How to Read a Poem. Edward Hirsch.

Hirsch, Edward. How to Read a Poem. Harcourt, New York, 1999. NF; 2/21.

For most of my life I’ve approached poetry with a chip on my shoulder: show me what the big deal is. I’ll begin to read a poem and more or less quickly lose the narrative meaning of it, so put it aside as purposely not making sense. But Edward Hirsch’s emotionally intense invitation to appreciation of poetry might have helped me see what’s been wrong: a form of laziness. I’ve kind of intentionally been underestimating the personal and I guess courageous commitment that you have to make. Hirsch is very clear about that. Okay: is it possible that after reading this very nice book my time to start paying a different kind of attention to and get serious about poetry is belatedly starting?

The book’s format is a bit discursive, with chapter titles symbolic but (appropriately poetically) not always obviously related to their content. We are told about aspects of poetry appreciation with examples, sometimes whole poems, and then given a convincing description of how each poem pulls us into understanding beyond the cognitive. Hirsch is interested in the experience of reading poetry, a relationship between the poet and reader, and what it takes to run the “risk” of emotionally focusing on letting words on a page produce, sometimes surprisingly and powerfully, a change, an aesthetic experience. I’ve called that kind of event my “art gallery experience“, and you’d think someone like me, involved with literature since grade five, should have been regularly having that experience reading poems. I haven’t. But is it at age 74 too late to start?

We understand from this book that reading poetry should be above all an experience, but one we have to be receptive to. Hirsch says “(t)here are people who defend themselves against being “carried away” by poetry, thus depriving themselves of an essential aspect of the experience.” This does sound familiar. The poet’s art “actualizes our senses until we start to feel an animal alertness opening up within us.” Animal…? The power of this he says:

we have weakly and inadequately labeled “Imagination,” and (it) blacks out the ordinary world. But with the loss of one world another is gained. The flash that usurps the visible world also reveals a second invisible world, profound and impalpable.

Okay how is the experience of that world made to work? In our “imagination”. Listening by using it to what the poet writes. Gerard Manley Hopkins for example talks about “the roll, the rise, the carol, the creation” and Hirsch comments comparably impressively that we hear

in Hopkins’s very phrase the trills or rolled consonants of the letter r reverberating through all four words, the voiced vowels, the r-o-l of “roll” echoing in the back of “carol,” the alliterative cs building a cadence, hammering it in, even as the one-syllable words create a rolling, rising effect that is slowed down by the rhythm of the multisyllabic words, the caroling creation.

I hear the hammer and the roll…

Poems usually have two things going on: a narrative and a lyrical stream. In lyric poetry words are “defamiliarized” so that they are “wrenched” from the familiar context and a “spell” is put on them. The narrative moves events along while the lyric dramatizes “intense states of feeling”. There is a harsh and disruptive twisting here. Once experiencing it, although my linear hearing follows the narrative looking for an opportunity to call it nonsense, it’s with an inner ear I’ve actively avoided using that I have to listen for inner meaning. I read of the straightforward event of a woman leaving her lover for the last time. But I understand she puts a glove on the wrong hand, and that otherwise insignificant detail signals her distress to me because I am starting to pay the right kind of attention.

I guess partly with my dad’s central European background I was especially impressed with a long section on Polish poets, mostly writing after World War II. Wystawa Szymborska’s poem The Joy of Writing is presented in Hirsch’s book, and the poet speaks of a “written” doe she has invented, in the sights of hunters also invented. “They forget that what’s here isn’t life” says the poet in the poem, and we are told that in the poem completely different laws obtain. We read the description of the scene while reading at the same time about the experience of writing (and reading) about it, which is “an ongoing process of listening and making” by both of us. I felt strangely vertiginous understanding that the poem was talking about itself making itself making my experience. This is how I write poetry and how you should read it says Ms. Szymborska.

Hirsch says

I have the idea that a certain kind of exemplary poem teaches you how to read it. It carries its own encoded instructions, enacting its subject, pointing to its own operation. It enacts what it is about—a made thing that indicates the nature of its own making.

He admires Polish poets for their “unfashionable clarity”. I get the impression that this enacting of a subject that is the nature of its own making may not be confined to poetry.

Hirsch, having captured my attention, now tells me that personal growth is somehow connected to the aesthetic experience of poetry, and in having that experience I won’t be able to avoid “something of the risk attached to getting involved with poetry where one is repeatedly confronting the soul of others at the white heat and, much more dangerously, confronting one’s own soul. The stakes are high.”

Jewish Hungarian poet Miklos Radnoti wrote on a postcard marching in the 1940s as a prisoner waiting to be next to be shot dead by a German soldier:

I fell next to him. His body rolled over.
It was as tight as a string before it snaps.
Shot in the back of the head – “This is how
you’ll end.” “Just lie quietly, I said to myself.”

This poet wasn’t only working with words or ideas: the stakes couldn’t have been higher. And there is in the next line the horror of a German officer’s harsh comment “Der springt noch auf” (roughly translated: “Watch this guy break open”) a symbolic indifference set beside the terrible poetic pathos. We can choose to pay attention, or not to, to things that force us to confront our own fear and weakness.

Obviously if I read it properly the emotional content of poetry can be dreadful or joyous, sometimes both at the same time. Reading Hirsch I developed the idea that as I read poetry I have to carry an alertness to having an inner feeling alongside my ordinary following of narrative (and conduct of life), mentally encouraging, not stopping, a change in myself when I sense my imagination leading where it wants to go.

Hooray. Edward Hirsch seems to be saying the same things as the conversations I remember from English lit courses before arts went political in the 1980s. He quotes Northrop Frye multiple times. Imagine if our aesthetic and academic focus got back to interest in “transcendental” (basically aesthetic-experience-oriented) celebration of and conversation about art, and quit being preoccupied with whether art and artists line up with our political beliefs.

We activate the poem inside us by engaging it as deeply as possible, by bringing our lives to it, our associational memories, our past histories, our vocabularies, by letting its verbal music infiltrate our bodies, its ideas seep into our minds, by discovering its pattern emerging, by entering the echo chamber which is the history of poetry, and most of all, by listening and paying attention. Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul.

So I understand a lazy approach to poetry has caused me to miss this important avenue to the art gallery experience. No, it’s never too late. I’m already beginning to follow Hirsch’s advice, trying to teach myself poetic attentiveness.

Highly recommended as an early stage in the cure for poem phobia. 9.4/9.0

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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