Shortly after 9/11, Hirsch began writing a column for the Washington Post Book World called The Poet’s Choice. It was clear from the powerful response of readers, he says, that poetry sustains us in hard times. This book is a collection of 130 essays garnered from that column, dealing mainly with 20th-century and contemporary poets representing many regions of the globe, the first half dedicated to world poets, the second to American. While these brief essays deal mostly with individual poets, Hirsch also addresses a range of unusual and provocative topicsthe Mother as Poet; Suffering; Sleep and Poetry; Women and War; The Irish Bardic Order; Christmas Poems; and Poetry and Painting, to name a few. A number of essays touch as well on the craft and nature of poetry itself: the poet as maker, self-naming in poetry, the imitation (a distinctive spinoff from translation), the American prose-poem, charms, riddles and more.
Beyond its impressive array and geographical range of modern poets, well known and obscure, Poet’s Choice abounds with passages from Sappho and Caedmon to Gerard Manley Hopkins and Rainer Maria Rilke; with critical notes from Aristotle to Harold Bloom; with relevant biographical anecdotes; and with selections that demonstrate his preference for a poetry of radical directness, intense intellect, and deep emotional clarity.
Poet’s Choice is, in some ways, much less orderly than How to Read a Poem. If you are looking for a closely argued study of Eastern European poetry, an in-depth comparison of Western and Asian poets or an extended meditation on Holocaust poetry, this will not be your book, even though Hirsch may touch on all these subjects. Poet’s Choice is, rather, a literary pub crawl in the company of a man who has read widely, whose familiarity with both the Western canon and other traditions is impressive and judiciously employed, and whose writing is lucid and intimate. My idea, he explains in his introduction, is to help unveil [these poems], to explain their sometimes challenging formal devices, and to provide a context for reading them, whether biographical, literary, or historical.
Certain themes, to be sure, are especially important to Hirsch and recur throughout: the rootlessness of the numerous displaced populations of our times; the spiritual emptiness of a materialistic age; the almost otherworldly nature of poetry as it eschews rational satisfactions for the more visceral effects of aesthetic form; the extraordinary attention to the physical world that marks so much good poetry; the various forms of humorironic, cynical, playfulthat respond to the madness of a nuclear world. In his presentation of over 150 poets, Hirsch elucidates these themes so free of pedantry and jargon, and so compelling in his enthusiasm, that many readers may find themselves riding his comet.
A few excerpts may give a sense of the whole. In his introduction, Hirsch conveys the timelessness of poetry, its antiquity and contemporary relevance, and his sense of its absolute necessity: Poetry is as ancient as the drawing of a horse at Lascaux, or an Egyptian hieroglyphic, and yet it also feels especially relevant to a post-9/11 world, a world characterized by disaffection and materialism, a world alienated from art. And further on, The poems in the international sectioncome to us bursting with news. Many of the speakers have been initiated into the apocalyptic fires of history in ways that Americans have only recently come to understand.
Hirsch, adverting to the dire consequences of absolute cultural dislocation, gives us Giuseppi Ungaretti’s poem commemorating the death of Mohammed Sceab, a suicide/ because he had no homeland/ left. Especially trenchant are the lines, He rests/ in the graveyard at Ivry/ a suburb that always/ seems/ like the day/ a fair breaks down. How powerful an image for a world which must have seemed so spiritually bleak and culturally insubstantial to this young Arab poet lost in the war-torn France of 1916. In his essay on Nelly Sachs, a Jewess who escaped the Holocaust but not its horror, Hirsch says that this later Nobelist’s poems formulated a brave and unnerving lyric response to the unbearable catastrophe of the Holocaust, and cites her assertion, my metaphors are my wounds.
Another theme sacred to Hirsch is persistence in praise, the triumph of the soul drawn on the rack of prolonged war and emerging stubbornly with gratitude for life. He gives us these lines from the Vietnamese poet, Lam Thi My Da: Last night a bomb exploded on the veranda/ But sounds of birds sweeten the earth this morning./ I hear the fragrant trees, look in the garden,/ Find two silent clusters of ripe guavas. Lastly, note the exotic straight talk of this 15th-century Aztec (!) poem: I Nezahualcoytal ask it/ You live on this earth?/ No, not forever/ Only a short time./ Be jade. Jade breaks./ Be gold. Gold tears away./ The broad plumes of the quetzal unravel./ No, not forever./ Only a short time.
I found enormous pleasure in Edward Hirsch’s desultory ramble through the albums of his delightdesultory, but every inch of this ramble an affirmation of poetry.