Brain Pickings

How to Read a Poem: “Stored Magic,” Total Transformation, and the Capacity for Creative Wonder

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“True poetic practice implies a mind so miraculously attuned and illuminated that it can form words, by a chain of more-than coincidences, into a living entity.”

“The only transformation that interests me is a total transformation — however minute,” wrote Susan Sontag in her diary. “I want the encounter with a person or a work of art to change everything.” For the literary idealist, the same resolute demand can be applied to encounters with the written word.

After learning how to read a book and how to talk about books you haven’t read, here’s a beautiful meditation on poetry and total transformation by way of “stored magic” from Edward Hirsch’s modern classic How to Read a Poem (public library), the first chapter of which has been made available online by Poetry Foundation:

The lyric poem seeks to mesmerize time. It crosses frontiers and outwits the temporal. It seeks to defy death, coming to disturb and console you. (‘These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand,’ John Berryman wrote in one of his last Dream Songs: ‘They are only meant to terrify & comfort.’) The poet is incited to create a work that can outdistance time and surmount distance, that can bridge the gulf — the chasm — between people otherwise unknown to each other. It can survive changes of language and in language, changes in social norms and customs, the ravages of history. Here is Robert Graves in The White Goddess:

True poetic practice implies a mind so miraculously attuned and illuminated that it can form words, by a chain of more-than coincidences, into a living entity — a poem that goes about on its own (for centuries after the author’s death, perhaps) affecting readers with its stored magic.

I believe such stored magic can author in the reader an equivalent capacity for creative wonder, creative response to a living entity. (Graves means his statement literally.) The reader completes the poem, in the process bringing to it his or her own past experiences. You are reading poetry — I mean really reading it—when you feel encountered and changed by a poem, when you feel its seismic vibrations, the sounding of your depths. ‘There is no place that does not see you,’ Rainer Maria Rilke writes at the earth-shattering conclusion of his poem ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’: ‘You must change your life.’

How to Read a Poem is excellent and necessary in its entirety — do yourself a favor.

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