“Hirsch’s contribution is significant, [grounded] in the obvious pleasure he has experienced through words. . . . Who could resist the wiles of this poetry-broker-a writer rapidly becoming the baby boomers’ preeminent man of letters?” —Detroit Free Press

Pages: 368 pages
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (1999)
Language: English

How to Read a Poem is an unprecedented exploration of poetry and feeling. In language at once acute and emotional, distinguished poet and critic Edward Hirsch describes why poetry matters and how we can open up our imaginations so that its message can make a difference. In a marvelous reading of verse from around the world, including work by Pablo Neruda, Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens, and Sylvia Plath, among many others, Hirsch discovers the true meaning of their words and ideas and brings their sublime message home into our hearts. A masterful work by a master poet, this brilliant summation of poetry and human nature will speak to all readers who long to place poetry in their lives.


Message in a Bottle


Read these poems to yourself in the middle of the night. Turn on a single lamp and read them while you’re alone in an otherwise dark room or while someone else sleeps next to you. 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, beloved by Simone Weil and Paul Celan, quoted by Walter Benjamin in his magisterial essay on Franz Kafka, 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. The great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, destroyed in a Stalinist camp, identified this experience. “Why shouldn’t the poet turn to his friends, to those who are naturally close to him?” he asked in “On the Addressee.” But of course those friends aren’t necessarily the people around him in daily life. They may be the friends he only hopes exist, or will exist, the ones his words are seeking. Mandelstam wrote:

At a critical moment, a seafarer tosses a sealed bottle into the ocean waves, containing his name and a message detailing his fate. Wandering along the dunes many years later, I happen upon it in the sand. I read the message, note the date, the last will and testament of one who has passed on. I have the right to do so. I have not opened someone else’s mail. The message in the bottle was addressed to its finder. I found it. That means, I have become its secret addressee.

Thus it is for all of us who read poems, who become the secret addressees of literary texts. I am at home in the middle of the night and suddenly hear myself being called, as if by name. I go over and take down the book—the message in the bottle—because tonight I am its recipient, its posterity, its heartland.


How to Read a Poem & Fall in Love with Poetry

Washington Post Fiction Editor Ron Charles conducts an in-depth interview with poet Edward Hirsch.

How to Read a Poem

Big Think is the leading source of expert-driven, actionable, educational content — with thousands of videos, featuring experts ranging from Bill Clinton to Bill Nye, we help you get smarter, faster.


“If you begin with his straightforward book, you may be led to a life of reading poetry, and reading about it. Hirsch is particularly good because he so respects the mystery [of poetry]. A lovely book, full of joy and wisdom.”
The Baltimore Sun

“Laudable…The answer Hirsch gives to the question of how to read a poem is: Ecstatically.”
Boston Book Review

“Hirsch, a truly gifted poet and scholar, brings the full heat of his literary passion to this enlightening and deeply moving journey into the heart of poetry…. Hirsch offers many soul-touching examples over the course of his poetic, erudite, and generously self-disclosing celebration of poetry from the days of Ovid to the present. As Hirsch deftly analyzes the nature of lyric poems, dramatic monologues, elegies, and odes, he conducts close readings of the work of a stellar group of poets only he would select… Hirsch’s magnificent text is supported by an extensive glossary and superb international reading list.”

— Booklist

“In short, reading Hirsch’s How to Read a Poem is like a very long evening with a learned and perceptive friend who keeps leaping to his bookshelf for more and better illustrations, and finding ever more connections and revelations”

“Edward Hirsch is a passionate and careful reader, and the best parts of his book are his rapturously analytic readings of great poems…[Hirsch provides] exactly the tools a reader needs in order to read poetry in a fully emotional and intelligent way.”
— The Boston Phoenix Literary Supplement

“If you are pretty sure you don’t like poetry, this is the book that is bound to change your mind. Hirsch demonstrates to one and all that the reading of poems is one of the supreme pleasures in life.”
— Charles Simic

“In his latest volume, Hirsch writes about what poetry is, why it matters, and how we can open up our imaginations so that its message can reach us and make a difference. In a reading of verse from around the world, including works by Stevens, Baudelaire, Plath, and Neruda, Hirsch discovers the meaning of their words and ideas and brings their sublime message home.”
— The American Poet

“Readers will be delighted by Hirsch’s intelligent enthusiasm and, in a time when too many are ‘prisoners of the contemporary,’ by his extraordinary conversancy with poetry of all tongues and ages.”
— Richard Wilbur

“Hirsch’s contribution is significant, [grounded] in the obvious pleasure he has experienced through words…. Who could resist the wiles of this poetry broker–a writer rapidly becoming the baby boomers’ pre-eminent man of letters?”
— Detroit Free Press (starred review)

“This book is the product of a lifetime of passionate reflection. Edward Hirsch has written a book that does for poetry what Robert Hughes did for modern art in The Shock of the New, and what Cornel West does for multiculturalism in Race Matters. Hirsch writes about political suffering, word magic and sensuous splendor, and the urge for human song. How to Read a Poem is a wonderful book for laureate and layman both.”
— Garrett Hongo

“In a book of compelling, engaging prose, one of our country’s most distinguished poets connects us knowingly to his craft–helps us to appreciate the magic of language as it grows within us, and shapes our way of seeing and hearing others and our understanding of the world.”

— Robert Coles


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