Edward Hirsch on the ‘soul-making activity’ of poetry

Edward Hirsch at the Hill Center in Washington, DC, on April 23, 2014.
Edward Hirsch gave a presentation at the Hill Center in Washington on Wednesday.

The celebrated poet and teacher Edward Hirsch spoke publicly for the first time Wednesday night about “Gabriel,” his upcoming book about the death of his 22-year-old son. His comments came toward the end of “The Life of a Poet,” a presentation at the Hill Center in Washington.

Hirsch said that he was still trying to figure out how to talk about “Gabriel,” a wrenching 80-page poem about the troubled life of the boy he adopted as a baby. At one point in the poem, Hirsch says, “I’m scared of rounding him up/ And turning him into a story.”

Written as a series of three-line stanzas, without punctuation, “Gabriel” describes the boy’s medical and psychological challenges, his impulsiveness and his generosity, and his parents’ tireless efforts to find him effective treatment. He died of a drug overdose in 2011.

In his bestselling book “How to Read a Poem,” Hirsch writes: “Our culture has become increasingly intolerant of that acute sorrow, that intense mental anguish and deep remorse which may be defined as grief. We want to medicate such sorrow away. We want to divide it into recognizable stages so that grief can be labeled, tamed, and put behind us. But poets have always celebrated grief as one of the deepest human emotions.”

Indeed, Hirsch has written a number of elegies in his long career — to his father, his mother-in-law and other poets — and he noted Wednesday night that his upcoming book follows a literary tradition that extends back for millennia. He singled out Tennyson’s “In Memorium” as one of his favorites, though he said that he found Tennyson’s concluding lines pat and doctrinaire:

 That friend of mine who lives in God,

 That God, which ever lives and loves,

One God, one law, one element,

And one far-off divine event,

To which the whole creation moves.

In a very different tone, toward the end of “Gabriel,” Hirsch writes, “I will not forgive you/ Indifferent God/ Until you give me back my son.”

Hirsch said that everyone carries a burden of grief, what he calls in the poem a “bag of cement on their shoulders.” If they don’t seem to be, then “they’re either too young or you don’t know them well enough.”

Hirsch did not read from “Gabriel,” which will be published in September by Knopf, but over the course of our 75-minute conversation, he read a number of other poems from his eight collections and talked about his treatment of sleep, work, love and painting.

This month, he has published a massive reference work called “A Poet’s Glossary,” which Washington Post reviewer Elizabeth Lund has called “an instant classic that belongs on the bookshelf of every serious poet and literature student.” Here’s Hirsch explaining, with his usual clarity and insight, the function of a metaphor:

UPDATE April 26: Here’s a full video recording posted by the Hill Center:

This was the fourth conversation in “The Life of a Poet” series, co-sponsored by the Hill Center, the Library of Congress and The Washington Post and made possible by funding from National Capital Bank. Our next conversation will be with recent National Book Award winner Mary Szybist on Sept. 17.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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