Apr 2, 2010

Edward Hirsch, "For the Sleepwalkers" and Theodore Roethke, "The Waking"

Here's more Edward Hirsch, the title poem of his first collection, which won the Yale Younger Poets prize. I wonder if we might see "For the Sleepwalkers" as a secular poem about faith, mystery, and compassion.

What a shame that organized religions so drift so far from simple statements like this about the desire to bridge the empirical and the spiritual. People really do sleepwalk; that much can be verified. But the poem sidesteps dogma, prescription, or formulas about the precise ways sleepwalking is or isn't a religious event. Mystery and mysticism inform the poem, but Hirsch is wise and kind enough to avoid creeds over which we should judge or hate or go to war.

So I hope "For the Sleepwalkers" offers one more way to think about experience that seems to transcend the rational and to be entirely good.

(There's a typo in this, the only online version I found, where two of the three-line stanzas [tercets] got jammed together in the poem's middle. Also, two stanzas toward the end are italicized, which you may not have noticed in this font).

For the Sleepwalkers -- Edward Hirsch

I hear "For the Sleepwalkers" as a companion piece to Theodore Roethke's magnificent villanelle, "The Waking," another poem about un-dogmatic faith.

The Waking by Theodore Roethke : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Surely you hear in everyday chit chat, as I do, the notion that literature and art offer themselves as alternatives to religion as we normally define and think about it. If that seems odd, you might revisit these poems, along with other writing and art that's beyond your power to explain, illustrating why the whole is, yea verily, more than the sum of its parts.

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Anonymous said...

Like them both muchly.

-K- said...

"I learn by going where I have to go."

There was a time when Roethke and Jim Wright were, after WC Williams, two of my favorite postwar American poets.

Banjo52 said...


Welcome and thanks. You must be at least a fairly serious reader, so I wonder who's replaced those two or three.

I always have a hard time saying who my favorite poets are. Poems, OK, but poetS give me trouble. The more contemporary they are, the truer that is. I can say Hopkins, Yeats, Frost (talk about precitable!) . . . . After that,
I can only do individual poems.

Banjo52 said...

AH, I wondered if people would find the Hirsch (AND the Roethke?) too sentimental. For me, Hirsch pushes that envelope, but I've liked "Sleepwalkers" and "Fast Break" for a long time, plus some others of his.

Brenda's Arizona said...

I like For the Sleepwalkers. Don't you ever wonder what is going on with sleepwalkers? Are they really using the same energy they use when they are awake? Obviously they aren't using the same eyes, nor the same rationale, so maybe they are using different energy all together. Maybe they really are driven by the moon beams. I like to think there is something truly mystical about sleepwalking.

The Waking seems more depressing. Is he suffering from an awful illness? Is he groping his way along, with no script to go by? Is he unsure of every mood, every waking, every day? Is his only choice to go where he has to go? I admire his attitude, but I am sad for him non-the-less.

I really didn't think you liked Frost much! I am always surprised by you, Banjomyn.

Banjo52 said...

Brenda, I can see why "The Waking" would feel resigned or melancholy, though I think "realistic" or "cautious faith" are other words for it.

For example, the worm is "lowly" but it is still climbing UP a winding stair--slow, laborious, but upward progress.

And "light takes the tree" and "learn, LOVELY," by going where we have to go. So yes, there's acceptance of death ("I wake to SLEEP) and something like fate--"where I HAVE to go" but also hope about "where I have yet to go and have new experience."

There's also peace in accepting a destiny -- where I have to go -- and there's dreaminess, calm, and beauty along the way.

When someone is as paradoxical as Roethke is here, I'm more likely to trust hyr or hym.

("This shaking keeps me steady"--If I'm always shaking, there's a steadiness, a predictability, in that. I'm shaking today, and I'll be shaking tomorrow; there's a comforting predictability or steadiness in that. Things, including "me," are in constant vibration--anxiety, yes, but also neurological activity, or life. If it's not dead, it's shaking.).

Whaddya think?

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