Edward Hirsch has built a reputation as an accessible yet rigorous poet whose works range widely in subject and style. His style is frequently what could be called “informal formalism”—the form is there, but the poetry of the subject is predominant, so that the pattern is almost overlooked as it subtly shapes the content. His previous book, Earthly Measures (1994), received wide praise and was acclaimed by such major figures as Harold Bloom, Patricia Hampl, and Richard Wilbur. Wilbur commented, “I can’t think of any contemporary whose poems have such an unfeigned urgency of feeling. At the same time, Hirsch’s poems have a considered richness in them, and greatly repay rereading.” Like the poems of Wallace Stevens, Hirsch’s work is motivated by a strong sense of undefined desire, thus making it an appropriate receptacle for his readers’ unnamed transcendent and earthly longings. However, in this striking collection, or at least in the second part of it, the “considered richness” stands out—mind outweighs heart, although the poems are all about heart.
The recipient of numerous grants and awards, including a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship, the Ingram Merrill Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, Hirsch has made his presence felt in the contemporary literary world. Amid the thousands of names of contemporary American poets, his stands out, partly because his work is comprehensible without being obvious, layered but not impenetrable. His first collection, For the Sleepwalkers (1981), received two major awards: the Lavan Younger Poets Award, offered by the Academy of American Poets, and the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award from New York University. His book Wild Gratitude (1986) received the National Book Critics Circle Award. His books have twice been listed as Notable Books of the Year by The New York Times Book Review. A former director of the creative writing program at the University of Houston, Hirsch has had the chance to influence what is accepted as good poetry in academic circles. This is good, because his definition, as it appears in his own work, is persuasive.
On Love takes a different direction from some of his earlier work, as it has an announced subject that controls the work: It is a compendium of considerations of love. Moreover, most of the poems are both formal and in a chosen genre, the dramatic monologue. Thus, the definition or understanding of love suggested by the first part is compared and contrasted with a host of conflicting definitions that have been gleaned from the lives and works of writers and artists.
The first section of On Love is composed of more traditional poems that cover a range of topics, from a pioneer woman’s desolation to the poet’s experience of himself as a child. The shared theme seems to be self-loss in passion. In many of these, which are more like Hirsch’s earlier collections, speaker and poet are not easily distinguishable. Some are reminiscent poems, especially the strongly evocative “The Burning of the Midnight Lamp,” which brings back the passion and intensity of the late 1960’s. In a broad sense, of course, these poems are too “on love,” although the love represented here includes all forms and not merely the erotic.
The independent poems are deceptively simple as well as formally relaxed. “The Unnaming” follows Emily Dickinson around Amherst as she unnames all the common objects of her world. Thus she becomes a second Eve, deleting Adam’s names, making the world her own text to revise:
She, too, moved through a garden of cancellations
(No more monarchies of Queen Anne’s lace, she chanted
To herself, no more dead elms branching into heaven)
And what was when she felt the dizzying freedom
Of a world cut loose from the affixed Word or words,
Appallingly blank, waiting to be renamed.
The “garden of cancellations” and the freedom and responsibility to rename cause vertigo. The dizzying sense of self- loss that is the true poet’s portion appears in other poems in the first section. An aporia similar to Dickinson’s but stronger and more destructive is attributed to Hart Crane, who is compared with Orpheus in “Orphic Rites,” a poem that describes Orpheus’ grief for his lost wife and his later haunted wanderings. It...