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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Writing the Parent: Muldoon, Clifton, Hirsch and Matthews on family poems

This sixth 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.

In her conversations with the poets who visited her classroom, London was never afraid to probe into the forces that drove them to write, including their background and upbringing. In the course of these conversations, many of the poets spoke of their parents, both as they were in life and as they are continually reimagined in their poetry. Lucille Clifton, for instance, spoke candidly with London about both her mother and father and talked about the early influence of her mother on her as writer:

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Interestingly—tellingly—this is not at all how Clifton herself writes; her poems rarely feature rhyme, or even standard capitalization and punctuation, tending instead towards a bluesy, colloquial cadence. Her mother may have made Clifton recognize that poetry "was a thing one could do," but it didn't mean that Clifton would do this thing her mother's way.

Here, parental influence is often painted as something to be resisted rather than absorbed—and this tension is even more pronounced when the mother or father becomes the poetic subject. When London speaks with William Matthews about his poem "My Father's Body," she complains of the absence of personal details.

Here's their discussion, and below is the excerpt in question:

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The ashes will be scattered,
says a hushed man in a mute suit,
in the Garden of Remembrance,
which is out back.
And what's left of a mild, democratic man
will sift in a heap with the residue of others,
for now they all belong to time.

Matthews explains that it was his father's "mild, democratic" nature that seemed most durable and that "touched the most people." He elegizes his father using the terms one might for a public figure, rather than more intimately paternal qualities.

Paul Muldoon speaks to the difficulty of capturing a parent through poetry when London asks him about "Brazil," a poem from Muldoon's prize-winning collection Annals of Chile (a wonderful recording of the poem, read by Muldoon, is available here). Although the poem provides, doubtlessly, an intimate portrait of the parent, Muldoon still laments that his mother comes across as "too cold" in the book.

Here's Muldoon's conversation with London:

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Hirsch offers a compelling take on the issue of family in poetry when he and London discuss his poem "Family Stories." He complains that readers of "Family Stories" came to think of him as a "family poet."

Here's what he says:

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He saw the poem as an excuse to think about stories and the way they function, operate. But for his reader, the "Family" overtook the "Stories"—the content and subject matter of the poem overwhelmed Hirsch's examination and experimentation with storytelling. This line of thinking offers one intriguing explanation for the complicated place of the parent in poetry;  that it's not the writer's Freudian focus that makes the parent such a problematic poetic subject, but rather that conscious care must be taken with the subject for fear that the reader will seize hold of the parental figure to the point of missing the nuances of a work.

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A Poet’s Poet: Robert Frost

This fifth 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.

One thing I was surprised to find, as I started listening through the tapes of Pearl London’s classes, was how often the name Robert Frost came up in her conversations with poets.  Frost has fallen out of favor with the academy in the decades since his death, relegated to Hallmark cards and middle school pick-your-favorite poem assignments. Here, however, he seems to have become a poet’s poet, celebrated for verse, prose and a very modern mood of darkness.

Paul Muldoon, for instance, is not only an admirer of Frost, but also, quite literally, an inhabiter of the same space; he has spent thirteen summers, so far, at Frost’s old cabin.  He and London discuss several observations of Frost’s: that poetry is a “feat of associations,” and that a poem be a "momentary stay against confusion."

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Comparing Frost to Auden, William Matthews said he was drawn as a high school student to the modesty and distinctly American quality of Frost’s poetic voice.  Like Muldoon, Matthews spent a summer at the Frost estate, and he remarks to London that the place felt very isolated, deliberately so.  Finding the corollary in his poetry, London notes the “Hopper-like quality of insularity” in Frost—calling up another artist that was mentioned frequently by the poets in London’s class.

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London again brings up the darker side of Frost in her discussion with Edward Hirsch, mentioning the large number of empty barns and wintry landscapes in Frost's work.  Hirsch points to Frost’s haunting “Desert Places” when trying to describe his conception of the absolute—an “absolute erasure,” a “terrifying invisibility”—and recites the last stanza of this poem for London:

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They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars—on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

They also discuss the popular misconception of Frost as a pastoral poet—“our Frost,” Hirsch says, referring to the modern poet’s Frost rather than the layman’s Frost, “is the darker Frost, and that Frost is unblinking…remorseless in his willingness to look at the darkness.”

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