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

Edward Hirsch

Stanford Poetry Reading
The Jean & Bill Lane Lecture Series

Stanford Humanities Center
Levinthal Hall, Stanford University

Monday, April 26, 2010, 8:00-9:08 pm

Edited by Peter Y. Chou

Preface: The Stanford Humanities Center was filled to capacity for Edward Hirsch's Poetry Reading. Eavan Boland introduced Hirsch— "Hirsch's first book For the Sleepwalkers [1981] won the Lavan Younger Poets Award. His second book Wild Gratitude [1986] received the National Book Critics Award. Since then he has published six books of poetry— Night Parade [1989], Earthly Measures [1994], On Love [1998], Lay Back the Darkness [2003], Special Orders [2008], and his latest The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems which came out last month [March 9, 2010]. His prose books include the national bestseller How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry [1999], and Poet's Choice [2006] containing two years' of his weekly column for Washington Post [sample: "Eternity", 9-27-2009]. I had the pleasure of being co-editor with him on Making of a Sonnet: A Norton Poetry Anthology [2008]. Hirsch has been featured on Oprah ["Follow Your Passion!", 4-1-2010], and has received many awards including the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award, the Rome Prize, an Academy of Arts and Letters Award, and a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writers' Award. He has been a professor of English at Wayne State University and University of Houston. He is now the president of the Guggenheim Foundation. Hirsch's poems show a complex boldness and unswerving way, a sense of nobility in argument and yearning. Hirsch says "I want to speack with the true voice of feeling, to write in a darker way." Hirsch writes poems in the back of books, he confronts the intensity of feeling in ordinary life with decorum of the individual. He has the sense of language as our saving grace. We welcome Edward Hirsch to read to us." [Applause] Ed Hirsch read 18 poems from his recent book The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems (2010) to 8:48 pm. He then had a 20 minutes Q&A Session till 9:08 pm. With the help of Hirsch poems posted on the web and his book The Living Fire, I've transcribed Edward Hirsch's Stanford Reading to share with poetry lovers. Web links and reference denoted in [brackets] are my additions.

Edward Hirsch: Thank you Eavan. I feel understood. I'm a little jumpy.
At Chattanooga, two kids in the hotel were running around before I left for here.


Railroad tracks split the campus in half
and at night you'd lie on your narrow cot
and listen to the lonely whistle
of a train crossing the prairie in the dark.

The Living Fire: New Poems, p. 3
     Alfred A. Knopf, New York (2010)


I wish I could find that skinny, long-beaked boy
who perched in the branches of the old branch library.

He spent the Sabbath flying between the wobbly stacks
and the flimsy wooden tables on the second floor,

pecking at nuts, nesting in broken spines, scratching
notes under his own corner patch of sky.

I'd give anything to find that birdy boy again
bursting out into the dusky blue afternoon

with his satchel of scrawls and scribbles,
radiating heat, singing with joy.

The Living Fire (2010), p. 209
     from Special Orders (2008), Web


He could be any seven-year-old on the lawn,
holding a baseball in his hand, ready to throw.
He has the middle-class innocence of an American,

except for his blunt features and dark skin
that mark him as a Palestinian or a Jew,
his forehead furrowed like a question,

his concentration camp eyes, nervous, grim,
and too intense. He has the typical
blood of the exile, the refugee, the victim.

Look at him looking at the catcher for a sign—
so violent and competitive, so unexceptional,
except for an ancestral lamentation,

a shadowy, grief-stricken need for freedom
laboring to express itself through him.

The Living Fire (2010), p. 139
     from On Love (1998)

Hirsch: My grandfather died when I was 8 years old.
My grandmother gave all his books away.


Rumpled and furious, my grandfather's friend
stood up in a bookstore on the North Side
and lamented the lost Jews of Poland

and declared that he felt sorry for God
who had so many problems with Justice
and had become disillusioned and sad

since He wanted to reveal Himself to us
but couldn't find anyone truly worthy
(it was always the wrong time or place

in our deranged and barbaric century)
and so withdrew into His own radiance
and left us a limited mind and body

to contemplate the ghostly absence,
ourselves alone in a divine wilderness.

