With the COVID-19 death toll beyond half a million, the U.S. is in a state of grief. Families mourn for loved ones who have passed, just as communities throughout the country stir with grief after previously unfathomable losses.
Edward Hirsch, an acclaimed poet and literary critic, broached the subject of how people face their grief—framing loss and heartbreak as a universal experience—during his virtual presentation titled “Private and Public Woes: Poetry and a Renewed Public Discourse” on April 20.
The event was hosted by Boston College’s Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy and moderated by Kim Garcia, a part-time faculty member in the English department. Garcia asked Hirsch to read selections from his most recent collection of poems and short essays, 100 Poems to Break Your Heart.
In the book, Hirsch has gathered an array of poems that left an impression on him over the years, ranging from literary giants to more modern poets. Each poem is followed by Hirsch’s careful analysis which offers critical insights into the poetic form as well as the biographical and historical influences that shaped the poet’s writing.
The discussion began just an hour after the conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd was announced, and Garcia opened by asking everyone to take a moment of silence for Floyd and his family. Hirsch then went on to speak about the relevant experiences of private and public loss.
Hirsch’s said his mission when selecting the poems and writing the book was to unearth emotions of grief and heartbreak that he believes American culture tends to suppress.
“I believe that America is somewhat immature as a culture in its relationship to sorrow and grief,” Hirsch said. “And that people want to divide grief up into stages and dismiss it because they are uncomfortable with it.”
But, Hirsch said he believes poets delve into these intense emotions and he set out to highlight poems that portray the deep, intimate sorrows of life in the collection. During the hour-long event, Hirsch and Garcia both offered insights into several poems that all explored the depths of grief. The poems included Muriel Rukeyser’s “Poem,” Anna Akhmatova’s “In Memory of M.B,” a selection from Adrienne Rich’s “Dedications,” and Yusef Komunyakaa’s “The African Burial Ground.”
Analyzing the convergence of private and public woe, Hirsch explained how the 13 individual people Rich describes in her poem all represent people at different levels of privilege and disadvantage. The poem connects the private melancholies of people to broader experiences of suffering, Hirsch explained.
“What I am suggesting is that she is trying to find people out there in the world and believes that poetry can speak to these people, can reach them,” Hirsch said. “Part of the project of an American poet, as a citizen, [is] to speak to other Americans.”
Noting the relevance of Rich’s poetry to the current tumultuous political climate in the U.S., Hirsch said that her work can lead readers to ask themselves if they are able to love their own country after recognizing the destruction it has caused through war or the suffering caused by its racist systems. He explained that Rich can be seen as a “citizen poet” who is speaking to the American public through her work.
“She’s writing it as a citizen poet and [asks] ‘how do I love my country in a time of war?’ which is a question that all of us have often,” Hirsch said. “How do we love our country at all because we’re so perpetually at war? How do we love our country that’s a racist country? How do we love our country when things happen in our country that we don’t approve of? Rich tries to grapple with this.”
The lecture concluded with a Q&A period, directed by BC Law professor Frank Garcia. When asked what inspired him to tackle this daunting project of writing analyses and essays on 100 poems, Hirsch said that he sees poetry as a means to cope with grief and a source of comfort.
“My own sorrow and my own reaching out to other poems is what inspired me to write it,” Hirsch said. “That is, in my own grief I have turned to other poems and other poets that have helped me, and I wanted to try and share that experience of what these poems have meant to me and to help bring them forward in their fuller presence.”
Featured Image Courtesy of American Academy in Rome