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‘100 Poems to Break Your Heart’: Edward Hirsch On Poetry That Comforts Us In Trying Times

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Edward Hirsch

No one goes through life unscathed. We all suffer loss and heartbreak. Poetry addresses these sorrows and helps us share them. Poems give language and voice to those things that are sometimes incommunicable.

Edward Hirsch knows something about this and brings us the new collection, 100 Poems to Break Your Heart.

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Highlights of the interview with Edward Hirsch

On reading the poems in this collection now at this stage of the pandemic

I'm hoping we're sort of at the end point of something; we're not entirely in the midst of it, but we're not completely out of it yet... One of the things that has gotten somewhat lost during the pandemic is all those people that were lost this year.

All those people who died got caught up somehow in the news, but the griefs of the families and the grief of the people who were left behind and what they lost is not really been accounted for. And that's going to take a very long time.

There are different kinds of grief, but everyone has to grieve in his or her own way. And I believe that poetry gives us a way to start thinking through our feelings and to articulate our feelings. We haven't done much of that during this tremendous year of crisis. And I think that there's going to come a reckoning.

There's a tremendous amount of anguish. There's a tremendous amount of loss. There's a lot of mental illness, and I believe that poetry can help us address these wounds and therefore help to heal us.

On the idea that America is "immature" about grief

I believe that we're immature about grief because we want to box it up into stages and get rid of it. And it's not that Americans don't recognize that people have griefs, but it makes them very uncomfortable, and they want to get over it as fast as possible. So that as soon as something happens, terribly terrible, either individually or collectively to a family or to a group, everyone starts talking about healing right away. And I believe that that's sort of rushed.

It's not that I'm not for healing. I'm all for it, but I believe that before you can heal, you have to mourn. And I believe that this sort of optimism, which has helped so much as a country, also can elide over the deeper feelings that people have. And so therefore people take these feelings and go underground with them because no one wants to hear about them. I don't think that's a comfortable way for people. I don't think it's a helpful way. And, and I think the culture as a whole wants to move on so quickly that it makes it difficult for individuals to grieve properly.

On the poem as a "made thing" and a "human document"

These are not diary entries. It's fine to write a diary entry or to have your feelings unto yourself or to share them with a therapist. But poetry is something else. The oldest word for poetry in Greek is poiesis, which means "making" and a poem is a made thing. A poet is a maker, and a poem is a made thing. In writing about these poems in 100 Poems to Break Your Heart, the trick for me or the goal for me was to write about them as human, because these are not just language games.

People are writing about things that are very meaningful to them at the same time to honor them as works of art, because they're not just mirror expressions of feeling. They are transformations of feelings that use language in powerful ways, and as poems they work as poems. And so you try and think through what they are as made things, creative things, and still stay true to the human being who made them.

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Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.