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From the April 2000 Knopf Question-a-Poet Contest

Question for Ed Hirsch:
1. I am trying to become a poet. Now I think and feel like a poet but I don't have any work ethic yet. And what is worse, since I am from Puerto Rico I am trapped between two very rich languages, English and Spanish. It is very difficult for me to choose, and I write in both languages. How could a poet deal with such a bilingual situation? Also I read in a magazine once that your house is full of books. I wonder how you think a collection of books can affect the work of a rising poet? -- Hugo Rios, Puerto Rico

Ed Hirsch replies:
Thank you so much for your questions. I recognize that you are thinking and feeling like a poet. The commitment to working at poetry is important because a poet is a maker and a poem is a made thing. We have to honor our feelings by working to transform them into something meaningful and lasting.

I know it can be confusing and difficult to come from a bilingual situation, but it is also wonderful to have two such rich languages as Spanish and English at your disposal. It all depends on your perspective. I hope you'll be able to see your bilingualism as a genuine advantage, a real opportunity, a true inheritance.

As far as I'm concerned, freedom is the most important thing to creativity. You should feel free to write in whatever way, whatever language, feels comfortable to you. There are lots of poetic strategies available to you. I think, for example, of the way that Victor Hernandez Cruz crosses back and forth between English and Spanish in the same poem. He does a kind of tactical code switching in his book Red Beans. I'm also struck by the way some poets, such as Julio Marzan, are imposingly bilingual, and write some poems in Spanish and other poems in English. My friend Martin Espada writes poems in English, but then works to translate them into Spanish. You might also want to check out his anthology of Latino and Latina poetry from all over, El Coro. There's also a key anthology by Pedros Lopez Adorno of Puerto Rican poets of New York, Papiros de Babel. I suspect that this anthology may show you that you are part of an important tradition. It may give you a larger context for your work.

I find great consolation in having a lot of poetry books around. I believe that writing poetry and reading it are deeply intertwined. I've always delighted in the company of the poets I've read. I like Emily Dickinson's names for the poets she read. She calls them "the dearest ones of time, the strongest friends of the soul," her "kinsman of the shelf," and her "enthralling friends, the immoralities." It's a deep wish, a majestic ambition, to join the company of the enduring poets.

2. My question has to do with "The Welcoming" in particular and your poems in general. "The Welcoming" seems to me to be absolutely tidal. There's so much there about presence and absence, the filling and the emptying, the making of a space and the fulfillment of this yearning to have a child. What I am especially curious about are the line breaks in the poem, the indentations, the rhythms and the patterns, absence and silences . . . that make me, the reader, experience the tide. Is the decision to break a line intuitive, a given through the fine-tuning of your ear, or an intellectual process, an assertion of formal concerns. The many line breaks and indentations in "The Welcoming" for me become a rocking cradle of a universe, a welcoming in fact made of the world so the child can and does come. Thank you. -- Adelle Leiblein, Boulder, CO<

You're a deep and sympathetic reader. I so much appreciate your response to "The Welcoming" which you describe so beautifully. I feel the poem has found an expressive space in you.

I write by the line, and I feel that every line in a poem matters. I try to keep in mind that every line is a unit of meaning, a unit of measure. It's a kind of station of the cross. It both exists on its own and as part of a larger whole. It has its own coherence, but it also belongs to the sentence as well as to the stanza. Each line is a like a dramatic actor and has a key part to play. I love poets who are phrasemakers too, such as Theodore Roethke and Sylvia Plath, and I've tried to emulate them by seeking indelible phrases.

I had an important personal story to tell in "The Welcoming." It's in my keeping. I wanted to honor that story and create a space for it in the reader. I was a little bit worried about the sheer amount of factual data in the poem, especially at the beginning. There's a lot of unpoetic information. I decided to drop and widen the lines in order to isolate and inscribe individual phrases, to underline and register them, even as I let the phrases and the lines build into larger structures. I was trying to build the rhythm of the experience. I didn't just want to tell the story in prose, I wanted to enact it in poetry. I've always loved Whitman's poem "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," and I suppose that was one of my key rhythmic models. I decided to let the more open and spacious lineation help me create the sense that you describe so well of presence and absence, of fullness and emptiness. I'd worked a lot on the dropped line in my previous book, The Night Parade, and so I felt ready to try to employ it to maximum advantage here.

I also ran into a problem with the language of the poem. There's so much quotidian material in it (all those interlocutory orders and injunctions) that seemed resistant to poetry. I needed a form that could lightly handle and naturally accommodate so much necessary information. I also felt I needed to change the diction at the end of the poem in order to change the feeling. I needed a language that could enact a deeper level of joy. That's when I turned to a quasi-biblical language: "But so it was written." It still has its downdrafts, but it also allowed me to elevate the feeling at the end and create a sense of prophecy, of everlasting joy.

3. I read your poem "Ocean of Grass". I am not a professional poet like you, but I liked a lot of figures of speech that you used. What was your main concern when you were writing this poem, to make it rhyme, or to make it state your theme clearly by using a free verse? I am 13 years old and I go to F. A. Middle Day School in Newtonville. -- Young

Thanks for your question about "Ocean of Grass." I come from Chicago and the landscape of the Midwest has always meant a great deal to me. I wanted to write something about the heart of the heart of the country. And I wanted to write a poem that especially honored the experience of Pioneer women who came to the Midwest and the Great Plains in the 19th century. I've been haunted by the terrible isolation and loneliness they felt, these young mothers, and I wanted to create a memorial poem for them.

