The Living Fire
by Edward Hirsch (2010)
Knopf (2010)
256 pp

I have been acquiring more and more books of poetry in the last year. When I was an undergrad, I read new poetry frequently and with a lot of joy. Why is it that that is such a popular age for people to get into poetry? Or is that just my impression? Anyway, when I moved on, I moved away from poetry. This was not by design. I think I just stopped buying them and then felt I didn’t know what was going on any more. Now, sadly, I feel I don’t know what to say when I encounter poetry, but there are quite a few recently published books of poetry that I think deserve attention. Since I’m still trying to figure out how to approach Anne Carson’s Nox, let me give poetry a shot with this recent collection of Edward Hirsch’s poetry The Living Fire — indeed, this is Hirsch’s first selected collection, and I think it will be an American poetry essential.

Though I drifted away from poetry, Edward Hirsch has been writing it for long enough that I already knew his work. Also, as a prolific writer not just of poetry but also about poetry — for The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The New York Review of Books, and most frequently (that is, weekly — but, alas, no longer) The Washington Post Book World — he is well known (relatively) by many who do not read poetry. I believe Hirsch’s ability to write broadly to a general audience finds its way into his poetry, which I find very approachable, though not simple.

This compilation pulls out selected poems from all of Hirsch’s past books, for better or for worse. On the one hand, these compilations detach poems from their original arc, if there was one, and makes them sit in unfamiliar company. On the other hand, such a compilation is great for those of us who probably wouldn’t go back and purchase all of Hirsch’s poetry from the last thirty-five years. This gives us some taste, and hopefully allows his poetry to be appreciated across a broader range of readers. Were it not for this book, and for Knopf’s review copy, I would probably never have gotten Hirsch’s poems in their original collections anyway, reading them instead one here and one there, all alone.

The Living Fire begins with thirteen new poems. I like the first poem in the book, “The Beginning of Poetry”:

Railroad tracks split the campus in half
and at night you’d like on your narrow cot
and listen to the lonely whistle
of a train crossing the prairie in the dark.

It’s a highly readable poem, one which evokes quite a bit in me. I’ve spoken of my undergrad years above. Well, for three of those years I lived in a small, second-story flat that sat about 15 feet from the train tracks. I loved hearing the train coming from far away, and it shook whole building when it went by. I wrote quite a bit about that train and those tracks. Little did I know just how common such behavior is!

I think one of Hirsch’s strengths is linking a mood or a yearning with a place or a very simple action. The next new poem is “On the Anniversary of Joseph Brodsky’s Death.” It opens with the “briny cold” of Archangelsk, a city in Northern Russia. He speaks of the “Arctic chill of the moon at midday” when “the sun shivered behind the smokestacks / Like a soldier frozen in place.” After this chilly opening, where one can practically taste the salt while shivering — all of which fits with my own preconception of such a northern city — Hirsch briefly speaks of Brodsky’s subjects in language that calls to mind the Cold War exile Brodsky suffered.

I’m not a fan, however, of all of the new poems in this collection. There’s one poem in particular that shows Hirsch’s genius and some of his weaknesses, which, if they are there at all, tend to be the result of some experimentation that didn’t quite land. The poem I have in mind is the linguistically playful thirty-part haiku cycle “Dark Tour.” Each part, except for two, is titled after some European city. The haiku themselves take their content from and play with the city’s name and form while they give a necessarily brief image of the city itself and (it’s incredible how he does this in just seventeen syllables) his own time in the city with a lover. The poem begins and ends with the city which is not located in Europe: “Concord.”

1. Concord

A discordant day
in the library leafing
through an old atlas.

The final haiku, also “Concord,” follows this haiku:

29. Salzburg

Chords of music, chords
of light in the salt castle.
Unexpected joy.

I think that all works very nicely, and there are some wonderfully playful and startling haiku in the cycle. But then there are the ones that didn’t quite work for me due to the force sometimes required to make the individual haiku come together:

7. Budapest

No sight of Buddha
but a history of pest-
ilence and beauty.

And this one:

11. Madrid

Mad at each other
in a romantic city.
Love got rid of us.

It’s not terrible, surely, but I think “Love got rid of us” is a stretch, a bit too obvious in its derivation from “Madrid,” and while it makes sense I don’t think it’s meaningful or poetic. Especially in relation to the other haiku, I found it a rather clumsy metrical phrase that throws off the rhythm. That may have been the point — the throwing off of the otherwise lovely rhythm; it just doesn’t feel good to me. Fortunately, the thirty-part cycle is mostly filled with pleasure, including this one which feels like it could have been written by Bash¯o:

27. Lucerne

Two things startled me:
the mountains over the lake,
your body at dawn.

By the way, this is a bit off the subject of Hirsch, but I would like to say that one of my favorite books of poetry is the $3 Dover Thrift edition of Classic Haiku. I immersed myself in that book, and this cycle, while not all to my taste, reminded me of the pleasures in this highly formal poetry.

