Ernest Hilbert in 2011
|Occupation||Poet, Critic, Editor, Opera Librettist|
Ernest Hilbert was born in Philadelphia and grew up in South Jersey. Hilbert graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor's degree in English Literature from Rutgers University in 1993. He also received a Master's Degree (1994) and Doctorate (2000) in English Literature from St Catherine's College, Oxford. His doctoral dissertation was entitled "Dark Earth, Dark Heavens: British Apocalyptic Writing in the First World War and its Aftermath." While a student there, he founded the short-lived magazine Oxford Quarterly (1995–1997).
After moving from Oxford to Manhattan, he worked as an editor for the punk and beatnik magazine Long Shot for one year before departing over creative differences. He then served as the poetry editor for Random House’s online magazine Bold Type for several years (2000–2004) and also edited the print and online magazine nowCulture (2000–2005). While at Bold Type, he interviewed Kevin Young, Cynthia Zarin, Kenneth Koch, and Mark Strand. As books and literary editor for nowCulture.com (issued as two print annuals, NC1 and NC2), Hilbert published up-and-coming authors from his own generation, including Matthea Harvey, Timothy Liu, Matthew Zapruder, Wells Tower, and Joshua Beckman. He also interviewed a number of authors for the magazine, including Gustaf Sobin, Alexandar Hemon, Matthew Kneale, and Joe Wenderoth. From 2005-2010 he edited the Contemporary Poetry Review.
In early 2003, he hosted an evening of readings at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, entitled "The Future Knows Everything: New American Writing," which featured the poets Rebecca Wolff and Geoffrey Nutter and the novelists Liz Brown and Suzanne Wise. On April 16, 2013, Marty Moss-Coane interviewed Hilbert for an hour on her WHYY program Radio Times, which is syndicated nationally by NPR. The interview touched on Hilbert's troubled past and struggles for recognition. In December 2013, Hilbert was interviewed by WHYY's Peter Crimmins for a radio feature titled "The Sonnet Makes a Small Comeback," in which Hilbert is quoted as saying "I think some [modern sonnets] are too old-fashioned, something that happens when people write in an old form. They suddenly adopt an old-fashioned formality and diction and focus. They are very limited in thinking about what the poem can be about. That's a hang-up even good poets can fall prey to." A recording of Ernest Hilbert reading "Broad and Washington," engineered by Peter Crimmins, was broadcast on WHYY/NPR 90.7FM as part of the News Works Tonight New Year's program the evening of December 31, 2013. A recording of Hilbert's poem “Haunts” aired on WHYY FM, Philadelphia's NPR Station, 90.9 MHz, on April 24, 2018 as part of a National Poetry Month feature on Morning Edition, hosted by Jennifer Lynn, called “Poetry Conveys Sense of Philadelphia Community.” On February 12, 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 show has an estimated two and a half million listeners worldwide. A recording of Hilbert’s poem “The Pessimist Prepares for What May Well Be His Last Winter,” originally recorded in 2009 at WDIY radio in Bethlehem, PA, aired on WXPN 88.5 FM Philadelphia’s New Year’s Sleepy Hollow program, December 23, 2018.
Hilbert lives in the University City section of Philadelphia with his wife, Lynn Makowsky, who is the Keith Devries Keeper of the Mediterranean Section at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Hilbert is a member of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, the Academy of American Poets, the Royal Society of Literature (London), the Philobiblon Club, Fine Press Book Association, and a voting member of the National Book Critics Circle.
