Ernest Hilbert’s debut poetry collection Sixty Sonnets (2009) was described by X.J. Kennedy as “maybe the most arresting sequence we have had since John Berryman checked out of America.” His second collection, All of You on the Good Earth (2013), has been hailed as a “wonder of a book,” “original and essential,” an example of “sheer mastery of poetic form,” containing “some of the most elegant poems in American literature since the loss of Anthony Hecht.” His third collection, Caligulan (2015), has been called “brutal yet beautiful,” defined by “pleasure, clarity, and discipline,” “tough-minded and precise,” filled with a “stern, witty, and often poignant music,” “a page-turner in a way most poetry books can never be,” and “an honest book for dishonest times.”
He supplies opera libretti and song lyrics for contemporary composers Stella Sung, Daniel Felsenfeld, and Christopher LaRosa, as well as scripts for the post-punk conceptual band Mercury Radio Theater. Hilbert teaches in the Master of Fine Arts program in poetry at Western State University of Colorado, where he teaches an intensive summer course on the practical art of the opera libretto as well as courses in verse satire, dramatic poetry, studies in translation, and the history of the English language.
His poems have appeared in Yale Review, American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, Parnassus, Sewanee Review, Hudson Review, Boston Review, Verse, New Criterion, The New Republic, American Scholar, Oxonian Review, and the London Review, as well as several anthologies, including the Swallow Anthology of New American Poets (2009), Two Weeks: A Digital Anthology of Contemporary Poetry (2011), The Incredible Sestina Anthology (2013), and two Penguin anthologies, Poetry: A Pocket Anthology and Literature: A Pocket Anthology (2011).
Hilbert graduated with a doctorate in English Language and Literature from Oxford University, where he edited the Oxford Quarterly. While there, he studied with Jon Stallworthy—biographer of Wilfred Owen and Louis MacNeice and editor of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry—and James Fenton, then Professor of Poetry at Oxford. He later served as poetry editor of Random House’s magazine Bold Type in New York City and head editor of Contemporary Poetry Review, published by the American Poetry Fund in Washington DC.
He hosts the popular blog E-Verse and works as an antiquarian book dealer in Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife, Keeper of the Mediterranean Section at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Hilbert’s full career biography appears at the bottom of this page.
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ON THE POETRY OF ERNEST HILBERT
Tough-minded and precise, Ernest Hilbert’s lyrics, like his old mirror left out at the curb, turn an unflinching gaze on pieces of inner and outer landscapes we often push to the periphery. The poems in Caligulan fashion a stern, witty, and often poignant music out of seemingly unpromising elements courageously glimpsed, combined, or imagined.
– Rachel Hadas, author of Halfway Down the Hall: New and Selected Poems and editor of The Greek Poets: Homer to the Present
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Hilbert unerringly assumes the burdens of clarity. He knows the thing and has no lack of means to tell you about it, ravishingly. He pummels the sonnet-form back to life, breathing into it the whiskey-breath of the here-and-now. Hilbert has a gift for simile, metaphor, and phrasing. I can picture Hilbert in a drunken brawl with Christopher Marlowe. I mean this as a compliment. Hilbert holds his own.
– The New Criterion
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These sixty new sonnets [All of You on the Good Earth] find Ernest Hilbert, “an earnest / Pilgrim of some kind,” charging up to the ruins of a shared and personal past as well into the ether of his own (mostly) earthbound head. Part shaman, part showman, he reaches his hand in, winks, and with a flourish, produces one little marvel after another. Like Lowell before him, Hilbert has found in the sonnet a form of confinement that excites and accommodates a liberality of temperaments, rhetorics, bad thoughts and big ideas, but where Lowell favored blank verse, Hilbert surprises with rhymes he unwinds with preternatural finesse. His material ranges from the all too familiar to visionary moments in which our debauchery brings us to “fall apart like ancient stars” or to witness a vaseful of stargazer lilies “unfastening like a vast nebula” with a “long pour of poisonous gas.” Retrospective, forward-looking, tonic and toxic, All of You on the Good Earth is a wonder of a book, and Hilbert’s best yet.
– Timothy Donnelly, author of The Cloud Corporation, winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award
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Ernest Hilbert’s sure-footed poems have the breathless urgency of a man telling others the way out of a burning building. Unafraid to startle, often winning out over recalcitrant material, they score astonishing successes. A bold explorer with few rivals, Hilbert enlarges the territory of traditional form. Sixty Sonnets may be the most arresting sequence we have had since John Berryman checked out of America.
– X.J. Kennedy, author of Lords of Misrule and editor of Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama
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Hilbert has an appetite for life equal to his taste in literature: a rare combination in an age of dissociated sensibility. In these sonnets, whose dark harmonies and omnivorous intellect remind the reader of Robert Lowell’s, Hilbert is alternately fugitive and connoisseur, hard drinker and high thinker. But he is always a true poet, proud to belong to the company of those who still feel “The last, noble pull of old ways restored, / Valued and unwanted, admired and ignored.”
– Adam Kirsch, senior editor for The New Republic and author of The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry
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The comparisons to Lowell are just . . . What’s so attractive here is the colloquial nonchalance that transpires within the formal decorum. It’s quirkier, more low to the ground, more hip, as one said in the olden days. “You should know I’ve come to terms with weather / since you left.” This made me laugh out loud.
– James Longenbach, author of Modern Poetry after Modernism
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The work of art that moves through summer to spring is the work of an optimist. So don’t let the title fool you. As the star under which the poems in this collection move, the title Caligulan is brutal and yet beautiful, highly refined and yet enticingly diurnal. Moved by beauty, attuned to the sublimity of natural things, livened by paradox, coaxed into song by pentameter, Ernest Hilbert’s rich new book covers more emotional ground than a reader has any right to expect of a poet writing in this muted and mumbling world we have made for ourselves. “Caligulan” poems like “Squirrel Hill” are hard to come by. And when you come to them you feel grateful for such a luscious reminder of how poetry can honor the life lived, the live taken from us, and the life still to be lived. Indeed, Caligulan is a timely reminder that the only tyrant that can take poetry away from us is us.
