"Read a poem to yourself in the middle of the night. Turn on a single lamp and read it while you're alone in an otherwise dark room or while someone sleeps next to you. Say it over to yourself in a place where silence reigns and the din of culture-the constant buzzing noise that surrounds you-has momentarily stopped. This poem has come from a great distance to find you." So begins this astonishing book by one of our leading poets and critics. In an unprecedented exploration of the genre, Hirsch writes about what poetry is, why it matters, and how we can open up our imaginations so that its message-which is of vital importance in day-to-day life-can reach us and make a difference. For Hirsch, poetry is not just a part of life, it is life, and expresses like no other art our most sublime emotions. In a marvelous reading of world poetry, including verse by such poets as Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Pablo Neruda, William Wordsworth, Sylvia Plath, Charles Baudelaire, and many more, Hirsch discovers the meaning of their words and ideas and brings their sublime message home into our hearts. A masterful work by a master poet, this brilliant summation of poetry and human nature will speak to all readers who long to place poetry in their lives but don't know how to read it.
Edward Hirsch's primer may very well inspire readers to catch the next flight for Houston and sign up for any and all of his courses. Not for nothing does this attentive and adoring poet-teacher title his book How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry; Hirsch's big guide to getting the most out of this form is packed with inspiring examples and thousands of epigrams and allusions. Above all, he is intent on poetry's physical and emotional power. In chapters devoted to the lyric, the narrative, the poetry of sorrow, of ecstasy, of witness, Hirsch continually conveys the sheer ecstasy of this vital act of communication. (He takes us, for instance, with great care and mounting excitement, through Emily Brontë's "Spellbound," which he discovered at age 8 when "baseball season was over for the year.") Above all, there is the thrill of discovery as Hirsch offers up works by artists ranging from Anna Akhmatova to Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Bishop to Adam Zagajewski, and everyone in between. I defy you not to fall in love with Wislawa Szymborska on the basis of "The Joy of Writing," which begins:
Why does this written doe bound through these written woods?
For a drink of written water from a spring
whose surface will xerox her soft muzzle?
Why does she lift her head; does she hear something?
Perched on four slim legs borrowed from the truth,
she pricks up her ears beneath my fingertips.
Elsewhere, Hirsch's section on Sterling Brown's redefinitions of African American work songs should put this neglected poet back on the map. And his introductions to Eastern European poets such as Jirí Orten, Attila József, and Miklós Radnóti will make you want to ferret out their hard-to-find work. (Perhaps his publisher should put out a companion anthology...)
Hirsch manages to cram entire worlds and lives into 258 pages of text (which he follows up with a huge glossary and extended reading list). His two paragraphs on Juan Gelman, whose son was murdered and pregnant daughter-in-law disappeared during Argentina's "Dirty War," bring this man's art into clear, tragic focus. But even here, the compulsively generous author is compelled to enshrine the words of other critics, foregrounding Eduardo Galeano and Julio Cortázar, who describes Gelman's art as "a permanent caress of words on unknown tombs." What a pleasure it is to be inside Hirsch's head! He seems to have read everything and absorbed most of it, and he wears his considerable scholarship lightly. Many of his fellow poets have suffered for their art, have been imprisoned and killed--but above all, Hirsch makes us realize that, no matter what the artist's circumstances, subject, or theme, "the stakes are always high" in this game that writer and reader alike must keep playing. --Kerry Fried
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