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The Poet of Feeling

Sunday, April 20, 2008

To meet Edward Hirsch is to understand why he is called the poet of feeling. He is a big-hearted man, instantly warm, eager to relay his passion. Poetry has been his life.

His grandfather, a stringer for a Yiddish newspaper, wrote poems and copied them into the backs of books. When he died, his grief-stricken grandson would spend endless hours in the cold Chicago basement where those books were kept, looking for the scribbled verse. One day, leafing through an anthology, the boy stumbled on Emily Brontë's "Spellbound" (The night is darkening round me,/The wild winds coldly blow;/But a tyrant spell has bound me/And I cannot, cannot go). "I was totally riveted," he says, "there had been a rage within me, a terrible sorrow, and the poem was a consolation."

He started to write poems "out of emotional desperation." In them, he would explore adolescent feelings that were overwhelming him -- that he couldn't understand. "The soup was boiling over. It was my way of keeping it in the pot."

When, in 1968, during his freshman year at Grinnell College, he announced he would be a poet, his father and mother -- a salesman of corrugated boxes and a retailer in the jewelry business -- were furious. "They thought I'd lost my mind! I might as well have said, 'I'm going to be a Martian.' " But as he made his way through English departments, first as a graduate student, then as a young professor, he gradually began to publish. His first collection, For the Sleepwalkers, appeared in 1981. As six more followed, the critical praise grew.

His best known book is not a collection but a testament to the craft, How to Read a Poem : And Fall in Love With Poetry (1999). From 2002 to 2005, he further shared that expository gift as Book World's columnist for Poet's Choice. Now president of the Guggenheim Foundation, Hirsch continues to write increasingly personal, "self-confrontational" poetry. His newest collection (which includes "Cotton Candy," the poem that accompanies this essay) is Special Orders, published last month by Knopf.

How would he characterize his work? "I've always tried to write intellectual poems that are also heated -- passionate verse that sacrifices no erudition." Like his hero, John Keats, he has a "most lovable" mind.

-- Marie Arana

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