Poet's Choice: 'Eternity' by Edward Hirsch

By Edward Hirsch
Sunday, September 27, 2009

Something deeply mysterious happens in reading poetry, something both weirdly familiar and utterly strange. It usually goes unnoticed, unremarked upon. I am talking about the experience of feeling truly recognized and befriended by a poem from the past.

It seems rare enough to connect with another person in daily life, to recognize someone and to feel recognized, to know and be known. And yet how much more curious it is -- how truly unlikely -- to connect with someone who lived thousands of years ago, and to keep connecting with them over time. Emily Dickinson, for example, experienced this connection routinely, and felt known by poets from the past in ways that she was unrecognized by her contemporaries, which is why she referred to her favorite poets as "the dearest ones of time, the strongest friends of the soul," and "her enthralling friends, the immortalties."

Sometimes we read the poetry of the faraway past and think, "It's not like that anymore, it's different now, the past really is another country" (the archaic world of "The Iliad" often feels that way to me). But other times we read something and think, "It's still like that now, yes, that's precisely how it is." Epic poetry is tribal, but lyric poetry is interpersonal. It speaks from one interior to another and creates an intimacy between strangers. It enables a connection that can cut deeper than the ones we actually experience in ordinary life, regular time. It speaks to us from beyond the grave. It crosses borders and even languages; it floats down to us through the centuries.

Jason Shinder describes the experience of intimate connection in his stunningly direct and forthright last book, "Stupid Hope." The entire book was written under the shadow and stigma -- the mortal terror -- of a deadly cancer. Shinder tries to come to grips with dying too soon, and his testament shines with the light of last things. He can't linger much longer. He is furious with time, "which takes everything but itself." This gives special poignancy to the experience he names "Eternity." The entire poem is one sentence long -- 12 lines, which alternative between one and two-line stanzas. These create elastic units within the lyric, speeding up and slowing down the rhythm, isolating and intensifying individual moments.


A poem written three thousand years ago


about a man who walks among horses

grazing on a hill under the small stars


comes to life on a page in a book


and the woman reading the poem,

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