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Edward Hirsch 1985
Poet and critic Edward Hirsch began his career with an energetic collection of poems titled For the Sleepwalkers (1981). Since then, he has emerged as one of America's most prominent poets. It was with his second volume of poetry, Wild Gratitude (1986), that he began to delve into autobiographical themes and to reach the level of sophistication for which he is now known. The success of this second collection is in great part due to personal, direct, and moving poems such as "Omen," an elegy for Hirsch's friend Dennis Turner, who died in his late thirties. "Omen," which first appeared in The Missouri Review in 1985, comments on such themes as grief, childhood, and insomnia and uses the conventions of a contemporary elegy to describe the feelings of a man anticipating the death of his close friend.
One key aspect of "Omen" is its meditation on fate and God, anticipating Hirsch's later explorations in this area. The poet uses flashbacks to the speaker's childhood and imagery of the powerful and overbearing night sky in order to suggest the presence of a higher power that works in predetermined natural cycles. Hirsch's specific implications about fate and God are not necessarily clear, and the poem is also important simply as an exploration of the emotion and fear related to impending death. Interpreting these emotions based on the realm of experience from his childhood, the speaker comes to feel extremely close to his friend at the same time as he is preparing to never see him again.
Edward Hirsch was born on January 20, 1950, in Skokie, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. He attended Grinnell College in Iowa, graduating in 1972. He then embarked on a Watson traveling fellowship to study the relationship of violence to poetic form in England, Wales, and France. Hirsch earned a Ph.D. in folklore from the University of Pennsylvania in 1979, two years after marrying Janet Landay. During his doctoral program, he was an instructor with Poetry in the Schools programs in New York and Pennsylvania. Afterward, Hirsch taught at Wayne State University and then at the University of Houston.
Hirsch's first book, For the Sleepwalkers (1981), is a collection of energetic and imaginative poems that frequently depict insomnia and comment on themes such as art, survival, and loss. In 1986, Hirsch published his second collection of poetry, Wild Gratitude, which includes "Omen." It was a critical success, winning a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1987. Hirsch's The Night Parade (1989) carries on the personal themes explored in Wild Gratitude, but this collection has a different poetic style, seldom employing regular block stanzas. In Earthly Measures (1994), Hirsch focuses on religious issues, while On Love (1998) engages voices of diverse poets from the past in an imaginary discussion about love. Lay Back the Darkness (2003) continues Hirsch's exploration of mythological and political themes.
Hirsch has also published a variety of prose works, including his successful How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry (1999). As a poet, literary critic, and editor, Hirsch has been involved with a variety of magazines and journals, including Wilson Quarterly, Paris Review, and the New Yorker. He has received numerous awards and fellowships, including the Rome Prize (1988), the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in literature (1998), a Guggenheim poetry fellowship (1985–1986), and a MacArthur Foundation fellowship (1998). In 2002, Hirsch began serving as the president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
Stanzas 1 and 2
"Omen" begins with a speaker lying on his side in the "moist grass," drifting into a "fitful," or restless, "half-sleep." It is nighttime. Given that Hirsch's first two poetry collections tended to focus on insomniacs, a reader familiar with the poet might assume that the speaker of "Omen" is regularly unable to sleep at night. During his half-sleep, the speaker listens to the wind in the trees and, in stanza 2, notices the moon coming out.
Describing the moon as "one-eyed," Hirsch uses a poetic technique called "personification," or the attribution of human qualities to something that is not human. The speaker says the moon "turns away from the ground, smudged," as though looking at the ground has marked its "glassy" eye. Getting ready to describe the October sky and how it relates to his thoughts, the speaker then notes, "the nights are getting cold."
Stanzas 3 and 4
In the night sky, which is "tinged with purple" and "speckled red," the speaker watches clouds gather above the house "like an omen"—a phenomenon that portends a future event. The speaker cannot stop thinking about his closest friend, which suggests that the omen of the gathering clouds is somehow related to this friend, who the reader learns in stanza 4 is suffering from cancer. The speaker goes on to describe the "small, airless ward" of the downtown hospital, where his friend, who is thirty-seven years old, is suffering.
The fact that the speaker says the hospital is downtown implies that the speaker is in the suburbs, perhaps the suburb of Skokie, Illinois, where Hirsch grew up. The speaker says his friend is "fingered by illness," which implies some greater fate has chosen the friend as a victim and increases the sense of foreboding that the friend is marked for death. Describing his friend as "boyish," "hunted," and "scared," the speaker makes his friend seem like an innocent child about to encounter something horrible, which sets the speaker thinking about his own childhood.
Stanzas 5 and 6
It is significant that the speaker first thinks back to the "immense" summer nights of his childhood, as opposed to the cold October nights he experiences in the present. The speaker compares these "clear . . . pure, bottomless" nights to a "country lake," and he compares the stars to "giant kites, casting loose." This language emphasizes the great freedom and possibility of childhood nights, and the four-dot ellipsis at the end of stanza 5 reinforces the image of the kites casting loose, off the edge of the line.
Stanza 6 provides a sharp contrast to the summer nights, describing the autumn nights of the speaker's childhood as "schoolbound, close," and full of "stormy clouds" like those that have appeared as a bad omen. The speaker associates the fall nights of childhood with "rules" and the indoors, which reminds the reader of the small ward of the hospital. With the rain banging against his house like a "hammer," the speaker's fall childhood nights close him in and confine him, seeming to take away the possibilities promised by the summer nights.
Stanzas 7 and 8
Stanza 7 continues the thought at the end of stanza 6. This technique of running one line of a sentence or phrase onto the next line is called "enjambment." The speaker says that the rain beat against his head during these autumn nights, and he recalls waking up from a "cruel dream" to find that he is coughing and unable to breathe. Again, this description reminds the reader of the speaker's friend in his "airless" ward, as does the speaker's feeling that he was "lost" after these dreams.
Stanza 8, which describes the pain the speaker's friend feels, is a smooth transition, since the autumn night and the hospital are similar in a number of ways. The friend's pain, for example, which is "like a mule" repeatedly "kicking him in the chest," is like the rain "banging" and "beating" against the speaker. With the phrase "Until nothing else but the pain seems real," the friend seems more distant from the speaker's childhood remembrances, as though nothing can be as important or pressing than the friend's current situation. In effect, this phrase brings the speaker out of his wandering thoughts and reminds him of the present autumn night.
Stanzas 9 and 10
In the present, lying in the grass, the speaker says that the wind is whispering "a secret to the trees," which he describes as "stark and unsettling, something terrible." The reader expects this secret to have something to do with the speaker's friend, and it seems likely it is related to the omen of the clouds gathering above the house. Like the friend, the yard is trembling, which causes the trees to shed leaves. Unlike the giant kites from the summer nights of the speaker's childhood, which were cast loose into the sky, the leaves are falling to the ground.
In the first line of stanza 10, the speaker realizes his "closest friend is going to die." This realization is likely a result of the omen in stanza 3, the significance of which has dawned on the speaker, and it is followed by dark and foreboding imagery. First, the entire night sky tilts "on one wing." Second, the clouds that brought the omen seem to break, "Shuddering with rain" and descending on the speaker. It seems the speaker will again feel, as he did in his childhood, the rain pounding on his house, trapping him inside and banging against his head like a hammer. Like his friend in the hospital who is in constant pain, the speaker himself is associated with a fearful, powerless, and suffering child.
One of the main themes of Hirsch's poem is the grief the speaker feels in anticipation of his friend's death. "Omen" is unique in that it describes this grief at a point before the friend has actually died, but it deals with the typical themes of a traditional elegiac poem that remembers a person after his/her death. In an expression of sorrow and resignation, Hirsch explores the ways in which people deal with death and experience loss.
Vital to Hirsch's commentary on grief is the fact that his speaker deals with his friend's illness by feeling and remembering his friend's pains and fears. Because the friend feels repeated, agonizing pain, the speaker remembers the rain banging against his own head, and because the friend is confined to an "airless" hospital ward, the speaker remembers when he himself was "unable to breathe" during his sleep. This appears to be more than simple identification with his friend's feelings; Hirsch is implying that people deal with the death of those close to them by physically and mentally suffering along with them.
- "Omen" is an elegy for Hirsch's close friend Dennis Turner, and the poem draws on a variety of autobiographical themes. Research Hirsch's biographical details on the Web and in articles such as Peter Szatmary's "Poetic Genius," published in the April 1999 edition of Biblio. Speculate on the variety of details from Hirsch's personal life that come out in "Omen." How do these details find their way, directly or indirectly, into the poem?
- Hirsch is a prominent critic of poetry, and he has written a variety of influential scholarly works. Read one of these works, such as How to Read a Book: And Fall in Love with Poetry (1999) or Responsive Reading (1999), and discuss its relationship to "Omen." How can you apply the themes of the book you have chosen to Hirsch's elegy? Discuss how you think Hirsch might analyze his own poem.
- Research the history of the elegiac form, from ancient Greek times to the present. How have elegies changed, and how do they differ in various languages and traditions? Read and discuss several of the most influential elegies in the English language, such as Thomas Gray's "An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" (1751). Describe the important characteristics of a contemporary elegy. In what ways is "Omen" an elegy, and in what ways does it differ from the convention?