The Living Fire (2010), p. 179
     from Lay Back the Darkness (2003), Web


Tonight when I knelt down next to our cat, Zooey,
And put my fingers into her clean cat's mouth,
And rubbed her swollen belly that will never know kittens,
And watched her wriggle onto her side, pawing the air,
And listened to her solemn little squeals of delight,
I was thinking about the poet, Christopher Smart,
Who wanted to kneel down and pray without ceasing
In everyone of the splintered London streets,

And was locked away in the madhouse at St. Luke's
With his sad religious mania, and his wild gratitude,
And his grave prayers for the other lunatics,
And his great love for his speckled cat, Jeoffry.
All day today— August 13, 1983— I remembered how
Christopher Smart blessed this same day in August, 1759,
For its calm bravery and ordinary good conscience.

This was the day that he blessed the Postmaster General
"And all conveyancers of letters" for their warm humanity,
And the gardeners for their private benevolence
And intricate knowledge of the language of flowers,
And the milkmen for their universal human kindness.
This morning I understood that he loved to hear—
As I have heard— the soft clink of milk bottles
On the rickety stairs in the early morning,

And how terrible it must have seemed
When even this small pleasure was denied him.
But it wasn't until tonight when I knelt down
And slipped my hand into Zooey's waggling mouth
That I remembered how he'd called Jeoffry "the servant
Of the Living God duly and daily serving Him,"
And for the first time understood what it meant.
Because it wasn't until I saw my own cat

Whine and roll over on her fluffy back
That I realized how gratefully he had watched
Jeoffry fetch and carry his wooden cork
Across the grass in the wet garden, patiently
Jumping over a high stick, calmly sharpening
His claws on the woodpile, rubbing his nose
Against the nose of another cat, stretching, or
Slowly stalking his traditional enemy, the mouse,
A rodent, "a creature of great personal valour,"
And then dallying so much that his enemy escaped.

And only then did I understand
It is Jeoffry— and every creature like him—
Who can teach us how to praise— purring
In their own language,
Wreathing themselves in the living fire.

The Living Fire (2010), p. 57
     from Wild Gratitude (1986), Web


Lay these words into the dead man's grave
next to the almonds and black cherries—
tiny skulls and flowering blood-drops, eyes,
and Thou, O bitterness that pillows his head.

Lay these words on the dead man's eyelids
like eyebrights, like medieval trumpet flowers
that will flourish, this time, in the shade.
Let the beheaded tulips glisten with rain.

Lay these words on his drowned eyelids
like coins or stars, ancillary eyes.
Canopy the swollen sky with sunspots
while thunder addresses the ground.

Syllable by syllable, clawed and handled,
the words have united in grief.
It is the ghostly hour of lamentation,
the void's turn, mournful and absolute.

Lay these words on the dead man's lips
like burning tongs, a tongue of flame.
A scouring eagle wheels and shrieks.
Let God pray to us for this man.

The Living Fire (2010), p. 106
     from Earthly Measures (1994), Web


Give me back my father walking the halls
    of Wertheimer Box and Paper Company
        with sawdust clinging to his shoes.

Give me back his tape measure and his keys,
    his drafting pencil and his order forms;
        give me his daydreams on lined paper.

I don't understand this uncontainable grief.
    Whatever you had that never fit,
        whatever else you needed, believe me,

my father, who wanted your business,
    would squat down at your side
        and sketch you a container for it.

The Living Fire (2010), p. 207
     from Special Orders (2008), Web


We walked on the bridge over the Chicago River
for what turned out to be the last time,
and I ate cotton candy, that sugary air,
that sweet blue light spun out of nothingness.
It was just a moment really, nothing more,
but I remember marveling at the sturdy cables
of the bridge that held us up
and threading my fingers through the long
and slender fingers of my grandfather,
an old man from the Old World
who long ago disappeared into the nether regions.
And I remember that eight-year-old boy
who had tasted the sweetness of air,
which still clings to my mouth
and disappears when I breathe.

The Living Fire (2010), p. 208
     from Special Orders (2008), Web


I am driving past our house on Sul Ross
across the street from the minimalist museum.

I am looking up at the second-story window
where I gazed down at the curators

carrying their leather satchels to work
and the schoolchildren gathering on the front lawn.