Back to Hirsch; back to The Living Fire. Once we get past the new poetry, which is for the most part a pleasure, we go back to For the Sleepwalkers, Hirsch’s debut collection published in 1981. There we find the line “The weak survive!” in “Song Against Natural Selection,” which wraps up with the terrible beauty in which

losing itself becomes a kind
of song, our song, our only witness
to the way we die, one day at a time;
a leg severed, a word buried; this
is how we recognize ourselves, and why.

I think this is a good time to bring up another thought on Hirsch, just how well he meshes the melancholy with the sublime. Many of his poems are filled with some kind of mourning that is cast as a type of praising or joy. It can all go to that first poem in the collection where one almost basks in the loneliness of that lonely train crossing the prairie. To me, it’s like reading an Edward Hopper painting. (Full disclosure, I may have thought of that connection only because one of the poems in this collection is “Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad (1925)” — there’s that house on the railroad). To be able to put that into words is a kind of joyful fulfillment. I found, also, that being able to read that is a joyful fulfillment.

We have to drink the stupefying cup of darkness
and wake up to ourselves, nourished and surprised.

Now, I found this collection to be wonderful, just the kind of book of poetry I wanted. But I had the immense pleasure of reading a free copy. This book, as a hardcover, is priced at $27; that’s more than most new novels. Rest assured that this collection is also better than most new novels. In fact, it often left me feeling similar to how I felt when I was reading William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, one of my favorite books, though I can’t even say what that feeling is — some loneliness that feels like bliss, or something. It might be hard for those of us who already spend a lot of money and a lot of time in our attempts to read read read all the wonderful novels out there, but this book is worth the price.

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By |2016-06-10T17:00:05-04:00June 8th, 2010|Categories: Book Reviews, Edward Hirsch|Tags: , , |11 Comments


  1. Lee Monks June 8, 2010 at 3:38 am

    Trevor, I too am way behind with poetry, for similar nebulous reasonings. I’ve just bought the collected Wallace Stevens and WH Auden and – oddly – have just read The Haiku Of Basho (sounds like a ne-er do well ruffian schoolkid) not two days ago, which was both wonderful and puzzling, a good combo at any time. Don Paterson, though, is someone I’ve kept up with, if only because various culture bods continually namecheck the chap whenever it comes to ‘Summer’ or ‘Winter’ read suggestion round-ups.

    On the price of poetry: indeed. Many a time of late my attempts to rekindle a poetry dalliance have been negated by intimidating, prohibitive cost. I totally understand it, and I’m more than happy to send a few quid the way of the garret-ensconced pauper glacially scratching out sublime fragments etc. But 12 sheets for a 42 page book? It just does not compute! I then scurry along to a new novel that costs half that and that wouldn’t easily slide under my door with room to spare and go that way instead!

  2. Max Cairnduff June 8, 2010 at 9:48 am

    Technically a haiku should include seasonal references I thought – not just a set number of syllables. On that basis I’m not sure either 7 or 11 count, though I’m probably being overpedantic.

    The first and last poems I thought had some impact, I could see what appealed there. The haiku didn’t seem nearly as good though I grant when put together as part of the larger poem they’re part of they may work better.

    The Poems of the Late T’Ang book I’ve got recently from NYRB has a fascinating essay in the front incidentally on the difficulties of translating poetry. I suspect it would interest you Trevor.

  3. Trevor June 8, 2010 at 10:48 am

    Lee, I hear you. I used to spend $15 on a new book of poetry and read it that evening, sometimes happily and sometimes not so happily. Still, it felt like a high price for a short work. This book, thankfully, is quite full.

    Max, I don’t think a haiku needs to have seasonal references by rule or even by tradition, though it often does. The masters wrote about anything striking their fancy, often, as Lee mentions, with shocking puerility. I both liked and disliked the haiku cycle: on the one hand, he gave himself two formal elements in the haiku and in the city’s name as well as two substantive elements in the city’s history and the love affair. On the other, it often felt forced to get all of these elements to come together. Still, impressive and admirable.

    Also, thanks for the recommendation of an NYRB book I hadn’t really considered. The essay alone sounds like it’s worth looking into.

  4. Lee Monks June 9, 2010 at 6:09 am

    Quick question, Trevor: who is considered the greatest US poet over there?

  5. Trevor June 9, 2010 at 11:28 am

    My not so quick response, Lee:

    I assume you mean contemporary, right? If so, you’ve got me there. I don’t follow it much now, and even when I was I probably knew next to nothing.

    The most popular poet for a while in the early 2000s was Billy Collins. I really admired him, but now his poems kind of all sound the same to me, particularly those after Picnic, Lightning, which I loved and reviewed here. I also used to really like Stephen Dunn, and highly recommend his Pulitzer-winning Different Hours. I also remember really like Carl Dennis’s Pulitzer-winning Practical Gods. I haven’t read any of the award-winning collections since then, 2002 or 2003, I believe. I know last year’s Pulitzer-winner W.S. Merwin is highly esteemed and has been established for some time (he won his other Pulitzer in 1971; his first book of poetry was published in 1952 by the Yale Younger Poets Series, selected by W.H. Auden), but I haven’t read much of his work, mostly only what appears now and then in The New Yorker. I frequently like Louise Gluck’s poetry, though I never quite got on with her Pulitzer-winner The Wild Iris. I also really like Mary Oliver and can recommend her Pulitzer-winner American Primitive.

