Reading Poetry By Heart (article)

How to Read a Poem
and Fall in Love with Poetry

By Edward Hirsch
Harcourt Brace & Company, 354 pages, $32.00

A Grain of Poetry:
How to Read Contemporary Poems
and Make Them a Part of Your Life

By Herbert Kohl
HarperFlamingo, 175 pages, $33.50

How to Read a Poem
...and Start a Poetry Circle

By Molly Peacock
McClelland & Stewart, 214 pages, $25.00

By J.S. Porter

I fell in love early with poetry, and keep falling.

The former New York Times book critic, Anatole Broyard, used to say that if you didn't read poetry, you'd never have your heart broken by language. My heart was broken early, and has stayed broken.

Poetry, with its ancient sea sounds, dripped into my ear by way of familial gifts. Mom recited Yeats's "The Lake Isle of Innisfree;" Dad played visionary poems read by English actors with pleasing voices on the turntable and took me to Stratford when I was eight to hear Shakespeare--in Molly Peacock's phrase, the "tongue and teeth" of the language. I heard poetry, and was expected to learn some of it by heart, long before I read it or studied it. That sequence seems right to me: Hear first, then learn by heart, then study.

But it's not, I suspect, a common sequence now. Kids have poems inflicted on them for study without first hearing them or learning them by heart. They sometimes lack the experience of what Donald Hall in the September '99 Harper's Magazine calls "mouth-joy." For many, a guide may be necessary to take them by the hand and walk them through a House with many Mansions, seeking out the full range of the soul's hiding places in the memorable music of the body.

How do you explain to someone who looks on language solely as utilitarian function, the intense, body-swaying joy you receive from well-made, good-sounding words? The tickle in the ear of Dennis Lee's "Nicholas Knock" or the tingle in the spine of his "Heart Residence," for example? How do you explain the joy of tussling, say, with Paul Celan's compounding? His new words seed new worlds: breathturn, firethoughts, nipplestones, wellchants, wordmembraned. Can you understand Emily Dickinson's "terrible simplicity" if your father hasn't read it to you as a child or asked you to learn it by heart? Can you enter into the mouth-joy of Galway Kinnell's "Blackberry Eating," one of Molly Peacock's selected New York subway poems, without a master-reader to alert you to the "...icy, black language/of blackberry-eating in late September."?

Just as many readers need a George Steiner to unravel a Martin Heidegger, perhaps it's necessary to have an Edward Hirsch, a Herbert Kohl or a Molly Peacock to take the full measure of William Carlos Williams's words: "It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there."

The three authors take very different approaches to poetry, and have quite different audiences in mind. Edward Hirsch writes for fellow poets, seasoned readers of poetry and readers of The American Poetry Review in particular, where several of his essays first appeared. He's informed and passionate, but there is nothing wild and intuitive in his leaps and connections. He does what a dozen other professor-poets can do as well, and what one poet-translator-anthologizer, Robert Bly, does better. He takes the reader on a tour of contemporary poetry, visiting as many non-English language poems as English ones. Along the way he stops off at Dickinson and Whitman, his two most frequently quoted poets, and spends unexpected time with the eighteenth century English poet Christopher Smart.

He writes as rhapsodically on Smart's cat Jeoffry in prose as Smart himself does in poetry. He writes well on the physicality of Neruda's poetry. He's also very strong on the Polish poets -- Milosz, Herbert, Szymborska -- who deserve a collective Nobel Prize for their joint contribution to literature. A case can be made that Poland, as much as Ireland, Russia and the United States, has produced the most engaging poetry written in this century.

Unlike the scholar-poet Hirsch, Herbert Kohl aims for -- and hits -- the new kid on the block who may have a few high school poems under her belt, but little else. In his enthusiasm, he sometimes pitches too many poems at the reader, a dozen or so per chapter, mostly English language poems but some translations as well. When he's successful in his pitching, he forms glorious patterns such as the one on angels. In an inspired grouping, he brings together angel poems by Denise Levertov, Robert Hass and Carolyn Forche. Each poem works well individually but also gains added strength by association.