I spent my forties at that window, stirring milk
into my coffee and brooding about the past,

listening to Satie's experiments and Cage's
dicey music wafting over the temple of modernism.

I chanced a decade at that window, imperious
to the precarious moment, the broken moon-

light flooding over the neighborhood trees,
my wife's moody insomnia, my son's fitful sleep,

and sacrificing another five years, another ten years,
to the minor triumphs, the major failures.

The Living Fire (2010), p. 218
     from Special Orders (2008), Web


I lived between my heart and my head,
like a married couple who can't get along.

I lived between my left arm, which is swift
and sinister, and my right, which is righteous.

I lived between a laugh and a scowl,
and voted against myself, a two-party system.

My left leg dawdled or danced along,
my right cleaved to the straight and narrow.

My left shoulder was like a stripper on vacation,
my right stood upright as a Roman soldier.

Let's just say that my left side was the organ
donor and leave my private parts alone,

but as for my eyes, which are two shades
of brown, well, Dionysus, meet Apollo.

Look at Eve raising her left eyebrow
while Adam puts his right foot down.

No one expected it to survive,
but divorce seemed out of the question.

I suppose my left hand and my right hand
will be clasped over my chest in the coffin

and I'll be reconciled at last,
I'll be whole again.

The Living Fire (2010), pp. 219-220
     from Special Orders (2008), Web

Hirsch: Czeslaw Milosz's poem "Account" [1980] which begins with
"The history of my stupidity would fill many volumes" inspired this poem.


Traffic was heavy coming off the bridge
and I took the road to the right, the wrong one,
and got stuck in the car for hours.

Most nights I rushed out into the evening
without paying attention to the trees,
whose names I didn't know,
or the birds, which flew heedlessly on.

I couldn't relinquish my desires
or accept them, and so I strolled along
like a tiger that wanted to spring,
but was still afraid of the wildness within.

The iron bars seemed invisible to others,
but I carried a cage around inside me.

I cared too much what other people thought
and made remarks I shouldn't have made.
I was silent when I should have spoken.

Forgive me, philosophers,
I read the Stoics but never understood them.

I felt that I was living the wrong life,
spiritually speaking,
while halfway around the world
thousands of people were being slaughtered,
some of them by my countrymen.

So I walked on— distracted, lost in thought—
and forgot to attend to those who suffered
far away, nearby.

Forgive me, faith, for never having any.

I did not believe in God,
who eluded me.

The Living Fire (2010), pp. 221-222
     from Special Orders (2008), Web


Tornami avanti, s'alcun dolce mai ebbe 'l cor tristo...
            — Petrarch, #272

The times my sad heart knew a little sweetness
come back to me now: the coffee shop
in Decatur, the waffle house in Macon...

The highway signs pointed to our happiness;
the greasy spoons and gleaming truck stops
were the stations of our pilgrimage.

Remember the flock of Baptist women flying
off the bus and gathering on the bridge
over the river, singing with praise?

Wasn't that us staggering past the riverboats
and eating homemade fudge at the county fair
and devouring each other's bodies?

They come back to me now, delicious love,
the times my sad heart knew a little sweetness.

The Living Fire (2010), p. 229
     from Special Orders (2008), Web
     The Hopkins Review, I.1 (2008), 119


God couldn't bear their happiness
when He heard them laughing together in the garden.
He caught them kneeling down in the dirt
(or worse) and letting pomegranate juice
run down their faces. He found them
breaking open a fig with fresh delight
as if something crucial had dawned upon them.
I think the whole shebang— the serpent, the apple
with knowledge of good and evil— was a setup
because God couldn't stand being alone
with His own creation, while Adam and Eve celebrated
as a man and a woman together in Paradise,
exactly like us, love, exactly like us.

The Living Fire (2010), p. 230
     from Special Orders (2008), Web

Hirsch: The State Department sent me to Russia to honor
Joseph Brodsky. This poem was written on that occasion.


            January 2001

Archangelsk, the briny cold, the frigid Baltics,
Children throwing snowballs at Soviet statues.

The Arctic chill of the moon at midday,
The trees wrapped, the pedestrians bundled.

