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Poet's Choice by Edward Hirsch. Harcourt, 2006, $25, 448 pages.


In Poet's Choice, the gifted poet and critic Edward Hirsch offers a new way to look at the world through the art of poetry. The author of the bestselling How to Read a Poem collects and reflects on the work of more than 130 poets -- from Asia and the Middle East to Europe and America, from ancient times to the present -- and demonstrates how poetry answers the challenge of finding meaning in the midst of suffering. Rich, relevant, always inviting, and suffused with Hirsch's deep sensitivity to the nuances of language, Poet's Choice deftly illustrates how poems need readers to experience them and how individuals can appreciate the full beauty of life through poetry.


Booklist: Hirsch celebrates poetry as a "human fundamental" in his incantatory introduction to this brimming collection of 130 masterfully distilled essays based on the famed "Poet's Choice" columns he wrote with passion and imagination for the Washington Post Book World for three years, beginning soon after 9/11. As in his cherished best-seller, How to Read a Poem (1999), Hirsch, a natural-born teacher as well as a poet, shares his extraordinary erudition and love for poetry with lucidity and intensity, empathically summarizing the lives of poets past and present, and offering poems to readers as though they are food or benedictions, gossip, or prescriptions. The first half of the book is international in scope, and Hirsch writes with particular ardor about Russian, Spanish-language, Muslim, and Jewish poets who shed light on some of the worst of humankind's countless tragedies. The lambent essays in the book's second half form a new map of American poetry as Hirsch stakes out territory for underappreciated and emerging writers, reveling in works of humor as well as gravitas. Hirsch's aesthetic is unerring, and his interpretations are profound as he considers our "collective destiny" and takes measure of poetry's encompassing vision.


Edward Hirsch is the author of six books of poems and three books of prose, among them the national bestseller, How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry. He has received the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Prix de Rome, and a MacArthur Fellowship, and is president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He lives in New York.


On the morning of our interview, Mr. Hirsch is in his office at the Guggenheim Foundation on Park Avenue in New York. We exchange pleasantries and sing the praises of mutual friends and acquaintances, including Juris Jurjevics (my writing partner for the "Reading" column of the San Diego Reader ) and Judith Moore. I tell Mr. Hirsch that Poet's Choice was the last book Judith gave me to read before she passed away. "She had responded very warmly to my work a couple of times, and it meant a lot to me. I'm really sorry she's gone."

"Originally the pieces in this book appeared in 'Book World' in the Washington Post . When you were preparing a weekly column on poetry, how did you go about selecting the pieces, and then, from all of those, how did you decide what to include in the present book?"

"One, there were many poems I loved and poets that I'm deeply committed to, and I knew that at one time or another I'd want to bring them forth to readers in 'Book World.' Sometimes I would just write about these poets. Other times there would be a poem that had a kind of topical connection, or be related to a season or to something that had happened.

"Then, there were new books that were coming in, and I would try to respond to them. Sometimes they were by poets I cared about already and sometimes by poets I didn't know or sometimes anthologies. My goal was to bring forward poems and poets that readers of the Washington Post wouldn't necessarily come across on their own."

"Did you have quite a bit of freedom in those choices?"

"I had total freedom to choose what I wanted. It is a newspaper, though, so I did have a length for the columns. I started to treat that length as if it were a poetic form. I knew that if I had more commentary, I'd have to have a shorter poem, and if I had a longer poem I could have less commentary.

"Then, when I came to structure the collection as a whole, I reshaped the columns so that they didn't have any particular ties to dates, weren't particularly linked to the seasons, and had nothing to do with the news."

"I've heard you describe a poem as a message in a bottle addressed to the future and to an unspecific reader. In other forms of writing -- in prose, for example -- authors often have a specific readership or type of reader in mind. Without knowing your reader, as a poet, how do you know if you've been successful in a particular poem?"

"I don't think a poet can know. I think you can do your best, and I think you can make something that you believe is true and well made. At times, Emily Dickenson must have known, 'this is great,' some of those Shakespeare sonnets -- he must have known. And yet, on some other level, you can't know, because it's not just up to you as the writer. You are making something that stands apart from you."

"What do you mean when you talk about the reciprocity between poet, poem, and reader?"

"I don't think that poems have meanings unto themselves. I think that a poem's meaning exists in the relationship between a poet, a poem, and a reader. The poems really only take place when that circuit of communication is completed. That's why I like Martin Buber's notion that 'in the beginning is the relation.' The relation precedes the word because it is authored by the human. A poem is an event in language. It is completed when the reader fulfills the experience by reading and internalizing a poem."

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