I decided to use a modified villanelle structure. I like the song-like quality of the refrain. You'll notice how I repeat the line "The ground was holy, but the wind was harsh." It evokes for me a deep feeling about the landscape; the experience of it was both sacred and terrible. I wanted to see what I could do with that image, that recurrent setting. My idea was to describe the experience of one woman in such a way that the poem would evoke the experiences of a great number of women. I tried to use the form in such a way that it would make my poem indelible and emblematic.

4. My favorite poem is Auden's "In Memory of WB Yeats." In the first part of the poem, the imagery described by "disappeared in the dead of winter," "the mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day," and "what instruments we have agree the day of his death was a dark cold day" is to me, some of the most powerful in modern poetry. When I first read it, it drew me in and compelled me to keep reading through to the end. My question for you is, what poem is your favorite, and how did it affect you in a way similar to the way Auden's did me? -- Ken Dornak

I share you enthusiasm for W. H. Auden's memorial poem to W. B. Yeats. How many times, though, I have quarreled with the claim in the second part of the poem that "poetry makes nothing happen." Auden is undoubtedly correct that to most of the outside world, in the practical realm of utility and commerce, poetry is inconsequential, but for the interior world, in the hidden realm of our affective lives, it is curiously deep and renewing. Something that might seem fragile -- a group of words arranged on a page -- turns out to be indestructible. I'm also startled by Auden's claim in the third part of the poem that Time "worships language." Auden seems to be proposing that language -- and its most fulfilling realization, lyric poetry -- is more permanent and enduring, a higher power, than time itself.

I've loved many of Auden's other poems, too: "September 1, 1939," "At the Grave of Henry James," In Memory of Sigmund Freud," "Refugee Blues," and lots of others. I also like his prose works, especially The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays.

In a way, I've written an entire book to answer your question about my favorite poems. It's called How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry. I write about many of the poems I care about most deeply. I explain, for example, my first encounter with Emily Bronte's "Spellbound" when I was eight-years-old (I somehow imagined that my grandfather must have written it!), my encounter in high school with Christopher Smart's poem about his cat Jeoffry (from "Jubilate Agno"), my first readings of Robert Frost's "Desert Places" and Gerard Manley Hopkins's so-called terrible sonnets.

I've also loved a lot of poetry in translation. In college I discovered Pablo Neruda and Cesar Vallejo, and these Latin American poets enlarged my sense of what poetry could be. I love the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, and the Spanish poets, Garcia Lorca (especially his book Poet in New York), Raphael Alberti, and Miguel Hernandez, and the Russian poets, Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova, and the Polish poets, Zbigniew Herbert, Wislava Szymborska and Adam Zagajewski (especially his recent book, Mysticism for Beginners). There's probably no end to the listing of favorite poems . . .

5. The poet Mark Strand has said about poetry that one of the reasons people read it is because they want to some into possession of a mystery. Where do you think the mysterious emanates from? Or is it all merely smoke and mirrors coming from the poet himself? Is there some part of the divine and mysterious (I don't necessarily mean this in any strict religious sense) that poets connect with to allow them to effectively "channel" their stories? -- Maude

Thank you for your profound question. There is probably no final answer to it, I do believe that lyric poetry puts us in touch with something deep and mysterious within ourselves. It also evoke the grandeur of large mysteries beyond us. The earliest roots of poetry are in religion, and I suppose that poetry has never entirely lost its sense of the sacred. It still trembles with a holy air.

Wallace Stevens said that "Poetry is like prayer in that it is most effective in solitude and in the times of solitude, as for example, in the earliest morning." Poetry tries to get at something eternal by coming out of a silence and returning us -- restoring us -- to that silence. It longs to contact the mysteries. Hence it is a connection to prayer.

I've always loved a little four-line poem by Walt Whitman called "A Clear Midnight." I think it has a deep soulfulness. Whitman is well-known as our swaggering national bard, an epic chanter of democracy, but this poem shows that he could also be a delicate and tender solitary.

A Clear Midnight

This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best,
Night, sleep, death, and the stars.

Whitman's poem exemplifies the correspondence between our inner and outer worlds. It is all about transport, about the imagination in cooperation and harmony with the universe. Whitman seems to address his soul to achieve that harmony. This is a dramatic utterance, but it is also a conjuration. Whitman is playing a magician to his own soul on our behalf. The real addressee of the incantation is the reader who exists on the distant horizon of the poem. I cannot help but feel that one part of the poem's meaning is that the reader, too, has an imperishable soul. The poem wants to trigger that soul to dwell on the eternal. It would release something wordless and equivalent into any of us who read it.

More Poets on Poetry

Mark Strand | Kenneth Koch | Marge Piercy | George Bradley | Philip Levine | Frank O'Hara | Henri Cole | J. D. McClatchy | Wallace Stevens | W. S. Di Piero | Peter Davison | Edward Hirsch | Marie Ponsot | Anthony Hecht | Mary Jo Salter | Franz Wright