Cover image for How to read a poem : and fall in love with poetry
How to read a poem : and fall in love with poetry
Hirsch, Edward.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Harcourt Brace & Co., [1999]

Physical Description:
xvi, 352 pages ; 24 cm
General Note:
"A DoubleTake book."

"Published by the Center for Documentary Studies in association with---."
Reading Level:
1210 Lexile.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PN1042 .H48 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
PN1042 .H48 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
PN1042 .H48 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
PN1042 .H48 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
PN1042 .H48 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

On Order



"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.

Reviews 2

Library Journal Review

Although it was only a decade ago that doomsayers foresaw the death of poetry as a viable literary genre, there has been a remarkable resurgence of interest. Poetry slams at bookstores and nightclubs, "Poets in the Schools" programs, and the unprecedented appearance of poets on mainstream television all point to the renewed popularity of the genre. Here are two new guides designed to enrich the experience of poetry. Hirsch (On Love, LJ 6/15/98) has gathered an eclectic group of poems from many times and places, with selections as varied as postwar Polish poetry, works by Keats and Christopher Smart, and lyrics from African American work songs. A prolific, award-winning poet in his own right, Hirsch suggests helpful strategies for understanding and appreciating each poem. The book is scholarly but very readable and incorporates interesting anecdotes from the lives of the poets. Part poetry explication and part memoir, Peacock's charming book includes 18 favorite poems that she has collected and cherished over the years. Offering sensitive interpretations of each work, Peacock tends to favor modern and contemporary poets such as May Swenson, Elizabeth Bishop, and Yusef Komunyakaa. Like Hirsch, Peacock is a popular and critically acclaimed poet; she is also a founder of the "Poetry in Motion" program that puts poetry in America's buses and subways. Peacock encourages the shared enjoyment of poetry through reading groups and provides practical advice for organizing a poetry circle. Most public libraries will want to acquire the Peacock book, while Hirsch is a good choice for academic and larger public libraries.ÄEllen Sullivan, Ferguson Lib., Stamford, CT (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Here is both a love story and an academic resource--rare combination! Hirsch (Univ. of Houston) eloquently comments on his favorite poems in the clear voice of the teacher and the impassioned voice of the lover, offering many wonderful poems from all over the world and throughout history, interspersed with readings that attend to detail, all capped by a splendid glossary and a basic bibliography. True, the readings are pitched in an openly autobiographical and appreciative key, yet Hirsch is certainly neither Walter Pater nor Oscar Wilde. His literary loves are restrained: substantial without exclamation, revealing yet not embarrassing to the reader. Here are extended discussions of the role of the reader, epiphany, Polish poetry, and elegy. Hirsch flavors his readings with quotations and aphorisms from many poets and writers. These straightforward celebrations will sound old-fashioned to some, and the cynical may consider the recurrent language of "soul," "exultation," "sacred pleasure," and "prayer" an appeal to the "new age" consumer. None of the poems seems to have a bad line, according to Hirsch. Undergraduates and general readers who would like to put themselves in the company of great poems alongside a singularly optimistic intelligence will find this a book to read and enjoy. S. C. Dillon; Bates College



Chapter One Message in a Bottle Heartland 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 else sleeps next to you. Read them when you're wide awake in the early morning, fully alert. Say them over to yourself in a place where silence reigns and the din of the culture--the constant buzzing noise that surrounds us--has momentarily stopped. These poems have come from a great distance to find you. I think of Male-branche's maxim, "Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul." This maxim, beloved by Simone Weil and Paul Celan, quoted by Walter Benjamin in his magisterial essay on Franz Kafka, can stand as a writer's credo. It also serves for readers. Paul Celan said: 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. Poems in this sense, too, are under way: they are making toward something. 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. 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 its recipient, its posterity, its heartland. 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 that 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 . (Continues...)

Table of Contents

Prefacep. xi
1 Message in a Bottlep. 1
2 A Made Thingp. 31
3 A Hand, a Hook, a Prayerp. 46
4 Three Initiationsp. 61
5 At the White Heatp. 88
6 Five Actsp. 116
7 Beyond Desolationp. 156
8 Poetry and History: Polish Poetry after the End of the Worldp. 172
9 Re: Formp. 192
10 A Shadowy Exultationp. 226
11 Soul in Actionp. 244
12 "To the Reader at Parting"p. 259
The Glossary and the Pleasure of the Textp. 265
A Reading List and the Pleasure of the Catalogp. 323