Book excerpt: "100 Poems to Break Your Heart"

Teacher and poet Edward Hirsch explores the ennobling powers of poetry in his compendium of masterful works from around the world, "100 Poems to Break Your Heart" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

Read an excerpt from the book's introduction below:

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

We live in distracting times. Our superficial, materialistic, media-driven culture often seems uncomfortable with true depths of feeling. It's as if the culture as a whole has become increasingly intolerant of that acute sorrow, that intense mental anguish and remorse that can be defined as grief. We want to medicate such sorrow away. We want to divide it into recognizable stages so that grief can be tamed, labeled, and put behind us. But poets have always celebrated grief as one of the strongest human emotions, one of our signature feelings.

Implicit in poetry is the notion that we are deepened by heartbreaks, by the recognition and understanding of suffering — not just our own suffering but also the suffering of others. We are not so much diminished as enlarged by grief, by our refusal to vanish, or to let others vanish, without leaving a verbal record. The poet is one who will not be reconciled, who is determined to leave a trace in words, to transform oceanic depths of feeling into the faithful nuances of art.

Poetry companions us. Poems are written in solitude, but they reach out to others, which makes poetry a social act. It rises out of one solitude to meet another. Poems of terrible sadness and loss trouble and challenge us, but they also make us feel less alone and more connected. Our own desolations become more recognizable to us, more articulate, something shared. We become less isolated in our sorrow, and thus are befriended by the words of another. There is something ennobling in grief that is compacted, expressed, and transfigured into poetry.

I know that I have brought my own griefs and sympathies to bear in the reading and writing of poetry. Over the course of my life, I have been vastly enriched by heartbreaking poems from many different eras and languages. In this book, I have chosen poems from the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. I have selected poems that have been especially meaningful to me, and I have tried to illuminate them — for myself as well as for others. My goal is to create a dramatic, sometimes biographical, often historical context for the poems, explaining their references, teasing out their meanings, unpacking them. I have tried to show how poems work, how their techniques operate in the service of their subjects. My desire is not to explain poems away, but to enable the reader to experience them more completely and more humanly.

From "100 Poems to Break Your Heart" by Edward Hirsch. Copyright 2021 Edward Hirsch. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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