Articles for Teachers & Students

In the Beginning Is the Relation

by Edward Hirsch

The message in the bottle is a lyric poem and thus a special kind of communiqué. It speaks out of a solitude to a solitude; it begins and ends in silence. We are not in truth conversing by the side of the road. Rather, something has been written; something is being read. Language has become strange in this urgent and oddly self-conscious way of speaking across time. The poem has been (silently) en route—sometimes for centuries—and now it has signaled me precisely because I am willing to call upon and listen to it. Reading poetry is an act of reciprocity, and one of the great tasks of the lyric is to bring us into right relationship to each other. The relationship between writer and reader is by definition removed and mediated through a text, a body of words. It is a particular kind of exchange between two people not physically present to each other. The lyric poem is a highly concentrated and passionate form of communication between strangers—an immediate, intense, and unsettling form of literary discourse. Reading poetry is a way of connecting—through the medium of language—more deeply with yourself even as you connect more deeply with another. The poem delivers on our spiritual lives precisely because it simultaneously gives us the gift of intimacy and interiority, privacy and participation.

Poetry is a voicing, a calling forth, and the lyric poem exists somewhere in the region—the register—between speech and song. The words are waiting to be vocalized. The greatest poets have always recognized the oral dimensions of their medium. For most of human history poetry has been an oral art. It retains vestiges of that orality always. Writing is not speech. It is graphic inscription, it is visual emblem, it is a chain of signs on the page. Nonetheless: “I made it out of a mouthful of air,” W. B. Yeats boasted in an early poem. As, indeed, he did. As every poet does. So, too, does the reader make, or remake, the poem out of a mouthful of air, out of breath. When I recite a poem I reinhabit it, I bring the words off the page into my own mouth, my own body. I become its speaker and let its verbal music move through me as if the poem is a score and I am its instrumentalist, its performer. I let its heartbeat pulse through me as embodied experience, as experience embedded in the sensuality of sounds. The poem implies mutual participation in language, and for me, that participation mystique is at the heart of the lyric exchange.

Many poets have embraced the New Testament idea that “In the beginning was the Word,” but I prefer Martin Buber’s notion in I and Thou that “In the beginning is the relation.” The relation precedes the Word because it is authored by the human. The lyric poem may seek the divine but it does so through the medium of a certain kind of human interaction. The secular can be made sacred through the body of the poem. I understand the relationship between the poet, the poem, and the reader not as a static entity but as a dynamic unfolding. An emerging sacramental event. A relation between an I and a You. A relational process.

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Originally Published: January 12, 2006

COMMENTS (6)

On November 2, 2008 at 10:30am Chelsea wrote:
Poets use their words for the significant connection between the reader and the words. The poet lets the reader take the words, develop them into their own emotions, and find themselves through the poem. Lyric poems take the reader on a journey through the words by their smooth flow allowing easier connections.

On November 4, 2008 at 7:35pm Maggie wrote:
"[Poetry] speaks out of a solitude to a solitude; it begins and ends in silence." How aptly this line describes the journey of poetry (or any other form of literature) from author to reader, the transfer of an idea from mind to mind with only a few sheets of paper in between! Solitude, yes: an author’s musings always derive from a deep, personal cave of sorts, and it is this same mysterious cave which receives thoughts and ideas garnered by reading. The notion of poetry beginning and ending in silence elicits a beautiful picture: I see a young man bent diligently over a writing desk strewn with papers, words flowing from his mind and spilling out the end of his pen as easily as though his very heart pumps ink instead of blood. Completely separate and yet very near, a girl sits with a worn book laying open in her lap, her hands brushing the words on the delicate pages as she reads, unaware of the way her fingertips soak up the ink and circulate it through her being. Such is my rather romantic view of the relationship between author and reader.

On November 4, 2008 at 9:14pm Candace wrote:
Whenever I read lyric poems, I feel as if I can connect to them better than I can any other poem. The rythm and beat that the words create in my head gives me a new feeling and understanding of poetry. Hearing the words in a song brings about a new sense of emotions that I can feel from the writer. Like Hirsh said, poetry can bring two strangers together-the writer and reader- and create deep connections with the other or yourself. It is truly amazing how any type of poetry can help you learn more about yourself as you slip into the words of the writer and become one with them.

On November 5, 2008 at 7:22pm Kristin wrote:
I completely agree with Hirsch that lyric poetry is one of the greatest ways to have an intimate connection with another person. Through rythm and meter, lyric poetry gives readers a certain emotion or feeling from within that is unlike emotions set forth from pure text. To me, lyric poetry is similar to music. To musicians, the notes they play or sing is what moves them and brings them to one with the art. Music is what sends goosebumps down a music lover's back. In lyric poetry, it is the language, verse and rythm that truly moves readers. Poetry is what sends goosebumps down my back.To me, it is fascinating that something like poetry, which is so misunderstood and unappreciated by many, can actually help you come to terms with your own psyche while also helping you come to terms with other people you may or may not know.

On November 5, 2008 at 9:52pm Jordan wrote:
The epitome of art. Art is a relationship between the artist and the work. "Let its verbal music move through me as if the poem is a score and I am its instrumentalist, its performer. I let its heartbeat pulse through me as embodied experience, as experience embedded in the sensuality of sounds." With this Hirsch encompasses the very nature of any art form, not just lyric poems. My personal connection with this statement is dancing. When the music hits my ears, I let the music move throuhgout my body, and infect my soul. The movement that occurs is a reaction to the infection. Poetry, is also an infection. It creeps under your skin and festers inside of you. As you read the poem, your body has a reaction: a fever from the infection. Perhaps this is why our generation describes great works of art as "sick," or "ill." I got a fever, and the only prescription, is more lyric. (smiles)

On November 6, 2008 at 8:02pm Emily wrote:
It is amazing to become a character from the work in which are reading. Today I can be Beowulf, tomorrow Harry Potter. When the imagination is turned on and a good writer has written a good peice, literature can take you anywhere, make you anything. Also through the uses of fantasy situations, the writer may cause the reader to think about real life senarios. They may change their life, the way they live because of a lesson taught by the writer.

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 Edward  Hirsch

Biography

Poet and author Edward Hirsch has built a reputation as an attentive and elegant writer and reader of poetry. Over the course of eight collections of poetry, four books of criticism, and the long-running  “Poet’s Choice” column in the Washington Post, Hirsch has transformed the quotidian into poetry in his own work, as well as demonstrated his adeptness at explicating the nuances and shades of feeling, tradition, and craft at . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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