Brief, illuminating journalistic pieces on poetry written for the Washington Post Book World over the last several years by poet and critic Hirsch (The Demon and the Angel, 2001, etc.).
For Hirsch, poetry is a conversation: with other poets, with history, with language, with cultures in restless movement. It puts us in touch with our daily doses of suffering, disaffection and alienation, as he notes in the introduction. Most helpfully, these short essays elucidate the life and work of poets little known, and translated with difficulty: e.g., from the German (Ernst Stadler, Nelly Sachs), Russian (Marina Tsvetaeva, Velimir Khlebnikov), Japanese (Ishikawa Takuboku), Serbian (Radmila Lazic), Slovenian (Edvard Kocbek), Hebrew (Aharon Shabtai, Yehuda Amichai) and Arabic (Palestinian Taha Muhammad Ali). Most comprehensively, they delve into Spanish-language poetry, including work by the author’s favorites, Pablo Neruda, Miguel Hernández and César Vallejo (whose compassionate voice holds particular relevance; Hirsch calls the Peruvian “a prophet pleading for social justice”). The collection sheds light on American poets who deserve more readers, such as the solitary George Oppen, and English poets obscure on these shores, such as John Clare and Charlotte Mew. Each of the essays contains excerpts from the poetry in question, although overall the selections are much too short to be satisfying. Some chapters present a theme, such as “The Poet as Mother” or “Sleep and Poetry” or “Baseball,” which all seem hasty and slapdash. Most of the final essays are paeans to contemporaries and friends.
Slim and scattered, but tasty, even exotic: a good supplement to Camille Paglia’s Break, Blow, Burn (2004), which delves more robustly into English-language poetry, and to Michael Schmidt’s scholarly The First Poets (2005), which treats the Greeks.