Edward Hirsch is a poet, literary scholar, teacher, and tireless advocate for literature and art. His six books of poetry include Earthly Measures (1994), On Love (1998), and Lay Back the Darkness (2003), and Hirsch has also written three works of nonfiction about poetry and art, including How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry (1999) and The Demon and The Angel: Searching for the Source of Artistic Inspiration (2002). The recipient of numerous awards, including the Prix de Rome, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Book Critics Circle Award, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, and a MacArthur Fellowship, Hirsch is a regular contributor to American Poetry Review, The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, and The Washington Post Book Review, where he writes the weekly column, "Poet's Choice." A professor for many years, Hirsch has made American cultural history by becoming president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the first poet to hold such a position.
Hirsch's lyric poetry is as open and as deep as a Great Lake, and reflects both his sensuous, bodily life and the scholarly bent of his intrinsically literary mind. Erudite yet welcoming, his poems are shaped by his boyhood in Chicago and Skokie, Illinois; his Jewish heritage; his empathic sense of the sweep and sorrows of America; his abiding sense of belonging to a global community; and his profound connection to the soul and legacy of poetry. Hirsch sees himself as one link in a long, resplendent chain of descendants from Orpheus, Homer, Hopkins, Keats, and Whitman, and serves as champion for the great poets of Eastern Europe, and loyal friend to his fellow contemporary American poets, who struggle to be heard in our cacophonous, mercantile, impatient, and forgetful world.
This conversation took place in Chicago in the spring of 2002 when Hirsch came to town to lecture at the Art Institute of Chicago, and to talk about The Demon and The Angel.
DS: In your poetry you often pay tribute to poets who have gone before you, thereby acknowledging your place in a long line of kindred spirits. What impels you to recognize their presence, and their influence?
EH: For me my writing is not just literary, it's personal. Some people divide up their experience between what happens to them in their family, or in their erotic life, and what they've read, and what they've thought. For me, it's all part of the same thing. And because my encounters with poetry, and with other kinds of art, are deeply personal, I'm paying back a deep debt in these poems to artists who initiated me into my own practice, and even into my own life.
I think there is something a little abject and beautiful about calling on previous artists from the past. I'm thinking of how Dante calls on Virgil at the beginning of the Inferno. I mean, he is going through Hell, literally and metaphorically, and he needs help; he needs guidance, and so he calls on Virgil. There is something abject in that because it suggests that he can't do it himself. But there's also something powerful, and literary, and intellectual about apprenticing oneself to a great figure. So my acknowledgment of the poetic precursors I write about is an acknowledgment that my work is dependent on theirs.
DS: Your writing certainly feels personal. There's nothing academic or clinical about your reflections on literature in either your poetry or your essays and books about poetry and art.
EH: Thank you for saying so. I decided that I would always be emotionally present when I wrote about poetry, that I would bring the same energy that I put into my poems into my writing about poetry, and that I would always be present personally without any sacrifice of erudition. When I read how others have written about poetry, I feel that you can read these books and learn from them, but you would never, ever understand why anyone would actually become a …