In recent years Hilbert has composed in his own sonnet form sardonically described by Daniel Nester as the "Hilbertian" sonnet. Critic Christopher Bernard refers to them as "loosely formed sonnets, a form that Hilbert has made his own, proving this most classic of forms can contain anything the 21st century can throw at it." In his "Brief Introduction to Versification," which appears as an appendix to The Fortunes of Poetry in an Age of Unmaking, professor James Matthew Wilson describes the Hilbertian sonnet as "a nonce form of the sonnet with the following rhyme scheme: abcabc, defdef, gg (two sestets and a couplet). While unmetered or only loosely metered, Hilbert’s sonnets observe the boundaries of the little room of the sonnet marked by the rhyme scheme quite carefully." Critic Maryann Corbett has written in Rattle that “Hilbert has made the limits tight in a new way. He’s created his own Houdini-like set of chains to wriggle out of: a new form that’s already known as the Hilbertian sonnet, with the rhyme scheme abc abc def def gg. It’s a form designed to grate against the expectations of the reader who is geared to the usual foursquare quatrains in the octaves of the Petrarchan and Shakespearian sonnet forms. It also cuts across the squared grain of some of the poet’s arguments . . . Bucking our expectation of quatrains is a way of allowing rhyme to be present but not foregrounded. Even for a master and great proponent of form as Hilbert, that strategy might be necessary in the current climate of smiling intolerance for rhyme. . . . Bucking our expectation of rhyme is also simply a way of keeping readers off balance, keeping them un-lulled by regularity of sonics. As to the location of the volta, or turn, again we don’t know what to expect; the novel form upsets our habit of looking for a turn after the octave. Sometimes there is one, sometimes it’s elsewhere, sometimes it’s absent. Hilbert bucks our metrical expectations too: he writes mostly ten-syllable lines, but refuses to let too many of them fall into the expected iambic pattern. No amount of looseness or ‘breathability’ will make them iambic; it's not in their design to let us settle into a pattern.” Critic and classical scholar Chris Childers wrote in The Hopkins Review that “the structural units of Hilbert’s sonnets fall outside the usual parameters of octave-sestet . . . allowing Hilbert to put the conventional volta (or turn) anywhere or nowhere. The effect is to de-formulaicize and de-familiarize the sonnet’s traditional rhetorical shape, shifting the weight of emphasis off of argument and onto imagery and voice, an effect to which the distant mutedness of the rhymes also contributes.”
Other poets have written in the form, including Amy Lemmon, whose "Asymptotic" appeared the book Enjoy Hot or Iced (2011), Ryan Wilson, whose "Re-Entry" appeared in The American Journal of Poetry (2019), Rick Mullin, whose "De Profundis" appeared in Literary Bohemia (2013), Paul Siegell, whose poem "Sonnet that Fell out of St. Catherine's Mouth" appeared in The Raintown Review, the Irish poet Justin Quinn, whose "The Snow Turns Down the Sound on Everything" appeared in his book The Months, Lorna Blake, whose sonnet "Endangered Species" appeared in Waccamau, Bill Coyle, whose sonnet "Hindsight" appeared in The New Criterion, and David Yezzi, whose sonnet "Varnishing Days" appeared in the PN Review. Hilbert's sonnet "Prophetic Outlook," which appeared in The American Poetry Review, was taught by Molly Peacock in her course "The 21st-Century Sonnet" at the New School in New York City in December 2008. His poems have also been taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Sarah Lawrence, Drexel University, Columbia University, and the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan. Several of his sonnets were featured by David Lehman on the Best American Poetry website. His poem "Ashore," which appeared in the Yale Review early in 2009, was reprinted by the Academy of American Poets for their August 2009 "Shark Week" feature. "Domestic Situation," "AAA Vacation Guide," and "Prophetic Outlook" are reprinted by the Poetry Foundation.
Hilbert's third collection, Caligulan, was selected as winner of the 2017 Poets' Prize. His unpublished collection Cathedral Building, which combines a wide variety of styles and poetic approaches, has been a finalist for the Colorado Prize for Poetry (under the title Removal of the Body), the Barrow Street Press Book Contest, the Yale Younger Poets Prize, and the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. It also received an honorable mention for the Dorset Prize.
