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American poet Carl Sandburg said, “poetry is the opening and closing of a door,” offering readers a glimpse into a moment, an experience, an emotion. Yet in our fast-paced world many of us rarely stop to take a look. For our April Readers’ Review we spend an hour doing just that. Our guides are three award-winning poets whose work traces the human experience through love, loss, politics, and war. They share their own poems, read the words of some the poets who inspire them and offer advice to readers who have difficulty finding enjoyment in verse. In celebration of National Poetry Month, an opportunity to slow down and experience what poetry has to offer.
- E. Ethelbert Miller poet; director, African American Resource Center at Howard University; board chair, Institute for Policy Studies.
- Carolyn Forche poet and professor at Georgetown University. She has written four books of poetry and edited two volumes, including the recent title "The Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500-2001."
- Edward Hirsch author of six books of poems and four books of prose, including the recent "A Poet's Glossary." 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 Foundation.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. April is National Poetry Month. To mark the occasion, we dedicate this month's Reader's Review to a celebration of verse. Joining us to talk about the pleasures and challenges of poetry are three poets. E. Ethelbert Miller of Howard University and Poet Lore magazine, Carolyn Forche of Georgetown University, and Edward Hirsch. He's president of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation.
MS. DIANE REHMThey all join me here in the studio. You are welcome to be part of the program. Share your own thoughts and ideas. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. And welcome to all of you. I'm so glad you're here for this month's Reader's Review of poetry.
MS. CAROLYN FORCHEThank you, Diane.
MR. E. ETHELBERT MILLERThank you.
MR. EDWARD HIRSCHThanks, it's a thrill to be here.
REHMOh, it's so good to have you here. Carolyn Forche, let's start with you. What do we, as human beings, get from reading or writing poetry?
FORCHEI think of poetry as -- first of all, it's the oldest art. It touches our souls. It gives voice to our inner beings and it gives expression to our humanity. And it's been with us for thousands of years in one form or another. All of our religions were born in poetry. And I really think that it allows us to access a knowledge that we can't access by other means.
REHMEdward Hirsch, how is it different from ordinary, if I can call it that, literature?
HIRSCHI think poetry is a form of marked speech. When you read the newspaper, for example, you read the story and you remember the story but you don't remember the way in which the story is told. But when you read the poem, the way in which the thing is said is inseparable from what's being said. The words carry the meaning. The word speak directly to you. So it's words as words.
MILLERMaybe I can quote Ed from one of his books. I think poetry is also something that brings us pleasure, which is very important. At this particular point in my life, you know, I cherish those moments of pleasure. I also look at poetry as something that helps us deal with the unknown, things that we can't touch or can't explain. This harks back to Carolyn's comment about, you know, the interior journey.
MILLERFor those of us who are poets, I hope that we're on a spiritual journey in terms of trying to find out what is this human condition, how do we deal with love, how do we deal with hatred, how we better understand the world, you know, not just human beings but also nature.
REHMDo you remember when you wrote your first poem?
MILLERI remember when I heard my heard my first poetry reading because it was Sterling Brown, you know, and that was here when I came to Howard University. I was walked across the campus and stumble into a poetry reading. And, you know, I grew up in the south Bronx, I went to Paul L. Dunbar Junior High School and the one read a Dunbar poem to me. I didn't really have an idea of what poetry was until I was hanging around some people at Columbus High School and then we listen to Bob Dylan records.
MILLERYou know, when Paul Simon bought, you know, the whole idea of what a poem would be something that would -- I would discover either around '68, '69.
REHMYou would have been how old?
MILLERI would have been 18.
REHMEighteen. And you, Carolyn, do you remember?
FORCHEI remember the first poem that I wrote because I'm the eldest of seven children. And when I was nine years old we lived in Michigan and we had a snowstorm. So we were snowed in and could not go to school. Seven children, and my mother -- so she gave us each something to do and she took out a book of poems and showed me what a sonnet was and said, now you, I want you to write one of these.
FORCHEAnd I fell in love with it.
FORCHEIt was a boring poem about snow, but it was my beginning and it was because of my mother.
REHMHow lovely. And you, Edward.
