Wrestling with Loss: Hirsch, Grennan and Matthews on Loss as the Basis of Poetry

This seventh post, from a series of eight, draws from an archive of recently discovered audio recordings of America's most important modern poets, taken during Pearl London's renowned poetry seminars at the New School. The most compelling moments of these conversations were transcribed and published in Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America's Poets (Knopf), named by CSM "One of the ten best (nonfiction) books of 2010." The clips used below are all taken from the audiobook companion to Poetry in Person, offering extended, thirty to sixty minute cuts of eight of the best conversations.

"Poetry begins in loss, begins with alienation, and speaks against our vanishing." So Edward Hirsch tells Pearl London when he visits her poetry seminar in 1993. The poetic experience, as Hirsch tells it, is "an encounter with the worst," a kind of confrontation with negativity and darkness, in which one tries to find "something" to bring back out into the light. Here's how he puts it:

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"Orpheus and Eurydice,"Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein-Sub, 1806

Hirsch calls Orpheus's decent into hell the "archetypal poetic experience," as he attempts to recover his dead wife by going into the underworld after her. Ultimately, however, Orpheus's story ends not with triumph over loss but with the doubling of it; having convinced Hades to allow him to bring Eurydice back to the upper world, he violates their agreement by looking back at his wife before they have completed the journey out of hell. If the poetic experience truly is modeled on Orpheus's journey, then although the poet may "try to bring something to the light," he will never entirely succeed; he will think he has triumphed over loss, only to have it slip, devastatingly, away.

The metaphors that other poets use to discuss loss are likewise colored with a sense of almost certain failure. Seamus Heaney once described Elizabeth Bishop's poetry as one that "ingests loss and transmutes it," and Eamon Grennan notes that Heaney's poetry does the same thing. But Grennan says that he doesn't think of his own writing in quite those terms—his poetry is the narrative account of the "act of wrestling" with loss. This is how he explains it to London:

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Quite bluntly, Grennan says that his poems often record his inability to absorb, to "transmute" loss. And William Matthews says his poems are grounded in a loss that one tries to obscure with a "ground cover, or even a magnificent topiary garden"—but, as Matthew's says at the very end of this clip, "I can always see it through the leaves:"

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Blooding the abstract

This third post, from a series of eight, draws from an archive of recently discovered audio recordings of America's most important modern poets, taken during Pearl London's renowned poetry seminars at the New School. The most compelling moments of these conversations were transcribed and published in Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America's Poets (Knopf), named by CSM "One of the ten best (nonfiction) books of 2010." The clips used below are all taken from the audiobook companion to Poetry in Person, offering extended, thirty to sixty minute cuts of eight of the best conversations.

"Abstract," as Robert Pinsky points out when visiting Pearl London's seminar, comes from the Greek "ab," for away, and "trachere," for draw:

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The etymological suggestion is that the abstract is the result of a separation, an untethering from the material world. When the guest poets in London's class talk about abstractions, the conversation often turns to their attempt to reenact this process of separation; that is, to push the concrete and the particular to a point where they call up, gesture towards, or are transmuted into the abstract.

This process, however, is also discussed in the reverse. When London speaks with Lucille Clifton, for instance, she comments on the poet's propensity to "concretize" the abstract:

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As an example, London mentions Clifton's short poem "chemotherapy," which starts: "my hair is pain." This curious linkage transforms pain from a sensation to a human substance. Clifton draws the abstract back down to the concrete through this jarring association to the body. As Clifton puts it, she wants the "specific thing to illuminate the larger thing."

 

London discusses this issue with poet Eamon Grennan as well, and he goes into detail about his "embarrassment" of the abstract:

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Both the Wallace Stevens phrases they allude to—"the abstract must be blunt" and "blooding the abstract"—suggest the need to materialize, or corporeally infuse, the abstract. Grennan's poem "The Statue" elegantly achieves just this, underscoring Grennan's stated poetic aim of "allow[ing] the accumulated particulars to embody, to dramatize the idea, the abstract idea.":

...the muscled legs steady, ready to step
through any drawback or impediment--
even death itself, it's wall of glass--
and not turn a curl amongst the bunched
unshockable waves of his hair: he is
a summary of boys...

From the inanimate and material we move into the animate and immaterial; and so the abstract comes alive.

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Inspired by Edward Hopper

This second post, from a series of eight, draws from an archive of recently discovered audio recordings of America's most important modern poets, taken during Pearl London's renowned poetry seminars at the New School. The most compelling moments of these conversations were transcribed and published in Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America's Poets (Knopf), named by CSM "One of the ten best (nonfiction) books of 2010." The clips used below are all taken from the audiobook companion to Poetry in Person, offering extended, thirty to sixty minute cuts of eight of the best conversations.

"All I really want to do," Edward Hopper once said, "is paint light on the side of a house." The famous American realist's attention to light and the mood it creates—his work will be featured at the Whitney until the end of April—continues to influence a range of artist, poets included. Both Edward Hirsch and Eamon Grennan discussed Hopper's influence in the course of their conversations with Pearl London.

During Hirsch's visit, London comments on the imagery in his poetry and brings up, as an example, his description of Hopper as "brutal as sunlight" in the poem "Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad (1925)."

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Hopper, says Hirsch, uses sunlight as a metaphor for remorselessness, "exposing that which might prefer to be hidden." In the poem, the house "must have done something" to be left so alone, but that "something" is never named.

"House by the Railroad" 1925. Oil on canvas. 24 x 29 inches. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

But the man behind the easel is relentless.
He is as brutal as sunlight, and believes
The house must have done something horrible
To the people who once lived here

Because now it is so desperately empty,
It must have done something to the sky
Because the sky, too, is utterly vacant
And devoid of meaning. There are no

Trees or shrubs anywhere—the house
Must have done something against the earth.
All that is present is a single pair of tracks
Straightening into the distance. No trains pass.

As the poem continues, the house "begins to suspect / That the man, too, is desolate, desolate / And even ashamed." There is a sense that the source of shame is not important, because anything scrutinized so closely will eventually offer up its own particular point of shame; what's central, in the poem, is the very ubiquity of guilt.

Grennan doesn't dwell on Hopper as long as Hirsch, only making reference to a poem he once worked on, about Hopper's "Sun in an Empty Room," that ends with the line, "Tomorrow, I'll talk away the wall."

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"Sun in an Empty Room" 1963. Oil on canvas. 28 3/4 x 39 1/2 inches. Private collection.

"Sun in an Empty Room" is, Grennan says, "lovely"—it's clear that Hirsch wouldn't use this adjective to describe "House by the Railroad." And yet both poets seem to point to the same Hopper-esque capacity of light to become a subject in itself. For Grennan, light has a prelapsarian quality, and this too is what Hirsch suggests—how light emphasizes the faults of the fallen man, of a fallen landscape.

 

 

 

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