Chicago native proffers a lifetime of verse in a magical new collection.

POETRY Born in Chicago’s Michael Reese Hospital in 1950, Edward Hirsch turned 60 this year—which means he had finally run out of excuses for not putting together a collection of verse culled from his seven books of poetry. "I couldn’t say I was too young anymore for a book of selected poems," says Hirsch, talking by phone from New York, where he is the president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. As a result, lovers of modern American verse have been blessed with a splendid new compilation, The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems, released last month by Hirsch’s longtime publisher, Alfred A. Knopf ($27).

Assembling the collection "was more traumatic than I expected it to be," says Hirsch. "Each book should be an entity unto itself, with its own structure, character, life, name. When you’re putting together a selected poems, you are wrenching those poems from the context of those original books." As consolation, Hirsch turned to the words of Robert Frost—"If there are 29 poems in a book, the book itself is the 30th poem"—and set about creating a new, cohesive book that, he says, was "larger than the sum of its poems."

As a title for this new collection, Hirsch went back to his 1986 collection, Wild Gratitude (winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award) and the final line of its title poem, which conjures up creatures "wreathing themselves in the living fire." Crowned by that image, Hirsch says, the collection "marches under a certain kind of sign, something that would follow through in the book as a kind of journey into the living fire. To me, it points to a kind of ultimate intensity, a full immersion in the spirit of life itself."

The image of fire and flame recurs in Hirsch’s poetry and in this collection. "I’m not exactly sure why my imagination keeps returning to it," he says. "It has something to do with the destructiveness, the beauty, the burning intensity of fire, which is beautiful and dangerous, enabling and destructive."

The poet Edward Hirsch
"I believe in rooting poems in actual places," Hirsch says.

Hirsch includes 13 new poems in the collection. "They are poems of very intense self-reckoning," he says, "calling yourself to account with ruthlessness and tenderness together. I still feel that I’m capable of being as emotionally present as when I was young." Those new poems include "The Beginning of Poetry," which recalls Hirsch’s awakening as a poet while a student at Iowa’s Grinnell College—". . . you’d lie on your narrow cot / and listen to the lonely whistle / of a train crossing the prairie in the dark"—as well as "Milk," which is inspired by "one of those moments— / misplaced, involuntary—that swim up / out of the past."

The Living Fire includes many such moments, which Hirsch compares to the "Proustian idea of an involuntary memory." Chicagoans will derive a special pleasure from those memories, evoking, as they do, Hirsch’s youth here in the city and suburbs. "Cotton Candy" presents the future poet at eight years old, crossing a bridge over the Chicago River with his grandfather. "Special Orders" takes us to the now-trendy West Loop, back in the day when it was the city’s Skid Row and Hirsch’s father worked as a salesman at the Wertheimer Box and Paper Company. "The Skokie Theater" presents the 12-year-old Hirsch, "lovesick, bumbling / and terrified," irrevocably changed by an erotically charged yet almost innocent encounter with an equally young classmate on a summertime Saturday "before she moved away."

Chicago is just one stop in Hirsch’s journey toward and through The Living Fire. "I believe in rooting poems in actual places," he says, "even if you move into some other extraordinary realm."

  • The poet Peter Campion’s review in The New York Times, 3/25/2010:
    "Hirsch situates himself between the ordinary and the ecstatic. The everyday and the otherwordly temper each other in these excellent poems, and American poetry gains strength as a result."
  • An overview of Hirsch’s career from Chicago’s Poetry Foundation, with articles and poems by Hirsch—some read by the poet—as well as the opening chapter of his 1999 bestseller, How To Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry.
  • A recent 34-minute video interview with Hirsch at Big Think.
  • Now living in Brooklyn, Hirsch praised New York and Chicago as excellent cities for walking. Here is his April 2008 Washington Post essay on how walking benefits both poetry and the poet:
    "The rhythm and pace of a walk can get you going and keep you grounded. It’s a kind of light meditation."


Photograph: Julie dermansky