HIRSCHI can't remember exactly the first poem, but I can say that I began writing when I was in high school and I would say it was really out of emotional desperation.
HIRSCHI just had feelings that I couldn't control and I didn't know what to do with them. And I somehow stumbled upon poetry as a way to kind of explain my feelings to myself and I felt better when I wrote. I didn't know much about poetry per se, but when I expressed it and tried to get something down in language, it helped me. And so I began to...
REHMAnd was it the writing or the reading it back to yourself?
HIRSCHInitially, it was the writing. But as I began to be interested in poetry, it was the reading back to myself. And then I don't think I was really a poet then, I was a person writing poems. I think I began to become a poet later when I went to college when I began to try and make something, when I tried to turn the words into something. The oldest word for poetry in Greek is poiesis, which means making.
HIRSCHAnd a poet is a maker and a poem is a made thing. And I think that when I was just trying to express myself I wasn't really writing poems. But when I tried to shape those feelings into something, when I tried to make something, what Carolyn was doing when she was making a sonnet, when you're actually trying to make something, then you're actually on your path towards becoming a poet.
REHMBut, you know, Carolyn, so many people say, oh, I don't get poetry. I don't know how to access it. Why do you think it's so hard for some people?
FORCHEI think that sometimes poetry is taught as a code and that everything in the poem actually means something else. And that something is a secret and you have to discover the symbols and what they mean and people become afraid. And they don't realize that all you have to do is read it and take it in and allow it to affect you. And you don't have to figure it out or translate it into some other terms.
REHMYou know, you're talking in the same way I would talk about how people may be afraid of art that instead of simply allowing the heart to feel, they try to figure it out intellectually.
FORCHEThat's exactly right. And I think it comes from teachers making an attempt to bring poetry into the classroom. But there was a kind of old-fashioned approach that, well, this is a symbol for something else. And do you understand? It's not a rose at all. You know? So people stop seeing the flower and they get scared and they think, what is this really?
REHMDo you think they get scared, Ethelbert?
MILLERWell, no, when I would look at, you know, answer this question on an international level. I mean, when we go to our countries, you know, poetry is key to people's lives. You know, when you go to the Middle East, you know, you go to, you know, you go to Chile, you to Nicaragua. You know, when we look at how people grow up, remembering, you know, lines of poems. From Cuba, I know Jose Marti, you know.
MILLERAnd I think this is a thing when I come back here to the United States, okay, what poets do we quote, okay? What poet does everyone quote? Who's the American poet? And, well, I was talking to Ed earlier and, you know, he's reading his Walt Whitman, you know, and...
REHMYeah, of course.
MILLERAnd that's what I feel, you know, is we begin there. For me, African American Langston Hughes is essential. And I think that when you go out here, people have a little bit of the poetry there, you know, and it just has to be a thing where you realize -- when you see some poems on a page, it might be things that you don't understand but you have to work at it. I think that's the beauty of it. It's like heavy lifting or deep tissue massage.
REHMYou know, I have asked each of our guests today to bring with them a poem of their own that they'd like to share. And, Carolyn, why don't I start with you.
FORCHEThank you. This poem, I love lighthouses and I go visit them whenever they're available to me. And there's a lighthouse in Ireland called Hook. And across the water, apparently, there's another lighthouse called Crook. So we have an expression, by hook or by crook.
FORCHEI think that's where it comes from. But this is a little history of lighthouses and an homage and it's also an elegy, a poem written for someone who's no longer with us, "The Lightkeeper."
FORCHE(Reading) A night without ships. Foghorns calling into walled cloud, and you, still alive, drawn to the light as if it were a fire kept by monks, darkness once crusted with stars, but now death-dark as you sail inward. Through wild gorse and sea wrack, through heather and torn wool you ran, pulling me by the hand, so I might see this for once in my life: the spin and spin of light, the whirring of it, light in search of the lost.
FORCHE(Reading) There since the era of fire, era of candles and hollow-wick lamps, whale oil and solid wick, colza and lard, kerosene and carbide, the signal fires lighted on this perilous coast in the Tower of Hook. You say to me stay awake, be like the lensmaker who died with his lungs full of glass, be the yew in blossom when bees swarm, be their amber cathedral and even the ghosts of Cistercians will be kind to you.