Nine poems from Sixty Sonnets (2009) and its companion volume All of You on the Good Earth (2013) appeared in the Swallow Anthology of New American Poets (Ohio University Press, 2009). His poem "Domestic Situation" appears in two Penguin anthologies, Poetry: A Pocket Anthology (2011) and Literature: A Pocket Anthology (2011). "Domestic Situation" is an official selection for the National Endowment of the Arts national recitation program, Poetry Out Loud. His poem "Mars Ultor" appeared in Best American Poetry 2018.
Hilbert's poems have been published in literary journals including The American Poetry Review, The Yale Review, Boston Review, The American Scholar, The New Republic, The Hudson Review, Harvard Review, Parnassus, and The New Criterion.
Nordic, Czech, and Spanish Translations
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, four of Hilbert's poems, "City-Scape Gentlemen’s Club, Queens," "Sunrise with Sea Monsters," "Rakewell in TriBeCa," "Dusk in a Crowded Train Compartment, Regretting My Life," were translated into Czech and appeared in the magazine Souvislosti. Hilbert's poem "Nights of 1998," from his second collection, All of You on the Good Earth, was translated into Spanish as "Noches de 1998" in the program for a performance of a musical setting of the poem by Christopher LaRosa at UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) in Mexico City, May 29, 2018.
History and 21st Century Publishing
Hilbert's first collection, Sixty Sonnets, was issued by Red Hen Press in early 2009. According to the publisher, "the collection is calculated to reflect the sixty minutes in an hour of heightened imaginative contemplation. It contains memories of violence, historical episodes, humorous reflections, quiet despair, violent discord, public outrage, and private nightmares. A cast of fugitive characters share their desperate lives—failed novelists, forgotten literary critics, puzzled historians, armed robbers, jobless alcoholics, exasperated girlfriends, high school dropouts, drowned children, and defeated boxers. These characters populate love poems ('My love, we know how species run extinct'), satires ('The way of the human variety, / Not even happy just being happy'), elegies ('The cold edge of the world closed on you, kissed / You shut'), and songs of sorrow ('Seasons start slowly. They end that way too'). The original rhyme scheme devised for this sequence—ABCABCDEFDEFGG—allows the author to dust off of the Italian 'little song' and Americanize the Elizabethan love poem for the twenty-first century. Speaking at times in propria persona ('We'll head out, you and me, have a pint'), in the voices of both male and female characters ('I'm sorry I left you that day at MoMA'), and across historical gulfs ('Julius Caesar and Charlemagne, Marie Curie, Al Capone'), Sixty Sonnets marshals both trivia and tragedy to tell stories of modern America, at last achieving a hard-won sense of careful optimism, observing 'the last, noble pull of old ways restored, / Valued and unwanted, admired and ignored.'"
Hilbert's second collection, All of You on the Good Earth, was published on March 1, 2013. According to the publisher, it "guides the reader through chambers occupied by visionary gravediggers, spaced-out movie stars, frenzied dropouts, sullen pirates, and unrelenting stalkers, noble war correspondents and cornered dictators, unlucky drunks and supercilious scientists, impatient goddesses and sad sea monsters, zoned-out denizens of Plutonian strip-clubs and earnest haunters of ancient ruins, the infamous Rakewell in TriBeCa and sea nymph Kalypso in a beach house at the Jersey shore, characters wandering an America demoralized by economic decline. These poems contain fasts and feasts, laments and love songs, histories, fantasies, and elegies, the amusing and heartbreaking debris of life on this world, all the while recalling Seneca’s dictum, non est ad astra mollis e terris via ('the road from the earth to the stars is not easy')." His third collection, Caligulan, was published on September 24, 2015 by Measure Press. It is described by the publisher as "a book haunted by the poet’s many affections and angers, its poems animated by horror films and science-fiction novels, heavy metal and opera, remote wilderness and ruined cities. Departing from the experimental sonnet forms he pioneered in his earlier books, Hilbert delivers a chorus of poems that are conversational yet bizarre, stormy and surreal yet dexterously accomplished; brash, abrupt, and sometimes scathingly sarcastic. In four chapters of fourteen poems each, Hilbert leads the reader through modern America’s triumphs and tragedies, elusive consolations and primeval horrors, all the while telling jokes, posing questions, and sounding warnings of things to come."