– Rowan Ricardo Phillips, author of Heaven and Blackness Rhymes with Blackness
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Ernest Hilbert has written some of the most elegant poems in American literature since the loss of Anthony Hecht. A fascinating blend of the Augustan and romantic (an Augustanism that flirts with the sweaty Rochester as much as the marmoreal Johnson, and a romanticism charged with as much street grit as lyricism and longing), with a cadence that can be as wickedly eloquent as Lowell or compressed, as an elegantly held fist, as Bishop, Hilbert holds tight to an understanding of poetry and the role of the poet—proud without complacency, authentic without cheapness, self-respecting and self-mocking—that is (thank God) not particularly popular in poetic circles today. . . He, or his poetic persona, moves across the world, an “earnest pilgrim,” from the necropolis at Vulci to Iwo Jima, to the bars of TriBeCa and the back alleys of Queens, to Senecan Rome, “from Grub Street to the Brill Building,” to the “dark suburbs” (“The insatiable sprawl thieves as it gives,” as he says in a memorable line in a book packed, jammed, and o’erbrimming with lines you will want to linger over, savor, like the wines of Helicon), to New Jersey’s Mullica River, to a graveyard in Philadelphia . . . Any page you open to contains, not a gem, but a treasury, a manuscript of illuminations, lapis lazuli and gold, even when the poet is watching his key chain spatter down a toilet bowl in a late New York club night. He describes, like a Milton cast away in the alleys, what he sees on a bleak night in the slums of a great, wounded city, or in the hungover misery of a bus ride down the east coast’s suburban sprawled flank, in a poverty-stricken childhood home life among “the peculiar clan at cul-de-sac’s end,” in the fissile fossilizing of a convention of archaeologists, in a list (far from incomplete) of America’s robust negatives, in a pixilated Oscar acceptance speech and a rancid envy’s tongue lashing of revenge—all without missing a beat or a foot.
– Christopher Bernard, Synchronized Chaos
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When a formal poem is doing its job well, it couldn’t exist in any other way. In All of You on the Good Earth, Ernest Hilbert takes on the sonnet form with every poem. At their best, Hilbert’s poems use that form to full advantage, revealing depths of meaning that would otherwise remain inaccessible . . . . If you’re interested in formal poetry—or even if you’re not—do yourself a favor and check out Hilbert. With work appearing everywhere from American Poetry Review to Yale Review to B O D Y to Rattle, he’s poised to become a major voice in contemporary formalism.
– Cleaver Magazine
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Hilbert has a tough, unsentimental vision of contemporary life. One review of his new book, Caligulan, calls it “an honest volume for dishonest times,” partly because the poems don’t rest any more easily in traditional poetic forms than they do in free verse, and partly because his scenes are often so full of unease, dis-ease, death, and things gone awry. Steeped in tradition, the poems are also street-smart and utterly unacademic. His first full-length book, Sixty Sonnets, inaugurated a form now called “the Hilbertian sonnet”—a very workable variation on Petrarch and Shakespeare. Hilbert is one of the very few poets ever to have a verse form named for him, which is surely some kind of honor. As it happens, I read a lot of contemporary sonnets, and most of them bore me to tears. The best in the Hilbertian mode have a jangly, new-fangled music that never settles into formalist quilting bees. His second full- length collection, All of You on the Good Earth, continued in that vein, extending the range of subjects if not the form. Caligulan not only brings a new and disturbing adjective into existence, but also proves Hilbert a poet of greater intellectual and formal breadth than we might previously have realized. Hilbert is a poet of psychological restlessness, of urban and sometimes rural scenes in which cruelty is natural and grace sometimes hard to find. But the hard-earned grace of his work will linger in the mind and the heart.
– David Mason, editor of Twentieth Century American Poetry and Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry
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The poems of All of You on the Good Earth are tighter and brighter than those of Sixty Sonnets. It’s clear that Hilbert’s verse is not “sentenced to stay still.” The book “rolls and glows” through another sixty sonnets (an appellation one should not utter in Mr. Hilbert’s presence unless you’re buying a copy of the book from him and a drink for him) with an ear that has developed beyond what A.E. Stallings called “the roughed-up prose rhythms of speech” in Hilbert’s first collection. Far more than his previous work or the work of most other poets today, Hilbert in All of You on the Good Earth lets his poems live within the sound of words, meaning not subordinated to sound like in a Stein poem but enhanced and enlivened by it as in the best words of Eliot or Plath. This is a fine collection.
– Literary Magnet
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Hilbert’s stance is that of the outsider, the rake, the poète maudit; he is drawn to the monstrous, the grotesque, the wounded, solitary, and absurd. Like his masters, Lowell and Berryman, he writes with one eye on the canon and the other on the bottle . . . among the voices channeled here are a fiery street artist, a vatic gravedigger, a Roman stoic, a judgmental suburban village chorus, a pompous aesthete, a depressed, aging singer, a spaced-out actress at the Academy Awards, Newbolt man (homo Newboltiensis) on the fields of Eton, a beleaguered war correspondent, and Benito Mussolini, pleading for his life. The poems take place at sea and ashore, in boats, parks, cities, and ancient ruins, on trains and in cars, at loud strip clubs, seedy apartments, and reputable estates, in zoos and at archaeological conventions. They are lyrical, moving, angry, sad, wistful, and funny.
– Hopkins Review
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In his debut collection, Sixty Sonnets, Hilbert establishes a variation on the sonnet form, employing an intricate rhyme scheme and varied line length. A skillful practitioner of form and nuance, Hilbert shifts between delicately sonic moments and humorous narrative sequences. Hilbert’s second collection, All of You on the Good Earth, returns to his idiosyncratic, highly inventive sonnet form.
