Imagine you have gone down to the shore and there, amidst 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. 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.
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 consciousness – the dreamy attentiveness – that 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 the Whitman lingers in this one-sentence poem over the very first step of studying, the mere fact – the miracle – of 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 flow – an affectionate commerce – between 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.
Mere Air, These Words, but Delicious to Hear
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 of poetry 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. Sappho’s lines (or the lines attributed to her) also have a lapidary quality. The phrase has an elegance suitable for writing, for inscription on a cup or in stone. Writing fixes the evanescence of sound. It holds it against death.
The sound of the words is the first primitive pleasure in poetry. “In poetry,” Wallace Stevens asserted, “you must love the words, the ideas and images and rhythms with all your capacity to love anything at all” (“Adagia”). Stevens lists the love of the words as the first condition of a capacity to love anything in poetry at all because it is the words that make things happen. 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. I hear the words coming off the page into my own mouth – in transit, in action. I generate – I re-create – the words incantatory, the words liberated and self-reflexive. Words rising from the body, out of the body. An act of language paying attention to itself. An act of the mind.
“Mere air, these words, but delicious to hear.” In poetry the words enact – they make manifest – what they describe. This is what Gerard Manley Hopkins calls “the roll, the rise, the carol, the creation.” Indeed, one hears 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. The pleasure all this creates in the mouth is intense. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” I read Hopkins’s poems and feel the deep joy of the sounds creating themselves (“What is all this juice and all this joy?”), the nearly buckling strain of so much drenched spirit, “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!”
The poem is an act beyond paraphrase because what is being said is always inseparable from the way it is being said. Osip Mandelstam suggested that if a poem can be paraphrased, then the sheets haven’t been rumpled, poetry hasn’t spent the night. The words are an (erotic) visitation, a means to an end, but also an end in and of themselves. The poet is first of all a language worker. A maker. A shaper of language. With Heinrich Heine, the linguist Edward Sapir affirmed in his book Language, “one is under the illusion that the universe speaks German.” With Shakespeare, one is under the impression that it speaks English. This is at the heart of the Orphic calling of the poet: to make it seem as if the very universe speaks and reveals itself through the mother tongue.
In Plain American Which Cats and Dogs Can Read!
The lyric poem walks the line between speaking and singing. (It also walks the line between the conventions of poetry and the conventions of grammar.) Poetry is not speech exactly – verbal art is deliberately different than the way that people actually talk – and yet it is always in relationship to speech, to the spoken word. “It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place,” as Wallace Stevens puts it in his poem “Of Modern Poetry.” W.B. Yeats called a poem “an elaboration of the rhythms of common speech and their association with profound feeling” (“Modern Poetry”). W.H. Auden said: “In English verse, even in Shakespeare’s grandest rhetorical passages, the ear is always aware of its relation to everyday speech” (“Writing”). I’m reminded of the many poems in the American vernacular – from Walt Whitman to William Carlos Williams (“The Horse Show”), Frank O’Hara (“Having a Coke with You”), and Gwendolyn Brooks (“We Real Cool”) – that give the sensation of someone speaking in a texturized version of American English, that create the impression of letters written, as Marianne Moore joyfully puts it, “not in Spanish, not in Greek, not in Latin, not in shorthand, / but in plain American which cats and dogs can read!” A demotic linguistic vitality – what Williams calls “the speech of Polish mothers” – is one of the pleasures of the American project in poetry.
Here is the opening of Randall Jarrell’s poem “Next Day”:
Moving from Cheer to Joy, from Joy to All, I take a box And add it to my wild rice, my Cornish game hens. The slacked or shorted, basketed, identical Food-gathering flocks
Are selves I overlook. Wisdom, said William James, Is learning what to overlook. And I am wise If that is wisdom.
One hears in this poem the plaintive, intelligent voice of a suburban housewife who knows she has become invisible, who wants only to be seen and heard. What particularly marks the poem as a verbal construct is the self-conscious treatment of the words themselves, the way the words behave in rhythmic lines and shapely stanzas. There’s the delightful pun on the names of household detergents, the play off “hens” and “flocks,” the acute way the woman sums up her companions in the supermarket, how she pivots on the word “overlook” and ruefully quotes William James’s pragmatic American notion of “wisdom.” I’ve always been touched by the way Jarrell animates the woman’s voice in this poem, how he inscribes his own voice into her voice and captures the reality of someone who is exceptional, commonplace, solitary.
