Articles for Teachers & Students

Mere Air, These Words, but Delicious to Hear

by Edward Hirsch

I remember once walking through a museum in Athens and coming across a tall-stemmed cup from ancient Greece that has Sappho saying, “Mere air, these words, but delicious to hear.” The phrase inscribed into the cup, translated onto a museum label, stopped me cold. I paused for a long time to drink in the strange truth that all the sublimity of poetry comes down in the end to mere air and nothing more, to the sound of these words and no others, which are nonetheless delicious and enchanting to hear. Sappho’s lines (or the lines attributed to her) also have a lapidary quality. The phrase has an elegance suitable for writing, for inscription on a cup or in stone. Writing fixes the evanescence of sound. It holds it against death.

The sound of the words is the first primitive pleasure in poetry. “In poetry,” Wallace Stevens asserted, “you must love the words, the ideas and images and rhythms with all your capacity to love anything at all” (“Adagia”). Stevens lists the love of the words as the first condition of a capacity to love anything in poetry at all because it is the words that make things happen. There are times when I read a poem and can feel the syllables coming alive in my mouth, the letters enunciated in the syllables, the syllables coming together as words, the words forming into a phrase, the phrase finding a rhythm in the line, in the lines, in the shape of the words crossing the lines into a sentence, into sentences. I feel the words creating a rhythm, a music, a spell, a mood, a shape, a form. I hear the words coming off the page into my own mouth—in transit, in action. I generate—I re-create—the words incantatory, the words liberated and self-reflexive. Words rising from the body, out of the body. An act of language paying attention to itself. An act of the mind.

Mere air, these words, but delicious to hear.” In poetry the words enact—they make manifest—what they describe. This is what Gerard Manley Hopkins calls “the roll, the rise, the carol, the creation.” Indeed, one hears in Hopkins’s very phrase the trills or rolled consonants of the letter r reverberating through all four words, the voiced vowels, the r-o-l of “roll” echoing in the back of “carol,” the alliterative c's building a cadence, hammering it in, even as the one-syllable words create a rolling, rising effect that is slowed down by the rhythm of the multisyllabic words, the caroling creation. The pleasure all this creates in the mouth is intense. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” I read Hopkins’s poems and feel the deep joy of the sounds creating themselves (“What is all this juice and all this joy?”), the nearly buckling strain of so much drenched spirit, “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!”

The poem is an act beyond paraphrase because what is being said is always inseparable from the way it is being said. Osip Mandelstam suggested that if a poem can be paraphrased, then the sheets haven’t been rumpled, poetry hasn’t spent the night. The words are an (erotic) visitation, a means to an end, but also an end in and of themselves. The poet is first of all a language worker. A maker. A shaper of language. With Heinrich Heine, the linguist Edward Sapir affirmed in his book Language, “one is under the illusion that the universe speaks German.” With Shakespeare, one is under the impression that it speaks English. This is at the heart of the Orphic calling of the poet: to make it seem as if the very universe speaks and reveals itself through the mother tongue.

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Originally Published: January 23, 2006

COMMENTS (8)

On February 28, 2007 at 3:45pm Heidi Fry Edelman wrote:
My sister's father-in-law was a larger-than-life human being, who was sorely tried by life-but triumphed. I loved him very much. I've been told that his favorite poem was Gerard Manley Hopkins "The Hounds Of Heaven".
I'm not very clever on the computer & haven't been able to find this poem anywhere. Bah Humbug!!
Could someone find this poem & send it to me, please. I, truely, appreciate any effort on my behalf.
Thanking you in advance, Heidi Fry Edelman

On May 22, 2007 at 3:22am Steve Sullivan wrote:
Heidi, I just came across your post today but and here is a link to the poem. The poem begins approximately halfway down the page.

http://everything2.com/index.pl?node=The%20Hound%20of%20Heaven

On August 9, 2007 at 3:18pm Valintino wrote:
Hello, Your site is great. Regards, Valintino Guxxi

