How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry

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Read a poem to yourself in the middle of the night. Turn on a single lamp and read it while you're alone in an otherwise dark room or while someone sleeps next to you. Say it over to yourself in a place where silence reigns and the din of culture-the constant buzzing noise that surrounds you-has momentarily stopped. This poem has come from a great distance to find you." So begins this astonishing book by one of our leading poets and critics. In an unprecedented exploration of the genre, Hirsch writes about what ...
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How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry

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Read a poem to yourself in the middle of the night. Turn on a single lamp and read it while you're alone in an otherwise dark room or while someone sleeps next to you. Say it over to yourself in a place where silence reigns and the din of culture-the constant buzzing noise that surrounds you-has momentarily stopped. This poem has come from a great distance to find you." So begins this astonishing book by one of our leading poets and critics. In an unprecedented exploration of the genre, Hirsch writes about what poetry is, why it matters, and how we can open up our imaginations so that its message-which is of vital importance in day-to-day life-can reach us and make a difference. For Hirsch, poetry is not just a part of life, it is life, and expresses like no other art our most sublime emotions. In a marvelous reading of world poetry, including verse by such poets as Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Pablo Neruda, William Wordsworth, Sylvia Plath, Charles Baudelaire, and many more, Hirsch discovers the meaning of their words and ideas and brings their sublime message home into our hearts. A masterful work by a master poet, this brilliant summation of poetry and human nature will speak to all readers who long to place poetry in their lives but don't know how to read it.
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Editorial Reviews

Detroit Free Press
Hirsch's contribution is significant, [grounded] in the obvious pleasure he has experienced through words....Who could resist the wiles of this poetry-broker-a writer rapidly becoming the baby boomers' preeminent man of letters?
Baltimore Sun
A lovely book, full of joy and wisdom.
Boston Book Review
Laudable...The answer Hirsch gives to the question of how to read a poem is: Ecstatically.
Hirsch is a poet and a passionate reader of poetry. In this guide, he reaches out to all those who may be disaffected by the mere mention of poetry, even citing Cicero who had nothing but disdain for it, perhaps threatened as a politician by poetry's power to change the status quo. Hirsch presents us with "certain emblematic poems" (specifically lyric poems) that hold meaning for him, and instructs the reader to focus on a personal, emotional response. He views the poem as a "message in a bottle" (title of his first chapter), which may be picked up at random by a reader who may not expect to be touched by the words, but is moved in some inexpressible way, noting the relevance to their feeling life, their "heartland," as Hirsch calls it. The poem that works for us, he says, is one that engenders a spirit of awe. He cites Whitman's poem, "Beginning My Studies," that describes his wonder at truly seeing what's before him: "the least insect or animal, the senses, eyesight, love." To enrich one's reading, Hirsch encourages the reader to learn about the different forms a poem may take, whether epic or narrative, and their distinctiveness compared with the dramatic monologue or lyric poem. In subsequent chapters, Hirsch discusses the "making of the poem" by using examples. He explains the use of dramatic image and structure to portray death in Neruda's "Nothing But Death," drawing on similar uses by other writers, and enriching the reading experience by providing background and analysis. He includes work by many of the masters, mostly through excerpts but sometimes giving the complete poem for which he provides a detailed analysis. As an academic, some of his analyses may become too complexfor a younger reader or one not used to this way of looking at literature. But Hirsch's interpretations are based more on the human qualities expressed and how they are dramatized rather than on a more rigid literal explanation. He does help the reader by including a glossary of poetic terms. Also appended is a recommended reading list. Anyone who reads poetry will find that experience enriched by Hirsch's book. It would also be a valuable text for high school and college literature classes. KLIATT Codes: SA*—Exceptional book, recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 1999, Harcourt, 354p, 23cm, 98-50065, $15.00. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Sue E. Budin; YA Libn., Ann Arbor P.L., Ann Arbor, MI, July 2000 (Vol. 34 No. 4)
Library Journal
Although it was only a decade ago that doomsayers foresaw the death of poetry as a viable literary genre, there has been a remarkable resurgence of interest. Poetry slams at bookstores and nightclubs, "Poets in the Schools" programs, and the unprecedented appearance of poets on mainstream television all point to the renewed popularity of the genre. Here are two new guides designed to enrich the experience of poetry. Hirsch (On Love, LJ 6/15/98) has gathered an eclectic group of poems from many times and places, with selections as varied as postwar Polish poetry, works by Keats and Christopher Smart, and lyrics from African American work songs. A prolific, award-winning poet in his own right, Hirsch suggests helpful strategies for understanding and appreciating each poem. The book is scholarly but very readable and incorporates interesting anecdotes from the lives of the poets. Part poetry explication and part memoir, Peacock's charming book includes 18 favorite poems that she has collected and cherished over the years. Offering sensitive interpretations of each work, Peacock tends to favor modern and contemporary poets such as May Swenson, Elizabeth Bishop, and Yusef Komunyakaa. Like Hirsch, Peacock is a popular and critically acclaimed poet; she is also a founder of the "Poetry in Motion" program that puts poetry in America's buses and subways. Peacock encourages the shared enjoyment of poetry through reading groups and provides practical advice for organizing a poetry circle. Most public libraries will want to acquire the Peacock book, while Hirsch is a good choice for academic and larger public libraries.--Ellen Sullivan, Ferguson Lib., Stamford, CT Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Jonathan Wilson
...Hirsch isn't writing for everybody; his imagined readers are young college students, those willing but poetry-ignorant ephebes of the new millennium who can't tell dactyl from duende....The days of browsing are clearly over...and with them, inevitably, goes the solitary reader on a lone voyage of discovery. ''Read these poems to yourself in the middle of the night.'' One could do worse.
The New York Times Book Review
From the Publisher
"A lovely book, full of joy and wisdom."-The Baltimore Sun
"Hirsch's contribution is significant, [grounded] in the obvious pleasure he has experienced through words. . . . Who could resist the wiles of this poetry-broker-a writer rapidly becoming the baby boomers' preeminent man of letters?"-Detroit Free Press
"Laudable . . . The answer Hirsch gives to the question of how to read a poem is: Ecstatically."-The Boston Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780156005661
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 3/21/2000
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 248,461
  • Age range: 14 years
  • Lexile: 1210L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.03 (w) x 9.01 (h) x 1.01 (d)

