I tried to write an unflinching Baudelairean poem. And then I got the entertaining idea of bringing Heinrich Heine, one of the wittiest men in Europe, still on his bed, his so-called mattress grave, into the lecture hall, to see what he would say. I only picked figures—or they picked me—that I already cared about. To me, the fictive format of the lecture takes you in one direction, but the subject of erotic love takes you in another.
Reason falters. Memory and desire take over. The intensity of the subject keeps rupturing the formality of the occasion. And would you say something about the formal nature of these poems? Edward Hirsch: The poems are all meant to sound spoken, but slightly formal, as in a lecture. The reader is meant to imagine a speaker.
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The poems are almost all written in symmetrical stanzas, which use identical rhyme in an envelope structure, and so there are a lot of repetitions. These are also intermixed with other highly repetitive forms, pantoums and sestinas. My notion here is that poetic form can mirror, formalize, and ritualize speech, while also moving beyond speech, or above it. The idea of the envelope is that the rhymes keep converging as they come toward the middle of a stanza, where they rub up against each other, and then start moving apart.
Hence, the movement of the rhyme words: love, on, study, night, night, study, one, love. Every stanza enacts the accordion-like movement of two people moving towards fusion and then separating. Each of the poems borrows something of the style of the individual writer who is its supposed speaker. I was immersed in different styles. My idea is that these poems are a kind of drag show. Edward Hirsch: There is something inherently comical, at least to me, in the idea of a dada lecture. A playful nihilist, but a nihilist nonetheless.
Love, especially obsessive love, has a way of breaking down theories, even of nothingness. Edward Hirsch: Somewhere along the way I got the idea that I was trying to write a lyric encyclopedia of love. The great rationalist understood that of all subjects love is the least susceptible to reason. Diderot stands in to suggest that everyone who has experienced Eros is an encyclopedia of love.
Each of us contains multitudes, the one is all. Are there some subjects that are too close, too anguishing, to be written about without mitigation? Those sonnets are technically so intricate and challenging. Edward Hirsch: I was having trouble thinking through certain problems, agonies and anguishes, and so I decided to see what would happen if I looked at my own experience through the lens of a timeless story.
It seemed fitting to use terza rima, which Dante invented for the Divine Comedy , starting with his journey through the infernal realms. I started crafting terza rima sonnets. My notion was that I would trust the classical stories and see where they would lead, what they would teach me. Formal poems are experiments, too. The fact that I could craft such intricate forms suggested to me that I was on the right track. I was driven by personal experience, but I let the myths guide me. I relied on stories that had registered deeply, especially when I was young, and so they were part of my lived experience.
Some of those poems are pretty desolate—there are three self-portraits as Eurydice—but I was buoyed up by the obsessive forms, the spirit of my guides. One afternoon when I was re-visiting the museum in Terezin where many of them are housed, I began to feel that there must have been a particular teacher who taught those children to make art in such vile circumstances.
She was my entry. The poem is dedicated to her. Many of them are anonymous, some only signed with first names. Every one of those heartbreaking drawings represents one child. Friedl Dicker-Brandeis was shipped off to Auschwitz and murdered. But they did make art; they did create something in the face of devastating horror. They left something partial behind. That seems worth honoring. Edward Hirsch: After Lay Back the Darkness , I decided to give up my reliance on previous texts and try to face things head on, directly, without any mitigation, without the structure of previous texts.
I was ready to move on and walk the tightrope without a net below. I like ruthless authenticity in poetry. It bridges the past to the present. The speaker in these poems keeps looking backward while moving forward. He keeps coming out into the brightening air.
Edward Hirsch: The poem just started out as an elegy for my father, a box salesman. More room for creativity, better fees. I had grown up around boxes, and box-making, but I had never seen a particular analogy to poetry, which was my escape hatch, my route out. I fixed on the idea of the poem as a container, an act of containment. Edward Hirsch: The book grew directly out of my teaching, which is the outgrowth of my vocation for poetry. I then taught for five years at Wayne State University and for seventeen years in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston, where I honed my skills and lived into my ideas.
I made a lot of friends in the community at Houston, and some of them asked if I could help them learn to read poetry. We had a little class at the Menil Musuem. I published the piece in DoubleTake magazine, and we got such a strong response that DoubleTake created a little pamphlet to give away to readers and teachers.
