Articles for Teachers & Students

Give a Common Word the Spell

by Edward Hirsch

The medium of poetry is language, our common property. It belongs to no one and to everyone. Poetry never entirely loses sight of how the language is being used, fulfilled, debased. We ought to speak more often of the precision of poetry, which restores the innocence of language, which makes the language visible again. Language is an impure medium. Speech is public property and words are the soiled products, not of nature, but of society, which circulates and uses them for a thousand different ends.

Poetry charts the changes in language, but it never merely reproduces or recapitulates what it finds. The lyric poem defamiliarizes words, it wrenches them from familiar or habitual contexts, it puts a spell on them. The lyric is cognate with those childish forms, the riddle and the nursery rhyme, with whatever form of verbal art turns language inside out and draws attention to its categories. As the eighteenth-century English poet Christopher Smart put it, freely translating from Horace’s Art of Poetry:

It is exceedingly well
To give a common word the spell
To greet you as intirely new.

The poem refreshes language, it estranges and makes it new. (“But if the work be new, / So shou’d the song be too,” Smart writes.) There is a nice pun on the word spell in Smart’s Horatian passage since, as tribal peoples everywhere have believed, the act of putting words in a certain rhythmic order has magical potency. That power can only be released when the spell is chanted aloud. I’m reminded, too, that the Latin word carmen, which means “song” or “poem,” has attracted English poets since Sidney because of its closeness to the word charm, and, in fact, in the older Latin texts it also means a magic formula, an incantation meant to make things happen, to cause action (Andrew Welsh, Roots of Lyric). And a charm is only effective when it is spoken or sung, incanted.

The lyric poem separates and uproots words from the daily flux and flow of living speech but it also delivers them back—spelled, changed, charmed—to the domain of other people. As Octavio Paz puts it in The Bow and the Lyre:

Two opposing forces inhabit the poem: one of elevation or uprooting, which pulls the word from the language: the other of gravity, which makes it return. The poem is an original and unique creation, but it is also reading and recitation: participation. The poet creates it; the people, by recitation, re-create it. Poet and reader are two moments of a single reality.
Originally Published: January 23, 2006

COMMENTS (10)

On August 20, 2007 at 9:02am cath nichols wrote:
I loved the info about the origins of carmen/ charm. It's beautiful. Poetry has such an impact on my life and creativity that this description (thinking 'it charms me', or even that its spell protects me/ delivers me) is more delightful grist to the mill!

On November 11, 2008 at 4:12pm Jordan wrote:
Language is a medium. Conversation is how we communicate. A speech is how we instruct, inform, and preach. We change the fluctuations in our voice depending on our situation. We yell when we're angry. We sob when we're sad. We float when we're happy. Humans are constatnly manipulating language in society. When language is manipulated in the for of poetry it is particularly powerful. The undertones and the symbolic are praised and accepted as a truth. We take these truths to apply to our lives. In a way it is a spell. We are spellbound by the manipulation and that manipulation carries over to the way we live our days. Poetry has power and poetry has impact, that is why we admire and cherish it.

On November 11, 2008 at 8:09pm Candace :) wrote:
If we didn't have another form of speaking the language that we do, it would soon become boring and dull. Poetry enlightens and adds a spark to our language; as Hirsch said, "the poem refreshes language, it estranges it and makes it new." Poetry is a new flavor of language and it's exciting to taste it, and there are so many varieties- lyrical poetry being only one of them. All poetry, however, brings us into new surroundings, out of our comfort zone, and sets our senses free, refreshing us from the way we speak day after day after day.

On November 11, 2008 at 8:21pm Kristin wrote:
I am fascinated with what poetry does to our english language. So many people take language for granted and never capture the true essence of diction. I am messmerized at how poets can compact a poem so tightly with the perfect words. The words used by poets are not just chosen at random. They are not just chosen because they do not know what other words they shall use. I now that sometimes when students are typing their essays, they will use the thesaurus on the word processing software to find a better, more intellectual word. Poets do not have to use a thesaurus. They know what that exact word is that they need to make their art divine. As Hersch states, 'poetry refreshes language.' In my opinion, poetry shows people that our english language is so extraordinary.

