Have you ever wanted to give poetry a try but were wary of entering such a highbrow domain? If so, you are not alone. The fear of poetry is so common there’s even a word for it: metrophobia. For me, the angst originated in high school. I still shudder at the recollection of an English […]
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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 culturethe constant buzzing noise that surrounds ushas 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 thenot always greatly hopefulbelief 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 debristhe seaweed and rotten wood, the crushed cans and dead fishyou 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 bookthe message in the bottlebecause 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 consciousnessthe dreamy attentivenessthat 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 factthe miracleof 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 flowan affectionate commercebetween 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.
What People are Saying About This
"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
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.