Ocean Vuong, “Seventh Circle of Earth” (2016)

“I wrote ‘Seventh Circle of Earth’ [from Vuong’s 2016 collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds] shortly after hearing the news of two gay men being murdered by immolation in Dallas, TX. I originally wrote the poem in tercets, echoing Dante’s terza rima format. In the Inferno, the stanzas work as a network of rooms the speaker moves through as he descends through the circles of hell. In ‘Seventh Circle of Earth,’ however, this grouping felt off, even fraudulent, to me. A persona poem at its core, it takes on the voice of one of the men speaking to his partner. And in the midst of that fraught position, a poem in tercets, or, in other words, a ‘traditional’ poem, felt like a diluted, forced recasting of a horrific event. I ultimately abandoned the poem.

“It was not until three years later, while reading a critical work on violence and scholarship, did I see, more clearly, the footnotes on the bottom of the page. I found myself slipping right to the notes as I progressed, reading them first. They possessed, in that reading, an urgency that began to stitch itself into a fabric of broken utterances fused together by parataxis. It was, in a way, found poetry. That gave me the idea to re-work ‘Seventh Circle of Earth’ into a piece written entirely in the footnote. This time, the vast and utter emptiness one confronts on the page felt more faithful to the violent erasure of the two murdered men. It felt right to begin the poem with its own vanishing.” [. . .]  — Ocean Vuong on “Seventh Circle of Earth” for Poetry School

Read the rest of Vuong’s comments and the poem at poetryschool.com.

Contributed by Su Ertekin-Taner (The Bolles School ’22)

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