Poet Edward Hirsch Under the Microscope The poet discusses how his new book, Special Orders, is one long poem in and of itself. He also discusses memory and loss.
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Poet Edward Hirsch Under the Microscope

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Poet Edward Hirsch Under the Microscope

Poet Edward Hirsch Under the Microscope

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Writer Edward Hirsch has a new book of poetry out. It's called "Special Orders," and here's the title poem:

Mr. EDWARD HIRSCH (Poet, "Special Orders"): Give me back my father walking the halls of Wertheimer Box and Paper Company with sawdust clinging to his shoes. Give me back his tape measure and his keys, his drafting pencil and his order forms. Give me his daydreams on lined paper.

I don't understand this uncontainable grief. Whatever you had that never fit, whatever else you needed, believe me, my father, who wanted your business, would squat down at your side and sketch you a container for it.

SEABROOK: That's the first poem in Edward Hirsch's new book. He's joining us from Iowa. Edward Hirsch, that poem has - it's a longing for that memory of your father, isn't it?

Mr. HIRSCH: Very much so. It's a grief that you can't quite recover from and you want your father - I mean, it's really very bold, I think, and bald in a way, just give me back my father. The longing for a father that you can't have back is really what the poem is about.

Of course, behind this poem in particular is the idea that you have an uncontainable grief over the loss of your father and the one person who could assuage it, the one who made boxes is the one who's not there, because it's an elegy for him.

SEABROOK: And that seems to be the theme, or one of the themes, in this book, at least the beginning of the book, is memories and longing for people who are gone. Your father's in several of them, there's a couple of poems about your youth that seem to have that longing and then for your grandfather.

Mr. HIRSCH: It's very much a book - I mean, I think it's a book of late middle age. It's a book of really coming to terms with your past. And a lot of the book is in relationship to other people. And people have meant a lot to me and there's a lot of, I guess, a sense of loss and mourning for them and for the relationship you had with them.

SEABROOK: In another part of the book, a little bit later than the memories, you seem to be taking a hard look at yourself in the mirror. There are two different poems where you describe the aging of your face. There's another piece called "A Partial History of My Stupidity."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HIRSCH: Yeah, well, you get to be a certain age, you can't write the full history. You can only write a partial history.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: You know there's more to come, huh?

Mr. HIRSCH: Yes. More to do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HIRSCH: This is a book, especially in the first section but really throughout the book, it's really a book of what means to be ruthless self-examination. There's a sort of relentless quality about it. But I really wanted to put my life under the microscope and really look at it without sentimentality in as clear-eyed a way as possible.

SEABROOK: Read "Self Portrait," would you?

Mr. HIRSCH: My pleasure.

I live between my heart and my head, like a married couple who can't get along. I live between my left arm, which is swift and sinister, and my right, which is righteous. I live between a laugh and a scowl and voted against myself, a two-party system. My left leg dawdled or danced along, my right cleaved to the straight and narrow.

My left shoulder was like a stripper on vacation, my right stood upright as a Roman soldier. Let's just say that my left side was the organ donor and leave my private parts alone. But as for my eyes, which are two shades of brown, well, Dionysus meet Apollo.

Look at Eve raising her left eyebrow while Adam puts his right foot down. No one expected it to survive but divorce seemed out of the question. I suppose my left hand and my right hand will be clasped over my chest in the coffin and I'll be reconciled at last. I'll be whole again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HIRSCH: I think it's funny too. I'm glad you...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: I do think it's funny.

Mr. HIRSCH: Sort of grimly funny.


Mr. HIRSCH: It's a kind of black humor, but I think it's funny.

SEABROOK: But, you know, it's so personal and so universal. Oh my God, who hasn't had the experience of being completely split in two?

Mr. HIRSCH: Well, thank you for saying so. I mean, I thought of it as, you know, it's a self portrait. I thought of it as a completely personal poem, but I've had a wonderful experience with different readers who have identified with it. And it turns out everyone seems to have this experience of being completely riven between your heart or your passions and your mind and your reason.

SEABROOK: I mean, that right there is the basic guts of human experience, I think.

Mr. HIRSCH: That's what you're trying to get at. I mean, that's what you're trying to get at in poetry is to write, you know, get down as far as you can viscerally to where your own obsessions are and also hope they're also the obsessions of other people and really get at what is most essential using your own experience but what is most essential about human experience.