– Poetry Foundation
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The point is all-inclusiveness, acceptance of the whole world of subject matter. [All of You on the Good Earth] means to take in the beautiful and the awful, and it does; its publicity tells us that it “continues to explore the bizarre worlds of twenty-first-century America.” The attractive cover design, purely color and text, avoids any interpretive tilt, neither approving nor condemning that bizarreness. The index of the book’s cultural references runs from Alighieri to Zevon, through Nick Cave and Montaigne and Wilde and assorted others on the way. To get everything here, the reader needs to be able to parse a little Latin and a little Italian and have a purchase on most of Western history, poetry, movies, and television. The breadth is consonant with the list of accomplishments in the poet’s bio. The small, witty touches that enlivened Hilbert’s first book are here too—for example, the sly statement on the copyright page that resemblances to actual persons are ‘of course, purely intentional.’ Close observation in all things, low or luxuriant, is the great strength of the poems . . . The best we can do with the sad strangeness is to look carefully and take the marvels where we find them, admitting that they never finally wipe away the tears of things. . . . It’s a poetic stance we can believe in the twenty-first century. It’s a significant one, in a poetic world that has become, in David Yezzi’s phrase, “like a spayed housecat lolling in a warm patch of sun.” Hilbert’s is a voice we can trust and be grateful for as a way of making sense of this bizarre, and sad, and laughable—and good—Earth.
– Angle, Journal of Poetry in English
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After his beautifully rendered Sixty Sonnets and the eloquent All of You on the Good Earth comes this richly wrought new collection. Hilbert is a classicist in the finest sense of the term: he has a firm grip on the formal orders that have dominated the great tradition of Anglophone verse from the skalds of Beowulf and the Pearl Poet to the tight gems of darkness of Thomas Hardy, and he uses them to write poems that ring with very contemporary truths. A skillful artificer of forms of verse that have sometimes gone wanting or are unjustifiably neglected or despised after the earthquakes of modernism, he is afraid of neither tight meter nor demanding rhymes: he proves there is nothing whatsoever anachronistic about well-tooled verse; the rage of authenticity can speak as sharply in a sonnet as in a calligramme . . . Though a constant trembling of anguish informs many of these poems, like a quiet ostinato rumbling constantly in the bass, what is most notable is how the poet’s anxieties are, in the main, transmuted from personal spasms of what sometimes feels like merely neurotic terror into objects of great beauty, a beauty that transforms the anguish that generated them into victories, however temporary, of grace.
– Christopher Bernard
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Caligulan delivers on all of its title’s promise. Every poem evokes the world we live in: we know something is wrong and, in a minute, will likely be worse; but there’s beauty in the portent and in the self-awareness we need to see it. Hilbert’s remarkable ability to draw a scene so clear you immediately make yourself at home, and so suggestive you want to get out because you know you can’t settle in, makes this collection a page-turner in a way most poetry books can never be.
– Erica Dawson, author of Big-Eyed Afraid
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Just as the work of the modernists showed that the best free verse usually has something masterfully formal about it, Hilbert’s fine collection might serve to remind us that the best formal poetry has about it a marvelous colloquial freshness and inventiveness, and the ring of an actual human voice. It is a touching and intelligent book.
– Franz Wright, recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry
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Sixty Sonnets delights in a decidedly badass bravura. Hilbert’s red-blooded diction and febrile subjects put paid to any lingering suspicions about traditional verse’s chronic anemia. His erudition is salted with humor, his romantic flights with a rage for order. He is a twenty-first century beatnik in Elizabethan ruff. A smashing debut!
– David Yezzi, author of Azores and The Hidden Model
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There’s much pleasure, clarity, and discipline to the way Ernest Hilbert looks around him in Caligulan, at the complicated textures of city and landscape, and at all the stuff, the materials, the detritus, that make up a place, a time, and a life. In these easily formal, easily idiomatic poems you’ll read about a dishwasher—his “arsenal of cutlery, / The spider-eggy fluff / That clings like mold to crockery”—and you’ll also meet the stuffed moose at a science museum: “You still startle, filling half the false sky . . . . // You tower / In the same black forests I’ve traveled lately.” Hilbert gets the details right, and he also gets the emotions right. “The smoke alarm fails, and your computer crashes” while an ATM is “pitiless, displays a message for / Insufficient Funds.” But there’s also this: “You want to fight. / You spit and shout. In daydreams you sing.” This is a book full of the real, and also full of heart.
– Daisy Fried, author of Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice
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The American lyric rendered in these poems follows Coleridge’s description of the sonnet as “adapted to the state of a man violently agitated by a real passion.” Hilbert’s passion here is to contain, precious piece by precious piece, the unordinary quotidian of the American poetic. Sixty Sonnets is a gift to all of us from an exceptional ear and a fine consciousness.
– Afaa Michael Weaver, author of Multitudes, recipient of the Kingsley Tufts award
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For scale alone, the project at first seems improbable. But then you read, and it’s clear that Hilbert’s sensibility, bright-hued and gothic, sentimental, precise and ambitious, could be contained by no less. These wry and lovely poems are for anyone whose curiosity ranges from Petrarch to improv, and the result is a complex portrait of the America of our current era—composed in singing verse!
– Dave King, Rome-prize winning author of the novel The Ha-Ha
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The poems in Caligulan have a wonderful resonance. These new poems have something very “Cal” [Robert Lowell] about them, the very personal tone and settings combined with extraordinary perceptions. The fishing boats in “Barnegat Light” returning “as silhouettes” is a haunting, beautiful image. At unexpected moments, Hilbert reaches for, and finds, the sublime.