Kohl's strength is in his voice. It's relaxed, welcoming -- fun. He speaks as an experienced friend to a younger friend. No airs, no pretensions. He says: Here are some poems that matter to me, and here, in a few words, is why they matter. Hirsch, on the other hand, can be high-sounding; his tone strained; his language a little overblown. Hirsch has the tone of a priest talking to a congregation, trying to convert the worthy to the faith.

Molly Peacock's book has the tone of a letter: a very intimate letter. It's as if she's writing from one part of herself to another, her heart to her soul; a very private chat that we overhear and eavesdrop on; or, she's writing to her very best friend in the deepest prose she's capable of. If Hirsch gets his formidable mind on page, and Kohl the effervescence of his personality, Peacock manages to put her whole body on page. She hasn't merely collected her essays; she's constructed an integrated book in poem-response pattern, a book with a charming beginning "...I first fell in love with the word 'joy' because it had a circle in it."

Unlike Hirsch and Kohl who leapfrog from poem to poem, Peacock, one of the co-selectors of the Poetry in Motion poems for the New York subway and public transit system, concentrates on one poem per chapter. She gives you a little background on the poet, something personal if she's met her, as she had in the case of Jane Kenyon; she gives the circumstances of her reading the poem -- in some cases the circle in which she read it-- then embroiders a meditative exegesis around the poem.

Molly Peacock puts herself on the line. Hers is the book that risks the most, and in risking the most, can lose the most. If you don't like her flesh, if you don't like her voice, you may turn away and not bother with the poem. But if she wins you over by her voice, you open to her reading of principally English language poems. She enlarges, deepens and intensifies your understanding. You enter gladly into her circle.

Take her response to Jane Kenyon's "Let Evening Come" as an example of the movement of her "mind and muscle."

"Harbored in the poem is the steady pulse of the hymn line," Peacock says. Yes, but there may also be Martin Luther King Jr.'s refrain, "I have a dream." In any case, I'm struck by how many voices "Let evening come" can be spoken in: voices of defiance, of resignation, of acceptance, a hushed voice, a bellowing voice. Even if you didn't know that Kenyon was dying of cancer when she wrote these lines and was coming through her on-going battle with depression, you could still hear the musical variations.

Peacock tells you how the voices of the poem feel "to your tongue and teeth." She tells you that "don't be afraid" is the most reassuring phrase in English. She remarks on the poem's six prepositions in succession: "another slip of relation, another sliver of closeness." She says that when she wakes up in the middle of the night, this is one of the talismanic poems she turns to. She feels, and makes the reader feel, "how Kenyon quickens the language, growing the poem off the trellis of its pattern," and then how Kenyon bursts into "the sudden perspective of grace."

I've given you a quick reading of her reading from the first chapter of her book. She had me in thrall in the first few pages, beholden, and bound to her voice. I was ready to listen to her on Hopkins' bleak "No Worst, There is None," May Swenson's masterwork "Woman on a Quest" and Lorna Crozier's magical "Beauty and the Beast on the Beach" and so on. In her quiet way, Peacock intimates that poetry has the power of life and death in its breath. It simultaneously chimes the fullness of being if we listen attentively to its notes and the fall from fullness if we shun, out of fear or our own inadequacy, its music.

Does the reading of poetry matter? Consider Georgia O'Keeffe's watercolours on paper entitled Canyon Suite (1916-1918) in which archways beckon the viewer into mystery. What great poetry does is something similar; it calls the reader into what a German scholar once named the mysterium tremendum where the listener humbly bows to a voice greater than his own. A master-guide like Peacock assists the reader in fully hearing the voice, which is at once the poet's voice and breath from a larger wind.


Published under the heading Line Dancing, in The Ottawa Citizen, September 19, 1999.

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