Edward Hirsch Hirsch, Edward - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Edward Hirsch 1950–

American poet, short story writer, and critic.

Hirsch has been praised as a sophisticated and promising young poet. The poems of his first collection, For the Sleepwalkers (1981), have received acclaim for their disciplined structure and their imaginative play with words and images. Hirsch's indebtedness to such major poets as Rainer Maria Rilke, Marianne Moore, and Federico García Lorca, as well as to such visual artists as Henri Matisse and Paul Klee, is evident throughout For the Sleepwalkers. While a few critics have found this volume uneven, exaggerated, or pretentious, most consider it remarkably polished for a first collection, noting especially the strikingly precise images and the strong, convincing metaphors. Jay Parini describes one poem as "vivid, musical, and richly allusive," and Phoebe Pettingell notes that while the poems in For the Sleepwalkers vary in quality, Hirsch's "failures suggest promise, and at his best he speaks with authority."

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 104.)

Publishers Weekly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The poems in this fine collection ["For the Sleepwalkers"] have the unusual quality of being at once intellectual and deeply heartfelt. Hirsch's strong, highly original metaphors combine gracefully with detailed observations and phrases from everyday speech. His subject matter ranges from art and perception (subtle distinctions between life and still life, for example) to eroticism, death, fantastical fairy tales and the meaning of regret….

A review of "For the Sleepwalkers," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 219, No. 22, May 29, 1981, p. 35.

Hugh Seidman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the very first poem of "For the Sleepwalkers," Edward Hirsch reveals a major conflict:

          … yet we manage, we survive
          so that losing itself becomes a kind
          of song, our song, our only witness
          to the way we die, one day at a time …

But if this is a poetry of survival, it is also a poetry of narcissistic invention employing exaggerated tone and metaphor…. As Mr. Hirsch notes in "Cocks," "The guardian / Angel of poetry" endlessly tries "to astonish … and to offend."

"Poets, Children, Soldiers" can paradoxically contain a striking image of insomnia—"I'm tired / of living like a broken yellow oar / awash in the blue waters of nightfall"—immediately followed by the trite implication that only poets, children and soldiers "know about the black / trenches of moon-light on the ceiling."…

Personae appear, some famous (Rilke, Rimbaud, Nerval, Vallejo, Smart, Lorca). At his best, Mr. Hirsch confirms our expectations of these people, but often his approach is pretentious….

In general, Mr. Hirsch presents us with the seductive inventive excess that has come to typify much contemporary American poetry. (p. 34)

Hugh Seidman, "Four Poets," in The New York Times Book Review, September 13, 1981, pp. 14, 32, 34.∗

Phoebe Pettingell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Young] poets who are too careful sometimes dry up. Edward Hirsch is not cautious, and his first book, For the Sleepwalkers …, is uneven. Nevertheless, his failures suggest promise, and at his best he speaks with authority.

The brave opening, "Song Against Natural Selection," proclaims that "The weak survive!"—a sentiment in keeping with Hirsch's willingness to face up to failure. This poem, though happens to be a complete success…. The formal structure, making the reader only belatedly aware of rhyme, complements the wry acceptance of loss.

I suspect that Hirsch is fond of the French "Homage" (those elegies written at somebody's tomb) because of the chance it gives him to indulge his mimetic gifts, not merely out of an admiration of Baudelaire and Verlaine. He is a good imitator, and some of these poems—transposing Lorca to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, or Vallejo to a soup kitchen in Paris—are wonderfully effective. Still, it is easy to sound inept mimicking dead poets. Hirsch's "At the Grave of Marianne Moore" is prefaced with her famous dictum: "Whatever it is, let it be without affectation." Although he copies Moore's quirky style without trouble, since it is not native to him he does sound affected. He also stoops to an occasional bad pun unworthy of Moore…. And when Hirsch praises Moore because "her scrupulous method / in verse bequeathed us a heritage / the honesty of her...

(The entire section is 405 words.)

