Two old friends, American poet Edward Hirsch and Norman Manea, the Romanian writer living in New York, met their readers on Saturday, the 4th of October, on the fourth day of the Iaşi Festival of Literature and Translation, within a debate about poetry, its role in society and the way it influences character, as the two writers talked about the ways literature caused them to become estranged from their original families and brought them closer to other, more remote worlds. The event was moderated by Rodica Dimitriu.
Norman Manea admitted that he was thrilled to have a public dialogue with his friend, Edward Hirsch, because the two had planned for many years “such an adventure”. The writer also told the audience about the fact that two years ago, together with his wife, he found a snail in the garden of the Pogor Museum and took it home with him, flouting the security rules of the airports in Romania, Spain, Italy and the USA. “This says something about my emotional connection with this place, with this language in which I was shaped and then became misshapen, in which I started off as a man of letters, and then became a writer, a language that I eventually carried with me very far away, and therein are the home and the motherland at their most authentic and most profound”. Norman Manea said that Edward Hirsch is one of the first American writers he befriended when he got to the USA. “Edward is not just a great poet, he is also a great researcher of poetry, who has studied its meanings, what it can offer and what it cannot, and what place it can have in our problem-filled world,” stated the writer, asking his old friend to introduce himself by reading one of his poems, “Self-portrait”.
Edward Hirsch remarked, amusedly, that he had already been told that his poems sound better in Romanian than in English. “I suppose I could take that as a compliment,” he added. About Norman Manea he said that, out of the writers he knows, he is one of the most profound and that Norman Manea’s writings mean a lot to him. “I liked his writing even before I met him,” said the American poet. “Poetry is a form of communication between two people who are from different places, and I believe it feeds us spiritually, because it gives the gift of intimacy with the other, at the same time offering interiority. It provides a shelter, but also involvement,” the poet stated, underlining that this connection with the self, as well as with the other in the shape of intimacy is the basis of all lyrical poetry.
Edward Hirsch: “It is language that has given a name to my feelings”
Norman Manea asked his friend whether he was of the opinion that this form of communication was still possible in today’s society, in which “poetry lovers have become a sect of people who talk amongst themselves with ease, but have difficulty talking with the surrounding world”. “It’s true that poetry is the art of a minority,” Hirsch answered, “and that it has its special challenges, especially in the United States, where there is a sort of attention deficit cult and everyone tries to sell you something, and this is becoming visible in Romania as well.” However, the American writer believes that the people who look for something that is beyond what is being sold, beyond “products, full stop”, will always be able to find themselves in poetry. Hirsch also underlined that in the history of mankind there was never any culture devoid of poetry. That is because poetry provides the kind of information we cannot find anywhere else, and the need for this type of information continues to be crucial. “And those of us who always read poetry were shocked by the fact that those whose writings we read can be closer to us than the friends we see by day or with whom we go drinking at night,” the poet underlined. Norman Manea intervened, saying that this is not solely a matter of “information”, as literature, especially poetry, goes beyond information. “It brings us a message, oftentimes a strange one, sometimes in code, about something that is present inside us, but we’re not aware of it. And suddenly we have the feeling we’ve found an interlocutor outside us, as well as finding one inside us,” argued the Romanian writer.
Edward Hirsch remembered that he had started reading poems when he was a child, and then the interior loneliness he had been feeling, but which he could not express, began to get a shape, to be defined. And once it became clear, instead of feeling even more lonely, the effect was the opposite. “I would read poems filled with solitude and I felt I was defining something I had been feeling inside, I started feeling a new connection. And the mystery of poetry is that it is conveyed to you through language. It is language that has given a name to my feelings so that I could understand myself and truly live.”
In Norman Manea’s opinion, the work of a writer is a constant struggle with mortality; Edward Hirsch added to the idea, saying that the notion of our inevitable death is the basis of lyrical poetry; and this poetry is an opposition to the fact that we all disappear.
by Ioan Stoleru