SEABROOK: We should say this book of poetry is split in two parts as well. The first is called "More than Halfway." And everything that you've read so far in this interview comes from the first part. And if I'm reading this correctly it's about being middle-aged and looking back on your life.

Mr. HIRSCH: Yes. And I see where you're going, which is the first part, which is "More than Halfway," takes its lead from - takes its title from some lines, which is, "I am more halfway to the grave but I'm not half the man I'd meant to become." And then the second part is called "To The Clearing," and it is really, means to go to green fields, to clear spaces, to walking up staircases into the air. And it's meant to also capture some of the joy of life and sort of the movement of life and sort of the movement towards clearings and open fields.

SEABROOK: Those lines, "To The Clearing," which is the title of the second half of the book, come from the poem "Green Couch."

Mr. HIRSCH: Yes. The poem is based on a green couch. You know, and it's a real couch that I inherited from my grandmother. And the poem in a weird way gives you a kind of geography of my life because I took the couch everywhere. So you can sort of see all the cities that I lived in. And I take it with me, and, you know, there's so much experience in it.

And I find there's something, to me, devastating in the line where it will now be carted away to the dump.


Mr. HIRSCH: I mean, it's really brutal 'cause this couch has a kind of life. On the other hand, there is meant to be something also liberating.

SEABROOK: All that baggage, God.

Mr. HIRSCH: All that baggage...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HIRSCH: ...all that life. You're leaving it behind in a certain kind of way.

SEABROOK: I hope our listeners get a picture - this book of poems is not your average hodgepodge of some poet's work. This is a work in itself. It's got a narrative. And you are the main character and you change over time.

Mr. HIRSCH: You know, Robert Frost said if there are 29 poems in a book then you want the book itself to be the 30th poem. And I really wanted the book to have a kind of unity and to really be a journey, a pilgrimage, a movement. I mean, I'm the main character but I am a kind of character in it, and that you'd really move through the book, through the various stages of a person's life and a person sort of coming to terms with his life.

SEABROOK: And you get to the last poem that leaves the reader with this image of you swimming in cold salty water, and your soul kind of taking flight over that water. I think you end in almost a spiritual note.

Mr. HIRSCH: Very much so. I mean, you end with a kind of, I mean, you're like a penitent going down to the water as you hear in the poem and it's a kind of cleansing. I think there's a religious element or aura that you're picking up without any faith. There is a religious quest, and that's one of the reasons that I wanted the feeling that your hands parting the water at the end of this poem have a sense of praying. And the wind pressing at you is a kind of physical journey.

And their wings and your soul is floating over the waves, and I think that's really the end of the poems and the end of the book.

SEABROOK: Could you read that poem for us? It's titled "After a Long Insomniac Night."

Mr. HIRSCH: I walk down to the sea in the early morning after a long insomniac night. I climbed over the giant gull-colored rocks and moved past the trees. Tall dancers stretching their limbs and warming up in the blue light. I entered the salty water, a penitent whose body was stained, and swam toward a red star rising in the east - regal, purple-robed.

One shore disappeared behind me and another beckoned. I confess that I forgot the person I had been as easily as the clouds drifting overhead. My hands parted the water, the wind pressed at my back, wings and my soul floated over the white-capped waves.

SEABROOK: I came away from that poem and the book itself refreshed with the cold sea water somehow.

Mr. HIRSCH: Well, thank you for saying so. That was really the idea of the journey. That by the end you're going into the water by yourself and it is a kind of - you're sort of shedding everything that's come before. I mean, no strange lines but they're meant to be true.

I confess that I forgot the person I had been as easily as the clouds drifting overhead. You're giving up your past and it's just you alone in the cold water. And it's really meant to be a kind of refreshment.

SEABROOK: Edward Hirsch, thanks very much for speaking and reading for us.

Mr. HIRSCH: Thank you so much for having me on, and also thank you for your deep reading of my book.

SEABROOK: Edward Hirsch is an award-winning poet and he's the president of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. His latest book of poetry is titled "Special Orders." If you'd like to hear Edward Hirsch read more of his new poems, go to our Web site, NPR.org.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: Our parting words tonight come from the British poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley. In 1821 he wrote, poetry is a sword of lightning, even unsheathed, which consumes the scabbard that would contain it.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: And that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook. Have a great week.

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