- Research the history of cancer. How have medical attitudes toward cancer changed across history? How have treatments been developed, and what are the major sources for cancer research funding? What was it like to be a cancer patient in the 1980s, and how is that different from what it is like to be a cancer patient today?
- Insomnia is an important theme in Wild Gratitude. Research some of the medical theories about insomnia, including its possible causes and its frequency in the United States. Then read some of Hirsch's poems about insomnia, such as those from his first collection, For the Sleepwalkers. How does Hirsch envision insomnia, and how does he use the condition to elaborate on other themes? How does his description of insomnia relate to medical theories about the condition?
The Cycles of the Seasons and of Life
Hirsch's poem is not simply a tribute to his friend Dennis Turner, and it does not spend any time praising his friend. Instead, Hirsch concentrates on the feelings of someone facing death and the emotions of that person's friends, meditating on the place of fate and a higher power in the world. Since the poem is set before the friend's death occurs, it concentrates on the building emotions to this point and the feeling of powerlessness as death approaches, implying that humans are not in control of their own lives. The poem also comments on how people view fate and possibility at different stages of their lives; while the summer is characterized by great hope, the autumn is confined and worn down, waiting for the finality of winter. With flashbacks to the speaker's childhood, Hirsch suggests that death and loss are an implicit part of every year of life and that fate regularly bears down harshly on humanity. This stresses the sorrow of the experience of death and implies that the freedom and limitlessness of summer nights will eventually return.
Hirsch seems to envision death as an inevitable aspect of life, somewhat like the weather in that it moves in cycles, but it is not a random or unpredictable occurrence. Death seems to be connected to some higher instrument of fate in the poem, although Hirsch makes no mention of God. The main evidence that the poem considers religious themes is the fact that it portrays death and the weather as part of a preordained vision of a higher power. To underscore this idea, Hirsch gives the moon and clouds human qualities when they view the world, provide omens, whisper, and periodically rain down on it, all of which make them seem like instruments of some kind of deity.
Like many of Hirsch's poems from the 1980s, "Omen" deals with the phenomenon of insomnia. The present moment and all of the speaker's memories take place at night. At no point does he seem able to fall entirely asleep. Hirsch implies that night is a place of extremes for insomniacs; it can inspire "immense" possibilities and hopes, or it can become a dreadful, foreboding, painful, and confining space. In both cases, insomnia seems to inspire powerful emotion and insight, and sleeplessness allows the speaker to realize the true importance of his friend's illness and impending death.
Another theme Hirsch explores in "Omen" is the way in which childhood experience and memory impact later life. The speaker's childhood is very important to him, and it serves as a defining array of experiences that apply to the predicaments of his middle age. The fact that the cycles of the speaker's childhood repeat themselves in his adult life suggests that childhood is the source of his fundamental emotions and that it serves as an important filter through which the speaker understands the world, particularly during times of duress and sorrow. The friend's illness makes the speaker appear "boyish" and causes him to revert to childhood memories because, Hirsch implies, during stressful times people cling to the belief systems they develop as children.
"Omen" is an elegy, a type of poem that began in ancient Greece and Rome, where it signified a specific "meter," or a systematic rhythm in verse. At this time, an elegy could be about any subject, but it needed to have alternate lines of six and five three-syllable units. Some elegies were laments and some were love poems. In modern languages, such as German, an elegy continues to mean the meter of a poem as opposed to its specific content. Since the sixteenth century, elegies in English have come to signify a poem of lamentation, often expressing sorrow for one who is dead. They can be written in any meter. It is the modern English meaning of elegy that applies to "Omen," which is set in three-line stanzas that are not in the strict elegiac meter.
While modern elegies tend to be sorrowful and nostalgic, the emotions expressed in "Omen" are better described as fearful and resigned. This attitude is one of the unique aspects of Hirsch's use of the elegiac form, and it reveals how the poet interacts with the convention of an elegy, suiting it to his own thematic goals. Although the poem laments the sad circumstances of his friend's death and reaches back to old memories, it does not confine itself to an expression of sorrow over past events. By setting the poem in a time before his friend's death, Hirsch focuses on contemplating the mysteries of life as they are happening rather than grieving over what has been lost.
One of the important stylistic devices in Hirsch's poem is his use of flashback to the speaker's childhood. The transitions to and from the three stanzas that flashback to the speaker's summer and autumn childhood nights are carefully and artfully placed so that they echo the words and ideas of the present setting. For example, stanza 5 uses the word "boy" to connect seamlessly to the word "boyish" in stanza 4. Also, Hirsch ties the emotions of the speaker's childhood to the friend's experience in the hospital; the airlessness of the hospital connects to the speaker being unable to breathe in his sleep, and the friend's repetitive pain and fear connects to the speaker's emotions during the autumn nights of his childhood. In the concluding stanzas of the poem, Hirsch integrates flashbacks completely within the present narrative by placing the speaker in the same situation as that of his childhood autumn nights. At both points in his life, the speaker sits indoors, sorrowful and enclosed, and waits for the rain to fall on him.
American Society in the 1980s
The 1980s was a decade of social and economic conservatism in the United States. Ronald Reagan, a former actor, was president from 1980 to 1988, and, George Herbert Walker Bush (Reagan's vice president) was president from 1989 until 1992. The Reagan and Bush administrations were fiscally and socially conservative, cutting taxes for the wealthy, eliminating certain restrictions on businesses, and reducing funding to a wide variety of social services such as low-income food programs and child day care centers. During this time there was economic growth and prosperity for the well-to-do, while the nation accumulated enormous national debt because the budget was not balanced.
One of the areas that suffered cutbacks during the Reagan years was government funding for hospitals and medical programs. Many mental health centers and centers for the elderly shut down during the decade, and hospitals were often overcrowded, particularly those in the inner city, such as the one mentioned in "Omen." Meanwhile, in social policy, the Reagan administration rolled back many of the affirmative-action policies enacted in the 1960s and 1970s to improve conditions for minorities. Reagan, who was known as the "great communicator" because of his ability to connect with the public, argued that minorities should not receive any special treatment.
- 1980s: Cancer is a common and devastating disease for which there are treatments but no cure.
Today: Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States, and there is still no cure for it, although scientists have learned a great deal more about how it functions, and treatments have become much more sophisticated.
- 1980s: Ronald Reagan, a Republican, is president for most of the decade. He is known for his communication skills, his tax cuts, and his reduction of funding to social services.
Today: George W. Bush, known for the war on Iraq as part of the war on terrorism and for fiscal and social conservatism, is president of the United States.
- 1980s: MTV, a new television station that plays music videos and defines popular music trends is popular with young adults.
Today: MTV is still influential, but it is no longer unique, and several other cable stations play music videos as well.
- 1980s: Russia is part of the communist U.S.S.R., one of the world's superpowers, although it is in the midst of a decline in power that will lead to its dissolution.
Today: Since the breakup of the U.S.S.R., Russia has struggled to develop a stable market economy and a new political order. The country is currently in the midst of a violent separatist conflict with the Islamic province of Chechnya.
The 1980s was a period of major technological advance; the first reusable spacecraft was launched, computers became available in homes and schools, and popular music began to be influenced by electronic innovations such as synthesizers. However, it was also a period of escalating social problems in some areas; illegal drug use increased, the divorce rate climbed, and AIDS emerged as a deadly disease. By the end of the decade, major changes in world politics were occurring, including the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the Eastern Bloc of formerly communist countries and the fall of the Berlin Wall, a symbol of world communism. Meanwhile, the United States was experiencing an economic recession because consumer and investor confidence was shaken by the loss of jobs and the devaluation of the dollar.
American Poetry in the 1980s
In the 1980s, poetry in the United States was greatly influenced by postmodern theory, which refers to the new ways of thinking about language and philosophy that developed in the years following World War II. Postmodernism is probably best known for challenging traditional understandings of reality and contending that the world is composed of layers of meaning. It has inspired many critical theories, such as Jacques Derrida's linguistic theory of "deconstruction." Although postmodern theory had been important for decades, its influence expanded in the 1980s, and it began to be apparent in the work of a wider variety of American poets. Often skeptical of straightforward depictions of reality, poets experimented with these new philosophies and theories of language. Their poetry often pictures reality as endless; it uses new techniques like the jump-cuts and shifting angles that are used in film; and it tends not to take for granted traditional understandings of how people experience and remember events.
Wild Gratitude, Hirsch's poetry collection that includes "Omen," was received favorably by critics, winning the National Book Critics Circle Award and an award for poetry from the Texas Institute of Letters. The prestigious writer Robert Penn Warren commended the book's best poems as unsurpassed in their time. Daniel L. Guillory, in his review of the book for Library Journal, praises Hirsch's poems as offering "poetic surprises on every page. Highly recommended." As Nancy Eimers writes in her Dictionary of Literary Biography entry on Hirsch: "Critics comparing it with For the Sleepwalker have generally praised Wild Gratitude for its greater control and maturity of technique and subject matter."
Eimers goes on to cite "Omen" as an example of Hirsch's increased attention to autobiographical material, writing that the poem "is more sparse and direct in its presentation of [personal] details than most of Hirsch's earlier poems." The poem is also mentioned in R. S. Gwynn's article in the New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly, in which Gwynn writes that it is an "elegiac" poem in which Hirsch inhabits "familiar settings" to confront the death of his friend. "Omen" has not received much other individual critical attention, but critics consider the shift toward more personal themes an important development in Hirsch's career.
