The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Edward Hirsch’s “Leningrad (1941-1943)” describes in vivid and sometimes hallucinatory images the horror of the German blockade of that city during World War II. The blockade lasted 526 days, but the actual assault on the city continued much longer. Hirsch tells his story in seven sections of six three-line stanzas each, unrhymed, with almost no caesuras or end-stopped lines. Sharon Olds’s poem “Leningrad Cemetery, Winter 1941” is a moving companion piece, though much shorter, on the same subject.

The poem opens with a cacophony of animal sounds in section 1, as of zoo creatures gone mad from bombardment, such a nightmare that “we knew it had begun in earnest.” The chaos of animal terror—of “wild dogs/ Howling like dirges,” “three mad sables roving through the streets,” and “polar bears wailing”—climaxes in a chilling stanza that describes “the sky speaking/ German,” “the night wearing a steel helmet,/ And the moon slowly turning into a swastika.” These menacing images establish the historical reality and foreshadow the unspeakable events immediately following.

Harrison Salisbury’s The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad (1969) tells the whole story in almost unbearable detail, devoting one chapter, “The Blood-Red Clouds,” to the destruction of the Badayev food warehouses, and although Hirsch does not name them it is obvious that his section 2 dramatizes the Badayev event as he speaks of the...

(The entire section is 563 words.)

Leningrad Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Hirsch’s seven sections are generally discrete in their subjects but cohere in a unity of impression, and the enjambed triplets carry a smooth flow of imagery and rhythm. The seven sections roughly follow the course of the ordeal, with the destruction of the food warehouses, the ensuing hunger and cold, the increasing desperation marked by the burning of books and furniture and the eating of human flesh, through to the final image of the scraping away of the “dead flesh” of their death-in-life experience. The only narrator identified is the “we” that speaks for the survivors in honor of their dead.

No one metrical foot prevails, but anapests carry much of the pulse of sound, as in “Howling like dirges,” “screeching like children,” “Careening around,” and “smashing their cages”—all from section 1. Moreover, although feminine endings are not as dominant in succeeding stanzas, of the eighteen lines in section 1, thirteen end with unstressed syllables, nicely complementary to the many anapests scattered throughout the lines. The poem’s fourth line—“It began with the shrieking of peacocks”—illustrates the deft use of both the anapest and the feminine ending, and perhaps the best summary of Hirsch’s metrics is that he has a superb ear for rhythm and phonetics. Stanzas picked at random always yield alliteration and assonance. Section 2, stanza 4, describes the burning of the food storehouses:


(The entire section is 428 words.)