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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, amidstthe 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.
Excerpted from How to Read a Poem by Edward Hirsch Copyright ©2000 by Edward Hirsch. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted November 20, 2001
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.
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Posted January 5, 2009
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