Meet the Author

Edward Hirsch is a celebrated poet and peerless advocate for poetry. A MacArthur fellow, he has published eight books of poems and four books of prose. He has received numerous awards and fellowships, including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, the Rome Prize, a Pablo Neruda Presidential Medal of Honor, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature. He serves as president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and lives in Brooklyn.

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Table of Contents

1 Message in a Bottle 1
2 A Made Thing 31
3 A Hand, a Hook, a Prayer 46
4 Three Initiations 61
5 At the White Heat 88
6 Five Acts 116
7 Beyond Desolation 156
8 Poetry and History: Polish Poetry after the End of the World 172
9 Re: Form 192
10 A Shadowy Exultation 226
11 Soul in Action 244
12 "To the Reader at Parting" 259
The Glossary and the Pleasure of the Text 265
A Reading List and the Pleasure of the Catalog 323
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First Chapter

Chapter One

Message in a Bottle


Read these poems to yourself in the middle of the night. Turn on a single lamp and read them while you're alone in an otherwise dark room or while someone else sleeps next to you. Read them when you're wide awake in the early morning, fully alert. Say them over to yourself in a place where silence reigns and the din of the culture—the constant buzzing noise that surrounds us—has momentarily stopped. These poems have come from a great distance to find you. I think of Male-branche's maxim, "Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul." This maxim, beloved by Simone Weil and Paul Celan, quoted by Walter Benjamin in his magisterial essay on Franz Kafka, can stand as a writer's credo. It also serves for readers. Paul Celan said:

A poem, as a manifestation of language and thus essentially dialogue, can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the—not always greatly hopeful—belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps. Poems in this sense, too, are under way: they are making toward something.

