A Masterpiece of Sorrow: Edward Hirsch’s Elegy for His Son

Poet Edward Hirsch has written an elegaic poem in honor of his late son Gabriel, to be published in September of 2014.

According to The New Yorker‘s article, “Finding the Words” by Alec Wilkinson, Edward HirschHirsch “began it as a means of writing down everything he could remember of Gabriel, who died, at twenty-two, on August 27, 2011.”

The poet and his work bear similarities to Dante and his poetry: “Hirsch sometimes describes himself as a personal poet, by which he means that nearly everyone important to him has appeared in one of his poems.”

Hirsch’s latest work in memory of his son seems particularly Dantesque.

“After eight months, Hirsch had finished a narrative poem that is seventy-five pages long. It is called ‘Gabriel,’ and it will be published in September as a book by Knopf. The poet Eavan Boland described ‘Gabriel’ to me as ‘a masterpiece of sorrow.’ Hirsch’s writing characteristically involves ‘material that is psychically dangerous,’ the poet and critic Richard Howard told me. ‘His detractors would say that he feels he is someone who must reveal the truth, as opposed to being ironic, and he’s contending here with these forces.’ Hirsch felt that for the poem to succeed it could not include any traces of sentimentality, otherwise he would be an unreliable witness. [. . .]

“Writing ‘Gabriel’ required Hirsch, for the first time, to sort through a huge body of material for which he had to find a shape and a form. He found an organizing principle in the model of three-line stanzas. He liked that each stanza had a beginning, a middle, and an end. Usually, the three-line stanza is ‘a dialect of the underworld,’ Eavan Boland pointed out to me. ‘A signal that the poem is about grief.’ This is mainly because it invokes terza rima, the three-line rhyming scheme of The Divine Comedy. Dante’s lines rhyme aba, bcb, cdc, and so on, but Hirsch’s lines are unrhymed. Hirsch’s stanzas are also unpunctuated, which allows them to move adroitly and to bear what the poet C. K. Williams described to me as ‘both trivial things and grandly non-trivial things’—Gabriel’s antics, his humor and presence, but also the weight of Hirsch’s own desolate feelings. Charles Simic told me that the stanzas’ pace and fluidity reminded him of ‘the way memories pour out of us.'” [. . .]    —The New Yorker