Article for Students

The Immense Intimacy, the Intimate Immensity

The experience of reading poetry and the kind of knowledge it provides cannot be duplicated elsewhere.

The profound intimacy of lyric poetry makes it perilous because it gets so far under the skin, into the skin. “For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough)—they are experiences,” Rilke wrote in a famous passage from The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. I am convinced the kind of experience—the kind of knowledge—one gets from poetry cannot be duplicated elsewhere. The spiritual life wants articulation—it wants embodiment in language. The physical life wants the spirit. I know this because I hear it in the words, because when I liberate the message in the bottle a physical—a spiritual—urgency pulses through the arranged text. It is as if the spirit grows in my hands. Or the words rise in the air. “Roots and wings,” the Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez writes, “But let the wings take root and the roots fly.”

There are people who defend themselves against being “carried away” by poetry, thus depriving themselves of an essential aspect of the experience. But there are others who welcome the transport poetry provides. They welcome it repeatedly. They desire it so much they start to crave it daily, nightly, nearly abject in their desire, seeking it out the way hungry people seek food. It is spiritual sustenance to them. Bread and wine. A way of transformative thinking. A method of transfiguration. There are those who honor the reality of roots and wings in words, but also want the wings to take root, to grow into the earth, and the roots to take flight, to ascend. They need such falling and rising, such metaphoric thinking. They are so taken by the ecstatic experience—the overwhelming intensity—of reading poems they have to respond in kind. And these people become poets.

Emily Dickinson is one of my models of a poet who responded completely to what she read. Here is her compelling test of poetry:

If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know. Is there any other way.

Dickinson recognizes true poetry by the extremity—the actual physical intensity—of her response to it. It’s striking that she doesn’t say she knows poetry because of any intrinsic qualities of poetry itself. Rather, she recognizes it by contact; she knows it by what it does to her, and she trusts her own response. Of course, only the strongest poetry could effect such a response. Her aesthetic is clear: always she wants to be surprised, to be stunned, by what one of her poems calls “Bolts of Melody.”

Dickinson had a voracious appetite for reading poetry. She read it with tremendous hunger and thirst—poetry was sustenance to her. Much has been made of her reclusion, but, as her biographer Richard Sewall suggests, “She saw herself as a poet in the company of the Poets—and, functioning as she did mostly on her own, read them (among other reasons) for company.” He also points to Dickinson’s various metaphors for the poets she read. She called them “the dearest ones of time, the strongest friends of the soul,” her “Kinsmen of the Shelf,” her “enthralling friends, the immortalities.” She spoke of the poet’s “venerable Hand” that warmed her own. Dickinson was a model of poetic responsiveness because she read with her whole being.

One of the books Emily Dickinson marked up, Ik Marvel’s Reveries of a Bachelor (1850), recommends that people read for “soul-culture.” I like that dated nineteenth-century phrase because it points to the depth that can be shared by the community of solitaries who read poetry. I, too, read for soul-culture—the culture of the soul. That’s why the intensity of engagement I have with certain poems, certain poets, is so extreme. Reading poetry is for me an act of the most immense intimacy, of intimate immensity. I am shocked by what I see in the poem but also by what the poem finds in me. It activates my secret world, commands my inner life. I cannot get access to that inner life any other way than through the power of the words themselves. The words pressure me into a response, and the rhythm of the poem carries me to another plane of time, outside of time.

Rhythm can hypnotize and alliteration can be almost hypnotic. A few lines from Tennyson’s The Princess can still send me into a kind of trance:

The moan of doves in immemorial elms
And murmurings of innumerable bees.

And I can still get lost when Hart Crane links the motion of a boat with an address to his lover in part 2 of “Voyages”:

And onward, as bells off San Salvador
Salute the crocus lustres of the stars,
In these poinsettia meadows of her tides,—
Adagios of islands, O my Prodigal,
Complete the dark confessions her veins spell.

The words move ahead of the thought in poetry. The imagination loves reverie, the daydreaming capacity of the mind set in motion by words, by images.

