Edward Hirsch
signing books after Colloquium
at Stanford (April 27, 2010)

Edward Hirsch

Stanford Colloquium
The Jean & Bill Lane Lecture Series

Margaret Jacks Hall, Building 460,
Room 426 (Terrace Room), Stanford University

Tuesday, April 27, 2010, 11 am-12 pm

Edited by Peter Y. Chou

Preface: The Terrace Room (4th floor) of Margaret Jacks Hall was filled to capacity for Edward Hirsch's Poetry Colloquium. I arrived at 10:40 am on this drizzing day when there were just two people here, so I got my usual seat in the second row at the extreme left side next to the pillar. Director of Stanford's Creative Writing Program Eavan Boland said "We enjoyed Hirsch's Reading last night", and gave the floor immediately to him. Hirsch spoke without notes with much passion about poetry for about 15 minutes before the Q&A Session. Below are my notes scribbled during Hirsch's Colloquium. Web links and reference denoted in [brackets] are my additions.

Hirsch: I really want a conversation with you about poetry and what's on our mind. What's involved in reading poetry? Poets set out to express themselves. Poets are incited by what they read so they have to respond in kind. My teachers were literary critics. They taught me how to read,. My idea of poetry in existence to relationship.

Instead of metaphor "In the beginning was the Word" [John I.1], we have "In the beginning was the relationship", as in Martin Buber's "I and Thou". I just turned poetry into a Jewish activity, authored by the human instead of the divine. "O thou God"— I address it to another reader.

Robert Browning speaking to another person ["My Last Duchess"]. The poem is addressed to a reader. Paul Celan says a poem is a message in a bottle that sometimes wash up on the shore. Osip Mandelstam says I walk down on the seashore. I find a bottle. It was addressed to me. Poem finds its meaning when someone reads it [On the Addressee, 1916]. Poesis— means "making" in Greek. Message in the bottle. Rilke would say "This was meant for me." You become the addressee. First time, I was a freshman at Grinell College, if I like someone I heard, then I go to the library and read his books. Someone mentioned Gerald Manley Hopkins' "Terrible Sonnets" [1880]—
    I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
    What hours, O what black hours we have spent
    This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
    And more must, in yet longer light's delay.
    &npsp; With witness I speak this. But where I say
    Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
    Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
    To dearest him that lives alas! away.
I can't say what that did to me. It was like Emily Dickinson saying "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." I felt better. I was an insomniac. Hopkins' poem was a sonnet. Robert Graves says poetry is "stored magic". Hopkins was an Irish priest that moved this Jewish kid in Iowa.

What is poetry doing? A poem comes to move you so deeply. Jorge Luis Borges says "Dear Reader, please forgive me that I wrote this poem first. Something true about it. Hopkins had given me something. He has shared his despair and loneliness. His poem exploded inside me. Lyrical poetry is made in language and is social. I'm alone in my dormitory room. Poetry gives me privacy and participation. Hopkins' poem gave me intensity. Participation is the heart of lyrical exchange. It's more grand and very noble. Reading poetry is so crucial. Emily Dickinson felt about this. My kinsman of the Self. She was alone socially but she was in the company of poets. She read Shakespeare, the Bronte sisters. My own sense, my vocation of poetry. In my 30's, how come everyone was not experiencing this, so they could participate in the deepest part of themselves.

Q&A Session:

Q: Can it happen in narrative poetry?

A: I can't see why not in narrative poetry. Doesn't happen in epic poetry. Epic is a social content, narrative of our nationhood. Not just oral literature. Listening to The Iliad. You're going to think during epic poetry reading. Anne Carson in Eros and the Bittersweet talks about Sappho. Narrative poetry has lyrical in it. All countries have epic poetry. Ezra Pound says "Tale of the tribe".

Q: How can we extend American poetry better?

A: Depends on your own inclination as a poet. Poetry of Gnostic sects, also gnostic sex (we'll talk about that later). Poetry for initiates. Group either get it or don't get what you're doing. It's not for larger audience. There was a critical poetry workshop "The Case Against Poetry" [Poem] in Iowa City with American and International poets. Poets from Africa, Latin America, and China agreed with me. The poets from Iowa Workshop disagreed. They wrote for each other. They wrote insular poems with bunker mentality. The can't speak to a larger audience. What kind of poetry to write? In 1863 Emily Dickinson didn't write Civil War poems. She wrote her intensity. Now America is at war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and no one is writing poetry about it. If the whole nation write it, we would have diverse poetry.

Q: Are there any younger poets you like?

A: There are lots of younger poets I like. I'm reluctant to choose poets I know. There are political engaged work and formalists I like. Read 87 first poems book by Norma Farber.

Q (Ken Fields): Marvin Bell writes political engaged poems that are darker than duende. Pascal's "I have not found God" and the daimonic. How do you open up the duende?

