"The two poles of lyric poetry are lamentation and praise," poet Edward Hirsch says by phone from his office at the Guggenheim Foundation in New York City. "They're the touchstones of my poetry. My quest, my struggle, has been to try to find them without ignoring what's going on. Amid the mostly man-made catastrophes of the 20th century, seeing what we're capable of, I'm just seeking ground to stand on that seems solid."
With this struggle ingrained in his poetry and criticism, Hirsch stands out among the 10 or 15 compelling reasons to attend this week's Words & Music: A Literary Feast in New Orleans (aka the Faulkner Festival). Like Jazz Fest, this literary festival brings in so many big names that a fatigue economy sets in, and major artists you'd have paid $50 to see yesterday deflate in value. But Hirsch is worth fighting the fatigue not only for his poetry, of which he has published six collections, most recently Lay Back the Darkness (Knopf), and not only for his writings about poetry and visual art, such as The Demon and the Angel: Searching for the Source of Artistic Inspiration (Harvest/HBJ Book). It's also because, as president of the Guggenheim Foundation, he might accidentally leave a few large bills behind.
Hirsch visits New Orleans often, but hasn't given a public reading in decades. "Teaching at the University of Houston for 18 years, I got to know the Gulf South pretty well," he says, "but I can't say that it's made its way into my writing. I'm a Midwesterner. My connection with [New Orleans] is pretty intimate, though. We adopted our child in New Orleans. I wrote about it in The Welcoming.' We flew in from Rome and stayed at a friend's house while the child was being born in Touro Hospital."
Most of the long poem hovers on that waiting period: "Outside, the trees waved slightly / under a cradle of moonlight / while, inside, the floorboards sagged / and creaked, the air conditioner kicked on / in the next room, in autumn, / an invisible cat cried and roamed through the basement at 4 a.m."
In many of his other poems, Hirsch speaks with the persona of a Midwestern man with Jewish heritage who is enchanted, bewildered and aghast at the beauty and violence of the globe. Early poems from the 1970s tended toward the easy-to-celebrate and praiseworthy subjects of basketball, jazz and mother. Yet recent books such as Lay Back the Darkness and On Love are much more challenging, training his poet's eye and ear to try to find value in a violent and cruel time. The often-anthologized "A Short Lexicon of Torture in the Eighties" explores the debasement of language where torture is legitimized, written after reading an Amnesty International report on human rights abuses in Latin America: "That's not a man in pain / but a Brazilian phone -- / It won't be making any outgoing calls. / That's not a woman sprawling on the floor / But an old-fashioned dance, / like the tango / We're taking you to a parade / on a sandy beach. / You're going down in a submarine."
One understands the censored euphemisms of the italicized phrases and recognizes their macabre sunshiny tone, like the thumbs-up signs given by Lynndie England in the photographs of Abu Ghraib. Speaking of the poem now, Hirsch says, "The shock I felt back then hasn't gone away, although many people seem to have closed their eyes to the recognition. My sense of urgency has only grown."
Singled out in a harsh New York Times book review last year, Hirsch's long Holocaust poem, "Two Suitcases of Children's Drawings from Terezin, 1941-1944," is perhaps his finest and most difficult poem to date. It responds to an exhibit of surviving drawings by children who did not survive the Czech concentration camp. Hirsch is vulnerable to the truths of the Holocaust, but finds "ground to stand on that seems solid" in the figure of their teacher, Bauhaus artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. "It seemed natural for her / to pass around pencils and paper / She said The wisdom lives in the pencil / and the paper remembers everything."
As his subject matter has grown, so have his honors, which include the National Book Critics Circle Award and a "Genius Grant" from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He is a perfect choice for Friday's discussion on Pablo Neruda, having written eloquently on the late Chilean poet. On Sunday, Hirsch will lead a master class in poetry along with Daniel Halpern, the founder of Ecco Press and the late lamented literary magazine Antaeus, and the University of Mississippi professor (Tender Hooks).
Edward Hirsch will participate in the panel discussion "The Muse on the Mississippi, Part I: Celebrating the Genius of Neruda," at 5:15 p.m. Friday, Dec. 3, at the Hotel Monteleone's Queen Anne Ballroom (214 Royal St., 586-1609), and lead a master poetry class at 8:30 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 5, also at the Queen Anne Ballroom. For a complete schedule, visit www.wordsandmusic.org/words.htm.
- In many of his poems, Edward Hirsch speaks as a Midwestern man with Jewish heritage who is enchanted, bewildered and aghast at the beauty and violence of the globe.