On September 3rd, a full house of eager poets, professors, students, and friends gathered at The New School for the season’s first poetry forum, featuring Edward Hirsch, poet, critic, anthologist, and president of the Guggenheim Foundation. Hirsch and moderator David Lehman spoke like old friends, for over an hour, without missing a beat between questions and comments.
Lehman began by asking Hirsch to read the poem with which he opens his recent anthology A Poet’s Glossary (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014). It is a love poem, to poetry: “I have loved you my entire life” Hirsch writes. “Without even knowing what you are/ or how—please help me—to find you.” Although he wrote this separately from the book, he says the poem “seemed to fit, crucial actually to the book.” Poetry is every bit the lover, heartbreaker, the seductress, the unrequited dream he seeks throughout his work.
Hirsch’s Glossary, which was the main focus of forum, transcends the reputation of a glossary for being technical and an accompaniment to a particular topic. Hirsch takes us back to the fundamentals of poetry.
“I still don’t know what poetry is,” said Hirsch, when asked to elaborate on craft. “I also don’t know exactly how to write it. Poems are a kind of recognition of humility. Shelley said not even the greatest poet can say, ‘I will compose poetry’ because poetry is not entirely the dispensation of the will. The reason I don’t know how to write poetry is because there is some element of poetry that you cannot control with your reason, with your will.”
As a product of what Hirsch calls his “insatiable curiosity for poetry” and encouragement from his friend André Bernard to write a glossary for his book, How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry (Harcourt, 1999), A Poet’s Glossary sought to capture the importance of poetry all around the world and throughout history.
A Poet’s Glossary is a kind of archaeological project that allows the reader a glimpse into the oral and written traditions of various cultures. It took Hirsch over fifteen years to create the glossary and his years of extensive research has been rewarding. In the preface of the book and during the discussion with Lehman, he notes the reason the glossary “felt personal rather than simply scholarly” is that during the making of the book, he imagined himself in the mind of a poet “in the heady days of eighth-century China, or twelfth-century Provence, or thirteenth-century Florence, or fourteenth-century Andalusia, or fifteenth-century Wales, or seventeenth-century Ireland, or early twentieth-century Russia.”
Why does the terminology matter?
"The devices work the magic in poetry,” he said. “And a glossary gives names to those devices. It unpacks them. I believe its purpose is to deepen the reader's initiation into the mysteries.”
After fifteen years of working on a glossary, how did Hirsch know where to end it? When his editor told him the glossary, already more that 700 pages, was “becoming an unpublishable book.” Lehman nodded knowingly. While working on The Oxford Book of American Poetry (2006), Lehman asked his editor for an additional year. “If we give you another year,” his editor replied, “ won’t you want another year after that?”
When asked why it matters to understand poetry’s history and traditions, Hirsch said, “The limits of your imagination are enriched by your engagement with the history of poetry; you don’t need to know it in order, but you need to know you are in a participating relationship with the poets that have come before you.”
“The sonnet has a long history of love poems.” said Hirsch, to give an example. “You can write a love poem that is a sonnet naively…or you can write a love poem that’s a sonnet that’s aware of it. The poem that’s aware of [what it is] will be richer. You can enrich your poem by having a conversation of what its history has been.”
Lehman wondered if Hirsch applies some of the new forms or devices that he has discovered to his poetry. “I think some of them have already affected me [in] a literal way and another way,” said Hirsch. “The literal is obvious; there are a lot of forms I haven’t tried. It would be interesting to try them and see how they would work, but that seems to me less interesting than the deeper conceptions that people have in different cultures and the ongoing arguments about poetry.”
In a nuanced segue to a discussion of Hirsch’s recent book Gabriel: A Poem (Knopf, 2014), Lehman explained that he recently had been asked about which poem he never wants to write. “An elegy to a child of mine,” Lehman said. “Because that would mean that my child has died. And that is what Ed has written in Gabriel.”
Hirsch explained that he “used to be so arrogant about what poetry can do and now I know art has its limits.” However, he added, “The purpose of poetry is not to inspire the writer, but to inspire the reader.” The conversation turned to the evolution of Gabriel from a diary he kept to preserve his memory of his son to a carefully crafted poem.
Both Lehman and Hirsch spoke briefly about their commitment to extending the reach of poetry. “When I talk to groups about poetry, not my own poetry, but the poetry I love, I just feel better,” said Hirsch. The idea for The Best American Poetry series arose out a similar impulse in Lehman. “I realized that a lot of terrific poetry was being published in magazines and literary journals that most people would never see. I wanted to bring that poetry to a wider audience.”
“You have to write your own poems,” said Hirsch. He was emphatic. “Otherwise you won’t feel good. But you also have to give back, whenever you can.”
The conversation moved so swiftly and seamlessly that there was no time left for the audience to chime in with questions. Hirsch and Lehman’s excited talk about poetry permeated the crowd. In under five minutes, copies of both Gabriel: A Poem and A Poet’s Glossary had sold out and the books’ new owners waited to have them signed. It was as though the bell had rung for recess and everyone lined up to have lunch with the teachers instead.
Danielle Elizabeth Chin is an alumna of Marymount Manhattan College and a second-year MFA student in creative writing at The New School. In recent years, she has received The John Costello Award and an Honorable Mention from the American Literary Merit Award for an essay. She has published an original song on the Side B Magazine website.