On November 7, 2008 at 7:46pm Jordan wrote:
I sincerely hope Edawrd Hirsch reads this post. From the essays I've read so far, all of them seem to drive home the point that the words are what define poetry. I think that this essay speaks a complete and whole truth as to what the foundation of poetry it is...and it is not the words. The cornerstone of great poetry is rhythm and this particular essay completely describes why it is rhythm and not the words. Sapho says "Mere air, these words, but delicious to hear.” Does hirsch not understand what Sappho is saying? She is not saying that the words are delicious. She is saying that the words are merely "evanesence of sound." Poetry does not fix this concept it, it embodies it. What is delicious about the words is the way they feel, as Hirsch hiumself puts it "can feel the syllables coming alive in my mouth, the letters enunciated in the syllables, the syllables coming together as words, the words forming into a phrase, the phrase finding a rhythm in the line." Hirsch...you are describing the rhythm and the sensation of the words when read. It is not the word that makes you feel this way, it is the sound, the beat and the rhythm. “In poetry,” Wallace Stevens asserted, “you must love the words, the ideas and images and rhythms with all your capacity to love anything at all” (“Adagia”). Hirsch confuses words as being the most imporant in this list because it is listed first. However, is the last thing in a list not the most important? Do we as human beings not love the cliche "save the best for last." That is what Wallace Stevens was doing. He meant to describe rhythm as the most important characteristic when one is able to "feel" the love of poetry. Rhythm is what drives the words and makes you feel, it is why music is the most popular form of poetry. It is why rap music is popular, it is why dance music is the craze in Europe. Rhythm embodies poetry, and it is our primal attraction to it. It is the beat of the war drum, the dance of the African tribe, and the snaps we receive after a poetry reading. Hirsch got the story straight, however he got confused about what he was describing. Hirsch, please reconsider what you are describing here. Your words are beautiful and elegant, but I think you are missing the very soul of the art you love so much. Thanks for your time Mr. Hirsch. Sincerely hope you read and consider this.

-Jordan

On November 9, 2008 at 7:23pm Emily wrote:
This has been my favorite article, yet very hypocritical from the rest. I agree with Hirsch's statements about rythm being key to poetry. In previous pieces, he has stated that the words themselves, no matter the arrangement or sound, are key. Though is it not true that a beautifully written poem in a language in which you do not understand can still sound appealing? Or perhaps a catchy song with lyrics you do not agree with. Can you still enjoy the melody? I believe that rhythm, beat, alliteration, etc., are what make a poem worth while. Second, after the way it is written has pulled you in, then importance to the words is the icing on the cake.

Secondly I agree with Jordan's previous post. Hirsch describes the importance of rhythm, but does not tend to believe it himself? I honestly think that if Shakespeare had not written in iambic pentameter, I would not have been the half bit interested as I am to his plays.

On November 9, 2008 at 7:31pm Candace wrote:
"The sound of the words is the first primitive pleasure in poetry." I agree with Hirsch's quote entirely. When I think of poetry, I think of the way it sounds and the way it just rolls off my toungue. The elegance of poetry is defined with the smoothness as every word just fits together. When I read a poem that doesn't seem to flow, I am disappointed and the words begin to confuse me. I become enticed as the words form a rythm or beat as they come out of my mouth. I begin to feel the words and they begin to have meaning. I really like the quote, "Mere air, these words, but delicious to hear." True and well written poetry, in my opinion, appeals to the senses. Juicy words and rythm make poetry exciting and separates it from all other writing.

On November 9, 2008 at 9:04pm Chelsea wrote:
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article, Hirsch uses such empowering words as he writes about poetry. Hirsch reveals the power and emotion behind the words of poetry which I truly believe. Hirsch does seem as if he gets over dramatic with his when he states "I feel the words creating a rhythm, a music, a spell, a mood, a shape, a form. I hear the words coming off the page into my own mouth—in transit, in action." The sentences act as if the poem is alive and it is very hard to understand that extreme of an emotion coming from poetry.

On November 9, 2008 at 9:54pm Maggie wrote:
In this article, Hirsch, ever the escape artist, drops several evocative hints about the relationship between poetry and sexuality before skirting the issue entirely. Humans are interesting creatures. While animals simply embrace their sexuality as it is, we as human beings find it necessary to mask ours with philosophy, mold it into art, and twist it into words, poetry. Perhaps, as Hirsch says, we do this to “[hold] it against death.” Perhaps our sexuality, and therefore our humanity, is so deeply important to us that we find it necessary to carve its essence into stone lest it disappears. In any case, no matter what the subject of a poem may be, the underlying force of poetry is inherently sexual. Whether or not Hirsch wishes to discuss it, he acknowledges the sexuality of poetry by describing the mounting tension as letters become syllables, syllables become words, words become lines, and lines become sentences as a primitive rhythm beats its way through him until finally “words [rise] from the body, out of the body.” He also speaks passionately of the “rolling, rising effect” of Hopkin’s alliteration, which creates a “nearly buckling strain of so much drenched spirit, ‘the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!’” Hirsch even says quite plainly that, “the words are an (erotic) visitation, a means to an end, but also an end in and of themselves.” In other words, poetry is written to convey a message, yes, but also to achieve an inescapably primal release.

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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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