Trudell is an independent scholar with a bachelor's degree in English literature. In the following essay, Trudell examines the relationship of this poem to the other poems in Hirsch's collection, focusing on the themes of fate and God.
For a short poem, "Omen" brings up a great variety of themes, but its true implications seem somewhat underdeveloped until they are placed into context within Wild Gratitude. Images, symbols, and metaphors only briefly alluded to in "Omen" attain a broader significance and develop much more profoundly when considered along with the other poems of the collection. Fate and God are crucial themes in "Omen," but Hirsch's deeper implications about these ideas become clearer after the reader has examined the allusions to a higher power in its companion poems.
This is not to say that the poem fails to stand by itself; it is a powerful tribute to Hirsch's friend, and its meditation on grief and loss is coherent independently from the poet's other work. "Omen" also implies a great deal about the importance of childhood experience throughout a person's life, and it seems to suggest the existence of a vague higher power that bears some relation to the fate of humanity. The appearance of an omen presaging the speaker's friend's death suggests that a God exists, and the speaker looks to the night sky as the source of this fate or higher power.
The specific characteristics of this fatalistic force are quite unclear. From the scant evidence of the poem, it is possible that the omen is merely an effect of the speaker's state of mind. This essay will therefore examine how the images and symbols that seem to relate to a higher power in "Omen" are treated throughout Wild Gratitude. Since Hirsch seldomly refers to God explicitly, the best place to begin this examination is with his treatment of death, which is a central theme in the collection that naturally leads to many of the poet's meditations about religion.
"I Need Help" introduces the key idea in the book: sleep. Across Hirsch's body of work from this period, sleep is connected to death. In this poem, the insomniacs are unable to fly "out of the body at night," their skeletons are unable to leave their bodies, and they are unable to fall asleep in the empty coffins carried by the "six pallbearers of sleep." It is as though staying awake through the night is the only way to stay alive. This idea is reinforced in later poems. In "Leningrad (1941–1943)," Hirsch makes explicit that the only way to stay alive is to stay awake: "There are days when dying will seem as / Easy as sitting down in a warm, comfortable / Overstuffed chair and going back to sleep."
The connection between sleep and death is particularly important in "Poor Angels," in which, late at night, a tired body listens to the "clear summons of the dead," or sleep. Since sleep signifies death, the soul cannot escape to the heavens until the body falls asleep. Portrayed as "a yellow wing" and "a little ecstatic / cloud," the soul calls out to the "approaching night, 'Amaze me, amaze me,'" as if the night were some kind of heaven or afterlife full of miracles. The soul later "dreams of a small fire / of stars flaming on the other side of the sky," which suggests the existence of a higher power, full of light and flame, to be reached once the soul is separated from the body. "The Emaciated Horse" also depicts heaven as the source of light and suggests that there is a "celestial power / of that light," or a God.
Another way that Hirsch suggests the presence of a God is through the appearance of miracles, as in the title poem of the collection, "Wild Gratitude." Here the speaker comes to the realization that all creatures are miraculous and "can teach us how to praise," implying that God should be the object of this praise. Like "Poor Angels" and "The Emaciated Horse," the presence of God is signified by a "living fire," or a source of divine light.
Divine light usually appears in the night sky, such as in "Prelude of Black Drapes" and "In Spite of Everything, the Stars," both of which imply that one should praise God and have faith in him. "In Spite of Everything, the Stars" suggests that people look up to the sky with hope and faith "Because the night is alive with lamps!" and that the bright stars are the reason that sleepers' "plumes of breath rise into the sky." Hirsch is drawing from the association of sleep with death here, and the imagery of the rising plumes of breath reminds the reader of the soul rising toward heaven in "Poor Angels." "Prelude of Black Drapes," meanwhile, stresses that "it takes all our faith to believe" that the "curtain of ash," or the drapes that represent the smoky night as well as the ashes of dead bodies, "will ever rise again in the morning." This sounds a great deal like the passage of a soul to heaven, and the religious meaning of the lines is reinforced by the imagery of the moon, a "faint smudge / of light," obscured by the heavy fog but nonetheless a symbol of divine promise and light.
The other major symbol connected to God that comes up in "Omen" and is then developed more thoroughly in its companion poems is rain, which is the central image of "In the Middle of August" and "Recovery." In both of these poems, rain is a source of great hope and promise, a symbol of good fortune from the heavens that allows people to move on with their lives. In fact, rain is connected to the wishes of some greater power even when it has a more negative connotation; the grandfather figure of "Ancient Signs" says that "rain is an ancient sign / of the sky's sadness," implying that there is some great figure in the sky who is sad.
The images and symbols examined above suggest the presence of a particular kind of God in "Omen." For example, that the moon is a source of divine light in "Prelude of Black Drapes" supports the idea that the moon in "Omen" has divine significance. Both poems describe the moon as "smudge[d]," and in both poems its appearance is followed by an inexplicable and somewhat eerie sign from the heavens. This helps to explain why the "glassy, one-eyed" moon of "Omen" that "comes out to stare" at the speaker and then "turns away from the ground" looks down on the speaker as if it were conscious. Turning away and replacing itself with an omen in the clouds, the moon is an instrument of a higher power foretelling the speaker's friend's death.
Nowhere in Wild Gratitude does Hirsch identify his idea of God with any particular religion, but the higher power of "Omen" is not necessarily a strictly Judeo-Christian God. Hirsch's depiction of God is perhaps better described as a naturalistic force working in the orderly cycles of the seasons to bring about the necessary and inevitable aspects of life. The omen of the gathering clouds that forms when the sky turns "purple, speckled red" is very similar to the "indigos and pinks, mauves and reddish-browns" in the sky of "Recovery" that set the stage for the speaker's departure, healed and happy, from the hospital. In both poems, though their omens signify very different events, the coloring of the sky represents the will of a higher power that works through the inflexible laws of nature.
The higher power of "Omen," therefore, is neither cruel nor kind, and it is tied very closely to the laws of nature. It is a stolid force that creates happiness and sadness depending on the season; the rules of childhood that summer is boundless and glorious while fall is confined with "too many rules" always apply, and this natural cycle shows no sign of ending. Because fall is the season of dying, it is in the fall that the higher power releases rain to beat down on the speaker like a hammer, keeping him indoors and unable to see the hopeful divine light. Having given the speaker warning of the inevitable, the higher power lets the "dark sky," which is "tilting on one wing" like the soul of "Poor Angels," descend on the world, putting the speaker to sleep and ending his friend's life. The reader must wait until later in the collection for the return of spring and summer, which come in poems such as "In the Middle of August," for Hirsch's idea of a naturalistic higher power to rain down the "immense" possibilities of survival and regeneration.
Source: Scott Trudell, Critical Essay on "Omen," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
Donnelly is a poet, editor, and teacher. His first book of poems is The Charge. In this essay, Donnelly discusses the conventions and challenges of the elegy.
- Hirsch's collection of poems The Night Parade (1989) is more autobiographical in its themes than Wild Gratitude, and it explores the elements of Hirsch's childhood alluded to in "Omen."
- "The Cave of Making" (1965), by W. H. Auden, is a poem about writing and an elegy for Auden's friend Louis MacNeice. Another classic elegy by Auden, who influenced Hirsch's writings and who is quoted in the epigraph to Wild Gratitude, is "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" (1939).
- Hirsch's scholarly but readable prose work How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry (1999) contains a variety of compelling poems and suggestions on how to approach them.
- Steven Millhauser's Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943–1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright: A Novel (1972) is a vivid and delightful tale of a boy describing his relationship with a childhood friend who died very young.
- Sailing Alone around the Room: New and Selected Poems (2001), by Billy Collins, contains some of the best examples of the poet's funny, sad, and tender explorations of everyday life.
Many readers of poetry do not understand how hard it is to write a successful lyric poem, never mind how treacherous it is—artistically speaking—to attempt an elegy mourning the death of a friend or loved one. This poetic task is risky because there are so many ways to fail. In particular, an elegy may fail to rise to eloquence while lamenting and praising the dead person, or it may cross the line between sentiment and sentimentality. The several-thousand-year history of the elegy is illuminated by the brilliant achievements of poets who rose to this challenge—Milton, Tennyson, Whitman, Yeats, Auden, and Allen Ginsberg, to name a few—and also littered by the efforts of those who tried and fell short.
There is no shame in any unsuccessful poetic attempt: good art of any kind is hard to make. Fortunately for the skillful reader of poetry, there is almost as much to be learned about how poetry works from studying a not completely successful poem, as from studying one that is superbly successful.
It is helpful, before turning to Edward Hirsch's "Omen" in particular, to review the "rules" or conventions of elegies or elegiac poems in general. Elegies belong to the larger category of lyric poetry, a form that has as its primary purpose the expression of strong feeling. In a broad sense, an elegiac poem mourns the general impermanence or sorrow of life. But, the usual focus of the elegy is grief for the death of a particular person. A secondary purpose is to praise qualities of that person's life, usually in the context of lamenting their loss. Some elegies also praise the departed as part of a larger project of finding consolation in spiritual or philosophical truths that are felt to be of greater consequence than the life of any one person.
