Threads of Gold

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SOME people are confused by poetry because it mixes fact and fiction. Even in the most realistic poem, experience filters down through memory and imagination, changing character before it reaches the page. But if poetry spins straw into gold, it does so as a way to get at truth or universals. And poet Edward Hirsch is a master spinner.

In his fourth book, ``Earthly Measures,'' his straw consists of the changing American and European landscapes - sometimes gritty and dark - and their myths and artists. Hirsch begins his alchemy in the first lines of ``Uncertainty,'' his opening poem:

We couldn't tell if it was a fire in the hills Or the hills themselves on fire, smoky yet Incandescent, too far away to comprehend. And all this time we were traveling toward Something vaguely burning in the distance-- A shadow in the horizon, a fault line-- A blue and cloudy peak which never seemed To recede or get closer as we approached.

Recommended: Poetry quiz: Can you match the poet to the poem?

Instead of establishing a landscape and then altering it, Hirsch plunges the reader into the midst of great change. The narrative seems to rely more on emotion and color than it does on concrete action. The language is almost surreal, but the reader identifies with the feeling of trepidation - the ``truth'' in this poem.

Perhaps that's where much of the confusion comes in for people who don't understand how poetry works. Hirsch doesn't create sweet little images that rely on badly used rhyme to make them ``poetry.'' Part of his artistry lies in the fact that he consistently challenges what readers know and feel. By challenging himself to find the language that suits his vision, he forces others to embrace a new way of seeing.

But forcing your ideas on someone isn't the mark of art. The goal is to explore and describe what is puzzling, mysterious, and somehow beautiful. It's an attempt to understand and recreate the world, a task one can never quite accomplish. But the closer one does come, the more striking the poem, such as these lines from Hirsch's ``Four A.M.''

The hollow, unearthly hour of night. Swaying vessel of emptiness. Patron saint of dead planets and vast, unruly spaces receding in the mist.

With a few simple penstrokes, Hirsch has begun spinning. He's captured the experience and elevated it. His words are exactly right and exaggerated at the same time. He wants gold that will glitter, dazzling the reader's eyes, ears, sense of touch, and imagination. He knows that the more senses he can involve, the more powerful the poem. So each line heightens what has come before it and delights the reader in the process. Listen to the S-sounds in line two, for example.

Movement and transformation are as crucial to poetry as ``truth'' is, because they are essential elements of the world that art seeks to mimic. Just as seasons change, so do memories and perceptions.

In ``First Snow: Intimations,'' the speaker remembers being ``transfixed'' as a student at the Peterson School:

To us, it seemed as if someone Was dusting off rooftops

and high ceilings of winter, Dropping sheets of paper, wet and unlined, From a cloudy, invisible sky

just beyond our reach ... It seemed as if someone was painting

and repainting the air Until the day shined blankly, like a white wall.

Whether the poet made the connection between snow and paper as a child is irrelevant. What does matter is that the process of writing allowed him to remember his past in both a personal and universal way. The snow could have been anywhere.

But if the universals in Hirsch's poems make him like other artists, what sets him apart? To some degree, it's the myths, people, and settings that fill his pages. There are levels of association attached to his subject matter even before he has made it his own.

Beyond that is the intensity of his images and his hard-hitting first stanzas. There's no slow entry into any of these landscapes, and none of them provide a simple mirror on experience. Where some poets might use language like a camera, he uses it like oil paint. Fiction is as real as fact to him. And what justifies his fiction is the nature of art itself.

When viewers thumb through coffee-table art books, they do not expect to see portraits that look like Polaroids. Early American folk paintings depict dwarf-like people with bulbous heads, for example, and Van Gogh's self-portrait has an otherworldly background. Readers might be shocked by either representation. But that doesn't detract from the beauty of these paintings or what they can teach about human experience. What stays with us is the gold that could not have been created if the artist had left straw as it was.

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