FORCHE(Reading) In a certain light as after rain, in pearled clouds or the water beyond, seen or sensed water, sea or lake, you would stop still and gaze out for a long time. Also when fireflies opened and closed in the pines, and a star appeared, our only heaven. You taught me to live like this. That after death it would be as it was before we were born. Nothing to be afraid. Nothing but happiness as unbearable as the dread from which it comes. Go toward the light always, be without ships.
REHMSo beautiful. Beautifully read. Beautifully written.
REHMWhen did you write that?
FORCHEA couple of years ago after -- the person who is addressed in this poem died of cancer and I was also under treatment for cancer at the same time. And I feel that he taught me many things and I wanted to pay tribute to him by writing this poem. He was also a lover of lighthouses. So...
REHMCarolyn Forche is a professor of English at Georgetown University. She's written four books of poetry, edited two volumes, including the recent "The Poetry of Witness." Short break and right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. April is poetry month and so I've invited three esteemed poets to join me here in the studio. Carolyn Forche is professor of English at Georgetown University. Edward Hirsch is author of six books of poems, four book of prose including the bestselling book "How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love With Poetry," and the recent release, "A Poet's Glossary." It seems to me that that was highlighted in this morning's Washington Post.
REHMAnd E. Ethelbert Miller. He's director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University, author of several books of poetry and prose and co-editor of "Poet Lore," the longest ongoing poetry magazine, this year celebrating 125 years.
MILLERYes, older than me.
MILLERThank you very much, Diane.
REHMEthelbert, this is something you touched on earlier. Here's a Twitter -- a Tweet from Raymond. He says, "Does your panel make a distinction between poets and those creating song lyrics?
MILLERWell, you know, when you look at -- especially African-American experience, you know, I look at my mentor Stephen Henderson who edited and important anthology, "Understanding the New Black Poetry." And when you go to that anthology, you see that, you know, the blues lyrics, you know, are there, you know, the spirituals are there. When we look at African American literature, we also have to look at the sermons of ministers, you know. So this is all poetry, especially trends of the oral tradition, which is very important to many cultures.
REHMAnd from Abigail on Facebook who says, "Most people grow up loving poetry and basic nursery rhymes in early books. How do we keep all ages in love with the genre," Edward.
HIRSCHThat's a very good point that she's making, that there's a kind of poetry of everyday life. I mean, song lyrics, but also proverbs, riddles, counting out rhymes, jump rope rhymes, the African American game of playing the dozens. There are all kinds of folklore terms but somehow the way that poetry's taught has created a kind of barrier between the poem and people and their own experience of language.
HIRSCHAnd so I think we need to remind people that the terms of poetry, the forms of poetry are there to enable them to experience something. And they should have the experience itself.
REHMBut, you know, poetry, as we think of it as young children, it has evolved so much from that perfect rhyming order to a poem that Caroline has just written. She says she wrote this when she was in third grade as an eight-year-old. She writes, "In the woods where there are tall towering trees, tiny timid animals, rigid rustling leaves, I stand there, just me. Isn't that wonderful?
REHMAnd, you know, other than the alliteration, I mean, there are no rhyming words. And somehow in our heads we think a poem has to rhyme. How did we get stuck in that?
HIRSCHThis is a 19th century idea I think partially through Victorian poetry, even though Walt Whitman, one of our greatest American poets, was writing poems that were not iambic pentameter. There were long lines that he got from King James. Even though Emily Dickinson was fracturing hymns, not using iambic pentameter. She was taking the music that she had heard in church and changing it and radicalizing it. I think there's a sort of conventional language that people think of in poetry, potential forms of poetry. But actual poetry comes in all kinds of forms. And rhyme is one of the devices of poetry. But it's only one of them.
REHMRead for us a poem of yours, Edward.