On November 11, 2008 at 9:20pm Maggie wrote:
While I realize that the focus of the essay is elsewhere, I simply cannot allow this statement to pass: “The lyric is cognate with those childish forms, the riddle and the nursery rhyme.” Blatant snobbery! Not only does Hirsch dismiss nursery rhymes as though they are beneath him, but, by separating them from lyric poetry, he undermines their significance as literary works. On what basis does Hirsch make his assumption that nursery rhymes are a lower form of art, detached from his beloved “lyric poetry”? In addition to being didactic and highly entertaining, nursery rhymes are certainly as well-written and relevant as Horace’s strikingly eloquent: “It is exceedingly well/To give a common word the spell.” Is Hirsch implying that a work’s audience dictates its level of merit? Are nursery rhymes and riddles childish simply because they are written for children? Would Hirsch also consider the works of Hans Christian Anderson to be beneath Conrad’s Heart of Darkness? Are C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books less relevant than J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy? Hirsch’s condescending attitude toward “other” forms of poetry is quite insulting.

Incidentally, Kristin, I find the thesaurus to be an invaluable tool when writing poetry. Writers are not magical well-springs of words simply by virtue of being writers; refusing to use a thesaurus when writing is equally as foolish as refusing to use a dictionary when reading. Without such tools, how can a writer (or reader) ever hope to grow?

On November 11, 2008 at 10:21pm Chelsea wrote:
"The lyric poem defamiliarizes words, it wrenches them from familiar or habitual contexts, it puts a spell on them." Does Hirsch not know of any other poem because he seems as if lyric poems are the most incredible poems he has ever read.... I agree with Hirsch that words would have no charm or essential meaning if they were never spoken or wrote for others to develop into their own thoughts. Language is how the nation and world works and without that language or connection between people with words there would be no understanding. Language is an essential to human nature no matter how or what form you express it, as long as you express it.

On November 12, 2008 at 9:00pm Emily wrote:
The same word in different contexts can have several meanings. Just as the way we speak we can say things in different tones depending on what we intend. Poets, or authors overall, can express the same emotions in writing. It is neat to think that the same words in different pieces of literature may mean two totally different things' only because of the different contexts. But once again after reading Hirsch's thoughts on poetry, I am forced to recognize its hidden importance. Most people of our generation forget the essence of a well written poem, and its power it may have. I believe Hirsch is trying to remind us of that.

On November 12, 2008 at 9:11pm Emily wrote:
Ps...

Jed Walton,

What were you really trying to say by that??? :)

On August 8, 2012 at 7:13am Alana A. Roberts wrote:
Maggie: yes, people should use dictionaries when they read. If you had looked up the word 'cognate' you might have found this:

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cognate

I believe the writer of the essay is saying that lyrical poetry is related, possibly by descent but certainly by similarity, to nursery rhymes and riddles. Maybe you thought that "childish" is a condescending term. Aside from the fact that nursery rhymes are, in fact, a staple of childhood, only a person who thinks children are beneath her could conclude that 'childish' is derogatory.

To some others: it's too bad you find lyrical poetry and any praise for it snobbish. It's true that some forms of literature require a special talent which our surprisingly non-egalitarian creator did not hand out equally to all of us. True self-respect, however, allows us to appreciate even that excellence which we ourselves are not able to achieve.

On March 4, 2013 at 12:32pm Maria C. P.Costa wrote:
Upon reading this interesting article and others by
Edward Hirsh, I have recalled Leonardo da Vinci's
observation: "Painting is poetry seen rather than felt,
and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen."
It seems to me that Mr Edward Hirsh would privilege a
balanced combination of those two aspects: feelings and
words, in their shapes, visual forms, rather than
emphasizing one over the other.

As for "precision of poetry" I also contend that it is
an added value aimed at being achieved a flowing,
rhythmic, melodious work. In my modest view,every poet
should struggle for pulling out of their mind a clear,
concise, meaningful choice of words and shapes, i.e. ,
honing their craft to be able to "Give a Common Word the
Spell"!

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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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