Telescope, Well Bucket, Furnace: Poetry Beyond the Classroom

Jane Hirshfield | March/April 2003

Jane Hirshfield

There is only one real reason to read a poem, and that is to find your way to a larger life than would otherwise be yours to live. This is also the only reason to write a poem. All the other reasons a poem might come to exist-as courtship gesture, say, or the desire to communicate or to effect some change; because it has been requested of you or because it might offer some chance for expression of circumstances or of self-have their place, but they are bits of bait laid in the mousetrap. Or the lion trap, if you will-because what a good poem, a real poem, catches is not mouse-sized, it is the size of your own life and death.

Before reading a good poem, we are one kind of person, after reading it, we are another. Poetry is description, catalogue, memory, but it is also an instrument of discovery and transformation. It is telescope, magnet, well bucket, radar, and smelting furnace at once: a means for the self to arrive at its own fullest being and its own fullest meaning. This is true for the individual and true for the species, the culture. It used to be said that romantic love-the love of one person for another as individuals, beyond initial physical attraction and outside of society's structures-was invented by the French troubadors and their poems. The idea, of course, is hogwash: Read the three-thousand-year-old love poems of ancient Egypt's New Kingdom or those of ninth-century Japan's Heian Court, and it becomes clear that romantic love, in all its multi-dimensional, impassioned, and subtle specifics, arrived both earlier and more universally than that particular bit of literary mythology claims. But a morsel of truth is present in the thought, and it is this-that what we know of love and its history we know almost entirely through its recording in poems and the lyrics of songs; and that love itself was everywhere on this green-blue planet sung into existence, discovered by finding its names and gestures in the mouth, breath, tongue, ears, mind, and heart.

The same holds true for each dimension of human life. Language does not just record the uncovered composition of our being, it helps create it, just as the things of the real world-the forces and objects into whose company we are born-help create language. Language, and poetry's language in particular, reaches into the raw matter of existence and by its molding, vowelling, forming, grammaring, rhythming, phrasing, rhyming, wording, turns existence's raw matter into something holdable, revisitable, both charged and changed. Into experience, that is: something sayable, repeatable, as available for warming as a live coal carried with you, wrapped in its sheltering leaves.

There are of course additional reasons to read poems, and reasons to learn to read them well even if they may seem at times to be written in a baffling or unnecessary code. One is, you will feel less lonely. In the company of the world's poems a reader discovers that the terrain of a life, its core griefs and core exhilarations, are not traversed entirely alone. Others have cut paths through the same thickets, found passes through the same mountains. This evidence of companionship may sometimes bring practical assistance along the way, at other times it may only help the walking feel less hard. At still other times, though, a poem can become the single point of light in a vast darkness-a small, infinitely distant, and yet still-sufficient star to steer by.

Here is another reason to learn to read good poems well: to do so will make you smarter, a more capable navigator of the currents of human meaning. One tribe of native Siberians, when describing plans for the future, speaks only in metaphor. When an anthropologist asked the reason, his informant looked at him in pity and explained, as if to a somewhat slow child, "Because of the evil spirits whose pleasure it is to ruin the plans of men. We speak as we do to confuse them. The spirit-gods are powerful, but they are stupid." In more than a few tribal cultures, a person's actual name is never spoken aloud-again, the explanation goes, to deflect the attention of evil spirits. The common intuition behind these customs is this: to speak of something directly is to make it vulnerable, or to make oneself vulnerable. To what? The metaphor-speaking Siberians have it right, I think: to stupidity. To speak of important things too casually, to withhold from them the respect of considered thought and considered language, is to risk falling prey to the stupid, to the malevolence inherent in an over-simplified way of being in the world.

Kafka called literature an axe that breaks open the frozen sea inside us. His sentence describes the liberation and discovery of genuine art. It also holds a diagnosis: we are beings in need of breaking open, if we are to know the full dimensions of who we are. In his works, Kafka drew portraits not just of individuals but of an age still recognizably our own. The frozen sea is not only an individual prison, it is the quality of a culture in which, as the Siberian herders might say, certain powerful but stupid gods hold sway. It is not necessary here to name them, the list would be long and also boring. But one can say this much: these cultural forces do not want us to find our way to the serious depths. They want to keep us as they are: uni-dimensional and shallow and hungry only for a life of the surface.

Poetry-subtle, rich, able to hold more than one meaning and more than one truth at a time-invites its speakers to depth: to a more capacious and open intelligence, and also a more capacious and open heart. The offer serves only as invitation. History provides too many examples of leaders both highly literate and vastly cruel to say that a person who reads poetry is guaranteed either wisdom or compassion-but at least a gate towards those conditions stands open. Confucius wrote that to govern justly, you must first call things by their true names. And often enough, the true name is not the easy one to find, the simple birth-name whose unthinking use signals careless speech. Often enough, the truer name is the one created by the necessity for a prolonged seeking, by the mind of metaphor-making and wit, by the desire for a form of conversation that does not disrespect the complexity of human and earthly existence.

To move toward depth rather than surface, there is only one direction to travel, and that is inward. By this I don't mean to counsel an all-enveloping preoccupation with the self as the center of all things-that is narcissism, not the path of wisdom or of poems. I do mean that food can only be tasted with your own tongue and the weight of the world only felt by your own lifting shoulders and arms. To read a poem in this book well then, test it against what you know of the beauties of literature's mouth-plunge and mind-plunge, but test it also upon your own sense of your own life.

