The Dangers in Quoting Only Parts of a Poem

night

Two days ago I shared the first stanza only of an Edward Hirsch poem as an example of unexpected and delightful word pairings. Some readers disagreed, which got me thinking about fairness. Is it right to pull a stanza out of context, sit it like an only child and say nothing of its sibling stanzas? As a poet, I know I wouldn’t like it.

Thus, I decided to share Hirsch’s poem in full. Readers can see how the unexpected “forehead of night” in the opening stanza comes back in different form in stanza 4, for instance, giving it a more artful touch.

Of course, reading the whole poem won’t change everyone’s minds. Psychologically, once a reader has an opinion, it is difficult to change no matter how much additional data is provided. Still, I think all will agree that reading the leading stanza in the context of the whole is not only fair but right.

This poem originally appeared in The New Yorker. Yes, poetry is a matter of taste to a degree, so I always say, if I don’t care for a poem and it appears in a big-paying glossy, “That’s a good thing! As a writer, it gives me hope that the big gates can, indeed, be crashed!” How’s that for silver linings for everyone? (Rhetorical question.)

And now, enjoy. And forgive that I cannot replicate the indentation of lines in the original, which was not all line-justified left. Still, again, a whole! Consider the poem purchased at Whole Poems, aisle six, and be glad:

 

MEMORANDUMS by Edward Hirsch

“I feel anxious to insert these
memorandums of my affections….”   — JOHN CLARE

I put down these memorandums of my affections
To stave off the absolute,
To stave off the flat palm of the wind
Pressed against the forehead of night,
To stave off the thought of stars
Swallowed by the constellations of darkness.

Winter descends in knives, in long sheets of ice
Unravelling in the sky,
In stuttering black syllables of rain.
There’s a vise grinding on my temples
And the sound of a hammer thudding
Somewhere far back in my mind. I can’t sleep,

And when I sleep I dream of murky chemicals
Washing across the faces
Of my grandparents floating face down
In a swimming pool. I dream of un-
Born children drifting overhead
And out of reach. I dream of blinding lights.

I put down these memorandums of my affections
In honor of my mother
And my mother’s mother who cooled
My forehead with a damp washcloth,
My two sisters and the aunt
Who ministered to my headaches in childhood,

My grandfather who kissed me on the upper arm
And tucked me in
At night, my father who touched
The blanket in the morning, gently.
I think of my mother-in-law
And my friend–my only brother–who died

Because cancer feasted on their ripe bodies
From the inside.
I remember the ravaged stillness
And peacefulness of their faces,
Their open lips and sealed eyes
As they were zippered in bags and carted away.

I put down these memorandums of my affections
In honor of tenderness,
In honor of all those who have been
Conscripted into the brotherhood
Of loss, who have survived
The ice and the winter descending in knives.

We will be lifted up and carried a far distance
On invisible wings
And then set down in an empty field.
We will carry our hearts in our bodies
Over shadowy tunnels and bridges.
Someday we will let them go again, like kites.

— from The Night Parade, Edward Hirsch ©1989 Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

 

 

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