100 Poems To Break Your Heart
In this book recently released in paperback, poetry lovers will savor 100 compelling and beautifully rendered poems about grief, loneliness, and the human condition crafted over the past 200 years. That alone is worth the purchase price, but the analysis and commentary by Edward Hirsch introducing each poem with a bit about the poet and the poem is like sitting in on a riveting scholarly lecture that delves into the craft, emotional impact, and personal story of the poet. Edward Hirsch accomplishes this without pretension. As he says in the introduction, “Poetry companions us.” It is a way individuals feel less isolated and more immersed in the emotions everyone has felt at some point.
Reading a 500-page collection of poetry isn’t easy or quick. Skipping around and savoring the order and context of each poem takes a reader out of the daily world of deadlines, national and international catastrophes. This is a necessary distraction.
Edward Hirsch is a master poet and author of How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, a text used in many undergraduate and graduate classes and beloved by poets and readers of poetry everywhere. If anyone can make a reader fall in love with poetry, it is Edward Hirsch. He is not afraid to confront racism, death of a loved one, or the familiar atrocities of war. Included in this collection are some favorite poets like Nazim Hikmet, a Turkish poet who was sentenced to 28 years in prison because his political leanings made him a target with Turkish armed forces. He served 13 years, surviving by singing and writing. In his poem “On Living,” he writes, “I mean, however and wherever we are,/we must live as if we will never die.”
Poems from different eras and backgrounds power this collection. It is an anthology for our times, the slowing down and the outstretched hand needed to move forward in a fast-paced and dangerous world.
Wislawa Szymborksa, a Polish poet who won the 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature was known for her spare language and embedded social context. The included poem, “Under One Small Star” unfolds with a series of apologies, “Forgive me, distant wars, for bringing flowers home.” She ends the poem with “Don’t bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow weighty words,/then labor heavily so that they may seem light.” That is indeed the task of many poets: to find the exact words to describe horror, loss, and heartbreak so that readers can burrow inside them and feel less alone.
The poem by Marie Howe, “What the Living Do,” is written in the form of a letter to her brother, John, who tragically died from complications of AIDS when he was 28. Written in free verse couplets, she tells her brother about the ordinary details of her life. Like Nazim Hikmet’s poem, details are what make life precious. Her ending acknowledges her own reflection in a store window, “chapped face and unbuttoned coat,” evidence that she is living, and in that capacity, she can remember and honor his life. This poem is the epitome of a poem written out of heartbreak.
Tony Hoagland, a poet who died too young of cancer, wrote the poem, “Barton Springs” for another poet, Jason Shinder, who also died of cancer. This poem was written a decade before Tony Hoagland knew he had cancer. The chilling part of the poem is its premonition, “When I get my allotted case of cancer,/let me swim ten more times at Barton Springs.” The poem celebrates a pool fed from underground springs in Austin, Texas. Like other poems in this collection that reflect on the ways life pummels and weighs on humanity, this poem does so in a matter-of-fact way because the moment of looking up at trees, backstroking “over the rocks and little fishes,” is worth it all.
This collection is restorative and necessary, with themes ranging from death to violence to disease to political or sexual persecution. It is a triumph of the human condition that suffering can beget such art. These 100 poems will indeed break hearts, but they also offer examples of resilience, the lasting impact of words, and a wisdom that a reader can return to and share.