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Review: Poetry Without Pain (Newsday)

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Poetry Without Pain | Averse to verse? Good! For National Poetry Month, here are three books to stir the stanza lover in you.

By Emily Gordon

HOW TO READ A POEM: And Fall in Love With Poetry, by Edward Hirsch. Harcourt Brace, 352 pp., $23.

HOW TO READ A POEM…And Start a Poetry Circle, by Molly Peacock. Riverhead, 209 pp., $22.95.

A GRAIN OF POETRY: How to Read Contemporary Poems and Make Them Part of Your Life, by Herbert Kohl. HarperCollins, 175 pp., $23.

Otherwise sensible people are always going around saying they don’t like poetry. Not “Emily Dickinson perplexes me” or “haikus give me the heebie-jeebies”; nope, they tried it, and it didn’t agree with them. “It’s just not my thing,” they say with inexplicable pride, as though staking a claim for verbal democracy. Often, these are folks who savor words and delight in the pleasures of reading. Yet somehow they can justify dismissing a whole genre of literature, which spans thousands of years and countless phases of human creativity, out of hand. You don’t hear anyone declaring that they’ve never really seen the point of paintings, or “This Gustav Mahler—why doesn’t he just come out and say what he means?” So why is poetry so scary?

For one thing, it’s being taught that way. A generation or two ago, poets were literary figures who would be on the final exam; learning poems, often by heart, was a standard feature of public education all through school. While this hardly guaranteed appreciation, hearing poetry and speaking it aloud repeatedly meant that, for many students of those eras, the words could and would come back to them at unexpected—sometimes desperate or rapturous—moments or even decades later. Accustomed to poems, people worked them into their heads, and because the words themselves were musical and had meaning, the poems stuck there.

These days, on the other hand, the dread Poetry Unit tends to be administered during a few weeks of high school English as a painful but necessary dose, like a vaccination, or presented as an awesomely intricate equation to be broken down with stern, deadly precision. When poetry is snipped from the fabric of basic learning and, hence, daily life, what gets lost is not only the passion of the person who created the thing, but the idea that it can produce passion (or pensive reflection, or sudden epiphany, or sharpened observation) in the reader, too.

Nevertheless, among the cute cameos of public-transportation verse, Shoebox doggerel and, of course, Jewel, there’s the poetry that considerable numbers of people write in private and, in some cases, even publish. The annual “Poet’s Market” adds scores of entries for poetry journals to each new edition; graduate poetry-writing programs are multiplying; spoken-word poetry had a big commercial revival after years of urban-fringe momentum; Dylan (Bob), Morrison and Cobain are in lots of people’s canon; current poet laureate Robert Pinsky—a frequent charismatic presence on radio and quoted even more frequently than Joyce Carol Oates—is something of a rock star himself.

And yet poetry largely remains a public embarrassment, a disagreeable chore, for even the most avid literary enthusiasts—as everything from the threadbare state of most poetry organizations to dwindling NEA grants for poets to the dearth of poems in major magazines vividly attest. Not to mention that assorted cranks make a biennial announcement of the Death of Poetry, to wit: MFA programs are the work of Satan, and the Only Authentic Voices Are Out There on The Mean Streets Outside the Ivory Tower, Man. No wonder, then, that in this last National Poetry Month of the 1900s, writers are attempting to reconcile the steadfast poetic impulse in the human spirit and the icky, panicked feeling it seems to produce in so many.

Toward that end, two poets, Edward Hirsch and Molly Peacock, have published books titled “How to Read a Poem.” Peacock—author of four books of poetry and a memoir—takes the hand-holding route; her aim, as stated in her subtitle, “…and Start a Poetry Circle,” is to coax readers toward feeling comfortable, and then release them into the world. She takes 12 poems by both classic (Gerard Manley Hopkins, Li Ch’ing-chao) and contemporary writers (herself included)—each on a different theme—and discusses them in turn, examining everything from the poet’s likely state of mind to the poem’s formal makeup.

Hirsch’s book, with the less imperative subtitle “And Fall in Love With Poetry,” nonetheless has similar goals; the essays that make up the book are, like Peacock’s, organized around larger ideas: initiations, Polish poets, desolation, form. Instead of addressing one or two poems per chapter, though, Hirsch (who also has four poetry books to his credit) uses numerous excerpts to explain each point, which makes for a denser, more meditative and considerably longer narrative.