In the summer of 2012, author and fine-press impresario Henry Wessells commissioned Ernest Hilbert to write an anti-war poem for a then-untitled fine-press art book to be issued as the second in a series by Temporary Culture, Wessell's own press, which specializes in collectible science fiction and art books. The completed book, Against the Art of War, includes three aquatint etchings by Judith Clute, a Canadian artist resident in London. The finished book, issued in February, 2013, was letterpress printed by David Wolfe of Portland, Maine, and hand-bound in paste paper boards, in an edition of 26 lettered copies, signed by the authors and the artist, and five numbered copies reserved for artist, authors, and printer.
Hilbert's own Nemean Lion Press issued a hand-sewn, signed-limited edition of Fletching of Hackles, a collaborative effort by Hilbert and David Yezzi. The book, designed by Jennifer Mercer and bound by Melissa Moffa, consists of dueling limericks and clerihews in which Hilbert and Yezzi challenge and insult each other. It is limited to 24 numbered copies with four authors' and artists' proofs, all signed by Hilbert, Yezzi, Mercer, and Moffa. The second title from the press was 3 X 5 [Three by David Yezzi, Five by Ernest Hilbert] a small tête-bêche folio, hand-sewn issued in 2010, in Prussian-blue faux-snakeskin binding with cutaway title windows, stiff eggshell-blue wrappers, limited to 12 copies signed by designer, bookmaker, and both authors, only eight for sale by subscription. The third title from the press was Two Ranges [Vertical], a hand-sewn concertina book that unfolds vertically to display two poems about mountaineering, one each by Hilbert and Yezzi on opposite sides, limited to sixteen total copies signed by both authors, only twelve for sale (two authors’ and two artists’ proofs, hors série). It was the final book issued by the press. 
In November 2009 LATR Editions in New York published Hilbert's Aim Your Arrows at the Sun, a chapbook of primarily free-verse poems, limited to 250 copies, featuring hand-sewn covers designed and printed by Woodside Press and a foreword by critic Adam Kirsch. Only 45 first-issue copies of the first edition remain in existence, consisting solely of those copies sold at the launch reading at Melville House in Brooklyn on November 4, 2009. Of the 250 copies printed, the remaining 205 were destroyed when the author pointed out that Kirsch's name was misspelled; the reprint of 205 new copies in the second issue correctly spells Kirsch's name.
Ernest Hilbert has worked as an antiquarian and first edition bookseller at the firm Bauman Rare Books since 2003. He is based in the firm's main office, on the top floor of the art-deco Sun Oil Building in Philadelphia (other locations include New York City and Las Vegas), where he is a senior literature specialist, handling collections acquisitions and the development of client collections. Between 2012 and 2019, Hilbert taught at the World of Versecraft, the low residency Master of Fine Arts program in poetry at Western State University of Colorado. His classes included intensive summer course on the practical art of the opera libretto as well as courses during the year on the verse satire, dramatic poetry, history of the English language, studies in translation, and historical foundations of English prosody.
- Last One Out (Measure Press, 2015), ISBN 978-1939574299, poetry
- Caligulan (Measure Press, 2015), ISBN 978-1939574138, poetry; selected as winner of the 2017 Poets' Prize
- All of You on the Good Earth (Red Hen Press, 2013), ISBN 1597092665, poetry
- Against the Art of War, with Henry Wessells (contributor) and Judith Clute (artist). (San Francisco, London, Upper Montclair: Temporary Culture, 2013), signed-limited fine press art book with aquatint etchings, sold by subscription
- Sixty Sonnets (Red Hen Press, 2009), ISBN 1-59709-361-0, poetry
- Aim Your Arrows at the Sun (LATR Editions, New York, 2009), hand-sewn, letterpress chapbook
Hilbert has composed libretti for the composer Stella Sung.
