The Heart of American Poetry Edward Hirsch Library of America, €26
Every now and then a book comes along to light a fire underneath you. The Heart of American Poetry is such a volume.
For those of us who allowed their love of poetry to flicker in recent years, especially amid the billow of the digital realm, this book will rekindle that flame.
For those who found new or renewed comfort during the pandemic from poetry’s sense of sounds, its spiritual embrace, then this volume will provide a further caress.
Edward Hirsch, a celebrated poet in his own right, has championed poetry all his life (his How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry flicked a switch in many shadowy poetic rooms for this reader) and in The Heart, he has selected 40 poems for his “personal playbook”; it’s not a best of, more a representation of the canon, a “response to the sweep of American poetry” as Hirsch writes.
Familiar names that you would expect feature: Whitman, Dickinson, Eliot, Hughes, Bishop.
But there are also those that skirt the curriculum, voices that are neglected, misjudged, poets excluded from the anodyne assemblage of anthology: the power and immediacy of Puerto Rican American Julia de Burgos, James Wright’s ear-ringing radicalism, working-class elegist Philip Levine, and the gutsy, audacious Phillis Wheatley, enslaved as a young girl and one of the first African American poets of record.
In each chapter Hirsch elegantly essays his ideas, feelings, and interpretations of a particular poem and poet, careful to never scrape the dust from the butterfly’s wing. Instead he lovingly cups a poem to view its majesty all the better.
Hirsch’s writing is luminous, packed with rich biographical details, and personal anecdotes from a well-lived life mapped out through the form.
He is imbued with the Emersonian spirit of the American ideal, which is wholly infectious, and yet he is never precious or abstruse in what he puts across.
Hirsch listens – just like Whitman – to the streets, the language down here on the ground, too: name checking that chronicler between the Bowery and the boulevards, Lou Reed, or bravely including Robert Johnson’s psychic wail Cross Road Blues in his selection.
It’s apposite that ‘Heart’ sits in the title of this exquisite book, as it pulses with love; it is enlightening and reassuring on the why of poetry, and the why of ourselves.
Every shelf should have a place for this collection – warm yourselves in its glow.