How the sun shivered behind the smokestacks
Like a soldier frozen in place.

At the dimly lit Museum of the Far North
The subject was the poet's internal exile,

Metaphysics versus History, and the fateful
Struggle between Poetry and Time,

A Cold War that will never end.
Also, his love for watery ports

And stubborn cats, especially the Russian
Blue that hailed from the White Sea.

Afterwards, a slushy walk, salty air,
Sleep in an overcoat in a converted barracks.

All night I heard the muffled boots
Of an army marching through the streets

Under the thick cover of darkness.
But in the morning, anniversary mourning,

I woke to a magisterial silence.
Snow occupied the city.

The Living Fire: New Poems, pp. 4-5
     Alfred A. Knopf, New York (2010), Web


I used to mock my father and his chums
for getting up early on Sunday morning
and drinking coffee at a local spot,
but now I'm one of those chumps.
No one cares about my old humiliations,
but they go on dragging through my sleep
like a string of empty tin cans rattling
behind an abandoned car.
It's like this: just when you think
you have forgotten that red-haired girl
who left you stranded in a parking lot
forty years ago, you wake up
early enough to see her disappearing
around the corner of your dream
on someone else's motorcycle,
roaring onto the highway at sunrise.
And so now I'm sitting in a dimly lit
café full of early- morning risers,
where the windows are covered with soot
and the coffee is warm and bitter.

The Living Fire: New Poems, p. 17
     Alfred A. Knopf, New York (2010), Web


It was the two of us, wasn't it, on those steamy nights
circling the low-slung museum across the street
and lingering by the pond behind the chapel.

It's how the southern clouds passed slowly
overhead, season after season, year after year,

as you followed a low intricate scent
across the stately-lit lawn,
and studied the squirrels in the live oaks,
and waded into the brown reflecting pool
with the broken obelisk.

You were a descendent of water dogs
and anything but standard
when you materialized out of the sticky heat
with your dripping black forehead
and delinquent grin, a growl un-muzzled.

It was your Russian face that steadied me
as I sat on a battered wooden bench
lost in a night that wouldn't end
and you lay down— calm, poised, watchful—
and stirred beside me on the simmering grass.

Let's get up and go.
Trot ahead of me, old friend,
and shake off the watery darkness.

The Living Fire: New Poems, p. 18
     Alfred A. Knopf, New York (2010), Web


That was the year I lived without fiction
and slept surrounded by books on the unconscious.
I woke every morning to a sturdy brown oak.

That was the year I left behind my marriage
of twenty-eight years, my faded philosophy books, and
the green couch I had inherited from my grandmother.

After she died, I drove it across the country
and carried it up three flights of crooked stairs
to a tiny apartment in west Philadelphia,

and stored it in my in-laws' basement in Bethesda,
and left it to molder in our garage in Detroit
(my friend Dennis rescued it for his living room),

and moved it to a second-floor study in Houston
and a fifth-floor apartment on the Upper West Side
where it will now be carted away to the dump.

All my difficult reading took place on that couch,
which was turning back into the color of nature
while I grappled with ethics and the law,

the reasons for Reason, Being and Nothingness,
existential dread and the death of God
(I'm still angry at Him for no longer existing).

That was the year that I finally mourned
for my two dead fathers, my sole marriage,
and the electric green couch of my past.

Darlings, I remember everything.
But now I try to speak the language of
the unconscious and study earth for secrets.

I go back and forth to work.
I walk in the botanical gardens on weekends
and take a narrow green path to the clearing.

The Living Fire (2010), pp. 233-234
     from Special Orders (2008), Web


You're sitting at a small bay window
in an empty cafe by the sea.
It's nightfall, and the owner is locking up,
though you're still hunched over the radiator,
which is slowly losing warmth.

Now you're walking down to the shore
to watch the last blues fading on the waves.
You've lived in small houses, tight spaces—
the walls around you kept closing in—
but the sea and the sky were also yours.

No one else is around to drink with you
from the watery fog, shadowy depths.
You're alone with the whirling cosmos.
Goodbye, love, far away, in a warm place.
Night is endless here, silence infinite.

