Article for Students


Poems are like messages in a bottle sent out with little hope of finding a recipient. Those of us who find and read poems become their unknown addresses.

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.

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Originally Published: January 23rd, 2006

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...

  1. March 21, 2007
     Kara Schroeder

    I believe at times there are certain things we have on our minds that we don't care to discuss with others or can't discuss with them. They are things that deep down inside we want to reveal, yet we don't know if those close to us will understand. We don't want them to judge us, so instead we releive ourselves by writing it all down and sending to whom ever it is destined to reach. We have no control over where it may go, or who will find it! However, deep down we feel confident and relieved expressing our feelings and knowing someone, somewhere will find them.

  2. April 2, 2007
     Dannica Dufur

    I have always wanted to find a message in a bottle, just as much as I have wanted to toss a bottle with my own message into the sea. I believe that poetry is an escape from reality and allows people to dream. Some of the dreams I have are too sacred to share with anyone but my pencil and paper. Even after writing them I still want to share them with someone but who? If I could send a message in a bottle it would contain those dreams and wishes from the depths of my heart; hoping someone across the ocean would find them and think wow this person is beautiful look at her dreams. I like the part in the text that says we become the secret addressees of those messages in the bottle, it is not opening someone else's mail its receiving the last will of someone lost at see or lost in their dreams! This text touched me because I have read the book Message in a Bottle and it inspired me to want to send a message in a bottle.

  3. April 27, 2007
     Anne Brennan

    I like the idea that by some magical chance I could receive a message in a bottle- written by someone that destiny delivered to me.
    Would it be received too late?
    I would like to write out
    "Help Me! Somebody please guide me through the ripples and wakes that are bewildering me and exhausting. Guide me, assist me, give me your calm wisdom. Quiet my concern. All of this because you are good and love for free, and don't require any form of payment. I am broke."

  4. August 23, 2007
     ned clay

    Thank you. Could a message in a bottle relieve loneliness?. Poetry is, for me, a liberation from privacy.

  5. October 4, 2007
     Fehmi Turgut

    As a modern man with phobias, I am afraid of flying very much because I think it is not something specific to human nature. On the other hand, I strongly believe those who say flyin gives an undefinable feeling of excitement to its participants. I get the same feeling when I read poems. I leave myself to the wigns of poetry and travel in time and space virtually and fantastically. As for the bottle with a message in it, a good definition it makes for poetry but for me Poetry is a Phoenix

    with huge wings.

  6. February 2, 2008
     Susan Starbuck

    As I read your lovely metaphor of the message in the bottle, I heard in my mind the words of Emily Dickinson's "This is my letter to the world," the sender launching her bottle. I am so worried that my urban students will never know how to open the old messages, how to read the old language that it has taken me so long and so many years of life experience to understand myself. Where in the world of i-pods and cell phones will they ever have the silence to contemplate? Yes, the bottles and language will be differently shaped in the future; I accept and celebrate that on some levels. But I feel poignantly the loss of connection to the tradition.

  7. March 31, 2008

    Poetry is my sanctuary and I well identify with being the sole recipient of a poem. I often feel that poetry is my personal chameleon, miming my innermost echoes.

  8. October 31, 2008

    I truly believe that in certain emotions and times a poem can affect you in a different way. When reading in the emotion of the author or the character, it is amazing how the poem can apply to you. Also reading the poetry many times is necessary to better understand. The first time the reader reads a work, they may miss the hidden undertones or true meanings of the work; whereas reading multiple times can reveal the meanings.

  9. October 31, 2008

    Poetry is an easy way of expressing deep emotions and passion. Those emotions can be developed and only seen by that one person or they can be as Edward is saying and be open to the world. There are poets who write about themselves and want the world to learn something from it. Others use it as a relief and write about anything that comes to their mind and there are those who write for the rememberance of a hardship they want to become.

  10. November 2, 2008
     Chelsea S.

    Poetry is relatable to a message in a bottle because the words send a rush through your body to your heart. The rush signifies the connection of the poem to yourself. The poet writes in hope that the reader can identify their meaning and emotions toward the subject. The poet wants the poem relatable to people so the reader can develop the kind of character the poet has. Hirsch writes this article well and understands the relation of poetry to the reader.

  11. November 2, 2008
     Kristin Siders

    To me, poetry can be understood in a variety of ways. Some people take poetry for a literal translation. Others take poetry figuratively for a deeper meaning. The same goes for messages in a bottle. One finder may be interested in learning the name, occupation, age, or physical description of the message writer. Another finder may take the message and apply it to a more symbolic connection to their own emotions. They may wonder what prompted the message or what in the writer’s life is similar to their own. Similarly, poetry and messages can offer a vast array of translations for all readers.