– Michael Steffen, introduction at the Hastings Room Series, Cambridge, Massachusetts
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Like the minutes of the hour, these Sixty Sonnets both combine to make a whole and shine as individual moments. While groups of these sonnets occasionally suggest a narrative—refreshingly, like the fugitives and weary academics that people these pages—they work alone. The newspaper crime blotter itself, from which, perhaps, some of these incidents are torn, speaks up as a single sonnet. Here are barflies, high-school dropouts, retired literary critics, washed-up novelists and war-zone reporters, suburbanites and historians, and lyrics with a range of reference from Zippos and Star Wars figures to George Gissing and Thomas Eakins. Mostly in a decasyllabic line that allows for the roughed-up prose rhythms of speech, these sonnets tend to conclude in true iambic pentameter, the tradition that haunts rather than dominates these poems. It is the voice of a less lyrical Prufrock (“We’ll head out, you and me, have a pint”), a voice that speaks with unsentimental affection for the failures, the “fuck-ups,” the “Gentlemen at the Tavern”—but it is a voice that just as easily could be speaking of the gentlemen at the Mermaid Tavern, and indeed there is something of Marlowe, as well as Eliot, in this sensibility. The evasive presence in the background occasionally speaks in propria persona—the wry, worldly-wise voice of the poet himself—as much listener as talker—something like a sympathetic bartender, scrupulous in his measures, who has heard it all before, but nightly observes every hour unfold afresh from behind the counter.
– A.E. Stallings, MacArthur Fellow, poet and translator of Lucretius’s Nature of Things for Penguin Classics
Hilbert is one of our best rhymers since Robert Frost, and his poems have been compared by superb poets to those of John Berryman and Robert Lowell. We haven’t had a poetry like his—both seriously tough-minded and wryly self-chiding—to enjoy and mull over for a long time.
– Alice Quinn, Executive Director of the Poetry Society of America
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As anti-pastoral as Hilbert can be, he shares Robert Frost’s commitment to describing impressions as precisely as possible, which may offer, as it did Robert Frost, a “momentary stay against confusion,” even if such descriptions can lead to contradictory conclusions . . . . The music of Caligulan is, by turns, smooth and jagged. This is by design. Poetry reflects and clarifies complexity . . . . An honest volume for dishonest times, Caligulan reminds us that “thunder / Sinks your song, because, like the day of birth, / The day you’ll wake and have your death is set.” It “just hasn’t happened yet.”
– Washington Free Beacon
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Ernest Hilbert’s Sixty Sonnets is exactly what its title suggests—and thus it’s a performance as much as a book of poems, showy and spectacular. From the brisk noir of “She Remembers How They Fled from the Liquor Store Robbery in New Mexico” to the ironic call-and-response of “Fortunate Ones” to the elegiac fatalism of “White Noise” Hilbert takes the reader on a bravura run through seemingly every variation of tone and style that the sonnet can contain. It’s a craftsman’s book, a revival of form best summed up by the opening lines of “Song”: “A song for those who learn forgotten, slow / Skills, crafts submerged long past by massed commerce.”
– Levi Stahl, poetry editor, Quarterly Conversation
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[Sixty Sonnets] delivers the full range of human types and stories, and nearly the whole breadth of what the sonnet can do. . . . We might see Hilbert as being God in these poems—as taking the all-gathering view of the merciful God who has room for all these lost ones, right along with the desperate fugitives, retired literary critics, crime victims, lovers, and godfathers. The poet as indwelling creator spirit? It fits for Hilbert: poet, from poietes, maker.
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[Ernest Hilbert’s] poems are beautifully made in their diction. The intelligence is clear.
– Donald Hall
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The only other poet who plies risk against reward so deftly is Pound.
– Strong Verse
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I took great pleasure in All of You on the Good Earth. [Hilbert has] a fantastic command of form that is bolstered by vernacular. I love the ending of “Soprano’s Lament,” for example. There’s a wonderful diction that reminds me of my favorite poet, Auden, and also a dash of Ted Berrigan of the sonnets. [Hilbert’s] touch is always of the best mind but also the down-to-earth perspective–radios paint-speckled, sirens, pissing lynxes . .
– John Skoyles, author of Secret Frequencies: A New York Education
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[Hilbert’s] that rare thing these days, a sonneteer, but he brings a conversational vibrancy to the form that continually pushes against its constraints even as it draws strength from them. And, oh, the pleasures he takes in sound and rhythm and rhyme! “Taped up, damp now, smeared photo of the stray / On each scratched steel lamppost along the way.”
– ivebeenreadinglately.com Book of the Year (Poetry), 2013
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Ernest Hilbert is known for the sonnet, and rightfully so. In Caligulan, he doesn’t so much break free of that but makes it clear that whatever he does, whether with subject, verse form, or anything else, it’s because it’s what he damn well wants to do. Poets like Hilbert roll that way. These poems will make you laugh and break your heart even as they drink you under the table.
– Quincy Lehr, author of Dark Lord of the Tiki Bar
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Caligulan may have a lurid cover and title and you may be able to purchase t-shirts advertising the book in a bespoke heavy metal font, but such paraphernalia should not distract us from Hilbert’s very high ambitions for his poetry. Individual poems can function in a similar manner to the book as a whole: distracted by his sometimes disheveled persona, you may want initially to compare this poet to someone like Bukowski, which is by no means a mean comparison to make, but I think that Hilbert writes very carefully to make himself heir to Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth and Wallace Stevens.
– Edward Clarke, author of The Spirit of Poetry
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Hilbert insists that perspective, where and how we are when we observe, is everything. . . . Just as Hilbert observes his modern world, he also reflects on the past, not his past, but that of humanity. He does so as if he were there, as if he were able to time-travel and seize these moments for future examination. A denizen of the present and an admirer of the past, Hilbert doesn’t overlook the not-so-pristine images of industrialism or modernity, but he also does not herald the great histories. Instead, he delves into both, mixing old and new, reaching for truth as he sees it, using one of the most classical literary forms, each sonnet a small window looking out to the larger view.
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Who gets away with rhyming “looker” and “fuck her”? Ernest Hilbert does, that’s who. And who among us has a sonnet form named after them? Why, it’s Ernest Hilbert yet again. “Be glad you’re not too stupid, or too short,” he advises, being neither of those things himself.
– Jill Alexander Essbaum, author of Heaven, Harlot, and Hausfrau
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Ernest Hilbert, in Sixty Sonnets, reminds us how vigorous and fun a form the sonnet is. That the form is still fecund becomes abundantly clear when one sits down with this collection and reads four, seven, nine sonnets at a sitting. . . . These sixty leave one hungry for sixty more.