The "pastoral elegy," of which Milton's "Lycidas" and Shelley's "Adonais" are examples, usually represented the dead person as a shepherd mourned by mythological figures and the natural world. Hirsch's "Omen" makes use of the poetic device, common in the pastoral elegy, of projecting human emotion onto natural phenomena like stormy weather and darkness.
Some poets have written "anti-elegies," which refuse to proceed in an expected or orderly manner, like Dylan Thomas's "Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London" and contemporary American poet Diane Fisher's "The Mother Has Her Say." These poems are in fact still elegies but make rejection of sentimentality or conventional sources of consolation an explicit part of their poetic projects.
The person doing the elegizing needs to have been close enough to the person being elegized that the poem seems justified. If the poet did not actually know the dead person well, there needs to be some other reason the poet felt a strong connection. Theodore Roethke acknowledges the expectation of connection in his poem "Elegy for Jane," both in the epigraph "My Student, Thrown by a Horse," and in his last lines "Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love: / I, with no rights in this matter, / Neither father nor lover."
The elegy has the difficult poetic task—perhaps in a sense impossible—of balancing the competing losses of the person doing the elegizing and the person being elegized. The dead person's loss of life itself (claims of an afterlife notwithstanding) is permanent and immeasurable. Some might argue that the loss of the elegizer is actually greater because that person is still sensible to the pain whereas the pain of the person who died is over. Conversely it can be argued that the living have the chance to become happy again, or at least to go on living, which the dead have lost. Ultimately, the dead person's claim for the greater loss would seem to be persuasive—though certainly good poems can and have been made asserting the opposite view. The point is that in order to be successful the elegy has to struggle with this question of balance, not proceed as though it did not exist. Ideally, the poet causes the two griefs implicit in the elegy to contend in a way that is productive of eloquence.
Is Hirsch's "Omen" an elegy? The person the speaker grieves is still alive during the time the poem describes. Because the impending death of the friend is placed in a position so close to the center of the poem's project, it virtually forces the reader to consider the poem an elegy and to compare the gestures the poem makes with those of other elegies. "Omen" is not so much an "anti-elegy"—the speaker does grieve in fairly conventional ways and, arguably, gives over to sentimentality in several passages—as it is a "pre-elegy." Even in that category it is not completely successful, because the poem does not acknowledge the competing griefs of the elegy in a meaningful way. Neglecting to do so undermines the all-important relationship between the speaker of a poem and the reader.
A reader may begin to withdraw sympathy, trust, and, most importantly, interest from the speaker of an elegy if that speaker reduces the large loss of the dead person primarily to an occasion to direct attention to the speaker himself. There have been many fine poems with speakers who have moral flaws yet still retain the speaker's interest. There is all the difference, in poetry as in life, between self-absorption (or an extreme subjectivity such as that caused by grief) and an acknowledgment of self-absorption or extreme subjectivity. Objectivity is no virtue in poetry, but an admission of subjectivity can be a very great virtue. As Carl Dennis has written in Poetry as Persuasion:
Poets whose speakers confess moral failures are usually on safer ground than those celebrating their moral triumphs. But even a confession, if it is aesthetically effective, will imply certain virtues: the honesty and humility, say, that confronts inadequacies directly, and the ambition implied by judging oneself by the highest standards.
When the somewhat unpleasant speaker of Robert Lowell's poem "Skunk Hour" says, late in that poem, "My mind's not right," he does a great deal to retain (or regain) the reader's interest and sympathy. This kind of acknowledgment of subjectivity is missing from "Omen." When "Omen" diminishes the importance of the death of the friend by juxtaposing it, and seeming to compare it, with seemingly minor forms of suffering from the speaker's past, it cannot help but injure the speaker in the reader's eyes.
It is probably the speaker's description of the dying friend as looking "boyish and haunted" that causes the speaker to remember, associatively, the unhappiness of his own boyhood. The unhappinesses he describes in the sixth and seventh stanzas of the poem—"stormy clouds, too many rules." and "Sometimes I'd wake up / In the middle of a cruel dream, coughing / And lost, unable to breathe in my sleep"—do not amount to much when compared to the friend's impending death. The juxtaposition of the friend's death with the speaker's memory of childhood discomfort has the effect of including the friend's death on a list of other bad things that have happened to the speaker without any acknowledgment of the subjectivity of this perspective that might redeem it in the reader's estimation.
The problem with "Omen" is that the relationship between the speaker and the friend is not clear or compelling. We have no evidence for friendship but the label, no shared memories, no history, no details about the dying man to make him memorable or individual. This is part of what turns him into a prop on the speaker's stage.
"Omen" might have been more successful if the language had risen to genuine eloquence. Eloquence is difficult to define, but in poetry it has everything to do with freshness (lack of cliché), precision, compression, and rhythmic authority. Hirsch has achieved eloquence in other poems like "Lay Back the Darkness," or translation/adaptations like "The Desire Manuscripts." Passages like "the nights are getting cold," "I can't stop thinking about my closest friend" and "I know that my closest friend is going to die" in "Omen" are closer to the rhythms of everyday prose than poetry and are emotionally flat. Other passages in "Omen" resort to generic "poetry-speak" or stock gestures to express fear and grief: "Clear as a country lake" and "The rain was a hammer banging against the house, / Beating against my head" are examples of metaphors that lack surprise or freshness. If the most important metaphor in "Omen," which compares the dying friend's pain to "a mule / kicking him in the chest, again and again," had used more surprising, emotionally charged language, it might have done much to redress the feeling that the poem focuses too much on the speaker's pain. This important metaphor subsides into flat abstraction, with the deflating explanation "Until nothing else but the pain seems real."
In the best poetry, sensual specifics and images serve to anchor emotion in the reader's imagination. Abstractions and nonspecific language do not do this job as well. Compare this passage from "Omen"
Tonight the wind whispers a secret to the trees, Something stark and unsettling, something terrible Since the yard begins to tremble, shedding leaves.
with the following excerpt from Stanley Kunitz's poem "Quinnapoxet," which also projects human emotions onto nature:
I was fishing in the abandoned reservoir back in Quinnapoxet, where the snapping turtles cruised and the bullheads swayed in their bower of tree-stumps, sleek as eels and pigeon-fat.... The sun hung its terrible coals over Buteau's farm: I saw the treetops seething.
In Kunitz's poem, language charged with strong emotional associations—like "abandoned," "snapping," "terrible coals," and "seething"—creates true ominousness. The passage from "Omen" falls short of the same goal. Both passages use the word "terrible," but Kunitz's language embodies terribleness more viscerally and memorably.
The artistic challenge of writing successful elegies for the next thousand years is that every poet who attempts the form has to find a way to grieve an intensely personal loss in a way that acknowledges that the loss is also completely universal. This complex balancing act is precisely the kind of challenge for which lyric poetry was invented, but it requires a poet to call upon every ounce of philosophical, spiritual, and linguistic resources at her disposal.
Every human has the same primal desires and fears—wanting and needing love, and fearing death. Out of these old, old elements new poems will always be made, because love and death are not going to cease being of intense interest to readers. Poets will continue to exert themselves to express new truths about love and death, or to express old truths in language that makes them seem new. Whether they succeed or not in any given poem, one should be grateful for every poet willing to take on this difficult work of casting light on the human predicament.
Source: Patrick Donnelly, Critical Essay on "Omen," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
Contemporary Authors Online
In the following essay, the critic discusses some highlights of Hirsch's career.
"I would like to speak in my poems with what the Romantic poets called 'the true voice of feeling,'" Edward Hirsch once told CA. "I believe, as Ezra Pound once said, that when it comes to poetry, 'only emotion endures.'" Described by Peter Stitt in Poetry as "a poet of genuine talent and feeling," Hirsch has been highly acclaimed for his poetry collections, For the Sleepwalkers and Wild Gratitude. For the Sleepwalkers was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1981, and Wild Gratitude won the award in 1987. The two books contain vignettes of urban life and numerous tributes to artists, which, according to David Wojahn in the New York Times Book Review, "begin as troubled meditations on human suffering [but] end in celebration." New Republic contributor Jay Parini wrote that in For the Sleepwalkers, "Hirsch inhabits, poem by poem, dozens of other skins. He can become Rimbaud, Rilke, Paul Klee, or Matisse, in each case convincingly." "I admire Edward Hirsch," declared Phoebe Pettingell in the New Leader, "for his mystical vision, for the mastery he has . . . attained—and for his daring."
While many reviewers have applauded Hirsch's poetry, declaring that it exhibits tenderness, intelligence, and musicality that goes beyond mere technique, they have also recognized in his highly rhetorical style the propensity to "cross the borderline between effectiveness and excess," as Stitt asserted. For instance, Wojahn maintained that "Hirsch's tenderness [in Wild Gratitude] sometimes threatens to become merely ingratiating," and Hugh Seidman, in a New York Times Book Review article, thought that Hirsch's first work, For the Sleepwalkers, is "a poetry of narcissistic invention employing exaggerated tone and metaphor," an excess that Seidman believed is typical of much contemporary American poetry. Nevertheless, Parini insisted that Hirsch's poems "easily fulfill Auden's request that poems be, above all else, 'memorable language,'" and Carolyn Kizer declared in the Washington Post Book World that Hirsch's "great strength lies in his descriptive powers." As Hirsch "learns to administer with lighter touch his considerable linguistic fertility," claimed Stitt, "he will surely grow into one of the important writers of our age."
