Edward Hirsch, an award-winning poet, was named today to be the next president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. In January he will succeed Joel Conarroe, who has been president for 17 years.
In making the announcement, Mr. Conarroe praised Mr. Hirsch as “an articulate champion of what the Guggenheim stands for” and “an ebullient spirit whose passion for literature is contagious.” While acknowledging that other poets have led major institutions, he said that Mr. Hirsch’s appointment was probably a first in this field.
“I can’t think of any other time when a widely celebrated poet or novelist has taken on this kind of foundation position,” Mr. Conarroe said. “It is an important moment in American cultural history.”
The Guggenheim offers fellowships each year to artists, scholars and scientists. This year it awarded $6,750,000 to 184 winners, selected from more than 2,800 applicants. At 52, Mr. Hirsch is the same age that Mr. Conarroe was when he was named head of the foundation. There have been only two other presidents of the foundation since it was created in 1925.
Mr. Hirsch, who is an essayist and scholar as well as a poet, has won many awards, including a MacArthur fellowship, a Rome Prize, a National Book Critics Circle Award (for his 1986 book of poetry, “Wild Gratitude”) and a Guggenheim fellowship. For 17 years he has lived in Houston, where he is a professor of English at the University of Houston. For five years he has been a member of the Guggenheim Foundation’s selection committee.
In a telephone interview from his home, he said he was “excited and wildly energized by the challenge and by the idea of a working artist as the head of a foundation.”
“Poetry itself hasn’t been well served by poets who fled to the margins,” he continued. “It has been well served recently by poets who have seen poetry as part of cultural life. Given the opportunity, I felt I ought to leap.”
Taking over his new post, he will move to New York with his wife, Janet Landay, who is a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and their 13-year-old son, Gabriel.
Mr. Hirsch has published five books of poetry, most recently “On Love” in 1998, and has a new one, “Lay Back the Darkness,” scheduled to be published next March. (Both books are from Alfred A. Knopf.) The new work, he said, is “a book of midlife,” looking back on his father, who died this past year, and looking forward to his teenage son.
He has also written three books of prose, including “How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love With Poetry” (Harcourt, 1999), and frequently reviews poetry. He has a weekly column in the Book World section of The Washington Post. Through his writing and his public readings and lectures, he has become known as an enthusiastic advocate for the arts. As he said in a poem that is a homage to the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, “Life has to have the plenitude of art.”
In his own work, he said, “I aspire to a poetry of great formal integrity, deep passion and high intellect, and I have many models for how to do that.” Although his intellectual interests are diverse, he has an affinity for East European poets, particularly those from Poland, beginning with Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska, both of whom won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
When Mr. Hirsch’s “Earthly Measures” (Knopf) was published in 1994, Patricia Hampl said in The New York Times Book Review: “These are poems of immense wonder and rigor. To say they are religious poems is only to recognize their grandeur and generosity, and their heartbreaking longing.”
In New York this fall, Mr. Hirsch will teach a course in modern European poetry in translation at Columbia University and will be introduced by Mr. Conarroe to the workings of the foundation. Mr. Conarroe, who will continue as president of the PEN American Center, said that he planned to read and to write in his retirement.
Recently, Mr. Hirsch was in Cracow, Poland, and read his poetry after Mr. Milosz. “In Poland,” he said, “that is like following the pope.” He added: “Following Joel Conarroe puts me in something of the same position. I don’t want to drop the ball.”
That choice of a sports image to describe his new position is natural. Mr. Hirsch, who was born in Chicago, began writing poetry in high school and was both a poet and a football player at Grinnell College in Iowa. Coincidentally, before Mr. Conarroe became known as a scholar and academic, he was briefly a sportswriter.
Expressing his awareness of the broadness of the foundation’s concerns, Mr. Hirsch said, “It represents all fields of scholarship, the sciences, the social sciences and the humanities and all the arts — and has always been committed to individual achievement.”
He said that he planned to continue the tradition set by Mr. Conarroe and also to continue writing poetry: “It’s absolutely crucial to maintain my life as a poet.” Asked if he had written any poetry that would be appropriate to his new position, he quoted from his poem “Earthly Light,” to illustrate his desire to enlarge his outlook.
Because this world, too, needs our unmixed
attention, because it is not heaven
but earth that needs us, because
it is only earth — limited, sensuous
earth that is so fleeting, so real.
Those lines, he said, are “about being called to the world rather than away from the world.”