HIRSCHIt will be my pleasure. This is a poem. It's called "Special Orders" and it's an analogy for my father who sold corrugated -- he was a box salesman. Give me back my father. Walking the halls of Wertheimer Box and Paper Company with sawdust clinging to his shoes. Give me back his tape measure and his keys, his drafting pencil and his order forms. Give me his daydreams on lined paper. I don't understand this uncontainable grief. Whatever you have that never fit, whatever else you needed, believe me, my father who wanted your business would squat down at your side and sketch you a container for it.
REHMTell me how that poem is different from a paragraph of narrative.
HIRSCHA paragraph of narrative is basically telling you a story or explaining something. My poem is trying to articulate an experience that's hard to articulate, which is I need a container for my grief. And the poem has a formal idea, which is I am grief stricken and I can't contain my grief. And I want to enact it somehow but the only person who could contain it was the person who made boxes. That was my father.
HIRSCHThat feels to me like a form of poetic thinking and that it tries to enact that feeling, give me back my father when I know I can't get him back through a form, through an articulation of form, through an experience.
REHMLovely. Just lovely. Here's an email from Douglas in El Paso who says, "I will never forget listening to my eighth grade teacher reading 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' by Alfred Lord Tennyson". Some of those poems stay in our minds, in our hearts for so long. What is it, Carolyn, that keeps those poems there do you think?
FORCHEPoetry is memorable speech and there are devices in poetry, some of them are -- they're devices of music that allow the poem to stay with us and stay with us, sometimes the way a song comes into your head and you can't get rid of it.
REHM...can't get rid of it, yeah.
FORCHEBut I do think that poems stay. They have a -- they enter us in a different way because they enter as musical speech and because of their strange mysterious quality which is that something is being said almost as if for the first time.
REHMMusical speech. I love that phrase, Ethelbert.
REHMHave you got a poem to read?
MILLERYeah, I'll read this poem. It's called "Boxing With Your Mom" epigraph from the poet Yusef Komunyakaa. Whoever said men hit harder when women are around is right. You push the door open not knowing what to expect. She sits in the chair next to a hospital bed just sitting. How long? Before you can even enter the room, a big smile of recognition kisses her lips before she kisses you. Her seamstress eyes survey your clothes. You're a rhinestone of a son slipping between her shaking hands.
MILLERAs the sparkle leaves her eyes she withdraws under a hospital robe. So small she looks, so small she is. You want to leave but you just can't. It's just you and her. You're overmatched. Her moods change so quickly you can't avoid her jabs. There's bitterness in each blow. She has you against the wall. You're fighting with her again. This is sick, you tell yourself. You want to leave but the bell never rings. You're trying to love her too much. You're losing another round.
REHMWow. I love that.
MILLERYeah, my mother's diseased now but when she was ill I got a call from my sister. She said, come down and see your mother. We don't know how long she's going to be here. I got down to the hospital and my mother was -- and in five minutes we were arguing. I knew she was well. So -- and I came out of the hospital with this poem.
REHMIsn't that something? You wrote it...
MILLER...right there, right.
REHM...just right then and there.
REHMWhen you wrote the book called "How to Read a Poem" what advice did you give to people about not only reading but allowing it to come in?
HIRSCHYou know, when you read a poem, when you read it aloud you are the instrument of that poem, your body, your vocal chords, your rhythm, your heartbeat. You are, you become the vehicle of that poem. And the first thing is to just relax. Let the poem inhabit you. Listen to the sound of the words. When you're reading a poem you're alone but you're alone with the words of another. It's a social experience in some way because language doesn't belong to anyone.
HIRSCHAnd I just -- you know, I think you just find poems you like and you let them speak to you. Now the more you're interested in poetry, the more you care about poems, I think you want to know more about it. So say you have a poem, you have experienced a poem the way I first had a poem when I was early in college and I read a poem. And I thought, this poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins is knocking me out. And then the more I looked at it I go, hey this thing is a sonnet. How does a sonnet work? And I think the more you know about poems the more you want to know how they work.
REHMWhich one by Gerard Manley Hopkins?
HIRSCHIt was one of the so-called terrible sonnets and it begins, I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day. What hours, oh what black hours we have spent this night. What sights you, heart, saw, ways you went and more must, and yet longer lights delay. With witness I speak this. Where I saw hours I mean years, mean life. In my lament it cries countless, cries like dead letters sent to dearest him who lives alas away.
