100 Poems to Break Your Heart will be mistaken for an anthology. Edward Hirsch gathers poems by one hundred poets—from Czeslaw Milosz to Alfonsina Storni, William Wordsworth, Victoria Chang, Toi Derricotte, Afaa Michael Weaver, Meena Alexander—each poem, presented always entire, gets embedded in a very brief essay that’s part gloss, part background, part riff, part appreciation. A recipe not unlike this very review you read now. Hirsch does for poems in English what Stanley Burnshaw famously did for poetry in translation in The Poem Itself: he eases you into it by way of prose. Talks you into them. It’s reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s letters, the way they weave poetry into the prose, then veer back out to prose, back and forth as effortlessly as if there weren’t really a difference. You are free of course to skip the bread and go straight for the meat, but the combination—the illuminations and sensations in the mixing of Hirsch’s sensitive and learned voice with the voices of the poets he’s presenting—is almost Talmudic. In some cases, it’s as if Hirsch, acclaimed poet himself and holder of a PhD in folklore, has brought a few of the better, less deadening footnotes up from the foot of the page so that they mingle a bit more equally with the lines they annotate. Such is the case, say, in his reading of Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving but Drowning,” slipping in notes on the provenance along with interpretive illumination. Other times it’s as if Hirsch has written his own poem in prose alongside the verse, or sketched out a vivid little short story that runs in tandem with the verse. Such is the case in his essay on Apollinaire’s “The Pretty Redhead”—Hirsch tells a story of war and punctuation—or his lyric but straightforward prose poem running with Lucille Clifton’s “jasper texas 1998”: “Clifton,” he writes, “takes her gift for the demotic and applies it with furious force” and “refuses to console us.”
The book, I should say, is so personal, even as it keeps its eye on its purpose, illuminating a few poems. By personal I mean that it feels as if the ghost of a memoir is hanging around between the lines. A story the very choosing tells. This book grows, I mean to say, not only out of a recent assignment so much as a lifetime of unconsciously collecting poems about loss and heartbreak, a portion that’s as universal as it is specific for each of us. Hirsch, whose Gabriel (2014) names a lost son, has had his share; one theme in these poems is the death of a child, as in the Wordsworth piece (“Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind”) that opens the book. Personal, then, in the sense that Hirsch was driven to these poems—they chose him as much as he chose them. Grief is a signature human emotion, he writes in the introduction, and poems are “extreme human documents” that nonetheless get us through, and in that sense help us live in the sweet and ordinary in spite of—or, rather, along with—the painful and extraordinary. And that’s a clue to what this unclassifiable book may really be about: how you build a life as you read, all your life.
JESSE NATHAN: How would you describe the genre of 100 Poems to Break Your Heart? And—why break our hearts?
EDWARD HIRSCH: There’s a perception in your question, I think, that there really is no one genre to describe the kind of book I’ve tried to write here. It’s a hybrid. For one, the story behind each of these hundred poems is so steep and sorrowful—there’s something piercing at the heart of each one—that I think it breaks through any “literary” category. To cite but two examples: I don’t think you can ignore the human agony that is involved, say, in poems about lynching, such as Langston Hughes’s “Song for a Dark Girl” and Lucille Clifton’s “jasper texas 1998.” At the same time, these extreme documents are also poems. So it helps to observe the way that Hughes’s poem recasts the racist song “Dixie” as an ironic and damning refrain, and to observe how Clifton throws her voice to speak from the point of view of a murdered man’s head. My proposition is to write about each one of the poems in a way that honors its humanity while illuminating it as a creative artifact, a made thing.
My book is partly an anthology, a gathering of one hundred extraordinary poems from different countries written in the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. It is not meant to be definitive but wide-ranging and open-ended. It begins with Wordsworth’s sonnet, “Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind,” and it concludes with Meena Alexander’s dark-night-of-the-soul poem, “Krishna, 3:29 A. M.” I have a deep feeling for many poets from Latin America, such as César Vallejo (“Black Stone Lying on a White Stone”) and Alfonsina Storni (“I’m Going to Sleep”), as well as from Eastern Europe, such as the Polish poets Wislawa Szymborska (“Under One Small Star”) and Zbigniew Herbert (“Mr Cogito and the Imagination”). I have tried to cast a wide net to include personal poems that have deep historical resonance, such as Miklós Radnóti’s fragmentary war poem “The Fifth Eclogue,” and Eavan Boland’s poem about the Irish famine “Quarantine,” and Agi Mishol’s poem about a suicide bomber “Woman Martyr.” There are antiwar poems from two sides of the Gulf War, such as Dunya Mikhail’s “The War Works Hard” and Lucia Perillo’s “The Second Slaughter.” Thomas Lux’s poem “The People of the Other Village” is an oddly funny and poignant antiwar poem. It takes the laughter right out of your throat.
Formally, my book is partly a book of criticism and close reading—I home down on each poem and try to unpack its mechanisms, to see how it works. Some of the poets work in prescribed forms, such as Natasha Trethewey’s “Graveyard Blues,” which is a both a blues poem and a sonnet, and Toi Derricotte’s poem about sexual abuse “Pantoum for the Broken,” while others work in nonce forms shadowed by other formats, such as Garrett Hongo’s “Mendocino Rose,” which is an American type of the itinerary poem, and Victoria Chang’s “Obit [The Blue Dress],” which harnesses and breaks the common obituary script. I try to tell the story behind each poem too, in a way that seems meaningful and relevant. My goal is to be present to each poem as a person, a poet, a reader, a literary critic, and a scholar—that pretty much chalks in my priority of position.
I have tried to write a book that would be deeply heartening to read. I know this is a somewhat odd thing to say about a book that gathers together one hundred heartbreaking poems. But I myself have been fortified by the courage and example of these poems, and I have tried to write about them in a way that encourages us in discouraging times. I think these poems have a dignity of purpose. They teach us to honor our losses and cherish our lives.
It is possible that I am going against the grain here. American culture is very forward looking, very propulsive, and many people just want to hurry over their losses and get on with it. But the people and things we care about matter deeply to us, and poetry tries to rescue them from oblivion. So many poems are memorial poems, testaments to what is passing and past. Lamentation is one of the deepest impulses in poetry, and pinpointing our sorrows enables us to come to terms with them. I have been vastly enriched by poems that give names to experiences that would be otherwise hard to fathom or understand. These urgent poems have been necessary to me, and I hope to share them in ways that are meaningful to others. I share Wallace Stevens’s idea that the sound of the words helps us to live our lives. I believe that these hundred poems not only break your heart; they also help to heal it.