  12. November 3, 2008

    When I connect with a work of poetry or literature, a fierce sense of ownership overtakes me, and I feel as though I am the only person in the world who can or should experience it. Much as the "secret addressee" must covet the message in the bottle, I become a jealous lover, quite unwilling to share the object of my affections. The very thought of an author in context with my relationship with the work embarrasses me, as though a mother or father-in-law has encroached upon some intimate moment. Worst of all is the knowledge that others have indeed had similar experiences with my poem, my book, my story. The heart-wrenchingly beautiful thing about literature is that it, unlike a single message in a single bottle, is all things to all people. Though I realize that each message is written slightly differently and rolled, or perhaps folded, inside its own uniquely-shaped bottle, the universality does nothing to console me, I who have passionately loved and guarded what I believed to be solely mine.

  13. November 3, 2008

    I find the reading of poetry to be completely personal. The message in the bottle no longer has a sender, one's it is cast out at sea. The poet, has left behind some personal wisdom, but the wisdom withstands time, not the poet. Once detached from its creator, the message embodies a newfound identity of it's own. The lucky person who stumbles upon this secret wisdom has the sole power to decide what is to become with. The "secret addresse" molds the wisdom into lessons personally befitting. The beauty of poetry is that I don't have to worry about what the messenger was saying, I get to decide what the wisdom means to me...and go on from there.

  14. November 3, 2008

    Sometimes I feel as if I am overwhelmed with emotions that I cannot even explain to myself. Sometimes I am so completely taken over by these emotions that I write them down, yet I end up just ripping it up and throwing the paper away. What good does that do for me? I just placed my heart and soul on paper only to be taken out to the trash. After reading this essay it made me consider the fact that what I write down could truly connect with someone that I don't even know. The emotions that I express using a pen and notebook paper could become a significant piece of literature to someone in the world. The next time I throw an emotional tantrum, I will challenge myself to write down my thoughts and feelings and attach them to a balloon and send them away in hopes that they will land in the hands of someone who becomes inspired by my words.

  15. May 22, 2009
     Ivan Zimmer

    I think that poets know, whether by experience or intuition that those close to them either do not care or are intmidated by intense emotion. Sometimes people, especially those close to us, lack the patience or understanding to deal with it. Even more frightening perhaps is the fact that someone close to you is possesed of both wisdom and insight, or even foresight. For them I suppose that would be akin to finding out your husband is Jesus Christ or your daughter a seer. Perhaps it is the fact that the poet challenges people not to accept the mundane as cheap an commonplace, but as it truly is: precious, rare and magical. That is alot to deal with for most. Most folks I have found are quite frightened of their deepest emotions, their deepest toughts and fears. Even more frightenning for some is having to face the divine within themselves. The poet in this respect is a teacher and a guide. In life only a select few may hear and understand. After death, the poets art becomes wisdom as the poet is delegated from being an artisan to being a sage as time and age may allow. The poet, that friend, that guide that soulmate.
    This could be why that poets in life are often ridiculed and abused. The poet in life is often treated as romantic character dis-conjoined from "reality", yet sond and poetry have been with us for at least as long as prostitution.

  16. January 12, 2010
     Matthew Hatch

    I find it remarkable that the message in a bottle knows no boundaries. The message can cross barriers such as time, race, age, or gender. A few days ago, I found some very old writting journals published in 1856 at my grandparents house. I became immersed in the many poems that were in the journals. I realized how lucky I was to be the recipient of all these messages that had been waiting to be found for over a hundred and fifty years. These poems lost in time still had just as much meaning and purpose, as when they were first written.

  17. February 5, 2010
     Jim Richardson

    I have a message, I have a bottle, and I
    have easy access to the sea. Someday I
    will consummate this marriage and let my
    offspring go. Sadly, for the moment, I lack
    the courage to do so; although the thought
    of using sea-mail has a certain timeless,
    tactile quality that appeals to me on a deep
    emotional level.
    Posterity alas, shall have to exercise
    patience for a little while longer in my case.

  18. June 4, 2010
     Frank Young

    Unfortunately, more often we find a lot of debris floating around pretending to be poetry, and many poems are no more than randomly chopped lengthy prose.

  19. March 28, 2011
     Stephen Curtis

    Poetry is ageless. The receiver drinks from it and quenches whatever thirst they have. The person who raises up this glass cannot be told what is contained, just that it is a glass from which they may find nourishment.