Hirsch's eclectic influences range from the intelligence of Wallace stevens to the English romantic concern with emotion, from the inclusive sympathy of Walt Whitman to Federico Garcia Lorca's exploration of the irrational. Comfortable with both free and formal verse (see prosody and free verse), Hirsch has called the aesthetic dichotomy between the two "a large mistake in American poetry" (Marshall 57) because poets need access to the range of possibilities offered by language.
Born in Chicago, Hirsch has published six books of poems and three books of prose. His first collection, For the Sleepwalkers (1981) won the Lavan Younger Poets Award (1983) and the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award (1985). He received a National Book Critics Circle Award (1987) for his second collection, Wild Gratitude (1986). Other major honors include a Rome Prize (1988) and a MacArthur Fellowship (1998).
Hirsch has said that "someone else's experiences make available your own feelings" (Suarez 63). He applies this philosophy by taking on personae that range from blue-collar workers to well-known writers. In On Love (1998), for instance, Hirsch speaks in formal verse through such figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Denis Diderot, and Tristan Tzara, a diversity that illustrates the breadth of his learning. These poems also reveal the poets own voice behind the masks. They are, as James Longenbach notes, "not so much spoken by different figures as written out of an overwhelming sympathy for different sensibilities, foreign selves" (160).
Lament and praise, Hirsch has said, are two fundamental poetic impulses. His frequent return to the topic of insomnia permits him to engage in both. Darkness affords an opportunity for the elegiac in "Four a.m." (1994), which describes that hour as "nausea at middle age" and "the very pit / of all the other hours." But the coming of morning in "Dawn Walk" (1986) sparks thanks "to the soothing blue gift / Of powdered snow!" His poems struggle to balance a desire for transcendence with a concern for individual suffering. Although he has called poetry "similar to prayer" (Mariani 56), his need to return always to the difficult work of ordinary living is expressed in "Earthly Light" (1994), which concludes that "it is not heaven / but earth that needs us" because Earth is "so fleeting, so real."
Hirschs poetry reaches beyond the self but not beyond compassion for humanity's many selves. Disciplined by form and painstaking craft, his poetry grounds itself in the difficult pleasures of understanding and connecting with other people.
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