Article for Students

To the Reader Setting Out

To read a poem is to depart from the familiar, to leave all expectations behind.

The reader of poetry is a kind of pilgrim setting out, setting forth. The reader is what Wallace Stevens calls “the scholar of one candle.” Reading poetry is an adventure in renewal, a creative act, a perpetual beginning, a rebirth of wonder. “Beginning is not only a kind of action,” Edward Said writes in Beginnings, “it is also a frame of mind, a kind of work, an attitude, a consciousness.” I love the frame of mind, the playful work and working playfulness, the form of consciousness—the dreamy attentiveness—that come with the reading of poetry.

Reading is a point of departure, an inaugural, an initiation. Open the Deathbed Edition of Leaves of Grass (1891-1892) and you immediately encounter a series of “Inscriptions,” twenty-six poems that Walt Whitman wrote over a period of three decades to inscribe a beginning, to introduce and inaugurate his major work, the one book he had been writing all his life. Beginning my own book on the risks and thralls, the particular enchantments, of reading poetry, I keep thinking of Whitman’s six-line poem “Beginning My Studies.”

Beginning my studies the first step pleas’d me so much,
The mere fact consciousness, these forms, the power of motion,
The least insect or animal, the senses, eyesight, love,
The first step I say awed me and pleas’d me so much,
I have hardly gone and hardly wish’d to go any farther,
But stop and loiter all the time to sing it in ecstatic songs.

I relish the way that Whitman lingers in this one-sentence poem over the very first step of studying, the mere fact—the miracle—of consciousness itself, the joy of encountering “these forms,” the empowering sense of expectation and renewal, the whole world blooming at hand, the awakened mental state that takes us through our senses from the least insect to the highest power of love. We can scarcely turn the page, so much do we linger with pleasure over the ecstatic beginning. We are instructed by Whitman in the joy of starting out that the deepest spirit of poetry is awe.

Poetry is a way of inscribing that feeling of awe. I don’t think we should underestimate the capacity for tenderness that poetry opens within us. Another one of the “Inscriptions” is a two-line poem that Whitman wrote in 1860. Called simply “To You,” it consists in its entirety of two rhetorical questions:

Stranger, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me, why should you
     not speak to me?
And why should I not speak to you?

It seems entirely self-evident to Whitman that two strangers who pass each other on the road ought to be able to loiter and speak, to connect. Strangers who communicate might well become friends. Whitman refuses to be bound, to be circumscribed, by any hierarchical or class distinctions. One notices how naturally he addresses the poem not to the people around him, whom he already knows, but to the “stranger,” to the future reader, to you and me, to each of us who would pause with him in the open air. Let there be an easy flow—an affectionate commerce—between us.

Here is one last “Inscription,” the very next poem in Leaves of Grass. It’s called “Thou Reader” and was written twenty-one years after “To You.”

Thou reader throbbest life and pride and love the same as I,
Therefore for thee the following chants.

I am completely taken by the way that Whitman always addresses the reader as an equal, as one who has the same strange throb of life he has, the same pulsing emotions. There’s a desperate American friendliness to the way he repeatedly dedicates his poems to strangers, to readers and poets to come, to outsiders everywhere. Whoever you are, he would embrace you. I love the deep affection and even need with which Whitman dedicates and sends forth his poems to the individual reader. He leaves each of us a gift. To you, he says, the following chants.

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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 31, 2008

    This is fascinating, at the same time daunting. I am desperately trying to learn poetry on my own, but fear I am going to broad without any depth. What common foundation is there for understanding the forms and trends of poetry?

  2. November 2, 2008

    This article wants the reader knowing that when you read poetry there is an undertone the author places in the poem in hopes of the reader connecting to it. Hirsch does not want people straying from their deep connection to the poem being read because it is truely there. Hirsch phrases it as "I don’t think we should underestimate the capacity for tenderness that poetry opens within us." Poetry is capabale of opening our hearts and touching us or even helping us through life.

  3. November 4, 2008

    Poetry, in my eyes, genuinely does create awe for each reader. There is something about poetry that sends a warm feeling down my spine. I prefer poetry over all other styles of writing because one can interpret it differently from others. Where as in prose, the plots and characters are taken literally, poetry gives you the opportunity to go beyond. Whether it is the rich tone and language or the imaginative desciptions- poetry lets one's mind run wild. I love the idea set forth by Walt Whitman's poem that two strangers should have the whole world to discuss because within two strangers lies a potential friendship. This idea encourages me to be outgoing with new people- because according to Whitman, I may meet a truly amazing friend.

  4. November 4, 2008

    This initial meeting between writer and reader is crucial, and it dictates the nature of the encounter. However, what Hirsch has not yet acknowledged is that "poetry" is not a single unit but a wide and diverse array of works. A poem that I may deem worthy of conversation may differ from the poem selected by another reader. Sometimes poems do not speak to me, or I do not speak to them for one reason or another. For example, I have a certain inexplicable contempt for free verse poetry that, despite my ultimate feelings after having read the poem, sours that blissful beginning Hirsch describes. What Hirsch writes about is the best-case scenario; he neglects to address the fact that, while some Pilgrims came to the New World and prospered, most of them starved to death that first winter.

  5. November 4, 2008

    "I love the frame of mind, the playful work and working playfulness, the form of consciousness—the dreamy attentiveness—that come with the reading of poetry. "

    -Can a dreamy attentiveness truly embody consciousness? The pilgrims journeyed to the New World to escape the binds of Europe. Instead of embodying a new consiousness, poetry is paralleled by the New World in that it provides our escape from consciousness. The reading of poetry, in its most euphoric moments, involves the reader to a point where the reader becomes involved and a part of the poem. It is within this "zone" that the best reader's of poetry are able to become enlightened. Therefore, the poem does not have the power to inspire, but the reader has the power to self-inspire through their efforts tofuse themselves within the poem.

  6. November 4, 2008

    Hirsh's comparison of the reader to a pilgrim made me ponder about the journey he claims poetry can take us on. When I read good poetry, I tend to transform and mold myself into the words and become part of the poem. I like to feel like I am in the writer's head when he/she was creating the poem. This journey that poetry can take a person on, to me, seems similar to a dream. If only I could remember my dreams and write them on paper, they could truly take the reader on an exciting adventure. The best poems would come from dreams because they are so full of absract ideas and images that can take one's mind to another level.

  7. November 7, 2008

    This section caused me to wonder a lot. As Hirsch compared a reader of a poem to a pilgrim, I realized that poetry is taken for granted. This comparison has reminded me how important poetry can be. It is not only important as it is entertaining, but poetry can cause a reader to find themselves and maybe learn a life lesson. Such as Whitman wrote of two strangers on a street; there were two lines, but those two lines could possibly change my whole attitude toward life.