I am very wary of poetry readings. I’ve been to a few in the past, and without fail, it’s always been a bunch of horn-rimmed hipsters and granola-mouthed hippies whose naïve and idealistic verses about free love and happiness have never failed to drive me to the edge of sanity. So as I stepped into the Umass bookstore to attend Edward Hirsch’s reading full of dread and apprehension, I made straight for the free cookies and grabbed half a dozen of the sugary bastards and took my seat, already projecting an aura of angry indifference to combat the feel-good bullshit tsunami that I was certain lay in my future. How wrong I was.
After both the introductory speaker, and her introductory speaker passed without any single significant word within either of their prepared remarks, Hirsch took the stand. Right away, he won some major points with me for not being a hippie. And right after that, when he began reading, he won my blackened, dead heart in an instant.
Number one: Edward Hirsch is not a happy man. His life’s significant events seem to be one despairing loss, torturous relationship, or failed endeavor after another. Two: He does not take the ‘Poor me’ avenue and churn out a bunch of bitter and knee-jerk stanzas of ranting pain. Three: He refuses to make any excuses at all for himself. Each poem read was more depressing than the last; eulogizing his best friend with a basketball metaphor, describing the soul-numbing loneliness of the pioneering frontier wives, several poems making reference to a long-divorced harpy of a wife he was stricken with for a couple decades. Nothing light and airy to be heard in his works, no sir. So why do I like it so much?
Easy. Because Hirsch is an extremely intelligent writer. His subject matter is of some of the blackest depths of his soul, yes. But he manages to convey these feelings of loss and despair and nothingness by often piggybacking them onto quick little wordplays or jokes. In doing this, his overall messages of bitterness and grief aren’t lost but at the same time aren’t overwhelming. It’s kind of like eating an entire pizza in one sitting, but convincing yourself that it’s healthy because there’s pineapple on it; Hirsch does in fact take too much of a bad thing but layers it occasionally with not-so-bad things to keep you from noticing how much he’s beating you over the head.
On a personal level, I connected greatly with his works, and his overall attitude towards the composition of poetry. As an aspiring musician, I face some of the same challenges that he will, in terms of both what I must write lyrically and musically. The way he spoke about how he pictures his reader as someone who doesn’t exist yet because he’s writing his poetry for not just the audience of today, but for everyone who will come after. And it made me think about who my audience is, and who I want to speak to with what I’ll create. His wisdom and honesty in answering questions about the content of his work, and his creative process were very illuminating and helpful for me; because if I’m going to write something, I want it to be intelligent and thought-provoking, entertaining and self-examinative and honest and uncompromising.
So long story short: In my attendance of this reading, I discovered a very talented writer, good man, and powerful personal inspiration. Bravo, Edward Hirsch.