The poems in Hirsch's third book, The Night Parade, continue with themes presented in his first two works, but stray from his stylistic and formal techniques, perhaps indicating a transitional period. Hirsch told CA: "Many of these poems are more meditative and narrative, linking the personal to the historical, contemplating the nature of family stories and expanding outward from there to consider the history and development of Chicago as a city." He added, "The passionate clarity of [my] style has not always met with critical approval." In the New York Times Book Review, Stephen Dobyns remarked, "Despite several marvelous poems, The Night Parade doesn't seem as strong as his previous book. Too many poems become sentimental or seem willed rather than to come from the heart." Pat Monaghan in Booklist, however, praised Hirsch's "sure sense of the line between emotion and sentimentality." New York Review of Books critic Helen Vendler felt that "when Hirsch is not being historically stagy, he is being familially prosaic, as he recalls stories told by his parents," but she also thought Hirsch "capable of quiet, believable poems." She cited the poem "Infertility" from Hirsch's The Night Parade as the most believable poem of the book, and suggested, "This poem, I suspect, will turn up in anthologies. It touches a particular connection between religious longing and secular pessimism that belongs both to the hope and desolation it commemorates and to the moment of scientific possibility and disappointment in which we live."
In his fourth collection of poems, Earthly Measures, Hirsch offers a collection focused on religious issues and imagery. Hirsch told CA: "If I were to describe [Earthly Measures], I would say that it is 'god hungry.' Earthly Measures is very much about what the soul does after hungering after God and He does not come. What does one do to fill the subsequent emptiness? The book begins in the dark wood with landscapes of ash and emptiness and hell. Throughout the book are elegies which point toward the loss of presence, power, and direction. The emptiness contains infertility but it is not defined by it. About halfway through the book it takes a turn—not toward celebration exactly, but a sort of agonized reconciliation. The tutelary figures are Simone Weil, Leopardi, and Hoffmansthal. The poems take the transformative and even redemptive powers of art seriously. Art stands against the emptiness. The book is about a soul-journey. It begins in 'Uncertainty' and concludes with an homage to the 17th century Dutch painters and their feeling for 'Earthly Light.' It is a pilgrim's progress struggling toward the light."
Reviewers had mixed opinions of Earthly Measures, with some critics praising the "god hungry" nature of the work and others terming the collection insufficiently nuanced. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Patricia Hampl remarked, "The absence of God and the abundant presence of human desire reign over his book and form a passionately important inquiry into the nature of worship." Robert B. Shaw, commenting in Poetry, likewise praised the poems in the collection for being "accessible in subject, direct in phrasing, open in their expression of emotion, graced with a finely-tuned lyricism." Yet, Shaw noted, "the neo-Romantic tone and coloration makes for a sameness . . . so that the subjects lose something of their individuality in an all-purpose luminous haze." Washington Post Book World contributor Eric Murphy Selinger also lamented the lyrical romanticism of the poems, declaring that "Hirsch is better off when his voice has a bitter or critical edge." Hampl, though, commended Hirsch for his achievement in Earthly Measures, concluding, "These are poems of immense wonder and rigor. To say they are religious poems is only to recognize their grandeur and generosity, and their heartbreaking longing."
In the collection On Love, Hirsch takes the voice of some two dozen poets from the past, including such diverse writers as D. H. Lawrence, Charles Baudelaire, and Jimi Hendrix. He creates an imaginary conversation between them in which they discuss the subject of love. The verses in On Love prove "without question" that Hirsch is "heir to all the great poets of the past," in the opinion of Donna Seaman of Booklist, who added that when writing about his own life, Hirsch achieves "lyric poems nearly incandescent in their sensuality." The reviewer for Publishers Weekly noted that when reading Hirsch's work, "one is always aware of a formidable intelligence; wide reading, and an ambition to connect the poet's own achievement with the great poetry of the past." While acknowledging the "controlled, precise, formally ambitious" quality of Hirsch's verse, the Publishers Weekly reviewer faulted the poet's use of "a highly artificial premise, made more so by the incredibly strict forms." Yet Thomas F. Merrill in Library Journal called On Love "often stunning" for its "complex evocations of the adopted voices as well as Hirsch's own insight."
Hirsch has also written prose works that have met with critical acclaim. In How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry, he collected verses from diverse times and places and then suggested ways to understand and appreciate the works. "The book is scholarly but very readable and incorporates interesting anecdotes from the lives of the poets," noted Ellen Sullivan in Library Journal. Booklist's Donna Seaman declared: "Hirsch, a truly gifted poet and scholar, brings the full heat of his literary passion to this enlightening and deeply moving journey into the heart of poetry. . . . Hirsch's magnificent text is supported by an extensive glossary and superb international reading list."
Source: "Edward Hirsch" in Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2003.
Edward Hirsch with Tod Marshall
In the following interview, Hirsch discusses a number of subjects, including American poets through the twentieth century and experimentation in his own work.
Born in Chicago in 1950, Edward Hirsch was educated at Grinnell College and the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned the doctorate in 1979. He has taught at several colleges and universities, and he presently teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Houston. His previous books of poetry include For the Sleepwalkers, Wild Gratitude, The Night Parade, EarthlyMeasures, and, recently, On Love. His most recent book is How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry. He has won many awards, including the Lavan Younger Poets Award, the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award, the Prix de Rome, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award (for his collection Wild Gratitude), and, in 1998, the American Academy of Arts & Letters Award for Literature. Recently, he was honored with a MacArthur Fellowship.
Ed and I met at the Sewanee Writers Conference in the summer of 1998. Located on the top of the Cumberland plateau, the University of the South has an inspiring Gothic campus, complete with ivy, gargoyles, and bell towers. After listening to Mark Strand lecture on Andrew Marvell, Ed and I walked across the campus to the Rebel's Rest, a guest house built in 1866 where he was staying. We talked in the foyer, exchanging comments across a wide table. During the interview, Ed was both animated, gesturing passionately as he talked about poetry, and thoughtful, listening carefully to my questions and comments before offering his responses.
[Tod Marshall]: Many poets and critics attribute the beginning of American poetry in the twentieth century to Ezra Pound. Is this your understanding of American literary history or do you see someone else as the origin?
[Edward Hirsch]: I suppose that in a historical way a great deal goes back to Pound and the other Imagists. It was Pound, after all, who urged American poets to use the language of common speech with precision, to create new rhythms, to enjoy an absolute freedom of subject matter. Pound recognized that Yeats was the greatest poet writing in English at the time and that Eliot had "modernized himself on his own." Pound also opened up American poetry with a wide range of voices in Personae. I'm grateful to him for bringing the Provencal poets into English and for the marvelous translations of Cathay, his best book. But I dislike the person he became, and for me it was never The Pound Era, to employ the title of Hugh Kenner's brilliant critical work. It was the Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane era, the William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore era, the Edwin Arlington Robinson and Robert Frost era.
Describe your attraction to Stevens.
Romantic poetry was somewhat derided in my education, perhaps because of Eliot's proscriptions against it. The first poets I fell in love with were the Metaphysical poets. I loved (and still love) the way that intellect and feeling come together in the work of John Donne, Andrew Marvell, and others. I love the wild ingenuity of their best conceits. George Herbert was also a poet who was important to me. So, my initial reading in high school and college was not passionately attached to the Romantic poets.
Later, when I read Stevens and then Crane I began to see the fore-grounding of imagination as one of the great projects in poetry. I loved the grandeur of the poetic line in Stevens, and I intuited that the blank verse line connected Stevens to something important, to the great poetic lineage of Romantic poetry, to Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats. I didn't have a language for it at the time, but I was discovering the sublime in poetry.
I understand your attraction to some aspects of Stevens['] work; however, Stevens epistemological inquiries—in spite of their magnificence and beauty—have always left me feeling that he is someone uncomfortable with the physical world; I don't feel that in your work.
Well, both Stevens and Moore are poets I admire, but they can be very cool. Stevens has his deep passions, but mostly they are suppressed and have to come steaming to the surface from a long way down. One of the things I saw as my task was to add the heat to whatever I learned from his work. I felt and still feel much closer—in terms of the passions of poetry—to Keats and to Shelley, who give such high priority to emotion. Intensity is all.
My reading of the modern poets was that they offered me wondrously different things, and my task would be to supply some of the things they didn't offer. I felt I had a place at the table. I thought, "What if you took some of that discursive intelligence in Stevens and gave it tremendous warmth and heat? What would happen if a Stevensian poetry was written with the same kind of passion and intensity as say, others might associate with a poet like James Wright?" I wanted to keep the intelligence without losing the emotional affect. I learned from Stevens a certain way of thinking in poetry. In terms of emotional temperature, I always felt closer to Hart Crane.
In terms of the passion that I think you're talking about, Crane is probably the polar opposite of Stevens.
I like the way the language moves ahead of the thought in Crane. Crane is especially important to me now, and it's interesting that when I encounter many young poets, they don't know how to read a poet like Hart Crane. He's too baroque, too rich for them. When I first fell in love with Crane, what it meant wasn't so important. It was how it sounded that mattered. I heard the great oracular notes of poetry. I heard the prophetic cadences. I still hear them.
I could make almost no sense of "Atlantis" the first time I read it.