Jay Parini

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Edward Hirsch writes in For the Sleepwalkers with a slight, somewhat self-conscious, formality, as if he wishes to hold his material in place by distancing himself from it. He achieves this formality—and it is an achievement—by following regular stanza patterns and metering stresses in a given line; in addition, he elevates his diction so that his poetry becomes, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, "the common language heightened." Thus, he opens "Dusk":

      The sun is going down tonight
      like a wounded stag staggering through the brush
      with an enormous spike in its heart
      and a single moan in its lungs. There
      is a light the color of tarnished metal
      galloping at its side, and fresh blood
      is steaming through its throat. Listen!
      The waves, too, sound like the plunging
      of hooves, or a wild hart simply
      crumpling on the ground.

He ends this lovely poem:

                     And now here is the night
           with its false promise of sleep, its wind
           leafing through the grass, its vacant
           spaces between stars, its endless memory
           of a world going down like a stag.

Hirsch might well have avoided the unfortunate "stag staggering," but one can forgive such a small lapse of taste in a poem so vivid, musical, and richly allusive. The reference to Pascal's terrifying, infinite spaces between the stars at the close is typical of Hirsch's learning, which he wears lightly. If you don't "get" the allusions in his work, it doesn't really matter: the poem will still be an experience worth having; if you do catch them, a whole string of bells will go off in your head.

For the Sleepwalkers traces the poet's descent into the dark, that nether region of the imagination where "We have to learn the desperate faith of sleep- / walkers who rise out of their calm beds / and walk through the skin of another life." That, from the title poem, provides a key to this book, in which Hirsch inhabits, poem by poem, dozens of other skins. He can become Rimbaud, Rilke, Paul Klee, or Matisse, in each case convincingly. Or he can speak as a diner waitress in Arkansas…. Whatever guises Hirsch takes on, he does so with gusto, and his poems easily fulfill Auden's request that poems be, above all else, "memorable language." (p. 39)

Jay Parini, "A New Generation of Poets," in The New Republic, Vol. 186, No. 15, April 14, 1982, pp. 37-9.∗

Peter Stitt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Edward Hirsch's For the Sleepwalkers is [a] surprising first book—surprising not just for its quality but for its literary sophistication as well. Hirsch's poems fall into that vague, hard to define category of the post-modern; he has read the American surrealists, he has learned from John Ashbery. Poets in this tradition generally value technique at least as much as they do content, a fact evident just in the large amount of verbal experimentation they engage in. As Ashbery did as a young writer, Hirsch here tries his hand against the rigorous limitations of such forms as the sestina. (All poets do this kind of thing now and then, but the technical play involved is important enough to the likes of Ashbery and Hirsch that they print the results.) The immediate payoff from this experimentation is a tightness of imagery in many of Hirsch's poems; that is, rather than accumulate many images in a given poem, he will set up a few rather complex ones and then repeat and modulate them throughout the work.

Hirsch regularly offers the unexpected. The first several poems in his book are amusing, playful, outrageous, as when a buzzard delivers this "Apologia" for his kind: "A violent muscle is / pumping blood through a few scattered clouds / until a violent color sizzles up in the ground. / I, too, have a heart and wings, and I / say that a single pulse animates the world." (p. 444)

[The] literature of post-modernism—prose and poetry—is often less interested in truth, meaning, and content than in the pleasures of pure technique, making it...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hirsch comes to poetry as to a wind-up toy. He plays with it, turns it inside out, breaks and mends it, plays. Sometimes it ticks like Gertrude Stein…. Sometimes it spins on the axis of its own silliness…. [A] kind of slapstick abounds. When he can restrain himself, Hirsch is better. He prefers the expressionist portrait ("The Enigma: Rilke," or the sweet "Matisse") or a stew of dissolves and associations ("Cocks," "Reminiscence of Carousels and Civil War"). This poet has talent, but it is vitiated by a coy or dizzy self-indulgence: updated Dada. As a result, the poems [in For the Sleepwalkers] aren't memorable. But from scattered hints, from a colorful diction and a rhythmic surety, it may be predicted that he can—and will—write a more substantial book than this: one for the wide-awake.

J. D. McClatchy, in a review of "For the Sleepwalkers," in Poetry, Vol. CXL, No. 6, September, 1982, p. 347.