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An Evening of Poetry with Robert Polito and Edward Hirsch

November 9, 2015
AAR President Mark Robbins introduces Edward Hirsch and Robert Polito.
Poets Edward Hirsch and Robert Polito in discussion.
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A large crowd braved driving rain turn to see Edward Hirsch (1989 Fellow) and Robert Polito read and discuss poetry at this fall’s first US installment of the series, Conversations/Conversazioni: From the American Academy in Rome. Every year, the Academy awards at least one Fellowship or Residency in Literature, and has hosted many luminary poets, such as Richard Wilbur (1956 Fellow), Robert Penn Warren (1957 Resident), and Mark Strand (1983 Resident).

As Academy President Mark Robbins mentioned in his welcome, the Conversations/Conversazioni series are a chance to talk about the work that takes at AAR and to bring it out into the world. It’s an endeavor that dovetails with much of the work of both Polito and Hirsch. In addition to their widely lauded work as poets, they are both tireless advocates for popularizing poetry and making the art form more accessible. Hirsch has written several books about how to read poems, and Polito, as the previous head of the Poetry Foundation, worked to aid and promote the presence of poetry in multiple areas of American culture and society.

It was fitting, therefore, that the conversation, after each poet read a selection of his own work, quickly turned to a discussion that weighed the immediate audience connection that is sparked at public readings, against the more inward, analytic engagement that takes place when one reads a poem on the page. Readings, they noted, haven’t always been a feature of the modern poetry world. In fact, it was only with the readings of Dylan Thomas, for whom these events were a central source of income, that the recital form became popularized in contemporary United States.

A series of audience questions closed the evening, with some exploring the theme of accessibility in performed and written poetry. One person asked whether the poets ever asked themselves who spoke through their poems. “All the time,” said Polito.  “But of course,” added Hirsch, “one’s voice is always a construction.” It was clear from the evening’s discussion that whatever that voice is, it sounds different on a page than in front of an audience.