It would be for poets first of all, but it would also welcome novices, students, and general readers of good will. In the end, I tried to put everything I knew about poetry into How to Read a Poem , which I felt that I had been preparing to write my entire life. Edward Hirsch: Not exactly. But I confess that I dislike most poetry textbooks, which never explain why anyone would actually care about poetry.
Most kids graduate from college and never look at another poem. At the same time, I had become dissatisfied with the guild mentality of the most advanced literary criticism and theory, which tends to speak only to rarified readers. I have learned so much from literary theory, especially reader-response criticism, but I wanted to see if I could write a different kind of book about poetry, a book in which I was always emotionally present without sacrificing any erudition or intellectual reach.
Why would people like us go off and spend their lives writing and reading poetry, thinking about these things? Hence, the duality of the title: there is something cool and instructional about How to Read a Poem , something wilder and more passionate in and Fall in Love with Poetry. The question is how to get from one to the other. My method is to enact the role of the reader, to stand-in for the reader. My goal was to welcome everyone into the open-air tent. We would all be pilgrims setting out, lone readers, scholars of one candle, strangers.
Judith Harris: How is the book structured, and how did you decide which topics to cover in the individual chapters? Would you like to see it used as a textbook? Edward Hirsch: The book tries to think through the particular relationship that is established between a poet, a poem, and a reader.
The overall structure is a little weirder than it may initially appear. My idea was that I would simply start writing about poems that I already cared about deeply, poems I lived by. I would choose poems from any country, any century.
Some would be familiar, some unfamiliar. All that mattered was that the poems truly mattered to me. I would then go through them closely, scrupulously, contextualizing them, biographically, historically, generically, letting larger subjects emerge. The poems would take me—wherever. My hunch was that the subjects of poetry—the various techniques, the different terms, the historical genres, the abiding concepts—would eventually deliver themselves up in this way.
It would all be initiated by contact, animal to animal, with the shining body of the poem itself. Poetry itself would provide the education. Eventually, I started to shape the chapters so that the book flowed fluently from one part to the next. I made sure that what I cared about most was mostly covered. It makes me happy that poets recognize my vital lessons.
It envisions a woman writing—someone who may not have any of the good luck you and I share, who may not have access to journals or books, who may scarcely have enough electricity to power a single light bulb, or have paper, a chair, a pen—and it recognizes that what she is writing may well be the poems I most need. Even if I will never see them, that can be so, the way that, say, in America in , people needed the poems of Walt Whitman.
He was writing—but no one had a way yet of reading those poems, of even knowing that they existed. Cavafy himself, during his life, sewed his poems up into private booklets and gave them only to a few friends. Powell , Ellen Bass , Carl Phillips. We have Mark Doty. We have legal same-sex marriage. We live in an outward-facing time.
But not everything can happen on YouTube. Some poetry, at least, must continue to preserve the interiority that allows the heart and mind its more tentative, and more tender, experiments. Beautifully said. I was just talking about that story and poem last night, to a group of scientists. And if half of them send it on, it echoes. And just there we have the actual, mostly hidden, life of poems.
It can be dispiriting when you think about how a cat video can get 17 million views on YouTube. But cat videos and poems exist on different scales. We each can name the books that for us offered sea-change. But ten years later, what you most often talk about are the one, or two, or three individual poems that have stayed with you, the poems that remind, in times of brokenness, that there are ladder rungs, and the ones that remind, in times of complacency and forgetfulness, that there are hungers and fracturings that must not be forgotten.
The few words that act like the sharp point of a large tool. Ha, I am unburdened by that particular worry. It seems to me that, with the increasing omnipresence of technology, the unit of the poem will continue to become what is exchangeable on a screen. It does seem likely. The original purpose of sound-based poetry, before literacy, was to have something pocketable, portable, able to be carried accurately in memory before there were letters to write it down with.
To have something that could be brought into light when needed and transferred to someone else when needed, precisely. Poems were memorable, which made them retrievable, exchangeable currencies of being and knowledge. The poem repositories of poets.
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You can find the true coin of the realm, if you go looking for it. I love to think that, just as a carpenter builds a house for you to live in, the poet provides you with a sort of psychic reagent to move you from one state of consciousness into another. Reading your essays is almost like reading poetry. Thank you. That means first, for me, coming up with a good question.