The rule holds for the writer of poems as well. W.B.Yeats famously defined a poem as an argument one has with oneself; the debate with others he dismissed as mere rhetoric, not art. Yeats was not averse to arguing with others: he was passionately, heatedly engaged in the debate surrounding Irish independence, and the politics of his time suffuse his works. Yet when asked if one of his plays had been written to sway public opinion, he answered, "I gave those emotions expression for my own pleasure. If I had written to convince others I would have asked myself not 'Is that exactly what I think and feel?' but 'How would that strike so-and-so? How will they think and feel when they have read it?' And all would be oratorical and insincere."

A poem's writer looks into his or her own life and into the world with the eyes of the language. The other half of the equation belongs to the reader. Meeting a poem that is worthy of any measure at all of time and attention, the reader finds in the words of its author something new and yet not entirely unfamiliar. This is the odd thing about reading a great poem: in it we recognize deeply a place we feel that we already know, yet have not before been. And standing on that mysteriously recognized ground, drinking its well water and eating its fruit, the experience of the poem becomes part of the reader's own experience, equal in vibrance and validity to any other life-changing event.

Each great poem's discovery-process is its own, yet a few generalizations about poetry's alchemies can still be named. The transformations of poetry occur through language working by different means than in other modes of speech. The first thing a child will notice of poems is their intensified sound: here is rhyme, here is meter, here is something that can be chanted again and again, and each time it is chanted, the same kind of mood wells up inside-the lullaby carries sleepiness, the skipping rope song lifts the feet. Later we come to notice other qualities: how often, for instance, in a poem, the presence of one thing tows with it, as if by invisible ropes, the presence of another. It is almost impossible for a tree in a poem to grow red with apples or autumn leaves and for the reader not to feel an interior ripeness and harvest and sweetness in the one case, a cold warning of loss and death in the other.

And more-in poetry's language, any given knowledge will carry with it its own counterweight and shadow. For the reader of a poem who takes the chance to look, the hidden and contrary parts of self and culture may well stand revealed. Great poetry is not a donkey carrying obedient sentiment in pretty forms, it is a bird of prey tearing open whatever needs to be opened. Look closely not just at the relatively recent poems in this book-at those of Allen Ginsberg, say-but at the work of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. You will find in each a rebellion against conventional description and conceptions equal to their poems' outward rebellions against the standardized forms of poem-making of their times.

Lastly, the language of poetry entails a changed relationship to time: a poem opens into a widened possibility of meaning by putting more information into one time-beat's vessel than it seems possible a moment can hold. It is not a matter of slowing down. Rather, a poem is an artifact outside of speed or slowness. Great art, one reads, is "timeless." Usually the term is taken to mean something like "as relevant in this century as it was in the last," but I think it accurate on the literal level as well. A work of art lives outside the normal, linear progression of before and after, of early and late. It is timeless because it creates in us its own centuries, its own clock.

In the good reading of a poem, the reader's attention grows large. A person intimate with the modes of poetry is a person who has, almost literally, acquired an additional sense organ. As with the person who learns to deep-sea dive, a world previously invisible suddenly opens, one in which new life forms move in new colors and shapes. And each new poem is just this: a creature that has not existed until the moment of its writing. Its half-transparent body ripples the currents of the water it lives in; it feeds in some new and strange way. The expansion and renovation of poetic conception is one of the ways human understanding evolves. Robert Frost said of poetry that it "begins in delight and ends in wisdom." That is any explorer's experience, when entering fresh terrain: not only the knowable earth is enlarged, the seer grows larger as well.

Why then does the thought of poetry evoke so widely a negative response-"irrelevant, dull, pompous, medicinal, vague." Sometimes it is simply a matter of an archaic diction that has to be learned and made one's own before a poem can be easily read, but that is a special case. Sometimes it is simply a matter of differing tastes. Other times, it must be admitted, a poem is simply bad. Marianne Moore began her poem "Poetry" with the startling words, "I too dislike it." What she disliked, the poem makes clear, was a kind of poetry that had (and has) kidnapped the reality of poetry in the public mind-the poem as a prissy arrangement of language having nothing to do with the real life of actual experience, of actual work and actual passions, of the political and social and ecological issues of living together successfully on this earth. Moore knew, as her poem goes on to say, that even an imaginary garden must hold real toads, or it will be a poor and frivolous place. How certain poems (and poets) became so lost in their own embroideries is a puzzle-though as the Japanese poet Issa wrote compassionately in one haiku: "Even among the insects of this world, some sing well, some don't."

If in wandering the pages of this book you meet a poem that holds nothing powerful or genuine for you, feel free to pass it by (unless otherwise instructed by your instructor; in that case, well, you must try to do the best you can). Another poem, I trust, will soon speak with a clearer voice. Remember though that at any moment a poem previously meaningless or dull can suddenly open a hidden door and become exactly the poem you need. This has happened to me many times through a lifetime of reading. A person changes, and when he or she does, the poems read by that person change too. You may have come to own this book because it was required of you to pass a required course. Still, if one poem here has done its work at all, you will keep the book because something in it has already changed your life, and once that has happened, once you know it might conceivably happen again, you could no more give away this collection of possible revelations than you would give away the memory or the reality of a first kiss. And if it has not happened? Then go back in and look through its pages again, in your own time and for your own purposes-for who would want to settle for a tepid handshake, when the real and passionate thing is there to be had?


Jane Hirshfield's most recent poetry collection is Given Sugar, Given Salt (HarperCollins, 2001), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and winner of the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award. She is also the author of Nine Gates: Entering The Mind Of Poetry (HarperCollins, 1997), a collection of essays.

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