Article for Students

It Is Something of an Accident That You Are the Reader and I the Writer

Reading poetry calls for an active reader who must imaginatively collaborate with a poem to give voice to it.

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.

Return to the Guidebook

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...

Related Content
  1. November 24, 2008
     Jordan Dodderer

    I think this article has some great truths, yet it is rather contradictory. Hirsch is flirting with nominalism here, and i know from reading his other articles that he longs to be a realist. I know that it is supposed to be a magical moment for reader and work to come together as one, but I am almost heartbroken for the artist. When I write anything down, I am writing it solely for me. I may want you to learn from it, or try and guide you into a certain path of thinking, however the work belongs to me. It is disheartening to know that literature truly belongs to the reader. The reader gets to decide what to make of characters, and morals, and themes. Is that even fair? Should we take the artist's vision out of context and apply it for ourselves. Is that just? Sure it is natural, but I do not think it is fair. We are all impressionable and mold things to fit our own need. I am not ignoring that this IS the process that happens, I am merely saddened by truth.

  2. November 24, 2008

    "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."

    A poem is nothing without admiring or even criticizing readers. If the most beautiful poem is written, yet never read, it is inexistent. Which also means the most wonderful poet of the most wonderful poem will go unnoticed too. Hence it is hard for a poet to be remembered generations later. Shakespeare is not just any man. He had to make an impression, stand out among other writers to be remembered and still read today.

    PS. Hirsch,

    I have enjoyed your articles and I admire your love for poetry. You have found your calling. Congrats.

    : )

  3. November 24, 2008

    "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" I cannot pretend to know the answer to this question. However, the comparison is clear: if a poem is written but never read, is it truly a poem? It exists, to be sure, but does existence constitute poetry? Does life constitute poetry? I would like to believe so. But once again, the definition of poetry depends on one's perception of poetry. Stripped bare of rhyme, of rhythm, of metaphor, of words, of everything we think is necessary to poetry, can poetry still exist? While I still maintain that poetry can be a feeling rather than a physical entity, the fact remains that there must be someone in existence to feel it. To that end, I much admire Hirsch's sentiment that the reader is the interloper, the one who, by some measure of guile, opens the bottle, just as Pandora opened her famed box. Romantic and exciting is the thought that poetry must be stolen in order to be enjoyed! And I have every intention of becoming a thief.

  4. November 24, 2008

    Now that I have read 16 of these essays, I have found the meat of why I, we, love poetry so much. When we read a poem in class I was even more focused on deciding whether or not it met all the criteria of a "magical" poem that I didn't even concentrate on what it was about. I'm afraid that being conscious to great poetry will ruin the affects as I read it. I used to never think about all the details of why it is so amazing, but now I am afraid these concrete details will never leave me and I will never read a poem the same. But I must be exaggerating because I'm sure that whenever I grasp a great poem I will be so into it that I will forget all the little gadgets that made it such a great poem; they will come unconsciously to me. I realize that I have not really commented on this paticular essay, but since it is the last one I wanted to wrap it all up. :) All in all, these essays were enjoyable and I have definitely expanded my knowlegde thanks to Hirsch!

  5. November 24, 2008

    "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." I really enjoyed reading this comparison of apples to poetry because as you look at the words on a page that contain poetry you do not involve and admire the poem until you read it or take a bite out of it. "Every work of art needs a respondent to complete it." I believe the poet alone is a respondent to their own work, a poem does not need a reader for it to be complete, the poet puts their heart and soul into a poem making it complete all on its own. I enjoyed reading this poem. Hirsch definitely has a deep passion for poetry that one can admire. Hirsch writes so many audiences are capable of taking his words in and understand it, Hirsch did a great job on all his articles.

  6. February 11, 2009

    Very nice site!