grin, a growl unmuzzled.
It was your Russian face that steadied me
as I sat on a battered wooden bench,
lost in a night that wouldn’t end,
and you lay down— calm, poised, watchful—
and stirred beside me on the simmering grass.
Let’s get up and go.
Trot ahead of me, old friend,
And shake off the watery darkness.
My mother wouldn’t be cowed into nursing
and decided that formula was healthier
than the liquid from her breasts.
And so I never sucked a single drop
from the source, a river dried up.
It was always bottled for me.
But one night in my mid-thirties
in a mirrored room off Highway 59
a woman who had a baby daughter
turned to me with an enigmatic smile
and cupped my face in her chapped hands
and tipped her nipple into my mouth.
This happened a long time ago in another city
and it is wrong to tell about it.
It was infantile to bring it up in therapy.
And yet it is one of those moments—
Misplaced, involuntary—that swim up
Out of the past without a conscience:
She lifts my face and I taste it—
The sudden spurting nectar,
The incurable sweetness that is life.
What the Last Evening Will Be Like
You’re sitting at a small bay window
in an empty café by the sea.
It’s nightfall, and the owner is locking up,
though you’re still hunched over the radiator,
which is slowly losing warmth.
Now you’re walking down to the shore
to watch the last blues fading on the waves.
You’ve lived in small houses, tight spaces—
the walls around you kept closing in—
but the sea and the sky were also yours.
No one else is around to drink with you
from the watery fog, shadowy depts.
You’re alone with the whirling cosmos.
Goodbye, love, far away, in a warm place.
Night is endless here, silence infinite.