Poet finds solace in elegy of departed son’s wild energy

When Edward Hirsch lost his son to a drug-related cardiac arrest, the poet began collecting his memories. Overwhelmed with grief, Hirsch turned his reflections into a book-length elegy, now published as “Gabriel.” Jeffrey Brown spoke with Hirsch near his home in New York.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Last night, we shared a story about painful choices facing families with loved ones on life support.

  • Tonight:

    another look at dealing with loss, as a father copes with the death of his son through poetry.

    Jeffrey Brown is back with that.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Gabriel Hirsch was a high-spirited, restless, and often reckless child and young man who suffered from a variety of developmental disorders and bounced through different doctors and schools.

    Still, his boundless energy drew others to him, and he lived a volatile, but full life, until he died in 2011 at age 22 of cardiac arrest after taking a party drug.

    EDWARD HIRSCH, Author "Gabriel: A Poem": I became desperate that I would forget things.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    His father is Edward Hirsch, a highly acclaimed poet who has now written something unlike anything he has done before, a book-length elegy for his son titled "Gabriel."

  • EDWARD HIRSCH:

    "Unbolt he doors. Fling open the gates. Here he comes, chaotic wind of the gods. He was trouble, but he was our trouble."

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Edward Hirsch and I talked recently at a park near his home in Brooklyn, New York, and I asked first what drove him to write the book.

  • EDWARD HIRSCH:

    I suppose, in some ways, it began to feel inevitable to me, because I just didn't know what else to do with myself. And I was overwhelmed by grief.

    And at a certain point, I thought, what am I going to do with my grief? And so writing poetry seemed something I could do. I found a comfort in trying to solve some poetic problems, because there were human ones I just couldn't solve.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Edward Hirsch has a very prominent day job as president of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, a post he's held for 11 years, after several decades in academia.

    It was months after his son's death, he says, before he could go back to work, and poetry came later still.

    There's a passage here that struck me midway in where you say, "Lord of misadventure" — you're speaking of Gabriel — "I'm scared of rounding him up and turning him into a story."

  • EDWARD HIRSCH:

    Part of the book is a kind of picaresque novel about the adventures of Gabriel, about what Gabriel was doing. And in telling his…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And there are a lot of adventures.

  • EDWARD HIRSCH:

    And there are a lot of adventures. And many of them made me laugh.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes. Yes.

  • EDWARD HIRSCH:

    And that was one of the joys of writing the book.

    But I was aware that when I was telling his story, as I had become his inadvertent biographer, that I was — by its very nature, you have to choose things. You have to summarize. You have to make decisions about narrative.

    And I suddenly realized, I'm turning my son into a story. I just didn't want to simplify him. I didn't want to sum him up. I wanted to try to be true to the full complications of the way he was as a person.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In "Gabriel" the book, each page is a separate poem. Hirsch writes of his son's trials and loves, of his own guilt at not helping enough, even of the medications Gabriel took as he and his parents sought help.

  • EDWARD HIRSCH:

    You have all these medications which were — which have these names. And I had just never seen the names of these medications in a poem.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes.

  • EDWARD HIRSCH:

    So you have to figure out how do you — how do you do it and how do you make…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And they're real. They played a real part in his life, your life.

  • EDWARD HIRSCH:

    They were crucial.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But how do you make them — turn them into a poem?

  • EDWARD HIRSCH:

    And how do you turn them into a lyric poem in particular?

    I'm just desperate for Gabriel to come through as a person. Of course it's not the person. It's my poem. It's my representation. But I'm desperate for people to have a feeling for what he was like. And that energy, that impulsiveness, which was so exciting and erratic is part of what I'm trying to capture in my poem.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And of course the elegy as a poetic form has a long, long history. Right?

  • EDWARD HIRSCH:

    The elegy has been going as long as there has been poetry.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes.

  • EDWARD HIRSCH:

    It's one of the root impulses of poetry, the lamentation for the fact that we die and the people we love die. And there's something unacceptable about it. And we have to try to come to terms with that.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But it sounds as though you also didn't want — I think you used the word consolation. You didn't want the consolation that a poem can bring or a kind of — I don't know if closure is the right word. What did you want?

  • EDWARD HIRSCH:

    Despite the consolations of writing poetry, and despite the joys of writing poetry, the poem is not the person, and you would really prefer to have the person back, and that there's a sense of a limitation of what art can do.

    I mean, I believe in poetry. And I have spent most of my life advocating for poetry, but I'm aware of what poetry can and can't do, and there are some things it just can't do.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Like?

  • EDWARD HIRSCH:

    It can't give me my son back. And it can't give us the people back. It can give us some representation of them. It can do something. It does something better than almost anything else in the world can do, but it's not life.

    And it's in relationship to life. And there are some things it just can't — it can't give you.

    "I didn't know the work of mourning is like carrying a bag of cement up a mountain at night."

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Near the end of the poem, Hirsch writes of his realization of just how much grief is shared by people around him, everyone, he writes, bearing such a heavy load.

  • EDWARD HIRSCH:

    "Look closely and you will see almost everyone carrying bags Of cement on their shoulders. That's why it takes courage to get out of bed in the morning and climb into the day."

    But when you get to be a certain age, you start looking around and you realize that everyone is suffering some kind of a grief. And if you — if you don't see it there, it's only because you don't know them very well. And people carry — that's why I call it their invisible bags of cement.

    But a lot of people feel that they're carrying huge weights, and they're hiding it. And I think it's important in my poem that I acknowledge that, I recognize it. The poem tries to reach out and open out to these people to a recognition that I'm not the only one carrying around the bag of cement. A lot of people are carrying it, in fact, almost everyone.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, the book is "Gabriel: A Poem."

    Ed Hirsch, thank you so much.

  • EDWARD HIRSCH:

    Thank you.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    You can hear Edward Hirsch and read more excerpts from his work "Gabriel: A Poem" on our Arts page at NewsHour.PBS.org.

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