– Library Thing
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Books of the year are those you know you’ll never bin; Sixty Sonnets belongs in their company.
– ivebeenreadinglately.com selection for Book of the Year (Poetry), 2009
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Ernest Hilbert’s second collection of poetry, All of You on the Good Earth, is an enlightening example of the revival of the sonnet. The poems are intelligent, topically indulgent, and extremely well crafted. The sonnets are capsules, compressing large ideas or expanding small ones, lined up in equal measure.
– New Pages
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Hilbert is at once ironic, dark, and witty. [His] lines reflect our own precarious hold on the world, where we are always close to losing control. From the perspective of an intriguing mishmash of subjects, Hilbert often takes on the persona of the failed, the beat up, and the beaten down, in which all are “sinking on a soft black balloon.” Hilbert entreats his hapless heroes to “go on, get high,” though there is always a price to be paid.
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Hilbert is masterful at rhyme. This is not over-the-top praise; his technique is simply awe-inspiring. Reading this and the rest of the poems in this collection, a reader will mostly be unaware of his tremendous craft and only after search and analysis will his strict formalism become apparent. Nothing he does is obvious, his rhythmic constraints are unfelt, all of his seams are hand-sewn yet flawless and undetectable.
– Philadelphia Review of Books
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Ernest Hilbert is one of the finest poets writing in the formal traditions of U.S. and European poetry. He is a master of craft, measure and music. His poem “Domestic Situation” has taken on the status of cult classic, widely performed and anthologized.
– New Dublin Press
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[All of You on the Good Earth] is filled with gritty, vibrant, technically innovative and masterful poems that speak directly to how we live now. They’re dark, they’re funny, they can be quite tender, and they always observe the world closely.
– Conundrum Best Books of the Year 2013
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The reader must be prepared to leap from ancient Greece to the East Village in one or two lines, and familiar with the Oresteia as well as Metallica . . . his is a quicksilver mind, generous and open and humorous.
– The Sheila Variations
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Hilbert excels with a somber palette—especially when he’s painting lines of the seafaring sort. “Ashore,” depicts a “harpooned great white shark” who’s washed up on the beach—dead. A crowd gathers to inspect the body. Hilbert is quick to remind the reader that, beneath the waves, lies “slit sails, drowned crews, [and] split hulls.” Setting aside visions of oceanic romance, Hilbert exposes the sea’s subtle haunting humanity. It’s a visceral must-read sonnet. But let’s not get too serious. Ernest Hilbert can have fun. Of all Hilbert’s poems in All of You on the Good Earth, there’s nothing like “Sunrise with Sea Monsters.” As a love letter to Ray Harryhausen (American producer and visual effects pioneer who created films like It Came from Beneath the Sea), the poem is a huge success, but it’s also something more. “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms skulks/Ashore, hearing a foghorn, lonely for friends” writes Hilbert who also mentions the “clumsy frogman from the Black Lagoon” and “Nessie.” These are set pieces that, despite their hilarity, make us feel for these ugly mugs. They’re “[b]eaten back by ray guns, germs, and Marines” as sea gulls peer into the ocean “watching for the next poor monster.” We almost revel in their destruction. This rare moment shows that Hilbert can be humorous, albeit the dark sort. Hilbert supplies us with poems like “Nights of 1998” to keep things fresh. There’s an intense party happening downtown (drugs, drinks, fights, and puke included) in the speaker’s apartment and he’s attempting to make sense of the unfolding mayhem. “I’m lit like a war,” he says. What a fantastic line. “We fall apart like ancient stars, sparks— / Gold like pollen blown across all this dark” writes Hilbert. Suddenly, I’m back in space, watching the Earth, Ernest Hilbert’s Earth, rotate wonderfully, horrifically on.
– Apiary Magazine
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Bob Dylan, another poet who often takes the fugitive as a persona, put it this way: “To live outside the law you must be honest.” That begins to explain, for me, [Hilbert’s] identification with people on the fringe, gangsters, drunks and women who return to the men who batter them. He’s acknowledging that the poet in this place and age is a person on the fringe.
– Alfred Nicol, introduction at Newburyport Literary Festival
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To be haunted, for an American poet today, is a rare and enviable condition. Not by personal demons—everyone has those, and when poets write about them they are really haunting themselves. To be genuinely haunted, as Ernest Hilbert is in these outward- and backward-looking poems, one must be conscious of the past, and of the chastening contrast between the past and the present; in other words, one must have a sense of history. And history is the “bruising storm” that “matures” on the horizon of Hilbert’s poems, as he writes in “Selv’oscura,” while the poet remains “swaddled” in the untrustworthy comfort of the present.
When Hilbert is visited by the past it is by grand and violent phantoms: “I read on about the lives and deaths of kings,” he writes in a Lowellian phrase in “April Arsenal.” Like Robert Lowell, Hilbert is drawn to scenes of carnage, where the true face of humanity seems to reveal itself. A destroyed tank in the Sinai Desert has weathered into landscape, its “long-ago blow and loss” like an archeological reminder of the ways human beings, in the Middle East especially, keep returning to ancient patterns of violence: “proof that armies advanced this far / Before in the baffling waste,” as Hilbert puts it in “On Passing the Remains of a T-62 in the Sinai.” The scene rhymes with the “Normandy beachhead, beneath clouds of naval gunfire,” in “Surrender of Breda,” a poem titled after Velasquez’s masterpiece of a forgotten war.
But if the poet’s present seems much more peaceful than the poems’ past, Hilbert is not at all sure that is an advantage. The most savage poems in Aim Your Arrows at the Sun use the past’s grandeur to reproach the pettiness of our world. In the Juvenalian “Bread and Circuses,” Hilbert sees our TV shows and fast food as the equivalent of the largesse with which Rome’s rulers stupefied her people. “Gettysburg,” continuing the tradition of Civil War poems by Allen Tate and Lowell, contrasts the Union and Confederate dead with their parody reenactors: “The soldiers who fought that day / Weren’t plump. They didn’t wear wristwatches,” Hilbert observes.