As a reader, the hold of the poem over me can be almost embarrassing because it is so childlike, because I need it so much to give me access to my own interior realms. It plunges me into the depths (and poetry is the literature of depths) and gives a tremendous sense of another world growing within. (“There is another world and it is in this one,” Paul Éluard wrote.) I need the poem to enchant me, to shock me awake, to shift my waking consciousness and open the world to me, to open me up to the world—to the word—in a new way. I am pried open. The spiritual desire for poetry can be overwhelming, so much do I need it to experience and name my own perilous depths and vast spaces, my own well-being. And yet the work of art is beyond existential embarrassment. It is mute and plaintive in its calling out, its need for renewal. It needs a reader to possess it, to be possessed by it. Its very life depends upon it.

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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. December 14, 2006

    If you have an iPod you can enjoy Garrison Keiller's daily Writer's Alamanac in which he tells you the history of a famous event or whose birthday it is on that date and concludes with a poem. I love listening to it on my morning train ride. You can also subscribe to it via the American Public website. I do that too so that I can print out the poems I like and keep them. The Poetry Foundation is a supporter of this program.

  2. November 7, 2008

    I am just going to apologize ahead of time for anything I say that may be taken out of context. I am not a poetry hater, but I am also not a fan of this essay. Hirsch talks about poetry like an addiction, he has a dependency. Although the likeness has a cerain romantic quality, I think he writes about it in a rather arrogant way. "The engagement" of poetry: "Reading poetry is for me an act of the most immense intimacy, of intimate immensity." Those words are beautifully written and well understood, however Hirsch also says that there is no comparison to poetry. Poetry is euphoric. Is one not able to find euphoria in other forms? Does one have to be comforted by words, and similes, and alliteration, to the point where they are dependant upon the ideas of other just to comofrted throughout their day. I find euphoria in life, in the different textures and levels, that my own personal plot provides me. Poetry can enhance my understanding of life, however, it will never become who I am. I dictate the course of my knowledge, as opposed to letting it be steered by the presumptions of those who came before me.

  3. November 7, 2008

    I feel that Hirsch has a yearning for poetry that is similar to an animal's yearning for food or surivival. While I think that poetry is a way to find intimicacy within your ownself. I in no way could ever imagine it replacing the intimacy you have with other people. I am happy for Hirsch that he has experienced a passionate bond but I would never think that poetry could make someone so obsessed, so messmerized, that everything else seems merely insignificant. This is not to say that I agree or disagree with his writing, but to me, it is fascinating to see the impact poetry has on someone. It almost seems that his love for poetry compensates for a kind of love he has never experienced. I hope that all people, at some point, can experience all types of love - the kind you feel with a family member, a friend, a significant other, and in Hirsch's case, a true passion or interest.

  4. November 7, 2008

    "I am convinced the kind of experience—the kind of knowledge—one gets from poetry cannot be duplicated elsewhere." I agree with this line very much as it is true. When a writer conducts a work, they are merely drawing the lines to which the reader is to color. Just as a coloring book gives the outline, but leaves room for creativity and personal perception. Literature works this way we are able to imagine characters as we please, or view the setting differently than others. While on the other hand things such as movies leave no room for this interpretation. Every person who views the same film, really sees and imagines the same images, as an actor appears the same to everyone. Also as I continue to read Hirsch's articles I am beginning to realize that I, and many in our present day society, undermine the importance of poetry. Poetry cannot work its magic unless the reader volunteers.

  5. November 7, 2008

    I can't fathom that poetry is capable of giving off "physical intensity" as Hirsch says. The world today, I believe, does not view poetry in the essential way that people viewed it as in the old days. Hirsch speaks of the poem giving him access to his own interior realms. His statement is well wrote but seems over exaggerated because he then develops into his need for poetry. Hirsch seems as if poetry fuels his perfect life and not the beauty of the world around him.

  6. November 7, 2008

    By opening with Rilke’s assertion that poetry is not an emotion, Hirsch harshly limits the truly boundless nature of poetry. Poetry is, among other things, an emotion, as Emily Dickinson seems to realize: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” I too can feel poetry, a cool, sparkling sensation that begins deep within me and rushes like champagne bubbles to the very top of my head before gently bursting and releasing an almost cleansing feeling of euphoria. However, one of Hirsch’s major weaknesses is that he does not acknowledge that everything has the potential of being poetry. Poetry does not need to be put into words and committed to paper in order to exist. Art is poetry; dance is poetry; science is poetry; all aspects of life, death, and the universe are poetry. As long is there is someone “to possess it, to be possessed by it,” then it, whatever it is, is poetry, and worthy of all that that implies.

