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Examining Grief, Poetry, and American Discourse with Edward Hirsch

On April 20, the Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy hosted an event entitled, “Private Grief, Public woes: Poetry and a Renewed Public Discourse.” 

At this event, Edward Hirsch discussed some of the poems found in his collection of poems, “100 Poems to Break Your Heart.” This event was the second part of the Arts and Democracy Series. 

Hirsch's educational background includes Grinnell College and the University of Pennsylvania. He is also the recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship which is given to someone who has excelled in their field, as Hirsch has in his poetry. Today, he is the president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in New York City. 

The event began with Hirsch discussing the idea that America is an immature culture when it comes to how we deal with sorrow and grief. Before we are able to heal, we must mourn; in American society, we tend to dismiss our grief. Poets, however, do not grieve in this way. With this collection of poems, Hirsch hoped to demonstrate these feelings and process them in a healthy way. Four poems were shared during the talk itself. 

The first was “Poem” by Muriel Rukeyser. In this poem about the Vietnam War, Rukeyser explains how we must reconcile with ourselves. It is about how you take news and how to manage it. The poem is made for those unseen and those unborn. The idea behind this is that poetry is something that stretches out to some future reader. The poem also begins with the morning and ends with the night, demonstrating the passing of time. 

The second poem is by Anna Akhmatova, written in 1940 and published in 1968. It was written for Michael Boblakof, a Russian novelist and playwright. It focuses on how he handled himself during the political pressures of the time. Boblakof was a great writer, but he did not get any recognition because he wrote in Stalinist Russia; since he had no public mourning, this was Akhmatova's gift to him. The point of this poem is to show how important it is to memorialize the people you care about. 

Next came Gerald Stern's “The Dancing.” The poem takes the reader back in time to 1945 to a moment where the author was dancing with his family. He describes the act of taking something that is private and having it lead to public consequences. The main idea is that this line is more permeable than people may believe. 

Then the 13th section of a long poem by Adrienne Rich, “(Dedications),” was read aloud. The poem questions how it is possible to love your country at a time of war. The poem identifies 13 different readers, where each one gets placed in a specific place. The purpose of this poem was for an American poet to speak to other Americans.

Lastly came a poem by Yusef Komunyakaa titled “The African Burial Ground.” The historical context of the piece is that there was an African burial group that was lost in development over centuries. Then, it was uncovered by a project on the Lower East Side. The poem discussed this idea that it seems as though we have buried history. You can strut and dance over it, but you cannot truly get rid of it. 

The session ended with a Question and Answer portion where Hirsch discussed such topics as his inspiration behind his work, and advice for the audience.

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