What Poetry Does

I’ve just finished reading Edward Hirsch’s How to Read a Poem (Harcourt Brace, 352p, $23 hardcover; Harvest, $15 paperback) with its wonderfully subversive and liberating subtitle, And Fall in Love With Poetry, andtrue to its promiseI have just fallen in love with poetry all over again. If you read just one book on poetry for National Poetry Monthand for your own soul’s sake, you should let this be that book. Hirsch is one of the best poets of his generation writing in this country today, and he is also one of the smartest.

If you pick up this book and stay with it, you will fall in love with this guide. Reading this book is like spending a very rich evening talking with someone who really knows poetry, someone who might start, say, with Frost or Hopkins or Plath, and thenin the midst of your conversationget up and start going through first one and then another book of poetry, saying, "That reminds me of Book 19 of the Iliad," or a wedding song by Catullus or a lyric by Sappho or Li Po or a passage from Virgil. Just as this other poem reminds your host of Neruda or Heaney or Desnos or Hikmet or Akhmatova or Milosz.


Hirsch is very good, really, at making you love poetry, whether you’re a beginner or consider yourself an adept. There will be surprises on every page for you. Listen. Even if he sometimes goes over your headand he willit’s a journey worth taking to keýp reading this book. Of course you may argue with this interpretation or that. I certainly didbut then I also kept nodding agreement on page after page. Either way you know you are in the company of one of the handful of American poet/critics you can trust to show you the incredible riches that poetry possesses.

I love his strategy of praise, too. How easy it would have been for him to set up straw figures only to knock them down. This critic against that one, this poet against that. There are, after all, critics out there who thrive on just that sort of thing. But Hirsch belongs to the generous school of poet/critics that includes Emerson and Whitman, and the best aspects of Jarrell and Berryman and Lowell. Hirsch’s temperature, thank heaven, is about 75 degrees warmer than, say, the cool criticism of T. S. Eliot, whose poetry, by the way, is anything but. Look, Hirsch seems to say, I’m a Jewish kid from Chicago, working class, somebody who played football, and my mug got this way from leading with my chin. But along the way poems changed his life. He tells us all this proudly.

There is the poem he read when his grandfather was dying, a poem with no name and a fortune to come, a poem that sustained him for years before he learned Emily Brontë had written it. Or the passage from Homer that measured his own grief when his best friend died, leaving him at 34 inconsolable. It’s a passage rendered with extraordinary force by Christopher Logue, whom Hirsch quotes, and it’s poetry that even after 25 centuries remains as fresh and electric and as terrifying as ever. Here is the passage in which the great Achilles learns that his friend and lover, Patroclus, has been killed in battle before the walls of windy Troyand worse, killed standing in for him, in Achilles’ own armor, which the enemy have now stripped from the dead man’s corpse:

Down on your knees, Achilles. Farther

Now forward on your hands and put your
face into the dirt,

And scrub it to and fro.

Grief has you by the hair with one

And with the forceps of its other hand

Uses your mouth to trowel the dogshit up;

Watches you lift your arms to Heaven;
and then

Pounces and screws your nose into the

Gods have plucked drawstrings from
your head,

And from the template of your upper lip

Modelled their bows

Not now. Not since

Your grieving reaches out and

That envied face, until

Frightened to bear your black,
backbreaking agony alone,

You sank, throat back, thrown back, your

Thrown out across the sea to reach your

Here’s a poem about separation, the bitter, disorienting, despairing final farewell between two lovers. The speaker is a woman, the poet is the Russian force, Anna Akhmatova, and the poem, though written 90 years ago, is as true this minute as it was then, andexcept for the glovesanytime these past 4000 years. Here it is in Stephen Berg’s powerful and heartbreaking translation, a woman’s pain, to be read and re-read slowly, until the pain that says we are deeply alive even in this Passion registers upon us:

I was helpless, my breasts were freezing.

I walked one foot on tiptoe,

I put my left glove on

My right hand, like an idiot.


There seemed to be so many steps then

But I knew there were only three.

Autumn whispered through the maples

"Die, like me:


that sick, truculent liar, Fate,

has stripped me, for the hell of it."

"I’ve been flayed like you," I remember answering

As I left, "and I’ll die when you do."

This is the song of our last meeting.

I looked back at the shape of the dark

Candles guttered in the bedroom

Indifferent, yellow.

I don’t have here a great deal of space, and the topic is too big and too important. But as poetry editor of these pages, I wanted to single out this one book that ignited my love for poetry all over again. How to read a poem, Hirsch asks us. Passionately, ecstatically. And thenstep by stephe shows you how to read. Poetry can change your life, and will if you let it. A hundred times it has thrown me a lifeline. It is one of the great gifts we have been given, for, like Joseph’s metaphorical coat, it is infinitely varied and infinitely rich.

One more example, this one from a sonnet of Hopkinsone of Hirsch’s touchstoneswhich somehow manages to touch the bottom of the dark night of the soul, and to do so in lines as fresh and blood-drenched as the day Hopkins wrote them. I myself am hell, he seems to say, then realizes that the possibility of being separated from God not just for a season with a date on it but forever would be hell indeed:

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s
most deep decree

Bitter would have me taste: my taste
was me;

Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood
brimmed the curse.

Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours.
I see

The lost are like this, and their scourge
to be

As I am mine, their sweating selves; but

How clever Hirsch is. He invites you in, sits you down, and you begin a little conversation, say, about African-American work songs. Then you move to the poems of Sterling Brown and his blend of the blues and the work song, and before you know it you’ve learned something about the ballad, the ode, the sonnet, the elegy and the long and varied history of each. His taste is truly catholic and wide-ranging andbest of allgenerous. Like the best poems, Hirsch’s prose is mesmerizing. He is an extraordinary teacher, and he knows better than to waste your time. Read this book and you will be grounded in the act of poetry.

Winter is over. Treat yourself. Treat yourself especially to this book. Read and re-read it. If you already love poetry, you will love it even more by the time you finish this book. If you don’t know if you love poetry or not, spend an hour or two listening to what Hirsch is trying to tell you. I thinkI certainly hopeyou will love it by the time you have gotten 20 pages into this book. If you still haven’t fallen in love with poetry by then, you may want to check to see if you still have a pulse.

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