The Kirsch family and the Solomon family have long shared a set of haggadot that include a selection of additional texts that we read aloud at our Passover seders. One of my favorite readings is an article by Yehuda Lev that first appeared in The Jewish Journal, an account of his trek across war-ravaged Europe in the company of Holocaust survivors heading toward Palestine in 1946. Another is a poem by Karl Shapiro titled, “The Alphabet” — “The letters of the Jews are dancing knives/That carve the heart of darkness seven ways.”
I was reminded of Shapiro’s poem when I opened “The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems, 1975-2010” (Knopf, $27), the newly published collection of poetry by Edward Hirsch, one of America’s most important and influential poets. In “My Grandfather’s Poems,” Hirsch muses on the experiences that inspired him to start writing his own verse: “I remember that he wrote them backwards,/In Yiddish, in tiny, slanting, bird-like lines/that seemed to rise and climb off the page/in a flurry of winged letters, mysterious signs.”
Hirsch is one poet who looks beyond the hermetic world of poetry journals and addresses the rest of us. I found a passage in his best-selling book, “How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love With Poetry,” that explains why poetry works so well at the seder table. “[T]he deepest spirit of poetry is awe,” Hirsch writes. “The poem delivers on our spiritual lives precisely because it simultaneously gives us the gift of intimacy and interiority, privacy and participation.”
Hirsch was born in Chicago in 1950 and earned a doctorate in folklore at the University of Pennsylvania before embarking on a teaching career at Wayne State University and the University of Houston. Today he serves as the president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in New York. But he is best known for his own poetry, which has appeared in seven previous collections, including “Wild Gratitude,” winner of the National Book Critics Award.
As a poet who aspires toward accessibility, Hirsch is unconcerned about the labels that are applied to various styles and schools of poetry. “It’s very important to me to be an American poet, a Jewish poet, a poet who came of age in the 1960s,” he told me during an interview conducted shortly before the publication of “The Living Fire.” The poetry in his new book spans more than a quarter century of published work, and the very act of deciding what to include and what to exclude was painful, if also rewarding.
“I found it more agonizing than I thought I would,” Hirsch said. “What I decided was that there are some poems you include because you think they are the best you’ve done, and you are also trying to make a through-line to create a new book. Robert Frost said that if there are 29 poems in a book, then the book itself is the 30th poem. You are always trying to make something that is more than the sum of its parts.”
The poems in “The Living Fire” comprise a kind of map of Hirsch’s life and work. “The Skokie Theatre” (“Twelve years old and lovesick/Bumbling and terrified ...”), for example, describes a primal sexual experience, and
“The Abortion” (“Afterwards, I remembered three shades of blood staining the bedsheets ...”) is the heart-rending contemplation of the ending of a pregnancy. By contrast, he also offers a couple of elegant poems that describe the experience of looking at paintings in a gallery, “Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad (1925)” and “Earthly Light — Homage to the Seventeenth Century Dutch Painters.” To Hirsch, however, all of these poems are personal and consequential.
“There is a different tonality, especially when you are writing about your own erotic life, a different kind of charge,” he concedes. “But my cultural experiences were as important to my formation as many of the other things that happened to me. The thing that made me want to write a poem about a Hopper painting is my visceral reaction to the solitude and isolation that I saw in it.”
Hirsch is willing to write frankly about all of his thoughts and experiences, including the ones that touch on his Jewish upbringing, the Holocaust and the varieties of religious experience. For me, “Incandescence at Dusk” was a rebuttal to the prayer derived from the writings of Maimonides, Ani Ma’amin (I Believe): “I don’t believe in ultimate things./I don’t believe in the inextinguishable light/of the other world./I don’t believe that we will be lifted up/and transfixed by radiance./One incandescent dusky world is all there is.”
“There are a lot of poems where I am questing for God,” Hirsch conceded. “I don’t think there is any finding of God.”
Earlier in his career, Hirsch was the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, and he declares that he is surprised to find himself at the head of the Guggenheim Foundation and its famous grant program, which has long supported the work of artists, poets, writers and scholars. “It’s really something to change your life in your 50s,” he said. “It can’t be entirely healthy for American poetry for all of the poets to be teaching. I had the opportunity to do something else, and I am glad I did, although it did involve something of an identity warp.” But Hirsch remains, above all, a working poet. “I write by hand, I write with a pencil, I write on paper,” he told me. “I try to work on poetry every day.”
And so, when I closed my copy of “The Living Fire,” I found that I had a few more poems to add to our Passover readings. That, in a sense, was Hirsch’s goal all along. “Poetry, too, seeks a place in the world,” writes Hirsch in a poem titled, “Krakow, Six A.M.,” “feasting on darkness but needing light ....”
Jonathan Kirsch, author of 13 books, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal and blogs at jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve. He can be reached at email@example.com.