It is Something of an Accident That You Are the Reader and I the Writer
Lyric poetry is a form of verbal materialism, an art of language, but it is much more than “the best words in the best order.” It is language fulfilling itself, language compressed and raised to its highest power. Language in action against time, against death. There are times when I am awestruck by the way the poems incarnate the spirit – the spirits – and strike the bedrock of being. Other times I am struck by how little the poem has to go on, how inadequate its means. For what does the writer have but some black markings on a blank page to imagine a world? Hence these lines from the splendid Florentine poet Guido Cavalcanti:
Noi siàn le triste penne isbigottite le cesoiuzze e’l coltellin dolente.
We are the poor, bewildered quills, The little scissors and the grieving penknife.
Cavalcanti projects his own grievous feelings of imaginative inadequacy onto the writer’s very tools (quills and the knives to sharpen them), the writer’s diminutive instruments.
In Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino makes an insightful comment that enlarges on Cavalcanti’s lines, creating a statement about the experience of literature itself:
all “realities” and “fantasies” can take on form only by means of writing, in which outwardness and innerness, the world and I, experience and fantasy, appear composed of the same verbal material. The polymorphic visions of the eyes and the spirit are contained in uniform lines of small or capital letters, periods, commas, parentheses – pages of signs, packed as closely together as grains of sand, representing the many-sided spectacle of the world as a surface that is always the same and always different, like dunes shifted by the desert wind.
I am reminded of Calvino’s description of the literal limits of art: that all the incitement and grace of literature has to take place in the lineup of written characters on the page.
“There is then creative reading as well as creative writing,” Emerson says in “The American Scholar” in a statement that could be a credo for the reader of poems. Poetry alerts us to what is deepest in ourselves – it arouses a spiritual desire which it also gratifies. It attains what it avows. But it can only do so with the reader’s imaginative collaboration and even complicity. The writer creates through words a felt world which only the reader can vivify and internalize. Writing is embodiment. Reading is contact. In the preface to Obra poetica, Jorge Luis Borges writes:
The taste of the apple (states Berkeley) lies in the contact of the fruit with the palate, not in the fruit itself; in a similar way (I would say) poetry lies in the meeting of the poem and reader, not in the lines of symbols printed on the pages of a book. What is essential is the aesthetic act, the thrill, the almost physical emotion that comes with each reading.
Borges continues on to suggest that poetry can work its magic by fulfilling our profound need to “recover a past or prefigure a future.”
Poetry depends on the mutuality of writer and reader. The symbols on the page alone are insufficient. Borges was a fabulist and in the foreword to his first book of poems he went even further to suggest that poetry goes beyond mutuality, beyond identification, into identity itself:
If in the following pages there is some successful verse or other, may the reader forgive me the audacity of having written it before him. We are all one; our inconsequential minds are much alike, and circumstances so influence us that it is something of an accident that you are the reader and I the writer – the unsure, ardent writer – of my verses.
This is funny and brilliant and perhaps disingenuous, but there is also a truth in it which has to do with a common sensation of reading: the eerie feeling that we are composing what we are responding to. In The Redress of Poetry Seamus Heaney calls this “the fluid, exhilarating moment which lies at the heart of any memorable reading, the undisappointed joy of finding that everything holds up and answers the desire that it awakens.” Poetry creates its own autonomous world, and what that world asks from us it also answers within us.…
The reader exists on the horizon of the poem. The message in the bottle may seem to be speaking to the poet alone, or to God, or to nobody, but the reader is the one who finds and overhears it, who unseals the bottle and lets the l
nguage emerge. The reader becomes the listener, letting the poem voice and rediscover itself as it is read.
The Shock, the Swoon, the Bliss
I take the poet as a maker who sends out a formal enticement, a provocation, a challenge. I encounter – I am encountered by – a work of art. For me, that encounter is active, inquisitive, relentless, disturbing, exuberant, daring, and beholden. Poets speak of the shock, the swoon, and the bliss of writing, but why not also speak of the shock, the swoon, and the bliss of reading?
In honor of National Poetry Month, the above is excerpted with permission from Chapter One of How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, by Edward Hirsch, published by Harcourt Brace and Company. Edward Hirsch is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Earthly Measures and On Love. He teaches at the University of Houston, and last year was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.
This excerpt is partially funded through a grant from the Austin Writers’ League, in cooperation with the Texas Commission on the Arts.