Harcourt, New York
By Edward Hirsch
Even though April is National Poetry Month, and Poetry Magazine has inherited some $200 million, the versifying art still needs its stewards. Thanks to the advent of free verse in the 20th century, pretty much anything is poetry today. Songwriters publish their lyrics as if Walt Whitman would gnash his teeth in jealousy. Poetry is taught in colleges as a healing art, just shy of journaling and blogging.
Into this vacuum steps Edward Hirsch. A populist with a firm sense of tradition, he was, for three years following 9/11, a voice of reason and erudition as the "Poet's Choice" columnist for The Washington Post Book World. Each week, Hirsch hauled a poem down from the rafters of obscurity and dusted it off for readers. This hefty volume collects 130 essays based those columns and puts them in a roughly chronological order.
The resulting book reads like a breezy yet engaging hopscotch game of poetic tradition. Hirsch leaps from the odes of Pindar to the craggy meditations of Robert Penn Warren, always landing on two feet. Part of this steadiness has to do with the sheer sensual pleasure he seems to have had in reading his way through the greats:
"I recall the cramped bookstores and branch libraries, the cafes and fast-food joints, the book lined studies. I can still feel the drizzly homesickness of a café in London where I was pierced by Ezra Pound's adaptation of Li Po. I think of the bugged hotel room in Leningrad — it was more like a closet — where I was mesmerized by Osip Mandelstam's 'Tristia.'"
This intellectual curiosity seeps into Hirsch's voice — softens it, allows it suppleness where other taste-makers would set up aesthetic barriers. He is fond of Wendy Cope's English doggerel and Roland Flint's poems of political protest. His heart goes out to Deborah Digges, who memorialized her husband with a poem about the seersucker suit he left behind.
Critics who like to bend poets over their knee and give them a paddling will probably snigger at this voluptuous receptivity. But Hirsch doesn't seem to care. One of the terribly likable things about this volume is his willingness to believe that there is simply more good poetry in the world than we can know. In Hirsch's mind, the trick is in finding it and — in our climate of media saturation — giving people an excuse to read it.
In that regard, Poet's Choice is a book addressed to the culture at large. Hirsch's tone remains coaxing and introductory throughout, and he's more than willing to step out of the way so that he can quote a poem in full. In fact, he does this so often that the book could easily be shelved as an anthology.
Hirsch also knows that poetry has become so divorced from mainstream life that it needs a hook or a thematic crowbar to find its way back in. Time and again he circles back to 9/11, which may not have set people lunging for Matthew Arnold, but seems to have highlighted poetry's oracular (and elegiac) authority. "There are poems that tremble with human presence," he writes about Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo, "that put the suffering of a single human being squarely in front of us ... They have the power to disturb and even shame us."
If, as Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert wrote, "Imagination is the instrument of compassion," then for Hirsch poetry is its score. Not surprisingly, his most passionate glosses are applied to poets who wrote with what he calls a devotional instinct, like Palestinian Mohammed Shehadeh, who might be the book's most exquisite discovery, or Gerald Manley Hopkins. "Praise restores us to the world again," Hirsch writes about Hopkins' great poem, "God's Grandeur." "It is one of the permanent impulses of poetry." With this big-hearted, curious-minded book, he demonstrates that this dictum should apply to criticism too.
John Freeman writes about poetry for the City Paper. He is president of the National Book Critics Circle.