A: I wrote a book on Lorca's "Duende" [The Demon and the Angel: Searching for the Source of Artistic Inspiration (2002)]. All over Latin America, duende are little sprites, imps, like Habbucks. Lorca's concept of the duende, defined as "artistic inspiration in the face of death" or "tragic, sensual, fateful passion." You find it in Flamenco dancing and Goya— dark inspiration from the earth. While angels come from above, duende come from beneath. Some applauds a flamenco singer in a bar while some says "Viva la Paris!" She sings her heart out. Something comes from the unconscious. Lorca wants to open the door of the Duende— irrational instead of rational thinking. Invite unconscious into your work. Unconscious, Duende, Muse are something beyond the conscious will. "Help me, O Heavenly Muse!" They're not in control in writing a poem. Shelley writes "You can't say I will compose poetry." You need humility. Hope you'll recognize [?] Go to where it's most painful, to where it is dark. Like moth to the flame, go more humbly to more disturbance. No scientific explanation for this. You feel presence of mystery. You've got an idea. Suddenly something spookier and stronger takes over. Follow the mystery and enter. Following and also leading not just sense unconscious. Romantic poets and those who came before pray to something inside oneself. If you know how to do it, there will be more great art.

Q (Valerie Kockelman): I got your book How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry [1999]. My husband committed suicide. Lots of poetry came out of the tragedy. Who do I send my poems?

A: This is about trauma. Some say "I had a perfect childhood." But in early life, most poets had trauma as cause not unto self. Loss of childhood happens to all of us. Trauma puts us in need of poetry. My own feelings as a teenager— I turned to poetry and it helped me. The sensual world doesn't help us. Poetry pays them back. The second part of your question. Send them to poetry magazines such as Bellevue Literary Review.

Q (Eavan Boland): Romantic poets expressed true feelings by disclosing self and autobiographic self.

A: Yeats [?] Important to recognize that the self in poetry is consistent. Robert Lowell tries to give that ["Self-Portrait", Hirsch, Poet's Choice, pp. 71-73]. Sylvia Plat makes you feel it's her real life— Autobiographical "I". Wordsworth in The Prelude [1850] is not walking with his sister. Some criticized Tintern Abbey [1798], since Wordsworth ignored the homeless people there. On one hand I say "yes". On the other hand I say "no." Is it Wordsworth's job to write about the homeless and other's suffering? I defend Wordsworth for stirring up your romantic feelings by writing the poem he did. The poem I wrote "A Partial History of My Stupidity" [Hirsch Poem 11, Stanford Poetry Reading] tells about living the wrong life when others are being slaughtered by my own countrymen. My own problems making me sensitive to sufferings of others. The autobiographical "I" misses other's suffering. Walt Whitman says the suffering of others need recognition. Recognize the "I" is situated in time, partially socially constructed. I don't agree that the "I is a mistake". [Wallace Stevens as an Autobiographical Poet]

Q: To take more seriously your joke on Buber and turning poetry into a Jewish activity.

A: History of Jewish poetry is from my family. Kidding on the square. You really mean it. Just a joke but on the square. Poetry seeks the divine but comes through the human. The Jewish people is the story of a tribe longing for transcendence. There's great Christian poetry. Poetry is a human centered activity by human beings. Not that God is not present, but for this particular activity— writing poetry is a human activity. Buber's "I and Thou" is relationship to people.

Q: Follow up on Duende. How to structure our life so it happens more?

A: This is related to the Jewish question. There's a lot of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). We're constantly distracted by 640 cable channels, celebrity gossip, and not in a space for creativity. Simone Weil quotes Malebranche "Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul." Whatever you can do that puts you in touch with something is good. "Poetry and Walking" essay [Washington Post, April 20, 2008]— Walking is good and inducement to revelry. There's a history of poets walking. Listening to music, walking, reading will enhance your life. Wallace Stevens "early morning and late night" and "scholar of one candle"— feeling of being alone in prayer. Find shorthand. Hard for me to write with other poetry in me. If I'm reading help me.


Afterword: The colloquium ended at 11:55 am. Since it was raining, lunch was not served in the patio as usual, but in the hallway. Most of the sandwiches were gone when I went for food. I had a veggie sandwich, a slice of cake, and bottled water. I waited till the stream of students and elders had their books autographed by Hirsch. I missed the entire Malebranche quote of Simone Weil "attentiveness is the _______ of the soul" and asked Hirsch to fill it in. He told me "natural prayer", so I completed this section of my Notes. Hirsch autographed my copy of his Wild Gratitude (2003)— "For Peter— Welcome to poetry! with Wild Gratitude, Ed Hirsch, Apr 2010, Stanford". Dori from the Stanford Bookstore took a photo of me with Ed Hirsch that came out well.

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