Poet's Choice

Poet's Choice by Edward Hirsch. Harcourt, 2006, $25, 448 pages.

FROM THE DUST JACKET:

In Poet's Choice, the gifted poet and critic Edward Hirsch offers a new way to look at the world through the art of poetry. The author of the bestselling How to Read a Poem collects and reflects on the work of more than 130 poets -- from Asia and the Middle East to Europe and America, from ancient times to the present -- and demonstrates how poetry answers the challenge of finding meaning in the midst of suffering. Rich, relevant, always inviting, and suffused with Hirsch's deep sensitivity to the nuances of language, Poet's Choice deftly illustrates how poems need readers to experience them and how individuals can appreciate the full beauty of life through poetry.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Booklist: Hirsch celebrates poetry as a "human fundamental" in his incantatory introduction to this brimming collection of 130 masterfully distilled essays based on the famed "Poet's Choice" columns he wrote with passion and imagination for the Washington Post Book World for three years, beginning soon after 9/11. As in his cherished best-seller, How to Read a Poem (1999), Hirsch, a natural-born teacher as well as a poet, shares his extraordinary erudition and love for poetry with lucidity and intensity, empathically summarizing the lives of poets past and present, and offering poems to readers as though they are food or benedictions, gossip, or prescriptions. The first half of the book is international in scope, and Hirsch writes with particular ardor about Russian, Spanish-language, Muslim, and Jewish poets who shed light on some of the worst of humankind's countless tragedies. The lambent essays in the book's second half form a new map of American poetry as Hirsch stakes out territory for underappreciated and emerging writers, reveling in works of humor as well as gravitas. Hirsch's aesthetic is unerring, and his interpretations are profound as he considers our "collective destiny" and takes measure of poetry's encompassing vision.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Edward Hirsch is the author of six books of poems and three books of prose, among them the national bestseller, How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry. He has received the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Prix de Rome, and a MacArthur Fellowship, and is president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He lives in New York.

A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:

On the morning of our interview, Mr. Hirsch is in his office at the Guggenheim Foundation on Park Avenue in New York. We exchange pleasantries and sing the praises of mutual friends and acquaintances, including Juris Jurjevics (my writing partner for the "Reading" column of the San Diego Reader ) and Judith Moore. I tell Mr. Hirsch that Poet's Choice was the last book Judith gave me to read before she passed away. "She had responded very warmly to my work a couple of times, and it meant a lot to me. I'm really sorry she's gone."

"Originally the pieces in this book appeared in 'Book World' in the Washington Post . When you were preparing a weekly column on poetry, how did you go about selecting the pieces, and then, from all of those, how did you decide what to include in the present book?"

"One, there were many poems I loved and poets that I'm deeply committed to, and I knew that at one time or another I'd want to bring them forth to readers in 'Book World.' Sometimes I would just write about these poets. Other times there would be a poem that had a kind of topical connection, or be related to a season or to something that had happened.

"Then, there were new books that were coming in, and I would try to respond to them. Sometimes they were by poets I cared about already and sometimes by poets I didn't know or sometimes anthologies. My goal was to bring forward poems and poets that readers of the Washington Post wouldn't necessarily come across on their own."

"Did you have quite a bit of freedom in those choices?"

"I had total freedom to choose what I wanted. It is a newspaper, though, so I did have a length for the columns. I started to treat that length as if it were a poetic form. I knew that if I had more commentary, I'd have to have a shorter poem, and if I had a longer poem I could have less commentary.

"Then, when I came to structure the collection as a whole, I reshaped the columns so that they didn't have any particular ties to dates, weren't particularly linked to the seasons, and had nothing to do with the news."

"I've heard you describe a poem as a message in a bottle addressed to the future and to an unspecific reader. In other forms of writing -- in prose, for example -- authors often have a specific readership or type of reader in mind. Without knowing your reader, as a poet, how do you know if you've been successful in a particular poem?"

"I don't think a poet can know. I think you can do your best, and I think you can make something that you believe is true and well made. At times, Emily Dickenson must have known, 'this is great,' some of those Shakespeare sonnets -- he must have known. And yet, on some other level, you can't know, because it's not just up to you as the writer. You are making something that stands apart from you."

"What do you mean when you talk about the reciprocity between poet, poem, and reader?"

"I don't think that poems have meanings unto themselves. I think that a poem's meaning exists in the relationship between a poet, a poem, and a reader. The poems really only take place when that circuit of communication is completed. That's why I like Martin Buber's notion that 'in the beginning is the relation.' The relation precedes the word because it is authored by the human. A poem is an event in language. It is completed when the reader fulfills the experience by reading and internalizing a poem."

