(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Lay Back the Darkness is Edward Hirsch’s sixth poetry collection. His first collection, For the Sleepwalkers, was published in 1981 and was awarded the Lavan Younger Poets Award and the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award. The themes of insomnia, survival, and art are introduced in this collection. Hirsch would revisit these themes in subsequent collections. It is obvious that the poet identifies with those who struggle to find purpose in living and who refuse to give up the fight to survive. Hirsch marvels at the resiliency of humans and recognizes how hard-won the idea of going on can be in the face of horrendous evil.

Hirsch was born in Chicago, to Kurt Hirsch and Irma Ginsburg Hirsch. He received his undergraduate education at Grinnell College. He earned a Ph.D. in folklore from the University of Pennsylvania. His second collection, Wild Gratitude (1987), won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Hirsch exposes more autobiographical material in this collection. He touches on first love, his parents’ divorce, and death in the family. His other collections include The Night Parade (1989), Earthly Measures(1994), and On Love (1998).

Since 1999, Hirsch has published three provocative and stimulating prose works. In 2003, he became the president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He has long believed in the power of the written word, in the ability of the right turn of a phrase to impact a reader. He understands the challenge of getting the words right. Hirsch has spoken of how writing has gotten harder for him as the years go by, not easier. He believes that “the writer is an explorer fording through unmapped terrain, through the deep rivers of language.”

Hirsch recognizes that the reader also has an important role to play, and the poet is determined to make contact with all attentive readers. To Hirsch, poetry must be more than a mere mental exercise; poetry must “articulate our experiences” and the “sounds of words help us to live our lives.” Hirsch also has stated in his best-selling book How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry (1999) that “we make meaning together—the poet and the reader.” A poet should not attempt to write a poem that would exist “entirely self-sufficient from the reader.” Hirsch has made the point that he strives to “make poems that are rich and strange, that strike the depths and sing out, that bring together thought and feeling.” Poetry cannot exist without the “human presence.”

Hirsch’s sixth collection opens with “I Am Going to Start Living Like a Mystic.” This is a bold stab at seeing the world in a different light. Hirsch recognizes that he has reached that age where a new course of action or thought may be necessary for creative survival. To live a life that is worth examining, the poet—the middle-aged poet—must open his eyes and heart to what is around him. He takes a walk through a park and believes that “The trees stand like twenty-seven prophets in a field,/ each a station in a pilgrimage—silent, pondering.” The poet is on a walk, a pilgrimage, and must receive knowledge from these wise trees. Hirsch states that “I will examine their leaves as pages in a text/ and consider the bookish pigeons, students of winter.” Everyone can learn, can be touched by one’s surroundings and, therefore, improve one’s lot in life by coming to terms with what seems overwhelming or uncomprehensible. Hirsch ends the opening poem with “I will walk home alone, with the deep alone,/ a disciple of shadows, in praise of the mysteries.”

The collection is divided into four untitled sections. The second and last poem of section 1 is “The Desire Manuscripts.” The poem is divided into seven parts, each taking inspiration from a classic work of literature. For the first three parts, Hirsch takes his lead from Homer’s...

(The entire section is 1597 words.)