- In 2014, Hilbert began work as librettist for a new opera with Stella Sung titled The Book Collector, commissioned by the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance (Ballet, Opera, Philharmonic) and funded in part by 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 scenic cantata Carmina Burana. It premiered in May, 2016.
- Hilbert supplied the story and libretto for an evening-length, three-act opera with composer Stella Sung titled The Red Silk Thread, a historical drama about Marco Polo set in the court of Kublai Khan. Workshop performances of the opera[permanent dead link] took place on April 11 and 12, 2013 in the Stamps Auditorium as part of the University of Michigan Opera Program, directed by Robert Swedberg with musical director Kathryn Goodson and starring Jacob Wright, Alan Nagle, Imani Mchunu, Natalie Doran, Amanda O'Toole, and Katie Nadolny. 3-D digital backdrops created by Ninjaneer Studios. Fully staged performances are scheduled for April 2014 at the Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Florida, starring Matt Morgan, Hein Jung, and Thomas Potter, and featuring a 68-voice choir, with Stage Director Beth Greenberg, Opera Director Anthony Offerle, Conductor Raymond Chobaz, and Chorus Master Will Kesling, along with choreographers, digital effects professionals, costume designers, animators, répétiteurs, lighting designers, and fight coordinators.
- Summer and All it Brings, solo cantata, chamber arrangement (score for soprano, spoken male voice, cello, and harpsichord); performed August 19, 20, 21, 2002, Bowery Poetry Club, New York City.
- "Fortune Does Not Hide" (aria) performed live on WNYC, public radio, April 24, 2004.
- The Last of Manhattan, five-act opera, The Kitchen, Chelsea NYC, nine singers and ensemble accompaniment, two consecutive shows, May 11, 2004, each followed by a panel featuring Hilbert and Felsenfeld, moderated by Mark Adamo.
- Summer and All it Brings, full orchestral arrangement, performed by the New York City Opera at Symphony Space in Manhattan, VOX: Showcasing American Composers, May 26, 2004.
- "Of all those who held it would come," final section of The Bridge, song cycle for piano and soprano; performed at Grace Episcopal Church, May 18, 2003.
- April 30, 2009, Summer and All it Brings was performed as part of the PEN American Center "[Elaborations/Collaborations]" festival at Proshansky Auditorium, CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Avenue. Author Wesley Stace, also known by his stage name John Wesley Harding, performed the spoken male voice.
- June 21, 2009, "Of All Those Who Held it Would Come" was performed as part of the [Make Music New York] series.
- May 3, 2014, Summer and All it Brings was performed by Heather Meyer and Friends at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Carroll Gardens.
- May 19, 2014, Summer and All it Brings was performed by VisionIntoArt at The Stone in New York City, narrated by Wesley Stace and featuring soprano Heather Meyer.
- November 16, 2018, a new arrangement of "Of All Those Who Held it Would Come" was performed by soprano Aliana de la Guardia with the Semiosis Quartet at Spectrum Theater in Brooklyn, NY.
Hilbert has provided lyrics for song cycles by the composer Christopher LaRosa.
- Christopher LaRosa set four poems from Sixty Sonnets as "Elegies and Laments," World Premiere in Ithaca, NY, April 20, 2012.
- Hilbert supplied the words for the "Turning Point" portion of Vignettes of Two Lovers, world Premiere in Ithaca, NY, February 26, 2011. It was also performed as part of the New Voices Opera Fall Exhibition, Jacobs School of Music, Ford-Crawford Hall, Indiana University, December 2, 2015.
- Hilbert's poem "Symmetries" was used by Christopher LaRosa as the foreword of his piece "Symmetries."