After such humiliating contrasts, Hilbert and the reader can only take comfort in the truth stated in “Dining with Representatives of the Vatican Museum”—that it is art, including the art of poetry, that survives the past and incarnates it. Poems like the ones in Aim Your Arrows at the Sun are the “small remains of each man and each age” that remind us of what is past and passing, and that will represent us in times to come.
– Adam Kirsch
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From ancient ruins, across time and space, and through private and open war, Hilbert’s poetry takes the reader on a grand journey in this, his second collection of (60) sonnets. There is a musicality within the verse which ranges from “the deep bass whump of [a] strip club’s system” to “spinning records by Bach and Britten.” The reader is transported into “rare moments of spine-breaming brilliance” on each page as Hilbert continues his modern revolution of the sonnet form.
– Benjamin Longfellow
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In Caligulan one finds [Hilbert] exhibiting his expert rhyming skills, wide-ranging (and often darkly humorous) observations, and sharp-eyed, rhythmic lines. While the poems here are set in a general context of menace and disaster, one would be wrong to conclude that the book is in any way a “downer.” Hilbert knows how to poke fun and make jokes in the midst of the apocalypse.
– Daniel Klawitter
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Who mixes transgression with formal constraints better than Ernest Hilbert? Answer: no one.
– Blake Wallin, author of No Sign on the Island
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Ernest Hilbert is a Philadelphia poet who spent years writing free verse in the Allen Ginsberg vein, but his first book of poems, Sixty Sonnets (2009), is exactly what its title suggests. Earlier this year he published his second volume—also a set of 60 sonnets—called All Of You On The Good Earth. Hilbert experiments with how many ways he can prod, twist, and kick at the sonnet to pull the form into the 21st century.
– Peter Crimmins, “NewsWorks Tonight,” WHYY/NPR
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Hilbert’s poems are good enough to choose virtues that run somewhat against the grain of present society. He portrays a remarkably witty and cool character on the downhill slide thrust upon our humanity by heartbreak and grief. At the same time, the presence of mind demonstrated by the composition of the poems and of Hilbert’s physical presence as a reader, affable and measured, reassure us of his survival, aplomb and fruition from that time of fire and rain.
– Boston Area Small Press and Poetry
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Hilbert’s best work shows us the beauty in our failings.
– J.G. McClure
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[Elegies & Laments is an] ingenious journey through sense and sound. One of the tracks records a particularly successful open mic where Hilbert reads, followed by stimulating contributions by Quincy R. Lehr, Paul Siegell, and Kristine Young. And introducing each track are tantalizing mashups of recordings, scratchy and haunting, of older poets, from Whitman to Ezra Pound to Sylvia Plath. . . . The poems tend more toward the demotic and streetwise, but never lose Hilbert’s strong imagery, feel for cadence, and rhythmic firmness. A wonderful release.
– Synchronized Chaos
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An album that defies genre . . . Elegies & Laments . . . is both in-your-face and ethereal. The crowning piece of the album is the last track, “Calavera for a Friend.” Backed by haunting strings, it captures the inevitability of death with heartbreaking candor. Elegies & Laments is an imaginative hybrid that anyone who appreciates poetry and/or music should put their ears to.
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There’s a cinematic depth to [Elegies & Laments]. Stand by your man, even when he throws your kitty-cat into a wood chipper, as happens in Hilbert’s sonnet “Domestic Situation.” An epic wah-wah guitar melts your god-damned face off and kills poetry dead. There’s too much seething dread and I’m developing an uncomfortable hotness-under-the-collar from the nagging suspicion that I’m being called out for being under-prepared for life, in a way I’m not educated enough to fully understand. Hilbert’s cleverly induced a low-level PTSD with his insidious record.
– Raintown Review
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Persevering with the sonnet, while evoking the hero-wanderer of epic, Hilbert reserves his promise to sing the songs of, as Seamus Heaney phrased it, “single things,” of the poet’s dilemma as it is, without agonizing much in the modal auxiliaries of ‘may,’ ‘might,’ or ‘should’ . . . Hilbert’s poems are good enough to choose virtues that run somewhat against the grain of present society. He portrays a remarkably witty and cool character on the downhill slide thrust upon our humanity by heartbreak and grief.
– Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene
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Amazing and innovative . . . The music is variegated and fascinating, by turns vicious and lovely . . . [it does] what art should do: change things. Elegies and Laments will change you, too.
– Literary Magnet
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FULL CAREER BIOGRAPHY
Ernest Hilbert’s third full-length poetry collection, Caligulan, was published in hardcover by Measure Press in September 2015. Poems from the collection appeared in American Arts Quarterly, American Poetry Review, Asheville Poetry Review, At Length, Battersea Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, Boston Review, Clarion, Cleaver, Dark Horse, Edinburgh Review, Hopkins Review, Hudson Review, Measure, Parnassus, Philadelphia Inquirer, Listen: Life with Classical Music, New Criterion, Smartish Pace, and Yale Review.
In May 2015, Hilbert’s second opera with Stella Sung, The Book Collector, received ten days of workshops at the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance (Ballet, Opera, Philharmonic), which commissioned the work with help from the League of American Orchestras, New Music USA, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Francis Goelet Charitable Lead Trusts, the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, and the ASCAP Foundation. The opera, which incorporates 3-D digital technology and a ballet, is a historical tragedy intended as companion piece to Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. It will premiere in May, 2016.
In 2013, The Red Silk Thread, the first opera by composer Stella Sung with a libretto by Hilbert received two public workshop productions at the Michigan Opera Studio at Ann Arbor. A fully-staged production took place in April 2014 at the Curtis M. Phillips Center for Performing Arts in Gainesville, Florida, with 70-piece orchestra, 60-voice offstage choir, and a cast of professional singers. Hilbert delivered a pre-concert lecture on the role of the librettist and also gave a talk one morning on the making of a modern opera for 1,000 local school children.
