J.C. Hallman continues his series of Q&A’s with Story About the Story contributors today with Edward Hirsch. In addition to more than half a dozen books of poems, Edward Hirsch is the author of several books of “creative criticism,” including How to Read a Poem, which is excerpted in The Story About the Story I. Hirsch is president of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, and his most recent book is The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems.
J.C. Hallman: Do creative writers have an obligation to act as critics, to offer up alternatives to traditional critical methodologies and assumptions?
Edward Hirsch: No. Creative writers have the obligation to write creatively, to do the work that they were meant to do. Sometimes that includes acting as critics, sometimes not.
JCH: As you see it, what happened to criticism? That is, how did we move from Arnold and Pater and Wilde to the kind of academic criticism produced in Literature departments?
EH: That’s a complicated path. The road goes through modernism. Matthew Arnold narrowed the definition of poetry to “a criticism of life,” but Ezra Pound later countered that “Poetry is about as much a ‘criticism of life’ as a red-hot iron is a criticism of fire.” I love the impressionistic criticism of Arnold and Pater, but there’s also a lot to be said for the polemics of Eliot and Pound, for the theoretical models offered by I. A. Richards, William Empson, and Kenneth Burke, our Coleridge. Let’s not forget that the titans of New Criticism—John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren—were all poets, and so were such vigorous critics as Yvor Winters and R. P. Blackmur. Even the neo-Aristotelian Elder Olson was a poet first of all. But the tenor of things changed dramatically with the attack on New Criticism, which was necessary and even inevitable, since the New Critics purposefully excluded historical information from their reading of poetry, the move to postmodernism, which ironized everything, and the interrogations of literature that that were introduced by French theorists and imported to America. Those theorists energized academic criticism tremendously—I myself especially adore Roland Barthes—but something went awry when the suspicious readings of literature came to dominate and even colonize academic literature departments. The best critical and theoretical writings add rooms to the house of literature; they don’t try to tear down the house completely. No one would accuse the deconstructionists of being poets…
JCH: What was it that first gave you license to approach criticism more creatively?
EH: I love the work of many poet-critics, from Samuel Johnson to Randall Jarrell, and I had become dissatisfied with the guild mentality of the most advanced contemporary literary criticism and theory, which tends to speak only to rarified readers. I have learned so much from literary theory, especially reader-response criticism, but I wanted to see if I could write a different kind of book about poetry, a book in which I was always emotionally present without sacrificing any erudition or intellectual reach. Why would people like us go off and spend their lives writing and reading poetry, thinking about these things? My method is to enact the role of the reader, to stand-in for the reader. My goal was to welcome everyone into the open-air tent. We would all be pilgrims setting out, lone readers, scholars of one candle, strangers. I’m aware that my work has what one of my friends called “a desperate American friendliness.” Emerson and Whitman are two of my democratic touchstones. It’s self-evident to them that strangers who pass each other on the road ought to be able to loiter and speak, to connect and understand each other.
JCH: In the introduction to How to Read a Poem (excerpted in The Story About the Story I), you say the following:
“My idea is to present certain emblematic poems I care about deeply and to offer strategies for reading these poems. My readings are meant to be instructive and suggestive, not definitive, since poems are endlessly interpretable. There is always something about them that evades understanding, and I have tried to remain aware that, as Paul Valéry has put it, “The power of verse is derived from an indefinable harmony between what it says and what it is. Indefinable is essential to the definition.”
It may be unfair to ask you to expand on this a bit — but I will! Is it possible to be wrong in what we say of a poem? In your view, when we do try to respond usefully to the “indefinable,” are we elucidating what we think a poet or writer is either consciously or unconsciously trying to mean?
EH: Reading poetry is by its very nature an open-ended and subjective experience. It invites different readings. It may not be possible to say that something we say about a literary text is definitively “wrong,” though there are many crackpot readings that impose their own agendas on literary texts. These readings don’t especially interest me. But I don’t think we should try to legislate them out of existence. We can always write correctives.
I don’t think intentionality is the issue when it comes to what is “indefinable” in a literary text. Valéry is referring to the complex relationship between form and content, the way that a work is enacted, how it embodies its meanings. There is always something mysterious in a poem, which, as Eliot noted, communicates before it is understood.
JCH: The portion of How to Read a Poem that appears in The Story About the Story I concerns itself with poems that poets produced when they were close to death. You call them “elegies for the self — poems of self-commemoration.” Does this describe all poetry? Or does the proximity of death — known or intuited — raise the stakes and trigger otherwise dormant resources?
EH: These self-elegies have a very specific tenor, but they do teach us something about lyric poetry in general, too. My idea was to look specifically at some last poems, which give us an art stripped down to what is absolutely essential, art made at the edge of a void where everything is unmade. All of these poems seek completion—Chidiock Tichborne’s poem conventionally called “Tichborne’s Elegy,” which relies on the language of paradox to create a sense of final reconciliation between opposites, Miklós Radnóti’s fourth “Postcard” poem, which he wrote just before he was murdered and tossed into a mass grave, and Sylvia Plath’s “Edge,” which seems to embody a final feeling of catharsis and incarnation. These poems are models of poetic making in extreme circumstances. They don’t represent all poetry, but they do teach us what’s at stake in the writing of lyric poetry. Elizabeth Bishop said that “Surely there is an element of mortal panic and fear underlying all works of art.” That’s certainly true of poetry, which is written out of the body as well as the mind. It recognizes the presence of death in our lives. It numbers our losses, speaks against our vanishing.
JCH: Is there any particular text you would recommend for The Story About the Story III?
EH: Marina Tsvetaeva, “Art in the Light of Conscience.”
In addition to editing The Story About the Story, J.C. Hallman is the author of several books, including The Chess Artist,In Utopia, Wm & H’ry, and B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal.