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