REHMYou've recited that from memory.
HIRSCHI did. I memorized it without knowing I was memorizing. I was just reciting the first eight lines of it but the poem went through me so deeply that Hopkins was articulating some desolation that I felt in myself. And instead of feeling more lonely when I read it, I felt less lonely. I felt less lonely because I felt that he was articulating something that I had experienced but I didn't have a name for it.
REHMIs that why you read poetry, Carolyn?
FORCHEI think I read for -- in order to get in touch with the souls of the others, the souls of the other poets. I feel like I'm receiving something from them that I can't get in touch with any other way. And I read for the music and I read for mystery too. I read for things I don't understand and don't try to understand. And sometimes poems express things that emotions or ideas that they're hovering below the surface of the poem. And that's what I read for.
FORCHEBut I also read for the -- lately in the last 20 years I've been reading for the mark of extremity in poets who endured conditions of extremity in the 20th and 21st centuries. So suffered through wars and exile and prison.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show. So you termed those kinds of poems the poetry of witness.
FORCHEYes. It was a term that I had not for -- it's not -- you're not an identity. You're not a poet of witness but it's a term for a way to read poems which have been written in the aftermath of harsh suffering and experience. And we don't really live after things happen. We live in their aftermath. I don't think we get over things or come to closure. I really believe that we learn to live beyond those experiences. And our language also passes through the fires of war and internment and imprisonment and exile. And so that language becomes different.
FORCHEI can illustrate with a poet who people aren't aware of that they know. They know this poet. This poet is John Newton who was drafted on a Royal Navy ship when he was 23 years old. And he served on that ship but he tried to escape. When he escaped he was captured, he was flogged, he was put into irons. He was transferred to another ship where he was forced to become a slave trader. He became a slave trader and he became a torturer himself.
FORCHEThen his ship was in a storm at sea and it was breaking up and he was praying for salvation. And after -- and what happened to him finally was that he had a conversion experience. And his conversion experience involved him in the abolition movement finally. And here is his poem, a few lines from it. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I'm found, was blind but now I see. We sing it.
FORCHEThe Civil Rights Movement adopted it as a song. We sing it at funerals. We sing it when we need to be comforted. We sing it when we need to keep going and keep going, struggle for justice. And so it wasn't always set to music. It began as a poem and we all know the words.
MILLERYou know, well, Carol, you've always been a big influence on my life and the whole thing about witness. But I also connected to Jerry Bowen (sp?) And Bowen always talked about being a witness. And I look at the fact that Bowen comes out of the African American church. And once you say that you are a witness it means that you are called forth to give testimony. You have to testify. You have to speak the truth to the people. And I think that's a tremendous responsibility for anyone out there who's thinking about being a writer.
MILLERYou know, this whole thing of being a witness, we know as we look across the country there are places where you can't find a witness. People say I don't -- I didn't see anything. And why, because they don't have the courage to deal with what they saw. They don't have the courage to speak the truth. And this is where the poets come in, you see. And Amazing Grace is -- I mean, that's key. But look at the transformation of the individual soul. And what happens is that if you are in the front as a witness you're transforming yourself and hopefully inspiring others to be transformed.
REHMWhen you take time to read, Ethelbert, would you tend to go first for a book of poetry or a novel?
MILLERWell, you know, now -- you know, because I'm editing a magazine -- a poetry magazine I try to be so open now in terms of looking for work that's first different from my own, you know, so that my appreciation of poetry is broadened. I feel that anyone who's editing a magazine, you have a service to the field, you know, the same way Ed is doing these wonderful books in terms of teaching us how to read and appreciate poetry.
MILLERI think if you're editing a magazine, you want to be engaged with people that you don't see. You want somebody to pick up your magazine or read a magazine online and say, well I want to send work there as opposed to saying, well they'll never publish my work. You know, I want to be inclusive as opposed to, you know, excluding people. But the thing I find is that you learn so much about the human condition, that it's wonderful to be an editor as well as a poet.
