Me on Hirsch

Some background, first.

In the spring of 1995, I was a chubby, starry-eyed undergrad at the University of Idaho (then again, it’s hard to remember a time, really, when I wasn’t chubby and starry-eyed). In that spring semester I was taking a modern poetry class with Ron McFarland, a 17th century specialist by training and regionalist-naturalist Northwest poet by local reputation. McFarland was instrumental in my first forays into creative writing classes. He was my first academic advisor, taught me the ropes of closed-form poetry (he is a specialist-scholar on the villanelle), and was always a candid, honest critic of the various sludge I brought into workshop.

McFarland was also instrumental in bringing visiting writers to campus, and in the spring of 1995 he brought poet Edward Hirsch to our small class. Hirsch’s work as a poet and critic has been well-received both in and outside academia, and in person he is incredibly gracious and intelligent. At the time he visited our class, I was forehead-deep in my recent discoveries of hypertext and literary theory, so when the discussion turned towards more of a Q&A session, I asked him what he thought the future of poetry and creative writing-at-large looked like with the emergence of technologies that birthed the internet and the world wide web.

I don’t remember his exact words, but if I’m paraphrasing correctly, his answer was a fairly defensive one. He lamented that our culture’s love affair with technology was effectively killing the written word, that the sanctity and purity of poetry couldn’t possibly translate into the electronic sphere, and the aesthetic traditions best carried by the likes of Pound, Eliot and Marianne Moore would have great difficulty in the new millennium.

So imagine my surprise (a delightful surprise, I should add) today when I found a hypermedia version of Hirsch’s poem “I Am Going To Start Living Like A Mystic” at born magazine. Hirsch’s poem is beautifully rendered into Flash animation by Canadian multimedia designer Benoit Falardeau, and is further proof that born is at the epicenter of something truly revolutionary.

Traditional poetry is a fairly static art form (and I would consider Hirsch a traditional poet); to me, it has always seemed that poetry improves itself by acknowledging its formal constraints at the same time that it rebels against those constraints. In the Western tradition, our most beloved poets have usually been the rebels (Catullus, Shakespeare, Whitman, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Pound, Cummings, Olson, Plath, Olds, etc.) who bow a knee to the past, at the very same time that they are kicking down the doors of that tradition.

In this collaboration with Falardeau, Hirsch is pushing poetry beyond what might be its ultimate formal constraint–the very page upon which it is written and read. When the poet eschews the page entirely, does poetry cease to exist? Ten years ago, Hirsch–and a lot of other poets–would have answered absolutely. Today, the answer is probably more along these lines: well, that depends on what you mean by “the page,” now, doesn’t it?

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