How to Read a Poem
About the book:
Q. Hirsch suggests that even the greatest poems are incomplete without readers.What role do you think the reader really plays in a poem?
Q. Why do you think so many people (even people who rarely read for pleasure) turn to poems on ritual occasions, such as weddings and funerals? What, if anything, does this tell us about the need for poetry?
Q. Consider this radical statement by Emily Dickinson. Is there any way to know poetry except by contact?
If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me I, know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know. Is there any other way?
Q. Consider Hirsch’s discussion of reading Emily Brontë’s poem “Spellbound” as a child and then his later reading of the poem as an adult (pp. 61-66). Can you think of any experiences you had with poetry as a child? Do you think your reading of those poems would be different today?
Q. In discussing Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art” (pp. 32-33), list a few of the things you’ve lost, and arrange them so that the magnitude of each loss increases. Are these losses “hard to master”? Do you feel as if any of them “will bring disaster”? How do we come to terms with loss (do rituals help?) and is there anything to be gained in finding these losses, these feelings, organized by a poetic structure, such as a villanelle?
Q. Have you ever loved an animal unreasonably? If you had to make a list of your pet’s no doubt extraordinary attributes, as Christopher Smart does in writing about his cat Jeoffry (pp. 66-69), how would you make it interesting to others? What do you think of the strategy of parallelism that Smart employs?
Q. What do you think happened to the two lovers in Yehuda Amichai’s poem “A Pity. We Were Such a Good Invention” (p. 90)? Who are “they”? How can two lovers become an invention, “an aeroplane made from a man and wife”?
Q. Read Guittone d’Arezzo’s poem aloud as best you can in Italian as well as in English (p. 96). How does it make you feel? What do you think of the obsessive repetition of the word “gioi” (“joy”) in this poem? Is it an effective translation?
Q. Read two love poems aloud, say, Paul Éluard’s “Lady Love” (p. 94) and Robert Desnos’s “The Voice of Robert Desnos” (pp. 100-101). Do you find these voices seductive? Can words alone inspire affection or recall lost love?
Q. Anna Akhmatova writes about the simple gesture of putting her left glove on her right hand in her poem “Song of the Last Meeting” (pp. 116-17). How much meaning does this gesture have?
Q. How should we respond when we become aware that we are losing something we prize deeply? Constantine Cavafy’s poem “The God Abandons Antony” (p. 136) gives Antony specific advice on how to behave, on what to do. What do you think of the counsel?
Q. Miklós Radnóti’s “Postcards” (pp. 146-50) were written under the most dire and extreme circumstances imaginable.Do the circumstances of how the poems were written change their meaning for you? If you had just one hour to write something by flashlight in the middle of the night, what would be your last communiqué to the world? Would poetry be your chosen vehicle?
Q. Consider the nature of the things that Mr.Cogito would like to consider to the very end in Zbigniew Herbert’s poem “Mr. Cogito and the Imagination” (p. 190). List some of the things you would never tire of thinking about.
Q. Have you ever had an uncanny experience, such as the one Anthony Hecht describes in “A Hill” (pp. 233-34)? How does it change the poem when we discover that the hill in question was not a vision but a memory?
Q. Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the WaitingRoom” (pp. 236-39) dramatizes a child’s first consciousness of having a self. What does she learn about the self? Would your own recognitions be any different?
Q. How would you characterize the soul in Walt Whitman’s poem “A Clear Midnight” (p. 245)? How would you characterize it in Emily Dickinson’s poem number 683 (p. 254)? Is it still possible for us to use the word “soul”? What are the “themes” that your own spirit would most love to ponder?
Q. Jorge Luis Borges said, “Poetry is something that cannot be defined without oversimplifying it. It would be like attempting to define the color yellow, love, the fall of leaves in autumn.” Is Borges right? Can poetry ever be defined without oversimplifying it?