Neither could I, but I felt that glorious upward striving. I felt the urge toward something large and grand and transcendental. I didn't know what it was, but I heard it in the sound of the words. I felt that Crane was lifting me toward something.
You've written very fondly of Robert Frost work. How does he fit into this picture?
Frost is one of the American poets who has meant the most to me. I love the dark side of Frost. I first discovered the darker Frost when I read Randall Jarrell's two essays on Frost in Poetry and the Age. "The Other Frost" and "To the Laodiceans." Those pieces were thrilling to me. I'd really thought of Frost only as the poet of walks and talks in the woods. I didn't cotton to the image Frost cultivated as a Yankee farmer. I didn't yet know about the deeper Frost that Lionel Trilling had called a "terrifying" poet. Because of Jarrell I began to discover the terrifying, the unremitting, side of Frost. I fell in love with the poem "Desert Places," which is still a poem I love very much. Those dark poems of Frost's gave me a way to think about a language that could articulate the extremes of human feel[ing].
The two poets who best articulated despair for me—better than I could have articulated it myself—were Hopkins and Frost. When I read Hopkins's late, so-called "terrible sonnets," and when I read "Desert Places," I felt they had articulated an anguish that I, too, had felt, but didn't know how to touch or write about. I began to think about how the formal cadences of poetry could be shaped to those feelings. The poet was a maker who had taken unwieldy feelings and shaped them into something that was, hopefully, enduring.
When we think of modernity, we might think of the dissolution of metrical poetry in order to accommodate the new modern sensibility and its fragmentation, anxiety, and such. What you seem to be speaking to is the ability of the "old ways" to accommodate these changes in sensibility.
I wouldn't say so much the "old ways" as the "oldest ways," the ways of archaic poetry, of Orphic poetry. I am thinking of a poetry that rises from speech toward song, that builds to a rhythm of incantation. The devices are just a way of working the magic in poetry. Look: Frost was a great modern poet and he wrote mostly iambic pentameter. Stevens wrote wonderfully as a "blank verse" poet and as a free verse poet. I don't think I would want to sacrifice either of those methods. I think that the dichotomy between so-called formal poetry and free verse is a large mistake in American poetry. Many great poets have used the full resources of the language to articulate the world. Pound is a good example, I think. We wouldn't want to lose the early Imagist free verse poems; nor would we want to throw out the strict meters and rhymes of Mauberly; nor would we want to "sacrifice" some of the incantatory cadences of The Cantos.
The story that we tell ourselves that Modernism is the breaking loose into free verse and away from traditional verse is much too simplistic. There's Marianne Moore writing both a syllabic poetry and a free verse poetry, remaking syllabics to an American idiom. There's William Carlos Williams inventing a new triadic line for American poetry. At the same time, we have Stevens and Crane writing eloquent American poems using the blank verse line. We also have the collage of The Waste Land, which does use the devices of iambic pentameter and rhyming to extraordinary effect only to rupture them. The devices of poetry are wide-ranging. There are many ways to the promised land.
It's true that we've had—since Milton began to loosen poetry from the bondage of rhyme—an increasing strain of a certain kind of freedom in the versification of poetry. We wouldn't want to lose that. Free verse has been an essential American mode since Whitman, but it's not the only American mode. The stories that we tell ourselves about the history of American poetry are greatly reduced for some poets' polemical ends. When we examine the reality of the different types of poetry that our great poets have written, then we discover that it is quite various and often ties us to the "oldest" traditions in poetry much more than one might think.
That makes sense. When you think about the poets of mid-century—Lowell, Berryman, Sexton, and Plath—they, too, write in many modes.
There's a similar dynamic connected to the so-called confessionalism of the poets of the Middle Generation. Not many people have thought about the fact that, for instance, the poets of the Middle Generation were masters of the dramatic monologue. Berryman, Lowell, Schwartz, Jarrell, Bishop—all wrote wonderful dramatic monologues. The story of American poetry moving from the forties and fifties and the mode of high artifice to the more confessional one of the late fifties and sixties, written supposedly from a more authentic self, that story is simply not borne out by the nature of the work. For example, I think you have to read The Mills of the Kavanaughs as one of the important books in Lowell's development in which he adopts a whole series of fictive voices, voices that were not his own. Those voices help teach him how to take on the voice of a supposed person, "Robert Lowell" in Life Studies. My sense of it is that the range of American poetry continues to outstrip the narratives that we create about the historical development of that poetry.
So many manifestos and polemics revolve around those narratives.
A greatly flawed essay in this regard that's had much too much of an effect is Olson's essay on projective verse. It's part genius, part mumbo jumbo, and it has been badly misused. Olson divides radically between "open" and "closed" poetry. That's a story that poets and critics have gone on telling each other ever since—that there's a closed or academic poetry and an open or nonacademic poetry. This doesn't fit the facts at all. It doesn't fit the facts of Romantic poetry; it doesn't fit the facts of Modernism; and it doesn't fit the facts of what poets have done since the fifties. Yet we go on in a sort of exhausted way, reiterating these old conflicts. Wars are renewed over these tired polemics. Friendships are made and destroyed around this absolutely artificial designation. The notion of an avant garde in the academy holds absolutely no water at all. I refuse to think in those terms. Consider those sonnets of dark love by Garcia Lorca, which are wonderful, openly homoerotic poems that he wrote before he died. Are we to understand those homoerotic sonnets as traditional or avant garde? Or take one of the great last poems by Cesar Vallejo, "Black Stone Lying on a White Stone." Are we to think of that as a traditional poem and not an avant garde poem because it's a sonnet? Or are we to think it's an avant garde poem because of the startling things that Vallejo does with verb tense and language? Vallejo creates a wild disturbance within the prescribed form. To me, the terms of description that we often use, these categories, are fairly useless, and yet we keep on repeating them. They're unhealthy for American poetry, or what I could call American poetries, something which is rich, vital, and diverse. I don't approve of any restriction that would limit American poetries, especially when it involves throwing out other aesthetics.
One terrific example in this regard: the female lyricists of the 1920s. If you look at most literary histories, you'll read about Eliot and Pound and Moore and Williams and Stevens, but you won't hear much about Louise Bogan or Edna St. Vincent Millay or Eleanor Wylie. These poets didn't write free verse; they didn't get with the Poundian program. They continued to write sonnets, and they were widely popular and widely read, but they, in effect, have been written out of literary history. What they were doing is very striking to me; they ware remaking the love poem, and they were rethinking it from a female perspective, where the female speaker is not the beloved but the ravenous lover. They engender the sonnet in radically different ways than the sonnet had been previously engendered. If you look at most of our literary histories, you won't find them treated in any detail because the primary narrative that we tell is about Ezra Pound and the success of free verse. The Poundian strain was crucial, but it shouldn't be used to exclude everything else that was written.
Of course, what you're speaking to isn't just part of the narrative about modernity. Today we have LANGUAGE poets, New Formalists . . .
In 1926 Marina Tsvetayeva said in her essay "The Poet on the Critic" that "Poetic schools (a sign of the age!) are a vulgarization of poetry." I think the divisions—Neonarrative, Neoformalist, etc.—are not helpful. Our country is so fragmented that these "schools" help give people identities and help them find a way in the world, but to me they are divisive. The loneliness of poets (remember that Richard Howard called his splendidly wide-ranging critical book, Alone with America) is a sociological phenomenon. I don't like ways of dividing the pie that exclude people, and I think that the ethos of American poetry should be an inclusive one. It should be open to all kinds of poetry. It's as if poetry is a piano and most poets know how to play only the same two notes. Most of the resources of poetry are lost because of this two-note ethic.
Your work certainly avoids such reduction—all the different voices and forms and allusions is astonishing. The poetry is very wide-ranging.
Thank you for saying so. I've gotten so much from so many different types of poetry that I've wanted to respond in kind, to give something back. In many ways, I feel as if the poet is a vehicle, a vehicle of responses to different feelings and voices and people and characters. Keats's idea of negative capability has been very important to me. I take seriously the notion that the poet gives up a personal identity and is saturated by something else. Whitman is wonderfully helpful in this regard because he moves up and down the ladder of being so fluently. I remember the passage:
Through me many long dumb voices, Voices of the interminable generations of prisoners and slaves, Voices of the diseas'd and despairing and of thieves and dwarfs, Voices of cycles of preparation and accretion, And of the threads that connect the stars, and of wombs and of the father-stuff, And of the rights of them the others are down upon, Of the deform'd, trivial, flat, foolish, despised, Fog in the air, beetles rolling balls of dung.
Whitman understands that the poet is a vehicle to everything alive. The world is permeable. The voices of the enslaved and the voices of beetles and the voices of thieves and dwarfs and the voices of birds are as important to him as the dominant voices of history, the voices of the victors. His Orphic calling is a way of speaking back to power.
It seems to me that as a poet I want to be as open and receptive to the world as possible, to see the world alive in all its parts. Whitman loved archaic poetry and he loved ballads and he loved folk songs and opera and he didn't see any conflict between making poetry new and returning poetry to the origins of all poetry. He is a great model for us as American poets because he is so inclusive, because he fuses traditions, because he takes poetry forward into the future even as he returns it to its archaic roots. Whitman understood that chants and charms and spells and incantations all have various functions in the world.
In On Love you have many poems that aren't quite dramatic monologues and aren't quite persona poems. How do you understand the voices in those poems as functioning?
