Self-help publications are looked down upon in the literary world. Few well-read people will admit to any reading that offers metaphorical chicken soup or reminds them of kindergarten’s real lessons. The venerable New York Times Book Review’s weekly bestseller lists consign similar books to the print equivalent of a crawl space. But what about self-help books that seek to assist in the very understanding of literature? The last year has seen a sudden plethora of books claiming that what the world needs now is poetry, and offering to act variously as cicerone, go-between, tutor, and/or example.
Edward Hirsch’s How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love With Poetry (Harcourt Brace, $23) aims for the solitary reader, while Molly Peacock’s How to Read a Poem...and Start a Poetry Circle (Riverhead, $22.95) is intended for the burgeoning members of book clubs. Other publications, like Robert Pinsky’s The Sounds of Poetry (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $10), target those who not only want to read poems but also want to write them. Nearly a dozen other related titles have recently appeared in bookstores.
While the Hirsch, Peacock, and Pinsky manualsthe best of the groupshouldn’t receive any more credit for helping to create a poetry boom than the now ubiquitous slams or the Academy of American Poets’ National Poetry Month, it’s worth pointing out that the authors’ message has legs. In late August, the New York Times ran a feature on the popularity of “poetry camps” among affluent but soul-weary baby boomers. Other of the art’s new converts will doubtless follow the lead of Harper’s September cover story, which uses a restaurant setting to provide a model for the joys of reading and discussing verse.
Those who miss the smells of sharpened pencils and blackboard chalk this time of year will take special delight in Hirsch’s volume, which has the feel of an enthusiastic and comprehensive classroom talk. The chapters are chockablock with the kind of asides and multiple references that inspire students to scribble, in the margins of their notebooks, lists of works they must peruse on their next trip to the bookstore. The author’s tastes tend toward poets like Whitman and Dickinson, who typically enact the ecstatic drama of self meeting world; he’s also fond of Neruda, Hikmet, and the stars of this century’s Polish Renaissance, namely Zbigniew Herbert, Czeslaw Milosz, and Wislawa Symborska.
Peacock, on the other hand, elects to discuss only 13 poems in her book, recognizing the value of focus, especially for those avid general readers who avoid poetry because they think it’s too difficult or too inaccessible. Her chaptersreplete with personal anecdotes, casual erudition, and keen personal insight-center around “talismanic” poems like Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “No Worst, There Is None” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Filling Station,” which have provided her with comfort and enlightenment, respectively, in difficult times. A conclusion offers sound and alluring advice about forming “poetry circles,” in which members meet as frequently as once a month or as sporadically as once a season. As past president of the Poetry Society of America, Peacock helped launch such groups, and she advises interested readers to call the PSA at 1-888-USA-POEM or visit the association’s Web site at www.poetrysociety.org for information.
Like Peacock, Pinsky has been a strong public advocate for the art, especially in his current position as Poet Laureate. He’s also served poetry as a translator, most recently of Dante’s Inferno. While Pinsky doesn’t mention this work here, The Sounds of Poetry implicitly results from his immersion in a language largely unknown to him, and it ultimately addresses those readers for whom poetry yields meaning as readily as the Rosetta Stone. T.S. Eliot, another transmuter of Dante, explains the matter best: “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” That is, it can communicate as tone, inflection, raw sound, and by extension meaning, as spending a few minutes with pre-verbal children can attest. In other words, only when we insist on intellect as the sole means of comprehension do we become incapable of hearing what poems have to tell us.
Training the left brain to work with what the right brain absorbs intuitively is as helpful for readers as it is essential for aspiring poets, and this is each author’s ultimate task. Peacock’s and Pinsky’s books are particularly clear, presenting us with chapters that are as concise and unintimidating as they are useful. For example, Pinsky reassures us that no writer in the process of creation mutters “about short and long, stressed and unstressed” syllables any more than “a boxer would ponder whether to fake a right cross to make more room for the jab.” A former pugilist as well as an enormously gifted poet, our Poet Laureate can state with unusual authority that “the expert makes the moves without needing to think about them. But the more we notice and study, the more we can get from actual performance. And analysis of a fluid performance into its parts can lead to understanding, and perhaps eventually to the expert’s level of insight and the expert’s kind of joy.”
How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, How to Read a Poem...and Start a Poetry Circle, and The Sounds of Poetry are all written with enormous and joyous passion that their authors want to share: They invite us to listen to our own souls, and to those of others, through the medium of poetry. Peacock notes shrewdly that we can be afraid of poems in the same way that we can be afraid of love: “Attempting to understand them sometimes feels like entering a maelstrom.”
In fact, love provides both Hirsch and Peacock with their basic vocabularies. But all three writers insist on the vital, active participation of the reader with the writer. Such meetings allow us to be complicit in the creative process and to experience intimacy, intensity, and immediacywords that occur over and over again in the titles under discussion. Peacock says she slowly discovered that reading a particular poem means being its partner, with the result that an “understanding is gained just the way a love relationship is deepenedthrough the blind delight of examining it with the senses and the intellect all at once.”
And yet the time for such examinations seems in increasingly short supply for most Americans. All the more reason for them to turn to poetry. As Peacock puts the matter, “The resurgence of poetry now, when a decade ago some were pronouncing it dead as a genre, does have everything to do with time, even though talisman poems seem to stop time. In a cybermoment when quickness is everything...poetry, the screen-size art, provides depth. It is both brief and profound. Our hunger is for levels of meaning, but our need is instant. Poetry is the art that offers depth in a moment, using the depth of a moment...[to] pierce our busyness.”
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