How to read a poem — and fall in love with poetry

How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry is an exceptional book – a book on poetry that is sheer poetry. The author Edward Hirsch writes about poetry with a lyrical effusion.

“I have tried to be as clear as possible… but I have also tried to give my prose the wings that poetry deserves,” he says.

Here is how he invites readers to approach poetry:

“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 sleeps next to you. Read them when you’re wide awake in the morning, fully alert. Say them over to yourself in a place where silence reigns and the din of culture — the constant buzzing noise that surrounds us — has momentarily stopped. These poems have come from a great distance to find you.”

Message in a bottle

He writes about lyric poetry like a romantic, comparing a poem to a message in a bottle:

“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.”

He goes on:

“Imagine you have gone down to the shore and there, amid the 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. The letter, so strange and disturbing, seems to have been making its way toward someone for a long time, and now someone turns out to be you.

“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 the recipient, its posterity, its heartland.”

He describes the act of reading a poem in almost mystical terms.

The way he puts it, the reader and the poem discover each other.

“The poem has been (silently) en route — sometimes for centuries — and now it has signalled me precisely because I am willing to call upon and listen to it. Reading poetry is an act of reciprocity…The relationship between writer and reader is by definition removed and mediated through a text, a body of words. It is a particular kind of relation between two people not physically present to each other.

 “The lyric poem is a highly concentrated and passionate form of communication between strangers,” he says.

Hirsch writes:

“Poetry is a voicing, a calling forth, and the lyric poem exists somewhere in the region — the register — between speech and song. The words are waiting to be vocalised.”

It’s like music

He compares reciting a poem to performing music:

“When I recite a poem I reinhabit it, I bring the words off the page into my own mouth, my own body. I become its speaker and let its verbal music move through me as if the poem is a score and I am its instrumentalist, its performer.”

Hirsch adds:

“The reader completes the poem, in the process bringing to it his or her own past experiences. You are reading poetry — I mean really reading it — when you feel encountered and changed by a poem, when you feel its seismic vibrations, the sounding of your depths.”

He explains:

“Emily Dickinson is one of my models who responded completely to what she read. Here is her compelling test of poetry.

“’If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire 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.’”

‘Mere air, but delicious to hear’

Hirsch celebrates the aural delight of poems — the enjoyment the words uttered can give. He recalls:

“I remember once walking through a museum in Athens and coming across a tall-stemmed cup from Ancient Greece that has Sappho saying, ‘Mere air, these words, but delicious to hear.’ The phrase inscribed into the cup, translated onto a museum label, stopped me cold, I paused for a long time to drink in the strange truth that all the sublimity comes down in the end to mere air and nothing more, to the sound of these words and no others, which are nonetheless delicious and enchanting to hear.”

“The sound of the words is the first primitive pleasure in poetry,” he says.

He savours the pleasure of reading a poem, silently or clearly enunciating the words:

“There are times when I read a poem and can feel the syllables coming alive in my mouth, the letters enunciated in the syllables, the syllables coming together as words, the words forming into a phrase, the phrase finding a rhythm in the line, in the lines, in the shape of the words crossing the lines into a sentence, into sentences. I feel the words creating a rhythm, a music, a spell, a mood, a shape, a form.”

“The poem is an act beyond paraphrase because what is being said is always impossible from the way it is being said,” he says.

Reciting a poem

Hirsch narrates his own experience of reciting a poem:

“We were driving across central Iowa in light snowfall. It was a late midwinter afternoon, a blue day in the heartland. I was trying to memorise one of my favourite poems, Robert Frost’s Desert Places, and so, as I stared out steadily at a ribbon of interstate stretching ahead of us, my wife opened a book of Frost’s poems on her lap. It wasn’t necessary. As soon as I started reciting the poem, I realised that I already had it by heart. It’s as if the words were engraved on the windshield in front of me, and I simply had to read them. I could see the shapely stanzas unscrolling before my inner eye. I suspect that most committed readers of poetry have experienced this odd pleasure — the shock of recognition — of a poem coming back to you phrase by phrase, line by line, stanza by stanza. Over the years I had returned so often to this lyric, in solitude, that the words had become part of me. Now, as the bruised air deepened into darkness and the snow covered the flat ground surrounding us for hundreds of miles, the words were rising out of me again, summoned into consciousness, as I recited them to someone else. They had been living in me all this time. Now they were voicing themselves in the wintry air.”

He lays out the poem in his book:

Desert Places

Snow filling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it — it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less —
A blanket whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars — on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert spaces.

Poem analysed

Hirsch analyses the poem:

“The poem is fluent and spacious and yet also extremely tight and well-crafted. Each stanza is a block, a solid unit. The stanzas progress like stations on a journey. ‘A poem is a walk,’ A.R. Ammonds contends in an essay, and Desert Places opens with the feeling of a solitary walk, with a lone figure in a cold landscape. The rhythm of the poem marks the rhythm of that walk. The rhymes are markers, deft and simple. One notes how the first two lines rhyme fully (‘fast/ past’) while the third line strays off on its own (‘snow’) only two be reeled back by the conclusiveness of the fourth line rhyming with the first two (‘last’). That wandering third line projects a sense of outward momentum. It also keeps the triple rhymes from seeming overdetermined or comical. And those triple rhymes — coming together with a full stop at the close of each stanza — give the lyric its feeling of dark inevitability, chiselling it permanently into memory.

