The Poetry Foundation recently posted a portion of Edward Hirsch’s book How To Read a Poem (and Fall in Love with Poetry). Hirsch himself is a fantastic poet. Instead of posting the link and sharing a few brief words, I’ve decided it would be more fun to post sections of it throughout the coming weeks and provide a poem I think fits the message of that particular section. I’m sure there are many out there whose only experience of poetry was John Donne or Shakespeare in their high school. I’m delighted to say those people have been terribly uninformed. Without further ado, here’s the first Edward Hirsch piece. Enjoy.
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 Malebranche’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.”
The idea that we are the “whom” in the proverbial “to whom it may concern” when it comes to poetry and literature in general. Contemporary popular poet Billy Collins takes his relationship with his reader one step further than most, courting the reader directly with wit and humor.
Billy Collins – You, Reader
I wonder how you are going to feel
when you find out
that I wrote this instead of you.
that it was I who got up early
to sit in the kitchen
and mention with a pen
the rain-soaked windows,
the ivy wallpaper,
and the goldfish circling in its bowl
Go ahead and turn aside,
bite your lip and tear out the page,
but, listen — it was just a matter of time
before one of us happened
to notice the unlit candles
and the clock humming on the wall.
Plus, nothing happened that morning–
a song on the radio,
a car whistling along the road outside–
and I was only thinking
about the shakers of salt and pepper
that were standing side by side on a place mat.
I wondered if they had become friends
after all these years
or if they were still strangers to one another
like you and I
who manage to be known and unknown
to each other at the same time —
me at this table with a bowl of pears,
you leaning in a doorway somewhere
near some blue hydrangeas, reading this.