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Edward Hirsch: Many of us carry the dead around with us. We shouldnt feel ashamed of that


The celebrated American poet had theorised about the nature of the elegy. And then his own son died in a drug-related accident, and he was left searching for words to describe his loss. Tim Adams meets the author of a masterpiece of sorrow

Earlier this year, Edward Hirsch, who has dedicated his life to the writing, reading and teaching of poetry, published what critics widely acknowledged as the definitive handbook of his vocation. Hirsch is 64. APoets Glossary was 10 years in the making and a natural sequel to his bestselling and passionately informed work How to Read a Poem. With entries ranging from abecedarian (An alphabetical acrostic in which each line or stanza begins with a successive letter of the alphabet) to Zen poetry, it runs to 700 pages.

The glossary was organised alphabetically, and among the terms Hirsch defined, naturally, was the poetic notion of the elegy: A poem of mortal loss and consolation, Hirsch wrote, crisply, citing examples from ancient Greece to Thomas Hardy, before going on to elaborate on such a poems function: The elegy does the work of mourning, Hirsch argued, it allows us to experience mortality. It turns loss into remembrance and it delivers an inheritance. It opens a space for retrospection and drives wordless anguish, wordless torment toward the consolations of verbal articulation and verbal ceremony.

The funeral director opened the coffin
And there he was alone
From the waist up

I peered down into his face
And for a moment I was taken aback
Because it was not Gabriel

He wanted he needed to buy something
Every day a new video system an iguana
A baseball bat a football helmet

He wanted he needed to go right away
To the arcade in the Galleria
Where you won tokens that brought rewards

Hes singing the Poe Elementary School blues
Hes singing the Shlenker School blues a day school
For the offspring of upper-middle-class strivers

Hes singing the Montessori School blues
Hes singing the Monarch School blues
For kids with executive function disorders

There are no more academies to attend
He was not befriended by study
A therapist called him one of the lost boys

Nights without seeing
Mornings of the long view
Its not a sprint but a marathon

Whatever we can do
We must do
Every mornings resolve

I did not know the work of mourning
Is like carrying a bag of cement
Up a mountain at night

The mountaintop is not in sight
Because there is no mountaintop
Poor Sisyphus grief

I woke this winter morning
To the smell of the sea
And hummed a song for nothing
How nothing came to me

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