"As readers we encounter poems that speak to us, or dramatize our own inner life, at various times, but we all change with age and experience. Are there poems whose voices no longer speak to you?"

"Yes. I think that one of the oddities of being a reader -- and this isn't just in poetry -- is that there are things that speak to you deeply when you are young that, as you get older, no longer seem to have the same hold on you."

"Are there poems that you have never outgrown?"

"Oh, yes. I don't think I could ever outgrow Keats's Odes, which I read as a teenager and which have a tremendous lasting power and poignancy."

"Who read to you when you were young and couldn't yet read yourself?"

"My mother's father came from Latvia. He was the one person in my family who was a reader, and he was the one person that read to me. He also wrote poems. He died when I was eight years old.

"The knowledge that he wrote poems, later, was a great comfort to me. Even though the poems were lost, the fact that he had written them struck me as a reasonable thing that someone could do."

"Would you please retell the story of your encounter with the Brontë poem in his anthology? [See page 96] I've read it in a couple of places."

"I've written about it a few times, most extensively in How to Read a Poem. But I guess also in Responsive Reading. It's a meaningful story to me:

"After my grandfather died, when I was eight years old, I went down to the basement of the house. We had some books there in a library, and I pulled down a book and read a poem that I somehow thought my grandfather had written. I knew that he had written poetry, and it struck me that it sounded just like him, and I was very moved by the poem. It was very consoling to me.

"I never spoke about this experience. I just walked around feeling that I knew, very well, one of my grandfather's poems, which were otherwise lost. I kept this as a kind of vague inarticulate notion...but real to me. Sometime in high school I was looking through a poetry anthology, and I started thinking, 'This poet writes so much like my grandfather.' Then I thought, 'Oh my God! Here's my grandfather's poem.' It turns out it had been written by Emily Brontë and is often given the name 'Spellbound.'

"In a lecture you gave at Wellesley a few years ago, you said, 'The history of poetry is a mausoleum of forms.' What did you mean by that?"

"There are certain forms that spoke very powerfully to readers at a given moment in time, but when that time passed, the form wasn't flexible to the new conditions of life that prevailed, like reptilian creatures that can't adapt to a new environment.

"I would oppose that to certain forms that have been endlessly malleable -- the sonnet, for example. From the time it was first invented, in Provençal Europe, it became a repository for the subject of love, and people have been writing sonnets ever since. There have been times when there were greater sonnets and times when there were lesser sonnets, but the form speaks to something in our condition (in many different languages) that seems to be, if not permanent, at least lasting. No one knows exactly why. Who knows why a particular 14-line structure could speak so much about the nature of love?"

"When did you roll up your sleeves and say to yourself, 'OK, I need to master form?'"

"That happened very powerfully when I was a freshman in college. I had been writing poetry through high school. Well, it's generous to call it poetry. I was writing things down. I had feelings and thoughts, and I thought that was poetry.

"In college I began to encounter poems and read them and think about how they were structured. Then, I tried to imitate how that was done. I began to see that poetry is a form of making, and a poem is a made thing; it's not just a form of self-expression. Now, I'm not saying I mastered it, but from that time I started to become a poet rather than a person who was just writing poetry."

"Are there forms that elude you or remain particularly challenging yet interesting to you?"

"Yes. I haven't myself been able to write a good ghazal [pronounced guzzle]."

"And what is that?"

"It's an Arabic form that was brought very strongly to the fore by a poet, whom I write about in Poet's Choice, named Shahid Ali. Shahid edited a book --Ravishing DisUnities -- of ghazals -- It's a very rigorous form -- very common in the Arab world. Because of the number of repetitions in the form, I haven't been able to do anything with it to my satisfaction; though, God knows, I've tried."

"Poetry seems to be increasingly popular. Does it surprise you, given the country we are?"

"The culture has such a short attention span. And it is a celebrity-driven culture, so it does seem very ill disposed toward serious art. At the same time, it's not surprising, then, that a significant number of people are seeking something more significant, deeper, and more meaningful and that these people are turning to art, in general, and to poetry, in particular.

"On the one hand, poetry is very alien in the larger culture. On the other, people are really trying to make some kind of meaning out of their lives. Some people, at least, are finding that mass culture can't supply all their needs. And so they are turning to other forms of communication, and poetry is one of them."

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