Ernest Hilbert’s second full-length poetry collection, All of You on the Good Earth, appeared in April 2013 from Red Hen Press. Poems from the collection appeared in 32 Poems, 66: The Journal of the Sonnet, American Poetry Review, Asheville Poetry Review, Battersea Review, Cimarron Review, Georgetown Review, Harvard Review, Horizon Review (London), Jewish Quarterly (London), Linebreak, Measure, New Ohio Review, Parnassus, Poetry East, RATTLE, The Dark Horse, The London Magazine, The New Criterion, The Oxonian Review, and The Yale Review.
Hilbert also released a spoken word album in 2013 with Philadelphia record label Pub Can. Elegies & Laments features performances of Hilbert’s poems by the author as well as several guest readers with a variety of musical accompaniment, including jazz, indie rock, and classical music by two songwriters and a classical composer. The album is available on vinyl, compact disc, digital download, and through streaming services.
Temporary Culture Press issued a limited-edition letterpress broadside of Hilbert’s poem “All of You on the Good Earth” with an illustration by Robert James Algeo. Temporary Culture Press also released a hand-made, letterpress volume of Hilbert’s poem “Against the Art of War” with etchings by London-based artist Judith Clute. Hilbert also issued several hand-made limited edition books from his own Nemean Lion Press. His poems also appeared in Amazing Sestina Anthology (Write Bloody Press, 2013) and Once Upon A Time in the Twenty-First Century: Unexpected Exercises in Creative Writing (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2015). Also in 2014 Hilbert served as a judge for Bryn Mawr College’s Seymour Adelman Poetry Award.
On April 16th, 2013, Hilbert was a guest for a one-hour interview on NPR’s “Radio Times” with Marty Moss-Coane. In December 2013, Hilbert was interviewed by WHYY/NPR 90.7FM’s Peter Crimmins for a radio feature titled “The Sonnet Makes a Small Comeback.” A recording of Ernest Hilbert reading his poem “Broad and Washington,” was broadcast on WHYY as part of the News Works Tonight New Year’s program the evening of December 31, 2013. Hilbert also appeared for three interviews on NPR-affiliate WDIY 88.1FM between 2009 and 2013. Hilbert was interviewed by Curtis Fox about the poetry of W.D. Snodgrass for Poetry Foundation podcast series “Poetry Off the Shelf.” Hilbert also appeared in 2009 on the “Joe Milford Radio Show.” On July 31st, 2015, WHYY’s “Radio Times in Review Poet’s Edition” featured interview with Hilbert, Rita Dove, and Nikky Finney. On May 1st, 2015, recordings of several of Hilbert’s poems appeared on PRX (Public Radio Exchange) as part of a program guest-hosted by Brian Heston for Georgia State Radio titled “Brotherly Love: Philadelphia.” On February 12th, 2016, Hilbert appeared as a guest on the Wharton School’s Sirius XM business radio to talk about the business of rare books and read his poem “At the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair” from Caligulan. The program has an estimated two and a half million listeners worldwide.
Between 2011 and 2015 Hilbert supplied 7,000-word introductions to popular editions in the Canterbury Classics series (Baker and Taylor) for Tolstoy’s War and Peace (2011), four Charles Dickens novels 2012), four Jules Verne novels (2013), and Classic Horror Stories (2015).
In 2015, Hilbert became Poetry Concentration Director for the MFA program at Western State University of Colorado, where he teaches courses in verse satire, dramatic poetry, history of the English language, and studies in translation, along with his summer intensive on the art of the opera libretto. In 2012, Hilbert created a graduate course called “Poetry and Music.” The course addresses the history and craft of opera libretti as well as popular and art song, hymn, pop music, oratorio, musical qualities of poetry, cognitive elements of music appreciation, ancient drama, aesthetics, and other aspects of the field. Sessions include lectures, analysis of archival recordings, and table reads of original one-act opera libretti by graduate students. Several of the libretti begun by the students in the class are currently being set to music by composers. A performance series, featuring student librettos developed in the class, brings professional singers to the Writing the Rockies conference. This component of the course began in summer of 2015 with a performance of Laura Stuckey’s historical opera Audubon’s Dream.
Since 2002, Hilbert has lived in the University City section of Philadelphia with his wife, the Keeper of the Mediterranean Section at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Sixty Sonnets, Ernest Hilbert’s first full-length collection of poems, appeared from Los Angeles publisher Red Hen Press in 2009. Poems in the book first appeared in The New Republic, American Poetry Review, American Literary Review, Poetry East, Georgetown Review, Cimarron Review, Pleiades, and The New Criterion. The release was followed by over fifty readings in Philadelphia as well as Los Angeles, London, Oxford, New York, Colorado, Boston, Baltimore, and elsewhere with Sarah Arvio, Matthea Harvey, Jericho Brown, Brenda Shaughnessy, Brynn Saito, Jill McDonough, Sharon Mesmer, Joshua Mehigan, Jill Alexander Essbaum, Elise Paschen, Matthew Zapruder, Teresa Leo, and in England with Richard Price, Ruth Fainlight, Roddy Lumsden, Christopher Reid, and Clare Pollard. Later in 2009, LATR editions in Brooklyn issued a hand-sewn letterpress chapbook by Hilbert titled Aim Your Arrows at the Sun in a limitation of 250 copies with a foreword by Adam Kirsch and a launch party at Melville House in Brooklyn.
Hilbert’s poems also appeared in The Swallow Anthology of New American Poets (Ohio University Press, 2009), Two Weeks: A Digital Anthology of Contemporary American Poets (Linebreak Press, 2011), and two Penguin anthologies, Poetry: A Pocket Anthology (Prentice Hall/Penguin, 2011) and Literature: A Pocket Anthology (Prentice Hall/Penguin, 2011). Hilbert’s poems have also been featured on the websites of Best American Poetry, The Poetry Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts’ Poetry Out Loud project, which selected Hilbert’s poem “Domestic Situation” as an official selection for the national recitation contest.
