Threads of Gold Series: The Poetry Notebook. Today the Home Forum Continues a Monthly Series That Explores Contemporary Poetry. We'll Look at the Work of Edward Hirsch, Whose First Book Won the Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets; His Second Won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Hirsch Has Received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, an Ingram Merrill Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He Teaches at the University of Houston. Second in the Series. the Previous Essay Ran on March 3

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SOME people are confused by poetry because it mixes fact and fiction. Even in the most realistic poem, experience filters down through memory and imagination, changing character before it reaches the page. But if poetry spins straw into gold, it does so as a way to get at truth or universals. And poet Edward Hirsch is a master spinner.

In his fourth book, "Earthly Measures," his straw consists of the changing American and European landscapes - sometimes gritty and dark - and their myths and artists. Hirsch begins his alchemy in the first lines of "Uncertainty," his opening poem: We couldn't tell if it was a fire in the hills Or the hills themselves on fire, smoky yet Incandescent, too far away to comprehend. And all this time we were traveling toward Something vaguely burning in the distance-- A shadow in the horizon, a fault line-- A blue and cloudy peak which never seemed To recede or get closer as we approached.

Instead of establishing a landscape and then altering it, Hirsch plunges the reader into the midst of great change. The narrative seems to rely more on emotion and color than it does on concrete action. The language is almost surreal, but the reader identifies with the feeling of trepidation - the "truth" in this poem.

Perhaps that's where much of the confusion comes in for people who don't understand how poetry works. Hirsch doesn't create sweet little images that rely on badly used rhyme to make them "poetry." Part of his artistry lies in the fact that he consistently challenges what readers know and feel. By challenging himself to find the language that suits his vision, he forces others to embrace a new way of seeing.

But forcing your ideas on someone isn't the mark of art. The goal is to explore and describe what is puzzling, mysterious, and somehow beautiful. It's an attempt to understand and recreate the world, a task one can never quite accomplish. But the closer one does come, the more striking the poem, such as these lines from Hirsch's "Four A.M." The hollow, unearthly hour of night. Swaying vessel of emptiness. Patron saint of dead planets and vast, unruly spaces receding in the mist.

With a few simple penstrokes, Hirsch has begun spinning. He's captured the experience and elevated it. His words are exactly right and exaggerated at the same time. He wants gold that will glitter, dazzling the reader's eyes, ears, sense of touch, and imagination. …