BOOK REVIEW: The Heart of American Poetry by Edward Hirsch

The Heart of American PoetryThe Heart of American Poetry by Edward Hirsch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Out: April 19, 2022

This book presents forty poems from prominent American poets, interspersed with essays by Hirsch offering background on the poet, the poem, and how the poem reflects upon America. It’s a fine collection of poems, and a thoughtful discussion of them. There will be something new to most readers. While most of the poets are well-known and while there are a few highly anthologized poems: e.g. Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus,” Dickinson’s #479 [Because I Could Not Stop for Death,] and Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” there are many more off the beaten path selections to be discovered.

As for whether the selection captures the heart of American poetry, on that wouldn’t necessarily agree. That said, it’s presented as Hirsch’s personal selection; the pieces in it are great poems, and he has as much right to his views as anyone. The anthology does capture many elements of the American poetic voice. It does a fine job of capturing the many strains of dissent, critique, and resistance from the Harlem Renaissance (e.g. Langston Hughes) to that of the indigenous peoples (e.g. Joy Harjo) to the Beats (e.g. Allen Ginsberg.) What Hirsch seems less comfortable with is the Whitmanian voice of affection and admiration for the country. In writing about Whitman and Frost, Hirsch makes comments about their lack of appeal to him, apparently their respective unbridled positivity and folksiness were found unbecoming of a poet. I felt the fact that Hirsch had to search out one of Whitman’s more angsty and dark compositions in order to be happy with Whitman’s inclusion was telling (Hirsch could hardly leave Whitman out and present the book as capturing the essence of American poetry.)

The anthology reflects much of the cultural and artistic diversity seen in America, but it eschews the middle America voice (i.e. 70% of the poems are from New Jersey and northward up the Atlantic coast, and while New York may be the country’s cultural and publishing capital, skilled poets from South of the Mason-Dixon and more than 150 miles from the Atlantic coast aren’t as much rare flukes as this anthology would suggest.)

I enjoyed reading this anthology, and I learned a great deal from the essays that went along with each poem. The book is definitely worth reading. Mopey Plath-loving New Yorkers are more likely to find it representative of the voice of American poetry than sanguine Whitman-loving Hoosiers, but it’s an enlightening read, either way.


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