“Learn about a pine tree from a pine tree, and about a bamboo stalk from a bamboo stalk,” wrote the seventeenth-century master of haiku Matsuo Basho. Similarly, we can extend Basho’s wisdom about nature to the nature of poetry and learn about poetry from the poem itself writes Edward Hirsch in his book How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry — a soulful guide to the spacious unfolding of verse, rhyme, and rhythm.
Poetry is an art form that deepens our capacity for experiencing ourselves as well as others, thereby deepening our capacity for personhood, our achievement of humanity. In this regard, Edward Hirsch’s book — a book about reading poetry and also a book of readings — serves as a means to restore the aura of sacred practice that accompanies this process, to honor both the rational and the irrational elements in poetry, to illuminate the experience that takes us to the very heart of being.
Edward Hirsch writes:
Read these poems to yourself in the middle of the night. … Read them when you’re wide awake in the early morning, fully alert. Say them over to yourself in a place where silence reigns and the din of the culture — the constant buzzing noise that surrounds us — has momentarily stopped. These poems have come from a great distance to find you. I think of Malebranche’s maxim, “Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul.” This maxim … can stand as a writer’s credo. It also serves for readers. Paul Celan said:
A poem, as a manifestation of language and thus essentially dialogue, can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the — not always greatly hopeful — belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps. Poems in this sense, too, are under way: they are making toward something.
Imagine you have gone down to the shore and there, amidst the other debris — the seaweed and rotten wood, the crushed cans and dead fish — you find an unlikely looking bottle from the past. You bring it home and discover a message inside. This letter, so strange and disturbing, seems to have been making its way toward someone for a long time, and now that someone turns out to be you.