Articles for Teachers & Students

In Plain American Which Cats and Dogs Can Read!

by Edward Hirsch

The lyric poem walks the line between speaking and singing. (It also walks the line between the conventions of poetry and the conventions of grammar.) Poetry is not speech exactly—verbal art is deliberately different than the way that people actually talk—and yet it is always in relationship to speech, to the spoken word. “It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place,” as Wallace Stevens puts it in his poem “Of Modern Poetry.” W. B. Yeats called a poem “an elaboration of the rhythms of common speech and their association with profound feeling” (“Modern Poetry”). W. H. Auden said: “In English verse, even in Shakespeare’s grandest rhetorical passages, the ear is always aware of its relation to everyday speech” (“Writing”). I’m reminded of the many poems in the American vernacular—from Walt Whitman to William Carlos Williams (“The Horse Show”), Frank O’Hara (“Having a Coke with You”), and Gwendolyn Brooks ("We Real Cool”)—that give the sensation of someone speaking in a texturized version of American English, that create the impression of letters written, as Marianne Moore joyfully puts it, “not in Spanish, not in Greek, not in Latin, not in shorthand, / but in plain American which cats and dogs can read!” A demotic linguistic vitality—what Williams calls “the speech of Polish mothers”—is one of the pleasures of the American project in poetry.

Here is the opening of Randall Jarrell’s poem “Next Day”:

Moving from Cheer to Joy, from Joy to All,
I take a box
And add it to my wild rice, my Cornish game hens.
The slacked or shorted, basketed, identical
Food-gathering flocks
Are selves I overlook. Wisdom, said William James,

Is learning what to overlook. And I am wise
If that is wisdom.

One hears in this poem the plaintive, intelligent voice of a suburban housewife who knows she has become invisible, who wants only to be seen and heard. What particularly marks the poem as a verbal construct is the self-conscious treatment of the words themselves, the way the words behave in rhythmic lines and shapely stanzas. There’s the delightful pun on the names of household detergents, the play off “hens” and “flocks,” the acute way the woman sums up her companions in the supermarket, how she pivots on the word “overlook” and ruefully quotes William James’s pragmatic American notion of “wisdom.” I’ve always been touched by the way Jarrell animates the woman’s voice in this poem, how he inscribes his own voice into her voice and captures the reality of someone who is exceptional, commonplace, solitary.

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Originally Published: January 23, 2006


On April 2, 2007 at 8:26am nakita wrote:
This article explains very well the connection between American lyrical poetry and American speech. It is very important to recognize the locational backgroung of a poem to understand the meaning in the language. While the element of "speech-like language" makes poetry often easier to understand in its country of origin ("in plain american"), it can create problems for readers attempting to read international poetry (ex: students reading Shakespeare). This article brought to view the connection between speech and poetry.

On November 10, 2008 at 3:46pm Jordan wrote:
Poetry is often viewed as superfluous words upon a page, describing the concrete abstractly and flowering the description ineffectually. Hirsch is able to combat this myth and show that poetry is of very human nature. It is somewhere inbetween the strict rules of grammarm which lacks the character of true human presence, and that of song (think, how musicals don't happen in every day life.) The beauty of poetry is that it is comprised of the human voice, along with the empowerment of rhythm. If you read Gwendolyn Brooks "we Real Cool," she incompasses this ability. She captures the vernacular, which gives it character, but the rhythm of the peice gives it power. In order to be interesting, everything in life needs texture, and the texture of poetry epitomizes that.

On November 10, 2008 at 4:30pm Chelsea Sager wrote:
I agree with Hirsch that poetry is not only words that we read but a truth or story trying to enchant the reader. I really enjoyed the insert from Randall Jarrell’s poem “Next Day" because the underlying story is extavagant. I was happier with this article because Hirsch uses some different word usage instead of repeating the same point over and over.

On November 10, 2008 at 5:01pm Candace wrote:
When Hirsch stated "Verbal art is deliberately different than the way people talk," I imagined what it would be like if everyone's native language was spoken in poetic form. This thought made me giggle, but it also made it clear to me how artistic poetry really is. Everyone knows that drawing a picture isn't an easy task for those who aren't naturally talented in that area, and that's why drawings or paintings are so unique. It's difficult to sit down and write poetry, let alone speak it smoothly, creating such an artistic form of writing. I love to write poetry- the words just seem to come to me. However, I cannot speak it without first planning out what I want to say. And even then it's still a struggle to speak the words with such power and meaning in which they are meant to have when I write them. If it were easy to speak poetically, this type of writing wouldn't be so unique and fascinating, and I am very glad that there is this separation.

On November 10, 2008 at 8:05pm Emily wrote:
A poem does not need to consist of elegant, "million dollar" words to sound beautiful, or even be insightful. The art of literature is that everyone uses a different medium. Like in art, some use paint, charcoal, watercolors, and more. In writing, one author's style is different from the next, yet can be just as amazing. The point is that little insignificant words can conjoin to create something powerful. A child's crayons can be used to create an image as beautiful as Van Gough; it all depends on the artist.

On November 10, 2008 at 8:31pm Kristin wrote:
When I read what Hirsch said, that "verbal art is deliberately different than the way people talk", it made sense to me. People never speak in the way poetry or any literature for that matter is written. I think that this makes literature so much more extraordinary because the language you read is truly out of the ordinary. I think because of this, people use writing to convey their deep emotions or to get a point across. I think all humans have problems with communication. Even if you are a talented public speaker, all people feel uncomfortable with simply talking to an audience. Some just handle it better than others. I have found that some of the best writers are the worst communicators. Likewise, I have found that some of the best communicators are the worst writers. No matter your strengths, I hope that all people are capable or communicating.

On November 10, 2008 at 10:13pm Maggie wrote:
As Hirsch says, poetry is wonderful because it "walks the line between the conventions of poetry and the conventions of grammar." Shocking though it may seem, grammar is not all-important to me. Though I do believe that learning grammar is necessary, any kind of instruction cannot help but stifle at least some small measure of original creativity. Poetry, therefore, is reclaiming something that was lost. When I write poetry, I may place punctuation marks in the most ridiculous of places and call it “art”. I may capitalize any letters I like, claiming that they are “significant”. And, most importantly, I may use dashes in a positively flagrant manner, and no one is allowed to say a word against it! The theatrics that are so frowned upon in restraining works of formal analysis are not only welcomed in poetry but almost required. Poetry is freedom—freedom of thought, freedom of language. Only in poetry are the bounds of grammar cut, allowing the words to escape their captors of commas and colons—to soar from their prisons of parentheses and periods!

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 Edward  Hirsch


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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