Hirsch’s eight volumes of poetry – which have been garlanded with prizes, including a MacArthur award or “genius grant” – have always had a personal, confessional element, and he has written elegies before, to friends, but he sees the difference between that work and Gabriel as “like being in a wading pool and then stepping into the ocean”. In the end though, despite his wariness of the private and shared nature of much of this, he felt he had no choice but to publish the book. He wanted to give it a life of its own.
You also suspect that somewhere, deep down, he wanted to test his former faith. How to Read Poetry was in part an act of evangelism; great literature is offered as a solace, a replacement religion, a statement of shared humanity and an antidote to despair. There is a horrible irony in the fact that he has been called to test that faith in his own life. Did a part of him still trust that it would save him?
“I was a believer, and I am not any more,” he says. “When I wrote How to Read a Poem, I think I had a pretty good idea of what poetry could do for writers and readers, but this experience has brought home to me what poetry cannot do. I tried to put everything I could into my poem, I tried to do my absolute best, anything else would have been unworthy of Gabriel. But I am also aware that poetry has its limits. One of those limits is that poetry cannot ever give us back the people we have lost.”
He found people wanted to heal him in the extremes of his sorrow, or suggested medication, and sees the imperative to “move on” as a great misunderstanding in western society.
“I think ancient cultures incorporated death into the experience of life in a more natural way than we have done. In our obsessive focus on youth, on celebrity, our denial of death makes it harder for people who are grieving to fi nd a place for that grief. There is a big difference between depression and mourning. Depression is a feeling without a cause. Mourning has a cause. Many of us are carrying the dead around with us. We should not feel ashamed of that.”