Hirsch’s mission reflects that of the poets he most admires, to whom he defers with exuberant conviction: “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.” Or, quoting Paul Valéry: “A poet’s function—do not be startled by this remark—is not to experience the poetic state: that is a private affair. His function is to create it in others.” Throughout Hirsh’s tour of the rhythms, layers, contradictions, history and personalities of the poetry available to us in English, he turns “the poetic state” inside out, offering it to us carefully and considerately. His critical views are assured and emphatic—he remarks that Christopher Smart “was the least jaded of poets…. I believe he believed everything he said. He would not be dissuaded from saying it, either, though his testimony imperiled him and put him on the far margins of society”—yet he also leads us deliberately enough through them, line by line, that we stay with him all the way to their conclusion.

In short, reading Hirsh’s “How to Read a Poem” is like a very long evening with a learned and perceptive friend who keeps leaping up to his bookshelf for more and better illustrations, and finding ever more connections and revelations. Whereas—to return to the other guidebook of the same name—Peacock’s chumminess comes across as forced. Comparing two poems about fathers, one by Yusef Komunyakaa, the other by Michael Ondaatje, Peacock writes:

“But why am I assuming that these writers are writing about their own fathers? Couldn’t it all be fiction? I make the assumption because of the pure electricity of the currents of emotions in the poems and because poets (even fiction writers who are poets) write poetry because they are pointing to emotional or spiritual or intellectual truths through language—through letters—and not through plot or character development or the course of ongoing prose. Perhaps I am hopelessly over-identified with these poems because of my own father. I feel free to be openly subjective at the same time as I spy the grammatical and musical structures that underpin—or overthrow—my whirligigs of interpretation.”

Twelve such indulgent whirligigs end up being more exhausting than Hirsh’s much lengthier reflections. Still, as a first introduction to the impulses and architecture of poetry, Peacock’s “How to Read a Poem” could be illuminating for fledgling poetry circles, particularly if they use her last chapter (which plugs the National Network of Poetry Circles) as a handbook.

Finally, Herbert Kohl’s “A Grain of Poetry”—which puts the how-to part second—demonstrates brilliantly that it doesn’t always take a poet to teach poetry. Kohl, a “teacher-educator,” writes in a direct style that, while simpler, is no less lyrical than Hirsch’s. “Expectations of what poetry has to sound like or talk about come from old school memories of rhyme and meter,” he writes. “It is easy to avoid or resist freshness in language because it can be so disorienting.” Kohl has an unusual, and affecting, way of stepping around a poem to look at it from every angle; he overturns it for inspection, then picks it up and puts it down next to another one, which then completely changes the look of the first.

He also has a remarkable field of vision. Here’s a sequence of excerpted poets, in a few pages of a single flowing point: George Herbert, Ron Padgett, Robert Creeley, Czeslaw Milosz, Jane Hirshfield, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Juan Delgado, Martin Espada, Sherman Alexie, Charles Simic. There’s nothing faux-inclusive about this lineup; every poem or piece of a poem clicks satisfyingly into the next, and as he reminds us, “It is a mistake to put poets in boxes and cut yourself off from poetic voices that might come from different perspectives and cultures than your own. A poet is not a preacher or a politician.” And Kohl isn’t holding any of these poems at arm’s length—he reaches right in and rearranges them, highlighting words in bold type or shuffling line breaks so that what he’s explaining will be unmistakable.

Kohl also lets poets speak for themselves, including their thoughts on their own work at some length. If Hirsch is entreating us to walk alongside him through endlessly rewarding terrain, Kohl is holding his breath: “Read it, silently at first, then out loud,” he suggests before a poem by Janice Mirikitani. “I’ll save my comments until after you have a chance to enter into the poem.” And elsewhere, he writes: “Poets have the power to merge opposites, imagine the unimaginable, break all of the usual rules of language in the service of their sentiments and dreams, and rethink the ordinary ways in which language serves us.” As Keats used to say, that’s all ye need to know.

—Published in Newsday, April 25, 1999

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