I think that the notions of dramatic monologue and the notions of persona are too narrow and confining as people usually think of them. This is true even of poets receptive to their use. Of course, there are some poets who are opposed to this sort of poem on principle because they are under the mistaken notion that they want to speak only in their own so-called "authentic" voice. In writing programs, students are frequently given the assignment of writing persona poems, where you take on the voice of another. To me, that doesn't have anything like the kind of emotional authority and weight that I think you feel when you believe you are the vehicle of another voice, where another voice seems to be speaking through you. Where it's both your own voice and another voice speaking at the same time. I believe that in these twenty-five poems with different speakers (from Diderot to Colette) there is also a lone questing speaker, a lover seeking and desiring the absent beloved. There's a dialectic in the poems between separation and fusion, between autonomy and blur, between the lover and the beloved. The voices of the speakers in the poems are ways to think about love. Each one represents some aspect of love. The speaker is at the same time Marina Tsvetayeva or Guillaume Apollinaire or Tristan Tzara and also me. I don't think they are exactly dramatic monologues because I don't think you are meant to believe that the previous historical voices are really speaking. I think you see the poet peeking through the mask, speaking through the voice. It's a little like a drag show where you put on different voices and costumes and they allow you to get at certain feelings and emotions. At the same time, each one tries to be as true as possible to the voice that the poet is inhabiting. The poem tries to get as close as possible to the facts of, say, Tsvetayeva's life. It tries to bring us as close as possible to her poetry, her great rapturous feelings in poetry. I don't know if we have a language for what it means to be both yourself and another in a poem. To see yourself as the vehicle for some other voice that is also your own.
All twenty-five voices together, then, would offer some kind of encyclopedic portrait of modern love. In this regard, for example, it was important for me to have a radically political thinker, such as Bertolt Brecht, in the series. It was important to represent a wildly Dionysian ethic, such as you get in D. H. Lawrence. It was important to try to articulate an incredibly witty lesbian ethic, as in Gertrude Stein. A mythical perspective, as in D. H. Lawrence. A powerfully homoerotic one with the dastardly clever Oscar Wilde. You have a strong feminist argument with the Margaret Fuller poem. A figure who's terrifically important to me in this regard is Emerson because he is such a deep devourer. Emerson believed in the transformational power of love. He was so receptive, so open to all kinds of voices and powers.
I should mention that experimentation of this sort is not, in the body of your work, a new thing.
Yes, this has always been part of my work. I value it. There have been people who have been comfortable with one aspect of my work and uncomfortable with another dimension of it. Both parts of it have always been crucial and integrated. At least they were meant to be integrated. For instance, in my first book, For the Sleepwalkers, it was important for me to have waitresses and factory workers and shopkeepers and sweatshop workers and people that I hadn't seen appear in poetry often enough. I wanted to be the vehicle of those voices. I also wanted to be true to my experience of falling in love with art itself. I didn't see any split or difficulty moving between being a waitress in Stone-falls, Arkansas, in one poem and being Paul Klee in another. It was exciting. Baudelaire speaks to this when he says that "the poet enjoys the incomparable privilege that he can, at will, be either himself or another. Like those wandering spirits that seek a body, he enters, when he likes, into the person of any man. For him alone all is vacant . . . ."
In these two distinctions, you're speaking to different voices than you're working with or from. But I can also think of several poems that are personal in a different way, for instance, the elegy "Fast Break" or the sexual epiphany poem, "The Skokie Theater."
I always felt that the "voice" poems were deceptively personal. I think the point of speaking through another voice is useful and passionate if it allows you to say things you might not otherwise get at. The virtue of this other kind of poem—where the dramatic speaker is clearly someone other than yourself—is that it allows you to get at material that you couldn't otherwise get at. It liberates you. But do you remember that Emily Dickinson said that the speaker in her poems was a supposed speaker, a supposed person? The supposed person was "me" in other poems. But I always thought that there was much heat in the poems spoken through voices as in those poems. It's true that, especially in the move from For the Sleepwalkers to Wild Gratitude, there is a change. In the later book I started to use a voice more often that was much closer to my own. I started to mine my own experience more directly. Instead of, say, speaking from the point of view of a poet that's meant a great deal to me, such as John Clare, I wrote "about" John Clare from my own perspective.
I tried in a poem called "Three Journeys" to bring together two diverse elements in my work because I felt they were getting a little schizophrenic—there were the poems that were elegiac and personal, like the memorial poem for my dear and beloved friend Dennis Turner, or the poem about a girlfriend and our first erotic encounter in "The Skokie Theater"—and these other cultural and literary interests. I wanted to unite them, as I felt they were united in me. So in the poem "Three Journeys," a speaker some version of myself, follows a bag lady through the streets of Detroit and then associates her with John Clare. The poem parallels two journeys—the journey of John Clare when he escaped from a mental hospital and walked home across England, and the journey of a homeless woman as she walked around the streets of Detroit. In the process of writing the poem, I began to feel that in some terrible way I was using the homeless woman in order to say something about the suffering of John Clare, and I began to make that also my subject, to give the homeless woman and John Clare exactly equal weight. One's sympathy needed to go out to them. One needed to approach each of them with one's full range of human response. That was the discovery. The third journey was my own. After that, I realized that it was always crucial to me to bring as much as possible to whomever one is writing about. I don't want to split off the world between those who are literary and those who are not.
Since Wild Gratitude, I've written many extremely personal poems, poems that are revealing and try to turn the knife against the self. There are also a lot of family poems in The Night Parade, and I tried to place those poems in a larger social and historical context. I wanted them to reverberate outward. I suppose I'd like my poetry to be equally personal and impersonal. There is something intimate and literary in the poems about artists; there is something objective and implacable in the family poems. Joseph Brodsky has a wonderful piece about Cavafy where he describes the two main modes of Cavafy's poetry: one, where he writes poems about fleeting, homoerotic encounters of, say, forty years ago, and two, poems about various minor historical figures some of whom he has made up, some of whom really existed. Brodsky says that the remarkable thing about Cavafy is that there is something cold and impersonal in the rapturous love poems, and something intimate and personal in the poems about minor historical figures. They have a kind of counterweight. Cavafy is a splendid model in this regard.
In For the Sleepwalkers, you have a short poem called "Little Political Poem" after Nazim Hikmet. It reads,
Tonight I saw so many windows blazing alone, almost blazing together under a single sky, under so many different skies all weaving together through so many different countries . . .
This poems "politics" are so much more subtle and ambiguous than, perhaps, the political poetry of other writers. And yet it certainly has a didactic element. What is your understanding of the relationship between poetry and politics?
The poet wants justice. And the poet wants art. In poetry we can't have one without the other. I love Nazim Hikmet, the great Turkish poet. My poem borrows and adapts one of his images. I picture a single window blazing alone—an emblem of solitary consciousness—and imagine it somehow blazing in communion with all the other singular windows. It's a daydream of unity, a poem about identity and difference, about the underlying connection, or near connection, between people. So close together, so far apart. I love the passionate openheartedness of Hikmet's work, but his communist loyalties seem terribly simplistic at this late date. We can understand how he came to them after all; he spent all those horrible years in jail.
His poem about the life of the pencil . . .
That's "Since I Was Thrown Inside," a wonderful poem. So is "Some Advice to Those Who Will Spend Time in Prison" and "On Living." He's a heartbreaking Whitmanian poet. I associate him in my mind with Miguel Hernandez, the splendid poet who ripened to full maturity during the Spanish Civil War. But Hikmet's politics also seem naive. He still believed in communism at a time when it was, perhaps, still possible to believe in it. But we all know now that he was mistaken in his faith in communism. He moved to Russia when he was released from Turkish prison and never renounced communism. His communism, like Neruda's, seems terribly misguided to me. I love the sense of brotherhood in Hikmet, and I love that same sense of brotherhood in Neruda, but I also think they should have brought a little more skepticism to political realities. I have a democratic ethos, but I'm skeptical when it comes to didactic political programs. We don't have a great political poetry in America, perhaps because American poetry is so ahistorical. We have a poor sense of history as Americans, and so we have had to look to other traditions that do have more integrated political poetries. Is it possible to have a poetry that is humanly involved, politically engaged, politically skeptical, and quests for justice?
What of Eastern European poets, particularly the Polish?
I love Polish poetry. I also love much Hungarian and Czech poetry. I hear tonalities in that poetry I don't hear in American poetry. When you read Zbigniew Herbert and Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska, you begin to feel that political engagement in American poetry is often naive. These are poets who have truly reckoned with what it means to live in the twentieth century. It seems to me that if there is any task or goal for the relationship between poetry and politics, then it's for that poetry to be engaged with what it means to live in this century. I'm thinking of a poetry that doesn't turn away from the suffering, the historical calamities, of our century. I'm struck by the fact that the great Polish poets are, in my opinion, historical poets who wanted to become metaphysical ones. They don't want to be mere "witnesses." They don't write the poetry of political "engagement" per se. Yet they can't ignore a little thing like the destruction and the occupation of their country. They're really interested in getting at the truth behind the facts. They are skeptical of all "isms." They want to investigate the nature of reality. I see a dialectic in Polish poetry between history and metaphysics, between living inside of time and outside of time. These poets are simultaneously pulled in two directions—toward the historical world and toward the transcendental one. They're compelled to register the fluctuations of change, they're interested in the stability of truth.