Imagine you have gone down to the shore and there, amidst the other debris—the seaweed and rotten wood, the crushed cans and dead fish—you find an unlikely looking bottle from the past. You bring it home and discover a message inside. This letter, so strange and disturbing, seems to have been making its way toward someone for a long time, and now that someone turns out to be you. The great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, destroyed in a Stalinist camp, identified this experience. "Why shouldn't the poet turn to his friends, to those who are naturally close to him?" he asked in "On the Addressee." But of course those friends aren't necessarily the people around him in daily life. They may be the friends he only hopes exist, or will exist, the ones his words are seeking. Mandelstam wrote:

At a critical moment, a seafarer tosses a sealed bottle into the ocean waves, containing his name and a message detailing his fate. Wandering along the dunes many years later, I happen upon it in the sand. I read the message, note the date, the last will and testament of one who has passed on. I have the right to do so. I have not opened someone else's mail. The message in the bottle was addressed to its finder. I found it. That means, I have become its secret addressee.

Thus it is for all of us who read poems, who become the secret addressees of literary texts. I am at home in the middle of the night and suddenly hear myself being called, as if by name. I go over and take down the book—the message in the bottle—because tonight I am its recipient, its posterity, its heartland.

To the Reader Setting Out

The reader of poetry is a kind of pilgrim setting out, setting forth. The reader is what Wallace Stevens calls "the scholar of one candle." Reading poetry is an adventure in renewal, a creative act, a perpetual beginning, a rebirth of wonder. "Beginning is not only a kind of action," Edward Said writes in Beginnings, "it is also a frame of mind, a kind of work, an attitude, a consciousness." I love the frame of mind, the playful work and working playfulness, the form of consciousness—the dreamy attentiveness—that come with the reading of poetry.

    Reading is a point of departure, an inaugural, an initiation. Open the Deathbed Edition of Leaves of Grass (1891-1892) and you immediately encounter a series of "Inscriptions," twenty-six poems that Walt Whitman wrote over a period of three decades to inscribe a beginning, to introduce and inaugurate his major work, the one book he had been writing all his life. Beginning my own book on the risks and thralls, the particular enchantments, of reading poetry, I keep thinking of Whitman's six-line poem "Beginning My Studies."

Beginning my studies the first step pleas'd me so much,
The mere fact consciousness, these forms, the power of motion,
The least insect or animal, the senses, eyesight, love,
The first step I say awed me and pleas'd me so much,
I have hardly gone and hardly wish'd to go any farther,
But stop and loiter all the time to sing it in ecstatic songs.

I relish the way that Whitman lingers in this one-sentence poem over the very first step of studying, the mere fact—the miracle—of consciousness itself, the joy of encountering "these forms," the empowering sense of expectation and renewal, the whole world blooming at hand, the awakened mental state that takes us through our senses from the least insect to the highest power of love. We can scarcely turn the page, so much do we linger with pleasure over the ecstatic beginning. We are instructed by Whitman in the joy of starting out that the deepest spirit of poetry is awe.

    Poetry is a way of inscribing that feeling of awe. I don't think we should underestimate the capacity for tenderness that poetry opens within us. Another one of the "Inscriptions" is a two-line poem that Whitman wrote in 1860. Called simply "To You," it consists in its entirety of two rhetorical questions:

Stranger, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me,
     why should you not speak to me?
And why should I not speak to you?

It seems entirely self-evident to Whitman that two strangers who pass each other on the road ought to be able to loiter and speak, to connect. Strangers who communicate might well become friends. Whitman refuses to be bound, to be circumscribed, by any hierarchical or class distinctions. One notices how naturally he addresses the poem not to the people around him, whom he already knows, but to the "stranger," to the future reader, to you and me, to each of us who would pause with him in the open air. Let there be an easy flow—an affectionate commerce—between us.

    Here is one last "Inscription," the very next poem in Leaves of Grass. It's called "Thou Reader" and was written twenty-one years after "To You."

Thou reader throbbest life and pride and love the same as I,
Therefore for thee the following chants.

I am completely taken by the way that Whitman always addresses the reader as an equal, as one who has the same strange throb of life he has, the same pulsing emotions. There's a desperate American friendliness to the way he repeatedly dedicates his poems to strangers, to readers and poets to come, to outsiders everywhere. Whoever you are, he would embrace you. I love the deep affection and even need with which Whitman dedicates and sends forth his poems to the individual reader. He leaves each of us a gift. To you, he says, the following chants.


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Reading Group Guide

1. Hirsch suggests that even the greatest poems are incomplete without readers.What role do you think the reader really plays in a poem?

