Our good friend, poet Ilya Kaminsky, knows contemporary poetry like no one else. We’re proud to be publishing his mini-reviews and one-question interviews with poets we admire.

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Nearly every poem in Hirsch’s elegiac and beautiful collection, Stranger by Night, is one-sentence long — a sentence given to the loved one who’s lost. Formally, the book feels like one poem-sequence, one whole. In the time of COVID and Zoom funerals, many people will relate to “No more undertakers in black suits / clutching handkerchiefs” — the imagery of one being intimately alone with grief, and yet at a distance. Herein Hirsch writes movingly about the loss of vision, something that becomes a statement on all kinds of loss, but also an astonishing discovery of what grief might reveal. As he writes, eulogizing the poet William Meredith: “imagine him / standing at the bottom / of an empty well, / raising a broken arm / in darkness / and calling out.” This is a brilliant and very wise book.

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QUESTION: What is the relationship between mourning and language for you? The conversation with poets across time and space is very much part of your poetics’ DNA. It makes me think of Auden’s statement that a poet’s art is the chief means of breaking bread with the dead. So, a question: In what kind of language does one speak to the dead? In a time of crisis, what kind of language makes such a conversation possible?

EDWARD HIRSCH: Thanks, Ilya, for your astute observations. I’m not sure I’m wise enough to answer your question.

Sometimes I feel as if I’ve been lost in an underground mine — so much of grief is raw, foggy, undifferentiated — and poetry is a lamp that I stumbled over on the ground. It may not rescue me — I’m not sure it can — but it helps to light the way.

We live in a culture that is uncomfortable and even intolerant of sorrow. That doesn’t help people who feel stymied and overwhelmed by sadness and grief. I believe that poetry can help us with grief work, or what Freud calls “the work of mourning.” That’s because implicit in poetry is the idea that we are deepened by heartbreaks, by the recognition and understanding of suffering — not just our own suffering, but also the suffering of others.

We are not diminished but enlarged by grief, by our refusal to vanish, or to let others vanish, without leaving a verbal record. We need poetry to help us transform the oceanic depths of feeling into art. Poetry rises out of one solitude to meet another in recognition and connection. It companions us.

And, yes, poetry is connected to contemporary life, but it’s also always connected to other poetry. We need an archive of eloquence and response. We can only use the living language, the one we have, the one we need, to connect to each other, to translate the inarticulate, and wake the dead. It’s related to the way we speak now, but I hope it can be homed in such a way that it compresses deep feeling and unruly thought. At the same time, poetry is dialogue and quotation. I share Ezra Pound’s fantasy that “all poets are contemporaneous,” and I often call on other poets from long ago, different times, different cultures, to help me to live my life. I find it hard to understand why we don’t avail ourselves of the depths of those who have come before us. We live to have our hearts broken and restored. The language of poetry, poetry everywhere, deepens our experience and widens our understanding. In a time of crisis, as in other times, we still need poetry to enrich and enthrall us.