- Hilbert's poem "Kite" was used by Christopher LaRosa as the lyrics for a commission by cellist Sara Wilkins for a short work scored for soprano and cello. It received its first performance on March 22, 2016 at the Jacobs School of Music at the Indiana University by cellist Will Rowe and soprano Rachel Mikol, and again in April 2016 at Boston University's College of Fine Arts School of Music. It was performed a third time on March 24, 2018, again at the Jacobs School. by cellist Meghan Lyda and soprano Tabitha Burchett. The performance was filmed by Ábel Misha Gille Esbenshade.
- Hilbert's poem "Nights of 1998" was set to music by Christopher LaRosa for a baritone accompanied by sinfonieta. The resulting piece of music was first performed on Thursday, March 8, 2018 in Auer Hall, Jacobs School of Music, Indiana University at Bloomington, performed by the Vera Quartet, with baritone soloist Zachary Coates, directed by David Dzubay. The piece was performed again by the same ensemble at UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) in Mexico City on May 29, 2018.
Hilbert has also worked with indie rock bands.
- Hilbert writes scripts, performs live on stage, and acts in short films for the post-punk conceptual band Mercury Radio Theater. He appeared on stage with the band at the Khyber Pass rock club in Old City Philadelphia on May 8, 2009. Heco-wrote the short film "Death of Mercury Radio Theater," in which he also starred, which was screened above a live performance of the band at Johnny Brenda's rock club in Northern Liberties Philadelphia.
- In April, 2008, Hilbert signed a deal to record with Philadelphia record label Pub Can Records in Widget Studios. The album, titled Elegies & Laments, was produced by David Young. The album includes recordings of Hilbert and others, including Quincy R. Lehr and Paul Siegell, reading from his book Sixty Sonnets, backed by several musicians, including a drummer, bassist, organist, and guitarist, as well as a full orchestra and harp. The music on three sections of the album was written by Marc Hildenberger and Dave Young, both formerly of the band The Grayjacks. The music for the final section of the album, scored for strings, harp, and piano, was supplied by classical composer Christopher LaRosa. On WHYY's Radio Times, Marty Moss-Coane described the album as consisting of "recorded music, special effects, and found sounds." The album was released on March 15, 1013 in a limited edition of 100 albums on 180 gram, 45 RPM 12" white vinyl with digital download and illustrated companion audiophile booklet signed by all members of the project. The album was also issued on compact disc as well as streaming and digital downloads from iTunes, Amazon, Xbox, and all major platforms and services. The website Literary Magnet[permanent dead link] called the album "Amazing and innovative . . . The music is variegated and fascinating, by turns vicious and lovely . . . [it does] what art should do: change things. Elegies & Laments will change you, too." Portions of the album were performed live with Hilbert's studio backing band Legendary Misbehavior supplemented by additional musicians from the Philadelphia band East Coastamite on March 16, 2013 at Fergie's Pub in Philadelphia.
- Biographical Note page, Hilbert, Ernest, "Sixty Sonnets" ISBN 1-59709-361-0 and "All of You on the Good Earth" ISBN 1597092665
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2008-07-03. Retrieved 2008-05-27.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
- Biography, Hilbert, Ernest, "Sixty Sonnets" ISBN 1-59709-361-0
- Biographical Note page, Hilbert, Ernest, "All of You on the Good Earth" ISBN 1597092665
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-02-25. Retrieved 2011-03-02.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2008-10-29. Retrieved 2008-10-14.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
- Hindsight by Bill Coyle - The New Criterion
- APR July/Aug 2008 Vol. 37/No. 4 Archived 2008-07-01 at the Wayback Machine
- Molly Peacock Events Archive Archived 2008-07-06 at the Wayback Machine
- Tupelo Press - 2006
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2016-03-02. Retrieved 2016-02-25.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-09-08. Retrieved 2013-03-05.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
- Poets' Prize
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2015-07-03. Retrieved 2015-07-02.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
- > S P R I N G 2 0 0 4 Archived 2008-08-28 at the Wayback Machine
- Widget Studios " Blog Archive " Ernest Hilbert | Sixty Sonnets[permanent dead link]