  7. November 7, 2008

    I feel as if each passage of Hirsch's becomes more and more personal and more deep, however I think he has taken it too far this time. Hirsch's opinions are powerful but yet they are very extreme. In this passage he expresses a very devoted and passionate love toward poetry, a type of love in which I believe one cannot have with only the words of a stranger. One might be in awe and feel a sense of bliss when they read these words, but I have a hard time trying to understand how a person call fall into such love without even using all of the senses. They way Hirsch describes the craving of poetry in some people was somewhat disturbing. I don't understand how people are able to crave poetry as they do food or water for survival. Hirsch brought his emotions about poetry, and the way it affects other people, to a whole new level, and I believe that he went too far. I respect his opinions and I respect what he has said in earlier passages, but I particularly did not enjoy this essay of his.

  8. March 3, 2009
     Julie Ali

    I don't think you can understand Mr. Hirsch's words unless you are soaked in the blood of poets and their works. To be a poet, to write poetry, is one of the most dangerous activities of the soul and to read it like Mr. Hirsch reads it, requires the type of surrender not cultivated by immersion in YouTube, television or electronic games. What Mr. Hirsch experiences is soul to soul meld: one poet to another. To meld in this way, to live your life through the lens of the wisdom of poets - why that takes guts, it takes a life's experiences, a certain emotional openness, a fertile imagination and the desire to be invaded by the poet's songs.

    Poetry does not compensate for real life experiences. Poetry deepens and enhances real life experiences. And as Emily writes: Poetry cannot work its magic unless the reader volunteers. Poets are love, they embody love of the world and often this open expression of love (even in the most terrifying poems) causes the reader to recoil. We are strangers to such open avowals of passion. Too bad. The world would be even more lovely than it already is if we were as courageous as Mr. Hirsch and his "passionate" line of poem makers.

  9. April 1, 2009
     Charles Martin

    Was delighted with Edward Hirsch's sharing his thoughts . . . also the others who made comment on this essay. Have the feeling all you beautiful folk coming under the heading of modern Epricureans Poetry to me, as a gentle gardener, is like viewing tender seed leaves sprouting in earth in the Spring of the year.

  10. January 30, 2011

    A powerful commentary. I am not a poet. I
    could easily replace the word "poetry" with
    "painting" and words with shapes, lines,

  11. February 26, 2011

    When you are young it is sometimes difficult to find interest in things like literature. When you are still developing and gaining knowledge sometimes our ignorant minds cannot full open themselves up to a piece of literature. Poems however, have the ability to stir up our senses and emotions because they were created with similar emotions and I have always been amazed by the mutual sharing and transfer of emotions by poetry. In almost everything that we do the only place to go is inside. Poetry has the ability to meet us at that place in our soul. Poetry can be a "way of transformative thinking. A method of transfiguration" (Hirsch). Inspired by certain poems many great men and women have changed the world that they live in. Poetry has the ability to challenge us to change what is real into what we desire because it can reach us at our deepest core, it unveils to us what we can be. The ability to reach our soul is not the only way poetry can reach us, as Emily Dickinson quotes "If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry" (Hirsch). Poetry has an incredible ability to reach people in their physical feelings. ever since I was a little kid I knew when I was hit with a feeling of my stomach dropping I was either in trouble or scared. When I think about a girl I like being with someone else I get the same feeling. Poetry at times has the supernatural ability to compose images and evoke feelings that cause me to feel as if my stomach has dropped. This feeling causes me to admire poetry in a different light. I hold many poems close because I know that I can turn to them for this universal feeling that opens me up to a separate world within my mind. When the pressures and anxieties of the outside world and other people are bearing down on me, poetry serves as a therapeutic release of tension. Poetry will always remain one of mankind's truest art forms for its ability to unlock the passions and emotions of our soul.

  12. November 12, 2011
     Harry Owen

    It is this capacity of poetry to investigate the depths of ourselves and to articulate something of them so that others say 'Yes!' that makes it, for me, the most compelling, the most human of the arts. Thank you for this.