In an interview with Tod Marshall for the spring, 2000, issue of Kenyon Review, Edward Hirsch discussed his attraction to twentieth century Eastern European poets in general, and Polish poets in particular, citing their desire to both escape and embrace the world. Hirsch attributes this vacillation to the historical pressures under which so many Eastern European poets wrote during the twentieth century, lending their poetry an urgency and immediacy lacking in most American poetry. This lack may be even more apparent in the work of poets who come from relatively privileged backgrounds. For Hirsch, his privileged upbringing was tempered by his Jewish ethnicity, providing a foundation for what he called his “democratic ethos.” Hirsch’s narrators are never seriously tempted by the “transcendental” world of traditional religions or utopian politics (in the same interview Hirsch acknowledged his distrust of “didactic” political solutions to the problem of injustice), but they are drawn to the timeless permanence art seems to offer. This tendency to see art as immortal is as old as the creative process. What is new—and American—in Hirsch is how he weds this desire for aesthetic permanence to democratic values. His poems, particularly those from the first three books, shift back and forth between artistic lives and the ordinary lives of working people. This movement parallels the poem’s internal vacillations, saying yes and no to the world, saying yes and no to “art,” even as they dream of their own permanence.
For the Sleepwalkers and Wild Gratitude
The dream of permanence haunts all of Hirsch’s poetry, but it manifests itself in the first two collections, For the Sleepwalkers and Wild Gratitude, as a psychosomatic illness, a form of anxiety: insomnia. However, this affliction becomes a useful malady, a way for the poet to live out the democratic ethos. To embrace America, for Hirsch, means embracing nocturnal existence: “For all the insomniacs in the world/ I want to build a new kind of machine/ For flying out of the body at night,” he writes in “I Need Help” from Wild Gratitude. Indeed, Hirsch’s first two books of poetry make much of their desire to sing for the night, for those Americans who may be “invisible” to mainstream society. Hirsch’s work celebrates some of those marginal members known collectively as the working classes. One can find this working-class ethos in numerous American poets, such as Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, and Carl Sandburg, and in this regard Hirsch’s work is not exceptional. His first two books contain poems about a seamstress (“The Sweatshop Poem”), a waitress (“At Kresge’s Diner in Stonefalls, Arkansas”), and a garbage man (“Garbage”). There are also poems for “Poets, Children, Soldiers,” and “For the Sleepwalkers,” whose bodies have “so much faith in the invisible/ arrow carved into the carpet, the worn path/ that leads to the stairs instead of the window.” For Hirsch, the insomniac is a conduit of impulses and drives, giving himself over to rapture and despair, like the poet. In short, the nightwalker, like the artist, always risks melodrama for the sake of drama.
“Omen,” “Fast Break,” and “Skywriting”
As a poet unafraid to risk sentimentality and melodrama, Hirsch wrote some of the most fully realized elegies in twentieth century American poetry. Three of the most moving ones concern a former colleague. The death of Hirsch’s close friend, film scholar Turner, at the age of thirty-six inspired three published poems: “Omen,” “Fast Break,” and “Skywriting,” the first two in Wild Gratitude, the third in The Night Parade. All three poems are marked by Hirsch’s characteristic clarity of language and his unflinching glimpse at “the absolute.” As its title suggests, “Omen” concerns the narrator’s realization that his “closest friend// Suffering from cancer in a small, airless ward/ In a hospital downtown” is “going to die.”
“Skywriting” focuses on the day of Turner’s death, the vigil the narrator keeps as his “friend’s dream/ Of health [drifts] further and further away.” Though it too portends his friend’s death, “Fast Break” honors the healthy athleticism of the body, the way sports are themselves a kind of art. Written as a single sentence, this poem is an ironic celebration of the good luck that attends a great basketball play. The narrator can hardly believe that, “for once our gangly starting center/ boxes out his man and times his jump.” By the poem’s end, after the ball has been passed from one player to another, the narrator’s friend gets to score the basket. However, he pays a price:
. . . the power-forward explodes past them in a fury, taking the ball into the air by himself now and laying it gently against the glass for a lay-up, but losing his balance in the process, inexplicably falling, hitting the floor with a wild, headlong motion for the game he loved like a country and swiveling back to see an orange blur floating perfectly through the net....
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