Students, faculty and pedestrians alike flocked to Room 212—the Sanders Classroom Auditorium—mid-afternoon on Saturday, Jan. 31 to hear a renowned guest and literary authority relay his wisdom. The guest was poet Edward Hirsch, who, as introduced by Professor of English Paul Kane, maintains several honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur “Genius” grant, as well as a longtime professorship at the University of Houston. Hirsch achieved widespread notoriety in the late ‘90s for writing a how-to guide called “How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry.”
But Hirsch did not come to Vassar to speak about his past work, nor his many accomplishments. Rather, the poet, though celebrating the September 2014 release of his latest collection, “Gabriel: A Poem,” was here to discuss more somber matters.
Almost four years ago, Hirsch lost his 22-year-old son, whose name is the title of his new book. Gabriel underwent a seizure and subsequent deadly cardiac arrest as the result of taking a drug, and Hirsch’s work explores ideas of fatherhood, child-rearing, resentment, acceptance of mistakes and miscalculations, and the grief and trauma that arises from such a tragedy.
“[It was] so grief-stricken and so relentless,” Hirsch said of the process of collecting and composing the content of the book, as well as of the aftermath of his son’s death more broadly.
While the content of the poem deals with quite heavy subject matter, Hirsch’s poetry transcends cliché. Jacqueline Krass ’16 attended the event and wrote in an emailed statement, “Hirsch’s writing carefully avoids sentimentality, in part, I think, because it would make writing a book like this impossible. The poems themselves don’t avoid emotion, though, expressing Hirsch’s conflicted and unresolved reactions to his son’s death and refusing a sense of closure.”
The poet formed “Gabriel” in three stages: First, he aggregated information and observations about his son previously unbeknownst to him from family and friends that knew him. Then, he wrote a series of poems from his own perspective regarding the death, his feelings and his struggles to connect with Gabriel. Finally, the poet attested to taking material from the first part of the process, filtering it through the unique perspective etched in his second stage, and then crafted all of it into the nearly 100-page book.
“It’s a modernist break…and truly American,” Kane said of Hirsch’s approach to writing, and its uniqueness in comparison to that of other poets, past and contemporary alike. Few in the field of poetry, Kane pointed out, mix biographical detail and factual reporting with elegiac and unsentimental emoting in the way that Hirsch does in “Gabriel.”
Though the subjects on the roster for the discussion were understandably grim and serious, Kane stipulated at the beginning that he intended the conversation to have a casual and informal tone. Nonetheless, Hirsch and his interviewer, both students of poetry and literary experts in their own rights, proffered a deep discussion of the formal and stylistic elements of the book.
The lecture’s structure lent itself to a more open atmosphere for those who attended the event. Krass agreed, writing, “I really appreciated the conversation format, especially as Professor Kane and Edward Hirsch already knew each other and seemed comfortable talking together; it’s unusual, and exciting, to be able to just listen to a famous poet talking about his work and process.”
Another attendee, Dylan Manning ’16 found the conversation to be a complete change from other lectures he had attended in the past. “Unlike previous readings…this one was conducted entirely as an interview instead of the poet reading a large selection of [their] most recent poems,” wrote Manning. “Hirsch did end up reading some poems, but it was always a kind of backwards process; Professor Kane would ask him something about the process or a motif he noticed, and Hirsch would find a relevant poem to read aloud and then discuss it a bit.”
“Gabriel” is not only possibly unprecedented in its poetic form but also in its subject matter. “I had only written two poems about [Gabriel] previous to his death,” Hirsch attested, suggesting that the event was a crucial turning point in his career and artistic mentalities.
Hirsch stylistically likened his own work to Alfred Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” a Victorian-era extended poetic requiem for a dead friend and colleague, but rejected its ending for its surrender to perhaps easy emotionalism and an overly sentimental tone.
“[‘Gabriel’] is not intended to console the reader,” Hirsch frankly stated, adding, “It’s a multi-moded book.”
This wide potential for interpretation and vastness of scope was on display in the audience Q&A portion of the talk.
A few audience members then shared with the room their reaction to the book, breaking down into tears and imploring the author how affecting his new book was for them, and how truly it spoke to their own dealings with loss and mourning.
Krass added, “Many people in the audience seemed to relate very deeply to Hirsch and his work, perhaps because of the total inconsolability and anger Hirsch expresses in his book over his son’s death.”
By these accounts, Hirsch’s visit ultimately stayed true to Modfest’s goal as an event to unite a community through art and widen peoples’ conception of the possibilities of a connection to an artwork—though “Gabriel” is an unquestionably personal venture for its author and its words have clearly sheltered many.