    As you can see, all of those (except Billy Collins) I came to know only because they won a Pulitzer. So that shows how limited my knowledge of poetry is, just how narrow the path I’ve sometimes wander down is. I know that Matthew and Michael Dickman, twins, are considered up and coming. How do I know that? They were the subject of an excellent feature in The New Yorker in April 2009. Another young poet who was highly regarded (but whom I never got on with; I met him once and found him incredibly talented, so good with words, but I never really liked what he wrote) was Craig Arnold; unfortunately, he died a year ago while walking around a volcano in Japan. Going back to Merwin, Arnold was selected by Merwin in 1999 as the winner of the Yale Younger Poets series.

    You know, I really enjoy this stuff. It’s that cost problem that stops me from going and buying a few Merwin books right now. I am glad I got this Edward Hirsch collection. It would have been worth the price, had I paid it. I suspect Merwin’s 2005 Migration: New and Selected Poems — 570 pages — is worth the price too.

    As for who is the best American poet, I’d love to get other perspectives. I am such a dabbler here.

  6. Lee Monks June 9, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    Thank you for your measured response, Trevor, and there’s a few names there for me to be going on with. I’m even less of a dabbler it must be said! I’m a dilettante dabbler, if you will. But I’m going to buy the Merwin right now, and feel marginally more up to speed for doing so!

    I guess looking backward, we’re talking Carlos Williams, Stevens, Penn Warren, Frost, Dickinson? How are Carver’s poems thought of if you don’t mind my continual questioning on this?

  7. Trevor June 9, 2010 at 4:08 pm

    That’s a great backlist, Lee. I love and try to read frequently Stevens and Dickinson, though I also love Frost and Carlos Williams. Frost, I’m saddened, is too often discounted as a fluffy popular poet, but one of the best things about his poety is the ambiguity and the darkness. We’ve made him too omnipresent on greeting cards, so few people pay attention to the irony in his poems. It drives me crazy how people misinterpret “The Road Not Taken.” I’m not that familiar with Penn Warren’s poetry, though I know it is highly regarded.

    I’d supplement your list by adding Frank O’Hara, Marianne Moore, Carl Sandburg — and don’t forget Walt Whitman if you’re going back as far as Dickinson.

    I’m afraid I know nothing about Carver’s poetry. I’m not sure how well he is received in those circles. Since the focus is largely on his short stories (my guess is that this is rightly so), I’m afraid I haven’t even been interested in his poetry. It’s probably good but pales in comparison to his prose.

    Finally, I neglected to mention the poet many might consider the best in America right now: John Ashbery. That could have been the short answer you intimated in your quick question above.

  8. Lee Monks June 10, 2010 at 8:19 am

    Of course, Ashberry. I think the World Cup has addled my mind.

    I’ve always loved Robert Frost, no doubt at an advantageous remove re: his being ordained as the greeting card go-to guy.

    And Walt Whitman is magnificent – Leaves Of Grass is incredible. Though whenever I think of Whitman, I automatically think of Ginsberg (go figure). I do love Howl – now you’ll tell me it’s derided in America!

    Is that the same Frank O’Hara that wrote Butterfield 8 and Appointment In Samarra?

    Charles Simic is tremendous, though I’m sure you’ve already encountered his poetry.

  9. Trevor June 10, 2010 at 11:04 am

    I think the Whitman/Ginsberg connection is entirely appropriate, Lee. I’m not sure if was conscious or not, but Howl, to me — and others who showed me :) — is very much a reprise of Leave of Grass. Incidentally, going back to the Dickman twins, The New Yorker‘s feature on them includes one anecdote where Matthew has a few evenings with Ginsberg, tells him he will not sleep with him, but where they do kiss for fifteen minutes. The Dickman twins, to me, are the heirs to several parts of American poetry. I think they’ll soon be better known.

    As for Frank O’Hara, you’re mixing him up with John O’Hara. To my knowledge, there is no connection.

    As for Simic, you should not be too sure of anything when it comes to me and poetry, except that I am no more than a dabbler here and there. I’ve “encountered” Simic’s work, true, but that is about all, and that mostly only because he was the previous Poet Laureate here and I looked at some of his work when he was appointed (incidentally, the current Poet Laureate here is Kay Ryan, and I’m completely unfamiliar with her work, so I haven’t even been faithful in skimming the work of the Poet Laureate).

  10. Lee Monks June 10, 2010 at 3:35 pm

    Great story: I will keep an eye on the Dickman twins for sure.

    JOHN O’Hara! Of course. Doh indeed.

  11. Shelley June 10, 2010 at 10:50 pm

    Frost and Dickinson for me.

    Here is some more prairie, if you’d like to try it.

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