Interview with Edward Hirsch, author of Poet's Choice
Q: With a career in poetry studies that spans forty years, you have examined and enjoyed the works of poets from all over the world and all walks of life. Is there a common thread of character or circumstance that leads a person to create poetry?
A: A poet is a maker and a poem is a made thing. There is a fundamental human need to make things, to create works that stand beyond us. Poets express that need. I think that poetry is a calling, a vocation. Poets come from all walks of life, and poetry itself doesn’t belong to anyone. So, too, people write poetry for all different kinds of reasons (money isn’t one of them!), but I have never known a poet who didn’t feel things deeply and want to work in the language. Words matter. A poet is a language worker.
Q: One of the early chapters in Poet’s Choice is dedicated to poetry inspired by the nightingale. In this section you reference writer William Maxwell who stated, “Learning how to sing like nightingales in treetops ought to be a requirement for poets.” What is it about the nightingale’s song that speaks to the heart of so many talented poets? Is the nightingale’s voice so different from the songs of other birds or is this inspiration more metaphorical?
A: Poets love birdsong. The nightingale has a wonderful liquid song, but over the centuries poets have also identified with cuckoos and mockingbirds, crows and owls, herons and seagulls. They have also noted their difference from us. They have watched them in backyards, followed them into the woods, and tracked them down to the seashore. They have treated birds as messengers to and from the beyond, the very embodiment of a transcendent vocation.
The nightingale has a particularly poignant song. It is a bird that has also been, as Jorge Luis Borges puts it, “encrusted with mythology.” For example, the tale of Philomela, that poor ravaged girl who had her tongue cut out and was changed into a nightingale, reverberates through all of Greco-Roman literature. Anyone who writes about the nightingale also enters into the stream of all the other poets who have sung about this “siren of the forest” (El Marino). The inspiration is literal and metaphorical, natural and literary.
Q: With millions of books and millions of poems to read, how do you personally manage time to maintain and improve on your encyclopedic knowledge of poetic literature? Do you ever have the time or inclination to read about other more corporeal events?
A: I read poetry because I love it. I simply couldn’t live without it—or wouldn’t want to. I don’t feel any particular urge to “improve” myself by reading. I just follow my interests. It does seem to me natural to want to find out what poets around the world are up to, and then to share my findings with others. Of course, I also read lots of other things—collections of short stories and letters, novels, biographical texts—but poetry is bedrock for me. The question for me is how does one have time to do anything else besides reading? Life keeps getting in the way.
Q: Poet’s Choice is an expanded compilation of your immensely popular “Poet’s Choice” columns written for the Washington Post Book World. When you wrote each column, what was your goal—educating those unaware of the incredible breadth of poetry, or sharing new works with those already intrigued by this most creative writing style?
A: I write for both initiated and uninitiated readers of poetry. I like to spread the word. Different columns served different purposes. I am by temperament an appreciator. I like to introduce a poem and say what intrigues me about it. My notion was to make links and connections, to bring forward unknown poets, and to help people to think about poetry in a somewhat deeper way. It seemed to work.
Q: Do you think Poet’s Choice is best utilized as a teaching tool, as a historical view of poetry, or as a multipurpose reference book?
A: I think it’s a book for readers. It’s meant to give pleasure. I hope it helps to remind people how poetry can help us to see, feel, and think. I think it can also serve as a reference book, since there are so many poets represented, and as a somewhat sporadic guide to poetry across the centuries, and as a work for teachers. But it’s not meant to be a textbook. It’s a love manual. The goal is the individual reader.
Q: Can a person learn to write poetry or is it an inherent talent that must be present and nurtured?
A: Who knows? Poetry is a deep inner calling in people, and creativity is a mystery. I do think that the gift can be nurtured and passed on. There’s so much to teach about poetry, so much to learn, that it can never be exhausted. Part of the art is unconscious (and that part can’t be taught) and part of the art is conscious (and that part can be taught quite well).
Q: If you were to advise budding poets to embrace only one skill or perspective, what would it be?
A: I wouldn’t advise poets to embrace only one skill or perspective. But if you put me up against the wall and forced me to give advice, I’d say that there has never been a great poet who wasn’t also a great reader of poetry.
Q: In your Acknowledgments you state that the response to the “Poet’s Choice” column after September 11, clearly shows that “poetry sustains us in hard times.” Does poetry lose its wide-ranging appeal in a more prosperous or socially positive environment? If so, why?
A: Poetry never loses its appeal. Sometimes its audience wanes and sometimes it swells like a wave. But the essential mystery of being human is always going to engage and compel us. We’re involved in a mystery. Poetry uses words to put us in touch with that mystery. We’re always going to need it.