In 1998, poet, educator, and MacArthur Fellow Edward Hirsch wrote How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, a bestselling book that remains in print still today. Hirsch’s essays are exciting guideposts and prompts for enjoying and understanding poetry better. Hirsch uses numerous examples that illuminate the emotive power and satisfaction one can have from reading great poetry.
In chapter one of How to Read a Poem the metaphor of a “message in a bottle”—borrowed from Paul Celan and quoted by Walter Benjamin describes how (if you allow it) poetry can come ashore in one’s life, helping create something profound and magical within the reader. Once found, the message may often need a guide to help decipher its meaning and that is where Hirsch excels.
Hirsch writes, “We discover in poetry that we are participating in something which cannot be explained or apprehended by reason or understanding alone. We participate in the imaginary. We create a space for fantasy, we enter our dream life, dream time. We deepen our breathing, our mindfulness to being, our spiritual alertness.” Hirsch maps the emotional elements that connect us to words–a message more condensed in his new book, 100 Poems to Break Your Heart –a book that collects two hundred years of poetry addressing sorrow, grief, and our ability to become stronger in awareness and more humane by allowing poetry into our lives. Hirsch has created a universal meditation of the heart at a time when it’s needed most.
100 Poems is 492 pages, organized by time periods. From Wordsworth in 1815, to Meena Alexander in 2018, one hundred poets –representing a selective harvest of the past two hundred years. Following a short biographical fragment on each author is the featured poem. Hirsch’s commentary ends each selection which average four or five pages. Compact readings for shorter attention spans in these difficult times.
Included is Anna Akhmatova’s elegy of Mikhail Bulgakov, beloved author of The Master and Margarita expressing the shadowy act of writing under an oppressive regime. Hirsch observes, “The speaker’s sorrow expands from mourning the friend she has lost to mourning the life she has lost.”
The Langston Hughes poem “Song for a Dark Girl” speaks out against the violence of lynching, and Hirsch explains how the poem’s power is magnified against the racist confederate lyrics of “Way Down South in Dixie.” Hirsch writes, “Hughes brilliantly combines in just three quatrains a soulful elegy, a spiritual reckoning, a critique of racism, a scathing commentary on the South, and a stark vision of lynching.”
Local Detroit-Iraqi poet in exile Dunya Mikhail is represented with “The War Works Hard”—a poem Hirsch found was filled “with fateful understanding of what war does to people, those who kill and those being killed,” and how Mikhail closes in on war with “a new kind of anti-war poem”—sardonic and filled with irony. “It approaches the subject of violent destruction,” said Hirsch, “with cutting wit, fierce humor, and brave humanity.”
Dozens of examples from all eras and traditions pepper the anthology. With a sense of thoughtful reflection, Hirsch has thrown readers a life raft of poetry and critique to uplift and connect with. 100 Poems is enjoyable and easily dipped into repeatedly. Hirsch’s commentaries are the main course. His writings about poetry are some of the best and can help open you up to discovering more.
How to Read a Poem and 100 Poems to Break Your Heart complement each other and should be essential for poets, students of poetry and those with even a slight interest. They can help intensify a better reading experience and are useful references in the history and art of poetry.
A Poetry Celebration Online
For National Poetry Month, Book Beat will be hosting a Live Zoom event with Edward Hirsch who will be discussing his new book on Independent Bookstore Day, Saturday, April 24 at 7 PM. Hirsch will be joined with poets Maria Mazziotti Gillian, Dunya Mikhail, Diane DeCillis, M. L. Liebler, and Zilka Joseph. Registration is free at EVENTBRITE.