edward hirsch

Implicit in poetry is the notion that we are deepened by heartbreaks, that we are not so much diminished as enlarged by grief, by our refusal to vanish — to let others vanish — without leaving a verbal record. Poetry is a stubborn art.
—  Edward Hirsch

Poetry: An inexplicable (though not incomprehensible) event in language; an experience through words. Jorge Luis Borges believed that “poetry is something that cannot be defined without oversimplifying it. It would be like attempting to define the color yellow, love, the fall of leaves in autumn.” Even Samuel Johnson maintained, “To circumscribe poetry by a definition will only show the narrowness of the definer.”

Poetry is a human fundamental, like music. It predates literacy and precedes prose in all literatures. There has probably never been a culture without it, yet no one knows precisely what it is. The word poesie entered the English language in the fourteenth century and begat poesy (as in Sidney’s “The Defence of Poesy,” ca. 1582) and posy, a motto in verse. Poetrie (from the Latin poetria) entered fourteenth-century English vocabulary and evolved into our poetry. The Greek word poiesis means “making.” The fact that the oldest term for the poet means “maker” suggests that a poem is constructed.

Poets (and others) have made many attempts over the centuries to account for poetry, an ancient and necessary instrument of our humanity:

Dante’s treatise on vernacular poetry, De vulgari eloquentia,suggests that around 1300, poetry was typically conceived of as a species of eloquence.

Sir Philip Sidney (1554–1586) said that poetry is “a representing, counterfetting, a figuring foorth: to speak metaphorically: a speaking picture: with this end, to teach and delight.”

Ben Jonson (1572–1637) referred to the art of poetry as “the craft of making.”

The baroque Jesuit poet Tomasso Ceva (1649–1737) said, “Poetry is a dream dreamed in the presence of reason.”

Coleridge (1772–1834) claimed that poetry equals “the bestwords in the best order.” He characterized it as “that synthetic and magical power, to which we have exclusively appropriated the name of imagination.”

Wordsworth (1771–1850) famously called poetry “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings … recollected in tranquility.”

John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) followed up Wordsworth’s emphasis on overflowing emotion when he wrote that poetry is “feeling confessing itself to itself in moments of solitude.”

Shelley (1792–1822) joyfully called poetry “the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds.” He said that poetry “redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man.”

Matthew Arnold (1822–1888) narrowed the definition to “a criticism of life.”

Ezra Pound (1885–1972) later countered, “Poetry is about as much a ‘criticism of life’ as red-hot iron is a criticism of fire.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889) characterized it as “speech framed … to be heard for its own sake and interest even over and above its interest of meaning.”

W. B. Yeats (1865–1939) loved Gavin Douglas’s 1553 definition of poetry as “pleasance and half wonder.”

George Santayana (1863–1952) said that “poetry is speech in which the instrument counts as well as the meaning.” But he also thought of it as something beyond “verbal expression,” as “that subtle fire and inward light which seems at times to shine through the world and to touch the images in our minds with ineffable beauty.”

Wallace Stevens (1879–1955) characterized poetry as “a revelation of words by means of the words.”

Tolstoy (1828–1910) noted in his diary, “Poetry is verse: prose is not verse. Or else poetry is everything with the exception of business documents and school books.” Years later, Marianne Moore (1887–1972) responded “[N]or is it valid / to discriminate against ‘business documents and // school books.’” Instead, she called poems “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”

Gertrude Stein (1874–1946) decided, “Poetry is doing nothing but using losing refusing and pleasing and betraying and caressing nouns.”

Robert Frost (1874–1963) said wryly, “Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another.”

Robert Graves (1895–1985) thought of it as a form of “stored magic,” Andre Breton (1896–1966) as a “room of marvels.”

Howard Nemerov (1920–1991) said that poetry is simply “getting something right in language.”

Joseph Brodsky (1940–1996) described poetry as “accelerated thinking,” Seamus Heaney (1939–2013) called it “language in orbit.”

Poetry seems at core a verbal transaction. In its oral form, it establishes a relationship between a speaker and a listener; in its written form, it establishes a relationship between a writer and a reader. Yet at times that relationship seems to go beyond words. John Keats (1795–1821) felt that “Poetry should … strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance.” The Australian poet Les Murray (b. 1938) argues that “poetry exists to provide the poetic experience.” That experience is “a temporary possession.” We know it by contact, since it has an intensity that cannot be denied.

Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) wrote in an 1870 letter:

If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I knowthat is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?

A. E. Housman wrote in The Name and Nature of Poetry (1933):

A year or two ago, in common with others, I received from America a request that I would define poetry. I replied that I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat, but that I thought we both recognized the object by the symptoms which it provokes in us. One of these symptoms was described in connection with another object by Eliphaz the Termanite: ‘A spirit passed before my face: the hair of my flesh stood up.’ Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act. This particular symptom is accompanied by a shiver down the spine; there is another which consists in a constriction of the throat and a precipitation of water in the eyes; and there is a third which I can only describe by borrowing a phrase from one of Keats’ last letters, where he says, speaking of Fanny Brawne, ‘everything that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear.’

More Than Halfway



I’ve turned on lights all over the house,
but nothing can save me from this darkness.

I’ve stepped onto the front porch to see
the stars perforating the milky black clouds

and the moon staring coldly through the trees,
but this negative I’m carrying inside me.

Where is the boy who memorized constellations?
What is the textbook that so consoled him?

I’m now more than halfway to the grave,
but I’m not half the man I meant to become.

To what fractured deity can I pray?
I’m willing to pay the night with interest,

though the night wants nothing but itself.
What did I mean to say to darkness?

Death is a zero hollowed out of my chest.
God is an absence whispering in the leaves.

Edward Hirsch

dead metaphor A metaphor that has supposedly been used so often that it has lost its capacity to describe one thing in terms of another, and no longer operates as a metaphor. Do we think of the heart when we say that this definition strikes the heart of the matter. The question of whether or not a dead metaphor is still a metaphor has been debated in recent years. Metaphors may not be surprising –I'm skating on thin ice here–but they can still work as metaphors. Zoltán Kövecses explains: “The ‘dead metaphor’ account misses an important point… . The metaphors … may be highly conventionally and effortlessly used, but this does not mean that they have lost their vigor in thought and that they are dead. On the contrary, they are 'alive’ in the most important sense–they govern our thought–they are 'metaphors we live by.’” Some poets, such as Samuel Johnson in “The Vanity of Human Wishes” (1749), make a point of invigorating dead metaphors. Giambattista Vico contended in The New Science (1725) that all language begins with metaphor and that the first metaphors were drawn from the human body. A great deal of what we think of as literal speech consists of dead metaphors, as when we say “the mouth of a river,” “veins of minerals,” “murmuring waves,” “weeping willows,” “the bowels of the earth,” and “smiling skies.” We speak the vestiges of ancient metaphorical language.

— A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch

See also: cliché, convention, metaphor, personification

And every year there is a brief, startling moment
When we pause in the middle of a long walk home and
Suddenly feel something invisible and weightless
Touching our shoulders, sweeping down from the air:
It is the autumn wind pressing against our bodies;
It is the changing light of fall falling on us.
—  Edward Hirsch, from “Fall
After my son Gabriel died, I couldn’t actually read poetry anymore, which had never happened to me in my adult life. I don’t think I’ve gone a day since I was eighteen without reading some poetry. I simply couldn’t concentrate. There was about a six-month period where not only I could not write a poem, I couldn’t even read a poem. Poetry didn’t do anything for me—it didn’t speak to my condition. For about a year I cancelled all my poetry events. Then gradually I began to feel more like myself again. I became able to read again, and that was a comfort to me. Once I began to work on the poem about Gabriel, I was able to give my attention to poetry again. I don’t think I’ll ever believe in poetry in the same way I did before. I’m too aware of the limitations of what it cannot do. Yet there are some things it does better than anything else. I haven’t found anything to replace it. I’m just more aware of the ways that poetry is not life.

We stood in the midst
 of a great alluvial plain
  and felt the horizon coming
   at us like a storm, seeking us out.

We felt the wet land
 shuddering under the waves
  of an invisible sea, and herds
   of buffalo thundering underground.

The sun scorched a hole
 in the widest prairie sky
  and the rough, whistling, russet—
   colored grasses flowed at our knees.

We saw tawny hawks
 sailing across the clouds
  and wolves storming in packs,
   and that’s when we closed our eyes

to imagine the wheatfields,
 the sod huts and log cabins,
  a stone church kneeling down
   in the dust of the unspeakable.

It required a steady hand
 moving across an empty page.
  We would be a single voice
   giving names to the bare places.

Edward Hirsch, from “Iowa Suite”
Art Credit Mark Posey