The dialectic that you're speaking of made me think of Milosz's series of poems "The World," written during a period of historical extremity yet focused on something beyond that horror.
Exactly. "The World" is a perverse poem. Milosz got a lot of criticism for it at the time because other poets couldn't understand how he could write about such things while the world was being destroyed. That was the point. I love the Hungarian poet, Miklos Radnoti, who came to such a terrible end. In the 1930s Radnoti published a book called In the Footsteps of Orpheus. It consists of his translations of European poetry—from Horace and Ovid to Goethe and Heine to Apollinaire. What was Radnoti doing translating this poetry while the Germans were getting ready to march into Hungary? I think he was trying to keep alive an idea of Europe at a time when Europe was becoming a site of barbarism. He was asserting the ideal of Europe as a place of civility, and he was doing so against an encroaching darkness. Sometimes translating poetry can be a brave and humane act.
It seems to me that some of the interest in the work of poets and writers like Radnoti who were, literally, martyred for the word comes out of an homage to the extremity from which these writers wrote. Writers in America won't experience anything on a similar scale . . .
Let's hope not.
. . . so they lament the lack of "depth" in their own work and try to assuage this anxiety by praising poets who have died for the word.
We have to watch that. I remember Milosz saying "You American poets would envy the hunchback his hump." We don't want to go so far as say George Steiner has gone and say that poetry flourishes under totalitarianism. I think for example of all those poets—and potential poets—who died at the hands of the Germans. I remember a debate between George Steiner and Joseph Brodsky on television. Steiner said that totalitarianism is good for poetry because poets have to find ways to circumvent it, and they rise to the occasion. But Brodsky would have none of it. He said that freedom is the most beautiful thing of all. We shouldn't forget the beauty of freedom. And we don't have to envy the hunchback his hump. There's plenty of suffering around us. We live in this century, too.
In your work of the last several years, I've seen a turn toward pursuit of the ineffable; how do you understand the relationship between poetry and religiosity, poetry and the spiritual?
The sacred is a great subject in poetry. For poetry. I am deeply interested in what you might call unauthorized testimony. It's true that in my work there has been an increasing interest in the divine, in poetry as a quest for the divine. I always loved metaphysical poetry, but as a young poet the ineffable didn't seem like my subject. I saw spiritual matters as crucial to poetry, but I didn't see the quest for transcendence as part of my own poetic project. That changed when I began to write the poems that became Earthly Measures. The figures in Earthly Measures become vehicles of an argument about transcendence. I think that Earthly Measures, as a book, is that argument about transcendence—whether this world is enough or whether we need some other world. There's a tremendous longing for some other world operating in the poems. There's also a critique of that longing. I think of the book as a kind of pilgrimage, a search for the divine. At the very end of that book it turns away from the other world toward this one. The philosophical and religious thinker who has meant a great deal to me is Simone Weft. She thinks so hard about transcendence and the quest for it. She links the quest for transcendence to the suffering of people around her. There's a tremendous social consciousness and sympathy running through her work. I was moved to poetry by two particular elements in her life and work. One is the year she worked in a factory. The other is her three mystical contacts with Christianity.
She was driven to her knees.
A thrilling experience. She had such a deep spiritual hunger. It was matched only by her formidable intellect. I wanted to see if I could dramatize those three experiences in a poem. Simone Weil's mystical contacts are the far end—one end point—of Earthly Measures. The thing that troubles me most about Weil is her hatred of the body, her turning away from earthly concerns. I don't critique that element of her in my book of poems, but I critique it insofar as it is present in myself. I love Weil's notion that unmixed attention is prayer. In the last poem of Earthly Measures, "Earthly Light," the Dutch painters of the seventeenth century are held up as a model of an art that turns not to the otherworld, but to this one.
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.
The argument in my other books has much more to do with affirmation and despair. Each book raises the question of whether or not it is still possible to affirm in spite of all the evidence. I love the statement of Roethke's that "despite the dark and drek, the muck and mire of these poems, I want to be one of the happy poets." In Wild Gratitude I make it pretty clear that I, too, want to be one of the joyous poets; I want to affirm. But I don't want to do it naively, by turning away from the sufferings of the world. The argument about affirmation and despair continues to run through The Night Parade. I see these books as journeys, as undergoings, as my own dark nights of the soul. The question of affirmation and despair takes on a religious dimension in Earthly Measures. The end of "Earthly Light" turns to earthly love, to eros. It led me to the poems of On Love.
Here we are at the end of the twentieth century; do you think that the affirmation you were pursuing is possible? Are you a "happy poet"?
Well, praise and lamentation are two of the deepest impulses in lyric poetry. The earliest poems we have—the Egyptian pyramid texts, the ancient Hebrew poems, or the earliest Greek poems—all include poems of lamentation and poems of praise. To me, the two elements go hand in hand. I wouldn't want a poetry of praise that doesn't take up the countertruth of lamentation, and I wouldn't want a poetry of lamentation that doesn't remember the gifts, to praise. Rilke says something like this in The Duino Elegies—praise walks in the land of lamentation.
Simone Weil's "gravity" and "grace."
That's a glorious way of putting it: the descent of gravity, the ascent of grace. Both things live in us. I find the impulse to praise in the earliest poems, in the great archaic poems of people everywhere, in Christopher Smart and Walt Whitman and Gerard Manley Hopkins. It's one of the deepest and strongest impulses in poetry. I'd love to be a poet of praise. So, too, the poetry of grief and lamentation is one of the deepest and most long-standing elements in poetry. The elegy is one of our necessary forms as we try to come to terms with the fact that people around us die, that we, too, will die. We need the ritual occasion, ritual making of the elegy. That dimension of poetry is fundamental. I would very much like to see myself as part of both traditions. To me, the two greatest impulses in poetry are elegy and praise. I would love to write a poetry that brings those two impulses together.
Source: Edward Hirsch with Tod Marshall, "The Question of Affirmation and Despair," in Kenyon Review, Vol. 22, No. 2, 2000, pp. 54–69.
Dennis, Carl, Poetry as Persuasion, University of Georgia Press, 2001, pp. 171–72.
Eimers, Nancy, "Edward Hirsch," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 120, American Poets since World War II, Third Series, edited by R. S. Gwynn, Gale Research, 1992, pp. 128–32.
Guillory, Daniel L., Review of Wild Gratitude, in Library Journal, Vol. 111, No. 1, January 1, 1986, pp. 88–89.
Gwynn, R. S., "Second Gear," in New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 1, Autumn 1986, pp. 113–21.
Hirsch, Edward, Wild Gratitude, Alfred A. Knopf, 1996, pp. 3–7, 10–11, 15–18, 24, 40–1, 45, 57, 63, 71.
Kunitz, Stanley, "Quinnapoxet," in The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz, W. W. Norton, 2000, pp. 190–91.
Lowell, Robert, "Skunk Hour," in Selected Poems, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998, pp. 95–96.
Roethke, Theodore, "Elegy for Jane," in The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke, Anchor Books, 1975, p. 98.
Boyle, Kevin, "An Interview with Edward Hirsch," in Chicago Review, Vol. 41, No. 1, 1995, pp. 19–28.
Boyle provides a useful interview with Hirsch in which the poet discusses topics such as the impact of his father's absence and the poets he admires.
Szatmary, Peter, "Poetic Genius," in Biblio, Vol. 4, No. 4, April 1999, p. 38.
This article provides a biographical analysis of Hirsch's career.
Whelan, David, "Poet's Winding Path Leads to a Job as a Foundation President," in Chronicle of Philanthropy, Vol. 15, No. 1, October 17, 2002.
Whelan's article discusses Hirsch's recently acquired role as the president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. It includes an overview of Hirsch's career and a brief interview with the poet.
475. Omen (See also Prophecy.)
- Amasis’ ring discarded ring turns up predicting Polycrates’ death. [Gk. Hist.: Benét, 28]
- handwriting on the wall Daniel interprets supernatural sign as Belshazzar’s doom. [O.T.: Daniel 5:25–28]
- huma oriental bird; every head over which its shadow passes was believed destined to wear a crown. [Ind. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 472]
- Ides of March 15 March; prophesied as fateful for Caesar. [Br. Lit.: Julius Caesar ]
- merrow Irish mermaid; her appearance signifies coming storms. [Irish Folklore: Briggs, 290–294]
- Mother Carey’s chickens stormy petrels; believed by sailors to be harbingers of storms. [Marine Folklore: Wheeler, 251]
- raven often presages death or catastrophe. [Animal Folklore: Jobes, 213]
- waff wraith whose appearance portends death. [Br. Folklore: Briggs, 425]
- white-winged crow bird of evil omen. [Chinese Folklore: Jobes, 388]
- Wotan’s ravens of misfortune, usually fatal. [Ger. Opera: Wagner, Götterdämmerung, Westerman, 245]
o·men / ˈōmən/ • n. an event regarded as a portent of good or evil: the ghost's appearance was an ill omen a rise in imports might be an omen of recovery. ∎ prophetic significance: the raven seemed a bird of evil omen.
Believed to be a sign or portent of some future event, occurring either as a result of some form of divination, or as an unusual or supernatural event prior to some great development or catastrophe.
(See Paranormal Signs )