Edward Hirsch on “How to Read a Poem”

After one bit of commentary on one of my poems referenced it taking more than one pass to grasp what was going on, I found it oddly synchronous when Brain Pickings referenced this book in an article I read. While I haven’t read Hirsch’s book, I did run across this article he published in 2007 in conjunction with poets.org & The Great Books foundation.  It is a concise article which is remarkably jargon free and simply written:  How to Read a Poem
Hirsch opens with a clear statement of assumptions people make when faced with reading poetry,

“Most readers make three false assumptions when addressing an unfamiliar poem. The first is assuming that they should understand what they encounter on the first reading, and if they don’t, that something is wrong with them or with the poem. The second is assuming that the poem is a kind of code, that each detail corresponds to one,
and only one, thing, and unless they can crack this code, they’ve missed the point. The third is assuming that the poem can mean anything readers want it to mean.”

This little article breaks down the mechanics quite neatly to those who don’t want to spend months, or even years, reading books about the technicalities of the craft.  But better than that, he addresses some of the inherent ambiguities of crafting a poem – one of the most powerful, I believe, is that a poem can be “more than the sum of its parts” and might reveal “ideas that may not have been foremost in the writer’s mind in the moment of composition.”

This latter part is one of the qualities which the reader brings to the poem.  How the reader might actually be participating in the making of the poem, the way an actor participates in the making of a play.

I can say for my part that there are often times where no matter how starkly I write about an actual experience, a reader will bring another connotation out from under the bushes and place it at my doorstep that I would never before have imagined.


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