2. Why do you think so many people (even people who rarely read for pleasure) turn to poems on ritual occasions, such as weddings and funerals? What, if anything, does this tell us about the need for poetry?

3. Consider this radical statement by Emily Dickinson. Is there any way to know poetry except by contact?

If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no ?re can ever warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know. Is there any other way.

4. Consider Hirsch's discussion of reading Emily Brontë's poem "Spellbound" as a child and then his later reading of the poem as an adult (pp. 61-66). Can you think of any experiences you had with poetry as a child? Do you think your reading of those poems would be different today?

5. In discussing Elizabeth Bishop's poem "One Art" (pp. 32-33), list a few of the things you've lost, and arrange them so that the magnitude of each loss increases. Are these losses "hard to master"? Do you feel as if any of them "will bring disaster"? How do we come to terms with loss (do rituals help?) and is there anything to be gained in ?nding these losses, these feelings, organized by a poetic structure, such as a villanelle?

6. Have you ever loved an animal unreasonably? If you had to make a list of your pet's no doubt extraordinary attributes, as Christopher Smart does in writing about his cat Jeoffry (pp. 66-69), how would you make it interesting to others?What do you think of the strategy of parallelism that Smart employs?

7. What do you think happened to the two lovers in Yehuda Amichai's poem "A Pity. We Were Such a Good Invention" (p. 90)? Who are "they"? How can two lovers become an invention, "an aeroplane made from a man and wife"?

8. Read Guittone d'Arezzo's poem aloud as best you can in Italian as well as in English (p. 96). How does it make you feel? What do you think of the obsessive repetition of the word "gioi" ("joy") in this poem? Is it an effective translation?

9. Read two love poems aloud, say, Paul Éluard's "Lady Love" (p. 94) and Robert Desnos's "The Voice of Robert Desnos" (pp. 100-101). Do you ?nd these voices seductive? Can words alone inspire affection or recall lost love?

10. Anna Akhmatova writes about the simple gesture of putting her left glove on her right hand in her poem "Song of the Last Meeting" (pp. 116-17). How much meaning does this gesture have?

11. How should we respond when we become aware that we are losing something we prize deeply? Constantine Cavafy's poem "The God Abandons Antony" (p. 136) gives Antony speci?c advice on how to behave, on what to do. What do you think of the counsel?

12. Miklós Radnóti's "Postcards" (pp. 146-50) were written under the most dire and extreme circumstances imaginable.Do the circumstances of how the poems were written change their meaning for you? If you had just one hour to write something by ?ashlight in the middle of the night, what would be your last communiqué to the world? Would poetry be your chosen vehicle?

13. Consider the nature of the things that Mr.Cogito would like to consider to the very end in Zbigniew Herbert's poem "Mr. Cogito and the Imagination" (p. 190). List some of the things you would never tire of thinking about.

14. Have you ever had an uncanny experience, such as the one Anthony Hecht describes in "A Hill" (pp. 233-34)? How does it change the poem when we discover that the hill in question was not a vision but a memory?

15. Elizabeth Bishop's "In the Waiting Room" (pp. 236-39) dramatizes a child's ?rst consciousness of having a self. What does she learn about the self? Would your own recognitions be any different?

16. How would you characterize the soul in Walt Whitman's poem "A Clear Midnight" (p. 245)? How would you characterize it in Emily Dickinson's poem number 683 (p. 254)? Is it still possible for us to use the word "soul"? What are the "themes" that your own spirit would most love to ponder?

17. Jorge Luis Borges said, "Poetry is something that cannot be de?ned without oversimplifying it. It would be like attempting to de?ne the color yellow, love, the fall of leaves in autumn." Is Borges right? Can poetry ever be de?ned without oversimplifying it?

Copyright © 2000. Published in the U.S. by Harcourt, Inc.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 20, 2001

    Learning to love poetry

    Hirsch has remarkably achieved the promise of his title. This is a rare combination of teaching about poetry while seducing the reader with a splendid selection of poems. Hirsch's fidelity to the active relation of poet to reader animates these pages. Not only a fine introduction to diverse poets,but also an incitement to poetry. My first copy became a gift to my daughter, a college freshman--then I bought a second copy to keep and read again.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted January 5, 2009

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