Trouble in Mind: A Backhanded Appreciation of Edward Hirsch

Cover Art: Demon and the AngelMy feelings about the poetry of Edward Hirsch are troublesome to me. They’re similar, I think, to my feelings about gin and French cinema–I like the idea a good deal more than the reality. This is not to say I don’t appreciate his work; I do. When I read him, I admire his skill and his touch, the complexity of feeling and thought, and the way each poem seems to know and take its place in relation to all poems that have gone before. But I rarely get that high, white hum reading him--that feeling that the world is going to be a very different place when I lift my eyes from the page. Again, this is not a condemnation of Hirsch’s work; It is, after all, a matter of personal tastes and it’s likely that whatever it is that I tend to look for in a poem, is not Cover Art: How to Read a Poemsomething that Hirsch finds crucial to his project.

Heaven knows, I harbor deep distaste for the work of other, more celebrated poets than Ed Hirsch , and don’t have a qualm about writing those feelings on the walls of the temple, but with Hirsch, I feel like a bad son for even thinking these thoughts. The reason I feel this way is that I admire him a great deal: as a teacher, and for his central role in making the University of Houston graduate creative writing program one of the best, most rigorous MFA/PhD schools of its kind, but mostly I admire him for his tireless stumping for the transformative power of poetry–a task he goes about with the zeal of a true believer. 

Hirsch doesn’t espouse the “broccoli theory” of poetry that so many of our teachers have, that is: we should read poetry because it is good for us. Instead, he believes we should read poetry because it makes us better—better world-citizens, better husbands and wives, better daughters and sons, better human beings. And there is no one better at communicating the immense and varied pleasures of reading a well-made poem.

Cover Art: Poetry in MotionHirsch's book, How to Read a Poem: and Fall in Love with Poetry, was a New York Times bestseller and shows him at his tub-thumping best. You may not "fall in love with poetry," as a result of reading it, but it won't be because Ed didn't kick out all the stops.

And of course, I encourage you to read his poetry for yourself. Harris County Public Library owns several of his collections including Earthly Measures, For the Sleepwalkers, and Lay Back in Darkness.

Also of interest:Poetry in Motion from Coast to Coast: One Hundred and Twenty Poems from the Subways and Buses, and The Demon and the Angel: In Search of Artistic Inspiration.