In 2010, Hilbert launched a bi-annual reading series in Philadelphia called the E-Verse Equinox Reading Series, which he hosts. To date the series has featured Daisy Fried, Afaa Michael Weaver, Catie Rosemurgy, Jehanne Dubrow, Matthew Zapruder, Timothy Donnelly, Michael Dickman, and Sarah Arvio. He also created the E-Verse Free Books Program, which began distributing free novels and books of poetry in Philadelphia cafes. The program later shifted its focus to donations for Pathways to Housing, a non-profit organization dedicated to housing the homeless, particularly those with disabilities and addictions. In 2009, the Tollund Group, a Nordic translation firm, sponsored its first annual poetry translation prize. Two translations of Hilbert’s poems were awarded cash prizes. The winner of the best Danish translation was Mette Bollerup Doyle, who translated Hilbert’s “Outsider Art” (“Outsiderens kunst”). The winner for Norwegian translation was Marit Ombudstvedt of Vestby in Norway, who translated “Love Songs” (Kjærlighetssanger”). The judges failed to select a winner in the category of Swedish language. In 2010, Hilbert’s four of Hilbert’s poems, “City-Scape Gentlemen’s Club, Queens,” “Sunrise wih Sea Monsters,” “Rakewell in TriBeCa,” “Dusk in a Crowded Train Compartment, Regretting My Life,” were translated into Czech and appeared in the Prague-based magazine Souvislosti.
In the early summer of 2002, the Composers Collaborative in New York City invited Hilbert to supply a libretto for avant-garde composer Daniel Felsenfeld. Hilbert also created a sequence of digital projections to accompany the piece, which was entitled Summer and all it Brings, performed three evenings at the Bowery Poetry Club. A full orchestral version of the opera was performed in 2004 by the New York City Opera at Symphony Space in Manhattan and again in 2009 at a PEN American Center festival. Hilbert also provided text for The Bridge, a 9/11 song cycle by Daniel Felsenfeld, which was performed in 2002 at Grace Church in Brooklyn Heights and again in 2009 for the Make Music New York festival. The two also collaborated on an evening-length tragicomic opera titled The Last of Manhattan, which had its first performances at The Kitchen, a large concert space in Chelsea, New York, to capacity audiences. In early 2003, Hilbert organized and hosted a sold-out evening of readings at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City called “The Future Knows Everything: New American Writing” as a promotion for the literary magazine nowCulture, which he edited.
During this period Hilbert interviewed several poets for American Poetry Review, Contemporary Poetry Review, and Cortland Review, including Donald Hall, Franz Wright, Erica Dawson, W.D. Snodgrass, and David Yezzi. Hilbert also published essays and reviews on Edwin Arlington Robinson, Richard Wilbur, Helen Vendler, Geoffrey Hill, H.D., Edna St. Vincent Millay, Louise Bogan, Donald Hall, Muriel Rukeyser, Thom Gunn, Jay Parini, Peter Davison, Louis MacNeice, Frederick Seidel, John Updike, Anne Carson, W.H. Auden, Randall Jarrell, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashbery, Gertrude Stein, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Recorded Poetry in Diverse Media, Alberto Manguel, Billy Collins, Stephen Spender, James Merrill, Poetry and Internet Technology, Brooks Haxton, Kenneth Koch, Franz Wright, Mark Strand, Michael Schmidt, and Anne Carson.
After moving to New York City in late 1997, Hilbert continued on his doctoral dissertation while working at HarperCollins, Bantam/Doubleday/Dell (later Random House), American Express, and Travel and Leisure magazine. At night and on weekends, he was an editor for the Beat/Punk magazine Long Shot (founded by Danny Shot with help from Allen Ginsberg and Amiri Baraka). While in New York, Hilbert also became poetry editor for Random House’s online literary magazine Bold Type. He wrote numerous essays on contemporary poetry for the site; interviewed Mark Strand, Cynthia Zarin, Kenneth Koch, Kevin Young, and Eric Pankey; and posted archival recordings of poets, including W.H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashbery, Gertrude Stein, Randall Jarrell, and Anne Sexton. In 1999, he started a regular arts and publishing e-mail newsletter called E-Verse that grew to several thousand recipients before becoming a poetry and opinion website in 2008. It currently enjoys over 45,000 regular readers per month and nearly half a million total annually.
Ernest Hilbert completed his first degree in English at Rutger’s University (B.A., summa cum laude) in 1994. While pursuing his undergraduate degree, Hilbert worked in warehouses, for landscaping firms, and as a dishwasher in Philadelphia restaurants. At Rutgers, Hilbert studied advanced literary criticism and theory with M.A.R. Habib, author of Literary Criticism: From Plato to the Present and editor of The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism: Vol. 6: the Nineteenth Century and The Oxford Anthology of Literary Criticism and Theory. Hilbert also undertook an intensive independent study with celebrated poet Afaa Michael Weaver in which Hilbert addressed variations of literary epic models in modern American poetry.
After completing his B.A., Hilbert received a master’s degree in Research Methods in English at Oxford University, made possible by an Overseas Research Grant from the British Government. The grant continued for the following two years as he began work toward his doctorate in English Language and Literature, which he received in 2000. At Oxford, Jon Stallworthy—biographer of Wilfred Owen and Louis MacNeice and editor of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry—served as Hilbert’s thesis advisor. Hilbert attended seminars on modern poetry with James Fenton, then Professor of Poetry for the university. He also worked odd jobs at St. Catherine’s College, additionally holding positions in the Middle Common Room government for three years, invigilating in the college library, and rowing on the men’s second eight in the Christ Church Regatta. He also started a short-lived small magazine called the Oxford Quarterly. He enlisted the help of Marjorie Perloff, Seamus Heaney, John Bayley, and Iris Murdoch for the magazine’s advisory board. Like most literary magazines, sales never exceeded a few hundred copies, but over the course of six issues he published new work by David Mamet, Les Murray, Charles Wright, Anthony Hecht, Charles Simic, W.D. Snodgrass, Jorie Graham, Galway Kinnell, Caroline Kizer, Adrienne Rich, Donald Justice, Philip Levine, Mark Strand, John Hollander, Christopher Middleton, Andrew Motion, Michael Hamburger, Marilyn Hacker, and Charles Tomlinson.