From the Publisher
PRAISE FOR POET’S CHOICE
"In this loving, enthusiastic guide, one experienced reader’s warmth and openheartedness help to unlock the treasure of poetry for a world of readers."O, THE OPRAH MAGAZINE
"A deft curator, Hirsch shows you the best vantage point from which to view the 130 poems in this invaluable guide."THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Hirsch's follow-up to his bestselling, NBCC award-winning How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry collects two years' worth of his engaging weekly essay-lettres from the Washington Post Book World. Such a collection is inevitably a miscellany as it ranges from biographic sketches and personal portraits to topical subjects, reviews of new books and eulogies for the recently deceased. The 20th-century giants Yeats, Rilke and Neruda, who served as touchstones in How to Read a Poem, appear alongside such contemporary Americans as Robert Bly, Denise Levertov, Gary Snyder and Dorothea Tanning, and newcomers from Europe, Mexico, the Middle East and Asia. Hirsch also casts back to ancient traditions, although there's a gap between these and modern poets that is filled only occasionally by the likes of the rediscovered John Clare and Giuseppe Belli. Taking over the column early in 2002, Hirsch writes, he felt the burden of discussing poetry in the cultural climate of post-9/11 America. Old themes of grief and loss gain new weight as Hirsch discusses Wallace Stevens's and Mark Strand's approaches and Tom Sleigh's oblique refashioning of Greek and Sumerian verse in "New York American Spell, 2001." Eclectic and idiosyncratic, Hirsch's choices are unified by astute excerpting and keen commentary. (Apr.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Hirsch, the author of six collections of poetry and three books of prose and winner of several literary awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award, comes from a family of Eastern European immigrants. Having grown up surrounded with "the sounds of other people's languages," he instinctively understands the melody, storytelling, and themes in poetry. Originally written as newspaper columns for the Washington Post Book World, the essays collected here (some revised and expanded) exhibit the same knowledge and eclectic taste for poetry that was evident in his best seller, How To Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry. Hirsch includes the work of more than 130 poets from across the globe and across centuries, with poems from the ancients alongside those of the most contemporary of poets creating a pleasurable introduction to poetry. Using an essay form with stanzas embedded, he makes coherent arguments and offers excellent illustrations of how each work and the human experience are intertwined. A mini-course in world poetry, this accessible, learned, and relevant book is highly recommended for all libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 12/05.]-Pam Kingsbury, Univ. of North Alabama, Florence Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Brief, illuminating journalistic pieces on poetry written for the Washington Post Book World over the last several years by poet and critic Hirsch (The Demon and the Angel, 2001, etc.). For Hirsch, poetry is a conversation: with other poets, with history, with language, with cultures in restless movement. It puts us in touch with our daily doses of suffering, disaffection and alienation, as he notes in the introduction. Most helpfully, these short essays elucidate the life and work of poets little known, and translated with difficulty: e.g., from the German (Ernst Stadler, Nelly Sachs), Russian (Marina Tsvetaeva, Velimir Khlebnikov), Japanese (Ishikawa Takuboku), Serbian (Radmila Lazic), Slovenian (Edvard Kocbek), Hebrew (Aharon Shabtai, Yehuda Amichai) and Arabic (Palestinian Taha Muhammad Ali). Most comprehensively, they delve into Spanish-language poetry, including work by the author's favorites, Pablo Neruda, Miguel Hernandez and Cesar Vallejo (whose compassionate voice holds particular relevance; Hirsch calls the Peruvian "a prophet pleading for social justice"). The collection sheds light on American poets who deserve more readers, such as the solitary George Oppen, and English poets obscure on these shores, such as John Clare and Charlotte Mew. Each of the essays contains excerpts from the poetry in question, although overall the selections are much too short to be satisfying. Some chapters present a theme, such as "The Poet as Mother" or "Sleep and Poetry" or "Baseball," which all seem hasty and slapdash. Most of the final essays are paeans to contemporaries and friends. Slim and scattered, but tasty, even exotic: a good supplement to Camille Paglia's Break, Blow, Burn (2004),which delves more robustly into English-language poetry, and to Michael Schmidt's scholarly The First Poets (2005), which treats the Greeks.
Read an Excerpt
spring’s messenger, the lovelyvoiced nightingale
I wish I’d been on the street in Madrid on that night in 1934 when Pablo Neruda, who was then Chile’s consul to Spain, told Miguel Hernández that he had never heard a nightingale. It is too cold for nightingales to survive in Chile. Hernández grew up in a goatherding family in the province of Alicante, and he immediately scampered up a high tree and imitated a nightingale’s liquid song. Then he climbed up another tree and created the sound of a second nightingale answering. He could have been joyously illustrating Boris Pasternak’s notion of poetry as “two nightingales dueling.”
I once told this story to the writer William Maxwell, and he said that learning how to sing like nightingales in treetops ought to be a requirement for poets. It should be taught, like prosody, in writing programs. The Romantic poets might have agreed: Wordsworth called the nightingale a creature of “fiery heart”; Keats inscribed its music forever in his famous ode (“Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird!”); John Clare observed one assiduously as a boy (“she is a plain bird something like the hedge sparrow in shape and the female Firetail or Redstart in color but more slender then the former and of a redder brown or scorched color then the latter”); and Shelley declared:
A poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.
The singing of a nightingale becomes a metaphor for writing poetry here, and listening to that birdthat natural musicbecomes a metaphor for reading it.
One could write a good book about nightingales in poetry. It would begin with one of the oldest legends in the world, the poignant tale of Philomela, that poor ravished girl who had her tongue cut out and was changed into the nightingale, which laments in darkness but nonetheless expresses its story. The tale reverberates through all of Greco-Roman literature. Ovid gave it a poignant rendering in Metamorphoses, and it echoed down the centuries from Shakespeare (Titus Andronicus) to Matthew Arnold (“Philomela”) and T. S. Eliot (“The Waste Land”).
One of my favorite poems about “spring’s messenger” is by Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine fabulist, who may never have heard a nightingale, and yet, through poetry, had a lifelong relationship with the unseen bird.
To the Nightingale
Out of what secret English summer evening
or night on the incalculable Rhine,
lost among all the nights of my long night,
could it have come to my unknowing ear,
your song, encrusted with mythology,
nightingale of Virgil and the Persians?
Perhaps I never heard you, but my life
is bound up with your life, inseparably.
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The symbol for you was a wandering spirit
in a book of enigmas. The poet, El Marino,
nicknamed you the “siren of the forest”;
you sing throughout the night of Juliet
and through the intricate pages of the Latin
and from his pinewoods, Heine, that other
nightingale of Germany and Judea,
called you mockingbird, firebird, bird of mourning.
Keats heard your song for everyone, forever.
There is not one among the shimmering names
people have given you across the earth
that does not seek to match your own music,
nightingale of the dark. The Muslim dreamed you
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in the delirium of ecstasy,
his breast pierced by the thorn of the sung rose
you redden with your blood. Assiduously
in the black evening I contrive this poem,
nightingale of the sands and all the seas,
that in exultation, memory, and fable,
you burn with love and die in liquid song.
(translated by Alastair Reid)
Copyright © 2006 by Edward Hirsch
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