Edward Hirsch's poems weave a common, unspoken thread. It's there in the ethereal language of each of his poems, and those poems cover swathes of ground in terms of subject matter. His topics, ranging from basketball to Orpheus to World War II, lay open like a quilt of his influences. They reside in a continual dreamy firmament of human existence—that hovering cloud where each poem is forged.
Edward Hirsch is the author of six books of poetry, along with several works of non-fiction, including the self-explanatory bestseller, How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry. He holds a laundry list of achievements: a National Book Critics Circle Award for his collection Wild Gratitude; a Guggenheim Fellowship; has been published across the literary circuit; the list goes on. But what is so important about his poetry has little to do with awards and the recognition he’s received (though it’s all well-deserved). What makes his writing important is his striking ability to be familiar, yet imaginatively new. Literary critic Harold Bloom commented on Hirsch’s collection Earthly Measures that Hirsch’s voice is “uncannily his own; uncanny because we believe we have heard it before, yet the accents are unearthly and utterly fresh.”
The thing that Edward Hirsch does best in his poems is stitch the dirt to the air, combining the tangible and universal with the surreal. His poem “Four A.M.,” from Earthly Measures, extracts the raw blood of the moment, of being awake and alive with everything surrounding draped in night. And while describing this dreadful, lonely hour, Hirsch pulls the reader into his dreamy undercurrent with lines like “Necklace of shattered constellations:/soon the stars will be extinguished.” The juxtaposition of specific images with the abstractness of the heavy night kneads on the reader’s gut. We know this feeling he’s painting, but the way the brushstrokes fall allow for newborn perspective.
As all poets should be, Edward Hirsch is obviously in love with the music of language. From his second collection, the poem “Excuses” resounds with unsteady jazz. Starting with the sentence “If only I could begin to sift through the smoke/rising from the wet streets to your small room//above the warehouse,” Hirsch builds on a refrain of “If only’s,” then breaks free of the refrain, soloing down the page with “It’s the way the wind rearranges//the puddles after a storm, the trees hang/upside down in the water, and no starlings call.” The richness of his words—both the image they convey and the sound they make—allow the poem to become a rhythmic, stark, meandering song of its own.
These are only two examples among many. When a lover of poetry turns the page in any of Hirsch’s collections, he or she is bound to be confronted with the consistent joy of imaginative poetry. There a mysterious pull in Hirsch’s words, knotting the abstract universe to the gut of human experience. He strums the unexpected chords, but in native progressions, guiding us through his cloud—his musing workshop—and into unknown dreams.