The Living Fire: New Poems, p. 22
     Alfred A. Knopf, New York (2010), Web

After finishing reading his last poem, Hirsch said "If I could only sweat like this at the gym."

Q & A Session:

Q (Tobias Wolff): Tell me more about the couch.
Hirsch: You could always tell the fiction writer. You need a whole page [laughter]. The couch was green. My mother told Dennis that color was fashionable. It was a big couch.

Q: How do you know when a poem is done?
Hirsch: Your poem just stops. Is there some principle? Paul Valery says "A poem is never finished but abandoned." The poem is an entity. It has a feeling of ending. Barbara Hernstein Smith has a book on this subject— Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End [1968]. Leonard Meyer's Explaining Music [1973] explores "emotion in music". If you're working at a metaphor, I feel the poem unresolved if I haven't worked through the emotion. It has to be satisfactorily resolved. There's no scientific answer to your question. Working to some formal structure could also be an ending to your poem.

Q (John Felstiner): Your Celan poem is striking in its syntax. There is surprise and darkness in it.
Hirsch: That sounds swell. It means a lot coming from you [Felstiner wrote two books on Paul Celan & translated his poems]. I tried to do justice and honor him. The figure overwhelms the poem. I'm modelling Celan's "Museum"[?] using Buber every line "love I and Thou". Every now and then, you write something that shocks you— The poem ends "Let God pray to us for this man"— in the spirit with Celan, surprised at giving something.

Q: At one point in your poem you said "I did not believe in God, who eluded me."
Could you explain more on this?
Hirsch: Those two funny lines are from the end of "A Partial History of My Stupidity". I'm still angry at Him for not existing ["Green Couch"]. From miniature to gigantic stupidity, from traffic to God. "I don't believe in God who eluded me" suggests that God exists, but I can't find Him. I'm not gifted with belief, but didn't give up in longing. There is a deep quest for something transcendental. In my poem "Earthly Light" [Earthly Measure (1994); The Living Fire (2010), pp. 128-135], I hint at that there is something else. This is not enough. It's the poetry of a yearner.
[Here are the last four stanzas of "Earthly Light"—
    That February day I looked directly
    into a wintry, invisible world
    and that was when I turned away

    from the God or gods I had wanted
    so long and so much to believe in.
    That was when I hurried down the stairs

    into a street already crowded with people.
    Because this world, too, needs our unmixed
    attention, because it is not heaven

    but earth that needs us, because
    it is only earth— limited, sensuous
    earth that is so fleeting, so real.

Note: last five lines quoted in New York Times, 9-3-2002;
last 14 stanza (section 4) quoted in Oriana Poetry, May 28, 2010]

Q: In putting out your last book containing your selected poems,
did you revise any poems from your first two books?
Hirsch: I don't approve of poets going back and revising their earlier works. W. H. Auden and Robert Lowell did do that. The older person goes back to revise the younger person's work that appears immature. I wrote Sleepwalkers at age 31. I wasn't ashamed to revise my early poems. I felt there was a continuous development. I found it hard to select early poems and relegate them to the dust bins.

Q [Linda Hess]: In your poem "Green Couch" you mention that the books you were reading were lots of philosophy. I can't read philosophy. It makes me sick.
Hirsch: Philosophy is difficult reading. I like literary philosophy. Nietsche says "We're befriended by philosophy." Spinoza and Buber wrote on the ultimate significance of philosophy. There is ancient battle between poetry and philosophy. The reason Plato banned poetry from his Ideal City in The Republic is due to the unreason and unconsciousness in poetry. Poetry gives us a different kind of thinking, another way of knowing. Keats said about non-consecutive reasoning "I don't understand philosophy well but love the pull of it."

Q: In looking at your past, any vision of your future?
What kind of poetry do you wish to write?
Hirsch: You ought to be a professor. It's a hard question. Thinking retrospectively, I hope for myself the largest possible embrace. To ramify outward, bringing more of the "I" to be drama of the poem. To express suffering and joy, aging and exaltation, twin poles of despondency and ecstasy. I like a high threshold of passion and get into them. I still have a lot ahead of me. Still more to fight for.

The audience gave Hirsch a rousing ovation when the Q&A Session ended at 9:08 pm.

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