For Hirsch, Reading Poetry Is Fundamental In Poet's Choice, author Edward Hirsch makes a case that poetry is "a human fundamental, like music." Hirsch talks poetry with Scott Simon and reads poems by Kathy Fagan and William Matthews.
NPR logo

For Hirsch, Reading Poetry Is Fundamental

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
For Hirsch, Reading Poetry Is Fundamental

For Hirsch, Reading Poetry Is Fundamental

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Edward Hirsh loves to read poetry and he wants to share that love. His latest book, Poet's Choice, brings you 130 poets, some famous, some not, some American, many from around the world. Mr. Hirsh introduces each of them, or each group of them, with a short essay about why he finds that poet interesting. And he uses those essays as opportunities to stress why he thinks we need poems.

He writes, We need the sounds of these words to delineate the states of our being. Mr. Hirsh's book is named for the Washington Post Book World column that he wrote from 2002 until earlier this year, when it was taken over by Robert Pensky. Edward Hirsh joins us in the studio.

Thanks very much for being with us, Mr. Hirsh.

Mr. EDWARD HIRSH (Poet and Author, Poet's Choice): My great pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Are you really busy in April during National Poetry Month? And then when June comes...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: ... you've got more time on your hands?

Mr. HIRSH: Well, sometimes National Poetry Month can feel a little bit like a ghetto that all the poems get crammed in. But I'd say people do need some help with poetry because I think poetry just helps take us to places that Americans aren't always accustomed to going. And maybe especially because you have to pay attention to read poems.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HIRSH: And I think in the constant din and noise of our culture, people aren't always ready to pay attention. So, but I think poems give us our inner lives. And I think they deliver up our spiritual lives by giving us participation with another person through language. But we're alone when we read, and I think we're both in touch with ourselves, with our inner feelings, and in touch with another.

SIMON: Maybe we can talk a little bit about Kathy Fagan first.

Mr. HIRSH: Well, she's a contemporary American poet, mid-career or on the younger side of mid-career. And I love charms in poetry because they're spells or incantations that go very back to the beginning of the earliest form of recorded literature. So Kathy Fagan has written a book of poems called The Charm, which relies on the ancient form of the charm in a contemporary idiom.

SIMON: Mm-hmm. Could we read this one, Little Bad Dream Charm?

Mr. HIRSH: This is a poem in which she's startled awake from an afternoon nap. And she fractures English in a kind of sleepy, semi-conscious state.

So, Little Bad Dream Charm. It begins with a quote from Georgia O'Keeffe, "We haven't found enough dreams. We haven't dreamed enough."

I just work up from a start afternoon nap. I dreamed of whole time. I dreamed I woke up lists of times. I wanted to make up, because all my dreams were nightmares. The only reason I thank I'm awake now is that I'm steel sleepy. I dreamed about goldfish except they were boys, and there were hundreds of ether boys, some so tinny they were trapped in the weave of a green carpet that shone like water or glass. See, that's why it was a bad dream. They were all dying because they were leafing out of their tanks. I had scooped them up and threw them back into any whaler I could find. I had stuffed even two plastic cups full. And then in order to save as many lines as I could, I scooped a whole bunch into an aquarium, awe at once. And that's what they became suddenly, enormous carrots sinking to the bittern of the dark.

SIMON: That poem is irresistible, isn't it?

Mr. HIRSH: It's a very charming poem in the way she fractures English and she communicates that sense of being sort of on the edge of consciousness.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. HIRSH: I mean, one of the things that poetry can do is put us in touch with the irrational. And this poem is both semi-rational and some ways irrational. I think it's quite charming in that way.

SIMON: Hmm. Well, we're make different kinds of connections when we might when we're thinking...

Mr. HIRSH: That's right. I think it sort of short-circuits the rational intellect, if you will.

SIMON: Were you looking to create a volume that people would reach for for constant reference or solace?

Mr. HIRSH: One of the things about poetry is that the words communicate before they're understood. But poetry does put us in touch with the deepest feelings, both with grief and lamentation on the one side, and with joy and ecstasy on the other. And it's one of the reasons that people turn to poetry for comfort. But I think there's always something playful in the art of making poetry. There's something always joyous in it. So for me, no poem is ever too desolate.

SIMON: Last poet we're going to take advantage of your proximity here to ask you about is William Matthews.

Mr. HIRSH: Well, I'm delighted to talk about him. He was a dear friend who died in 1997. He had a very lucky wit and a very startling intelligence.

SIMON: He enunciated the Four Rules of Poetry, didn't he.

Mr. HIRSH: Well, he enunciated the Four Subjects of Poetry...

SIMON: Four Subjects, Four Subjects of Poetry...

Mr. HIRSH: ... which I think are very amusing and oddly on target.

SIMON: Let's take them in turn, if we could. You begin, Mr. Hirsh.

Mr. HIRSH: One: I went out into the woods today and it made me feel, you know, sort of religious.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Two: we're not getting any younger.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HIRSH: Three: It sure is cold and lonely, A: without you, honey, or B: with you, honey.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HIRSH: And this one, Four: sadness seems but the other side of the coin of happiness and vice versa. And in any case, the coin is too soon spent and on what we know not what. That's hilarious.

Mr. HIRSH: Yeah, it's a wonderful poem and it's oddly accurate. I think a lot of poems sort of fit into this particular schema.

SIMON: Yeah. Let's if we could get you to read the poem of your friend, Grief.

Mr. HIRSH: This is a lovely poem and it begins and ends with a line from Dante, which is translated at the end of the poem. Grief: Snow coming in parallel to the street, a cab spinning its tires (a rising whine like a domestic argument, and then the words get said that never get forgot), slush and backed-up runoff waters at each corner, clogged buses smelling of wet wool. The acrid anger of the homeless swells like wet rice.

This slop is where I live, bitch, a sogged panhandler shrieks to whom it may concern. But none of us slows down for scorn. There's someone's misery in all we earn. But like a bur in a dog's coat his rage has borrowed legs. We bring it home. It lives like kin among the angers of the house, and leaves the same sharp zinc taste in the mouth. And I have told you this to make you grieve.

SIMON: Boy. But like a bur in a dog's coat his rage has borrowed legs.

HIRSH: Yes, it keeps moving. It's an incredibly witty thing to say because as if the dog carries the thing from place to place and so the rage is almost contagious in that way. You catch it in the city and it just moves from person to person and won't let him up, won't let go.

SIMON: Do you keep a notepad nearby all the time?

HIRSH: I keep something to write on all the time. Robert Frost used to say how many things have to happen to you before something occurs to you and every once in a while something occurs to you, you want to be present. I like poems that don't seem addressed to occupant, but seem addressed to me, and so you need to be ready just in case something happens to be coming by.

SIMON: Edward Hirsh is a poet, prose author and editor. His latest book is Poet's Choice. Thanks so much for being with us.

HIRSH: Thank you so much. It's a joy.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.