Tapping Into the Unconscious – The Poetry of Edward Hirsch
November 9, 2010 - It was a cold and wet autumn afternoon at the University of Massachusetts, Boston (UMB). Outside the desolation and despair of a New England winter was gusting in. A small audience of about forty students and faculty members crowded in a corner of the campus bookstore to hear the contemporary elegiac and nostalgic poetry of Edward Hirsch.
Hirsch was invited to share his poetry as part of UMB’s Fall 2010 Global Voices Reading Series presented by the University’s English Department and Creative Writing program. Just after 2 p.m. on that Tuesday afternoon, John Fulton, Associate Professor of English briefly took the podium to introduce the reading series event. He then passed the microphone to Associate Professor of English, Susan Kim who introduced Hirsch as a poet who “longs for transcendence in his art and faith” telling the audience that his poetry is a “profoundly spirited quest at the core.”
As Hirsch stood at the podium ready to awaken the sleepy audience with his art and take them on his “spirited quest,” the clanging of cash registers intruded from the other side of the bookstore. Hirsch broke the ice by jokingly saying that it sounded like a bar room. But the only thing being served here was cookies, coffee, and a straight shot of his poetry, with no garnish. As he began to read twenty poems from his 2010 poetry collection The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems you could feel his passion for his work resonate through his voice. The subject matter of his poems was seemingly colloquial ranging from topics such as basketball, his pet cat, a green couch he once owned, and having coffee on an early Sunday morning, but at the heart of his work was the gnawing tension of life, death, love, loss, celebration, and despair. Hirsch’s reading took the audience on a journey through a tapping of the unconscious mind. The poems were both innocent yet violent and simultaneously explored the metaphoric and the real through the past and the present. There was a sense of desperation, even suffering in his work that sought absolution through its expression. After the reading Hirsch explained to the audience that he writes not just for himself but for “strangers” and the “great dead” who have come before him and will come after he is dead. His reason for writing is to “seek justice” and to “give back the feeling of how it feels to be here.”
Hirsch explained that his poems are “a conscious making that taps an unconscious power” and that poems “disturb me and console me.” In his poetry he seeks to incarnate or embody the disturbing and the consoling together so that his solitary “experience of desolation becomes something for the future reader.” Hirsch’s poetry seeks to capture the individual experience as something that is representative of the universal.
Hirsch is a Jewish-American that was born in Chicago in 1950. He has taught English at Wayne State University and The University of Houston. Currently he is the president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He continues to write and is the author of eight collections of poetry and four prose books and has published a number of works in journals and magazines.
Many in the audience that day had never read or felt Hirsch’s poetry, including myself. As his words echoed from the podium and travelled through our ears, heads, and hearts it may have seeped into our unconscious and become part of us. Hirsch referenced Robert Graves’ idea that a poem has “stored magic” or the idea that the magic of a poem is unlocked when a person encounters it and it becomes a part of them. Although I don’t feel like or can’t say for certain that Hirsch’s poetry has become part of me I can say for sure that there were moments when I felt it gnaw away at something inside me. In his poem “Special Order” he described his “uncontainable grief” and to me it is noteworthy, even remarkable how Hirsch, in all of his poems was able to contain and to articulate such an emotion that is so difficult to translate into language. From the moment we are born we begin our journey towards death. There is a strange paradox in this: as we are living, we are also dying. Hirsch manages to make some sense of the inexplicable or extraordinary through the ordinary that counsels the solitude and despair that exists in us all.