“There is an oddly persistent popular image of Frost as a folksy, optimistic old gentleman farmer. To be fair, it’s an image he proposed and fostered, but it doesn’t have much to do with the true effect of his best poems, the real suggestions of danger that are shot through them.

 For one, there is a dialogue in much of his work between the inner and outer worlds, between inner and outer weather… Desert Places, as in Frost’s more famous poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, begins outdoors, with a figure already exposed to the elements, to the lure of darkness. He has been away from home. The snow filling and the night falling in the first line are a subject, a double descent into darkness… The speaker moving at the boundary of those fields looks into them and sees the world darkening the earth obliterated except for a few scrawny markings. The first sentence rolling across the length of a quatrain has taken us to the mysterious borderline of the woods.

“There is a powerful sense of stasis in the second stanza, as if the figure had paused in his walking. The particular stroll through nature comes upon a cold moment. Notice the passivity of the verbs: ‘The woods around it have it’ — whatever the indeterminate ‘it’ is feels like the subject of the poem — ‘it is theirs’; the animals — every single one of them — “are smothered in their lairs”, “I am too absent-spirited to count.” The speaker recognises and acknowledges that this vacancy of spirit is an outward sign — a manifestation — of his own inner weather. Counting stands for distinguishing things individually; not counting means leaving them to merge into the larger indistinguishable darkness There is also a pun on the word “count” as in “I am too absent-spirited to matter”. As it is defined here, the loneliness includes everyone and everything, though loneliness itself, as a feeling, can only be apprehended by a human being, an observer. Among other things, this four-stanza sixteen-line poem is about consciousness, about the inevitability of relinquishing and losing it.””

“The third stanza progresses like a syllogism — it seems to press home an argument. The speaker is not so much describing a scene as generalising from that scene making it emblematic. The snow falling has become a kind of dark Emersonian sign of obliteration. I like the echo of b sounds in ‘blanket witness’ and ‘benighted snow’. There is nobility in the word ‘benighted’, which means both ‘overtaken by darkness or night’ and ‘in moral or intellectual darkness’. Both meanings apply. The speaker, like the pilgrim at the beginning of The Divine Comedy, has lost his way. He stands on the edge of a dark wood valiantly trying to give human meaning to a snowfall in a field which, as he well knows has no human meaning. Indifferent weather, indifferent nature, indifferent earth — these have no facial expression. They have nothing to tell us because they have no meaning at all, no interior feeling or life.

“The concluding stanza makes a remarkable turn inward. It takes us right to the edge of oblivion — the vacant spaces.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars — on stars where no human race is.

“It’s as if the unknown ‘they’ — who are they but indeterminate forces or gods of desolation? — are actively trying to terrify him, but can’t succeed because, as he almost boasts, he can frighten himself more than they can frighten him. There is a belligerent, even Hemingwayesque toughness operating here, a Yankee stoicism. There is also a touch of playfulness in the rhyme of one word (‘spaces’) with two words {‘race is’), a ludic gesture in the face of hostile forces, in the face of oblivion. The enjambment after the word “spaces” also forces us to hesitate and hover over the spaces between stars. The last two lines are unremitting:

I have in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places

“The desert places become a sign of the speaker’s inner descent, vacancy, void. He knows a desolation inside that can match and even outdo any desolation that exists apart from him. The word ‘home’ seems especially charged since the dwelling cannot protect him from himself. The final phrase circles the poem back to its title, but with a new knowledge and meaning. I love Desert Places not only for its precision about but also for its courage in facing an inner desolation greater than any external darkness. Frost has made a claim on the terrifying inner spaces, and he has given them a free name. That process of naming is an act of mastery.

“Desert Places enacts a terrible and terrifying solitude, but I find that full-scale loneliness slightly belied by its clarifying articulation in language. By voicing the experience Frost makes it social, even as the reader it locates exists somewhere in the distance, in an unknown future. The speaker in this poem turns back from the lure of the woods — that final silence — to the realm of the human The poet is a maker who has made something out of the expressionlessness of the world, out of a punishing inner desolation.”

Deeply personal

Finally, after analysing the poem, Hirsch returns to his own experience of reciting the poem, sharing it with his wife sitting next to him in a car:

“Years later, driving through the Midwest on a flat and darkening day with its own encompassing emptiness, I find it consoling to let the words breathe through me toward another solitude, toward another person sitting next me reading the words to herself listening.”

This is what makes the book such a pleasure to read. Hirsch mixes literary analysis with personal experience. It is a deeply personal appreciation of poetry. Published in 1999, this book was a “national bestseller”, proclaims the cover. Poetry lovers browsing in a bookshop must have found it irresistible.


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