Read these poems to yourself in the middle of the night. Turn on a single lamp and read them while you’re alone in an otherwise dark room or while someone else sleeps next to you. Read them when you’re wide awake in the early morning, fully alert. Say them over to yourself in a place where silence reigns and the din of the culture—the constant buzzing noise that surrounds us—has momentarily stopped. These poems have come from a great distance to find you. I think of Malebranche’s maxim, “Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul.” This maxim, beloved by Simone Weil and Paul Celan, quoted by Walter Benjamin in his magisterial essay on Franz Kafka, can stand as a writer’s credo. It also serves for readers. Paul Celan said:
A poem, as a manifestation of language and thus essentially dialogue, can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the—not always greatly hopeful—belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps. Poems in this sense, too, are under way: they are making toward something.
Imagine you have gone down to the shore and there, amidst the other debris—the seaweed and rotten wood, the crushed cans and dead fish— you find an unlikely looking bottle from the past. You bring it home and discover a message inside. This letter, so strange and disturbing, seems to have been making its way toward someone for a long time, and now that someone turns out to be you. The great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, destroyed in a Stalinist camp, identified this experience. “Why shouldn’t the poet turn to his friends, to those who are naturally close to him?” he asked in “On the Addressee.” But of course those friends aren’t necessarily the people around him in daily life. They may be the friends he only hopes exist, or will exist, the ones his words are seeking. Mandelstam wrote:
At a critical moment, a seafarer tosses a sealed bottle into the ocean waves, containing his name and a message detailing his fate. Wandering along the dunes many years later, I happen upon it in the sand. I read the message, note the date, the last will and testament of one who has passed on. I have the right to do so. I have not opened someone else’s mail. The message in the bottle was addressed to its finder. I found it. That means, I have become its secret addressee.
Thus it is for all of us who read poems, who become the secret addressees of literary texts. I am at home in the middle of the night and suddenly hear myself being called, as if by name. I go over and take down the book—the message in the bottle—because tonight I am its recipient, its posterity, its heartland.
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...