It Is Something of an Accident That You Are the Reader and I the Writer
Lyric poetry is a form of verbal materialism, an art of language, but it is much more than “the best words in the best order.” It is language fulfilling itself, language compressed and raised to its highest power. Language in action against time, against death. There are times when I am awestruck by the way that poems incarnate the spirit—the spirits—and strike the bedrock of being. Other times I am struck by how little the poem has to go on, how inadequate its means. For what does the writer have but some black markings on a blank page to imagine a world? Hence these lines from the splendid Florentine poet Guido Cavalcanti:
Noi siàn le triste penne isbigottite
le cesoiuzze e’l coltellin dolente.
We are the poor, bewildered quills,
The little scissors and the grieving penknife.
Cavalcanti projects his own grievous feelings of imaginative inadequacy onto the writer’s very tools (quills and the knives to sharpen them), the writer’s diminutive instruments. In Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino makes an insightful comment that enlarges on Cavalcanti’s lines, creating a statement about the experience of literature itself:
all “realities” and “fantasies” can take on form only by means of writing, in which outwardness and innerness, the world and I, experience and fantasy, appear composed of the same verbal material. The polymorphic visions of the eyes and the spirit are contained in uniform lines of small or capital letters, periods, commas, parentheses—pages of signs, packed as closely together as grains of sand, representing the many-sided spectacle of the world as a surface that is always the same and always different, like dunes shifted by the desert wind.
I am reminded by Calvino’s description of the literal limits of art: that all the incitement and grace of literature has to take place in the lineup of written characters on the page.
“There is then creative reading as well as creative writing,” Emerson says in “The American Scholar” in a statement that could be a credo for the reader of poems. Poetry alerts us to what is deepest in ourselves—it arouses a spiritual desire which it also gratifies. It attains what it avows. But it can only do so with the reader’s imaginative collaboration and even complicity. The writer creates through words a felt world which only the reader can vivify and internalize. Writing is embodiment. Reading is contact. In the preface to Obra poetica, Jorge Luis Borges writes:
The taste of the apple (states Berkeley) lies in the contact of the fruit with the palate, not in the fruit itself; in a similar way (I would say) poetry lies in the meeting of the poem and reader, not in the lines of symbols printed on the pages of a book. What is essential is the aesthetic act, the thrill, the almost physical emotion that comes with each reading.
Borges continues on to suggest that poetry can work its magic by fulfilling our profound need to “recover a past or prefigure a future.”
Poetry depends on the mutuality of writer and reader. The symbols on the page alone are insufficient. Borges was a fabulist and in the foreword to his first book of poems he went even further to suggest that poetry goes beyond mutuality, beyond identification, into identity itself:
If in the following pages there is some successful verse or other, may the reader forgive me the audacity of having written it before him. We are all one; our inconsequential minds are much alike, and circumstances so influence us that it is something of an accident that you are the reader and I the writer—the unsure, ardent writer—of my verses.
This is funny and brilliant and perhaps disingenuous, but there is also a truth in it which has to do with a common sensation of reading: the eerie feeling that we are composing what we are responding to. In The Redress of Poetry Seamus Heaney calls this “the fluid, exhilarating moment which lies at the heart of any memorable reading, the undisappointed joy of finding that everything holds up and answers the desire that it awakens.” Poetry creates its own autonomous world, and what that world asks from us it also answers within us.
In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard says that “Poetry puts language in a state of emergence.” It emerges at short range. Bachelard also quotes Pierre-Jean Jouve’s statement that “Poetry is a soul inaugurating a form.” The notion of the soul’s inauguration of form suggests what Bachelard calls “supreme power” and “human dignity.” I honor that dignity by recognizing the form it takes, the way it composes itself. Every work of art needs a respondent to complete it. It is only partially realized without that imaginative response. Jean-Paul Sartre puts the matter emphatically in What Is Literature?:
The creative act is only an incomplete and abstract moment in the production of a work. If the author existed alone he would be able to write as much as he liked; the work as object would never see the light of day and he would either have to put down his pen or despair. But the operation of writing implies that of reading as its dialectical correlative and these two connected acts necessitate two distinct agents. It is the joint effort of author and reader which brings upon the scene that concrete and imaginary object which is the work of the mind. There is no art except for and by others.
The reader exists on the horizon of the poem. The message in the bottle may seem to be speaking to the poet alone, or to God, or to nobody, but the reader is the one who finds and overhears it, who unseals the bottle and lets the language emerge. The reader becomes the listener, letting the poem voice and rediscover itself as it is read.
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...