And I want to understand the qualities that allow poems to do the work that only poems can. How can something that leaves uncertainty firmly in place be what lets us go on inside our uncertain lives?
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How are very small poems able to be so vast in reach, and poems seemingly made of cold recitation bring us to tears? How can a poem move us newly, still, on its hundredth reading? I wrote those first essays in a certain envy of people who could talk brilliantly without notes, trying to imitate off-the-cuff speech. I then spent my fortieth year trying to learn how to write a decent prose sentence. A good poem holds more than a gallon of water in a gallon-sized bucket. This goes back to what we were talking about at the start. I wonder if people still use that old-fashioned critical term, the intentional fallacy?
I just want to read the poem. I'm one of the few, it seems, who truly hope we never find out who it was Emily Dickinson fell so in love with. I want her to be able to keep her secret. Whatever that factual circumstance was, that's just the gossip. The poems matter. I have literal goosebumps listening to you speak about that.
Not to write it, not to read it. What we need poems for is their way of pressing beyond certainty, arrogance, and comfort. When we are unseated from ego's throne, and we still have to find a way to live, when there is no chair or floor under us, what do we do? This allows us to think the unthinkable, to feel the unfeelable thing, to find ourselves and the world dismantled and continue to breathe, to live.
In one of Rumi's poems on bewilderment , there's the line, "Forget safety.
Live where you fear to live. Rilke offers the same. His poems are full of the words 'risk' and 'dare,' in the imperative verb tense. I think both Rumi and Rilke had that God-ravenousness to them. Both are learned by entering them over and over and both are without any arrivable-at destination.
I love its conflation of writing and spiritual practice. And to say that they are "technologies to exceed your own capacity for presence" is just the perfect way to say that perfect thing. It is my experience of writing. And of practice. And of patience. Talking about spiritual practice is difficult.
People have so many different ideas in their minds, so many wildly alternative responses to the same words, that a conversation can turn to quicksand very fast. Barry Lopez and I once spent twenty minutes trying to find something we both felt we could live with for a panel session title. For Barry, reverence for the world is the right, and humble, stance. I can see that completely. For me, any increase of awareness and openness can come under the umbrella of spiritual practice.
A truck driver finding the perfect moment to shift. Let's get back to poems. We can talk about The Beauty , which is one of the books of the year that I haven't been able to shut up about. How old are the oldest poems in that book? How long did you work on it? Yet these worst experiences remain our passionate life companions. I've seen that our emotions after life's worst experiences can be sealed in a variety of containers, some buried, or in a black hole, some that explode unexpectedly, some that exist only in the public realm, some that exist only in private, some that exist in one part of ourselves and not in others.
But I've also seen that through poetry, people can open these containers, and move their contents, these painful emotions, into new frames that are more open and repurposed for a meaningful life. Though issues of our literary magazine do not have planned themes, a theme will typically arise of its own volition and in the Summer issue, it was the power of poetry to heal and raise awareness. This educational approach, developed by Soma Mukhopadhyay, works with the immense potential of autistic children.
Keli, now fourteen, is able to convey his views through profound poetry. One of his poems serendipitously coincided with the formation of The Golden Hat Foundation. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of light within which we can predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.
The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives. Poetry can take the most extreme emotions and bottle them like tinctures that can be used to heal the reader; it is expression- giving a voice to that which we need as human beings to express, that gives poetry its strong influence. As an editor, I look for poetry that tells a dynamic story- one that the reader will undoubtedly walk away thinking about long after they've read it.
The plight of the older homeless man in the city who contemplates his mortality and wants nothing more than to find comfort in what 'home' means; the mother who lost a child and thinks in the years to come of what could have been; the man who watched his father fear death all his life until the day he took his own; the joy of healing after facing a life-threatening illness These are only a few examples of the truths that I've seen conveyed in poetry. When poetry examines life, when it reaches people on an intense level, when the voice of one tells the story of thousands, poetry can be anything but dull.
Just as the poet will find the right words, the poem will find the audience that most needs to hear it. It is up to the poet to determine what use they will have for poetry- what story do you need to tell to heal, to express, to motivate? What do you need in order to be able to tell that story? If you have a ski instructor who encourages you, you take a risk.