REHME. Ethelbert Miller and we'll take just a short break here. When we come back, we'll open the phones. I look forward to your participation in this conversation about poetry. Stay with us.
REHMWelcome back. And it's time to open the phones, hear your thoughts on poetry. Let's go first to Beth in Fort Worth, Texas. Hi, you're on the air. Go right ahead.
BETHHi, how are you?
REHMI'm just fine. Thank you.
BETHYou are such a beautiful and classy lady I just have to tell you.
BETHYou will us with your words. I wanted to say that something you guys actually left out, I was surprised, the format of your words speak volumes as to what you're trying to get across. Even when I post something on Facebook, just a comment that doesn't rhyme and, you know, if you just type it into sentences with periods and that's it, it kind of boring to me. So I format it.
BETHAnd I am a poet and I do remember my first poem by the way in third grade, "How to Eat Fishing Worms." Wasn't nearly as good as that other girl, so I won't tell you. But anyway, using the dots, using even the symbols that most people don't use, there's a circle under the symbols that's kind of large when you type it. When I do my lol's, I've always done my lol's differently. I did lol with a small -- with a zero instead of the O because it made it look funky.
REHMOkay. Now, here's the question for you, Edward, does the form shape the poem?
HIRSCHAbsolutely. I mean, part -- you know, poetry is paying attention and slowing down and paying attention to the words. And the form is the delivery system. It's just as we need a body to deliver the soul, the way we live, we need to experience poetry through the language itself. It matters if it rhymes. It matters if it's in stanzas. It matters if it's a villanelle or a song like form. It matters if it's completely fragmented. That's how we actually -- it's the delivery system. It's not just a series of messages. It's how we experience the poem in our bodies. But slowing down, paying attention to it, reading it, noticing it on the page how it works, that's part of the experience of poetry.
REHMAll right. To Randy in Springfield, Va. Hi there.
RANDYHi. Can you hear me?
RANDYOkay. I taught poetry for many years. And one of my favorite quotations, and I cannot remember who said it, is that poetry is the greatest amount of energy in the least amount of space. And that for me has always defined what poetry is.
REHMWhat do you think, Carolyn?
FORCHEI hadn't heard that, but I agree with it. I don't know who said it either. Do you?
REHMAll right. But we all agree with it. I like that. Let's go to Susan in Fort Node, Tenn. or Fort Knox. Which is it?
SUSANIt's Fort Knox. It's around Fort Knox, Ky.
SUSANThanks for taking my call.
SUSANI had been -- I was actually fortunate to be a friend of Liam Rector, and I did a lot of photography of poets, and I think I photographed Mr. Hirsch and William Maxwell I think many years ago and took the photograph to Mr. Hirsch.
HIRSCHI adored William Maxwell, so thank you so -- thank you so much.
SUSANBut I've been working with soldiers with combat trauma and bringing in poetry. And one of the things that I've been finding is that sometimes there will be something that will hit me so deeply, and of course the soldiers with their trauma, you know, sometimes I'll be hesitant to bring in something so moving to me that sort of resonates with some of the things that I know about what's going on with these soldiers. But I'll be hesitant because I'll be afraid that it might be too much for them. And one of the poems that I was almost hesitant to bring in is a Stephen Crane poem called "In the Desert," which is just a short one.
SUSANMost of the panel may know it, which is Stephen Crane was a journalist and he's well-known. But, you know, he covers a war and he writes about being in the desert and discovering a creature naked and beastly who's squatting on the ground and he's holding his heart in his hands and he's eating of it. And he inquires, he says, is it good, friend? And the man answers it, and he says, it is bitter, bitter he answered, but I like it because it is bitter and because it is my heart. And I brought it into my soldiers and it -- you know, for some people who haven't talked at all, you know, this hits them.
REHMYeah, I can understand that. Edward.
HIRSCHIt's terrific. I mean, because it is bitter and because it is my heart, it's a kind of revelation because you think of the bitterness as something outside, but then it also expresses a kind of emotion that's from inside. I think it's giving -- I mean, you're talking about war poem that's giving a name to something that people might otherwise not have a name for.
REHMLet me read you an email from Margaret in Garland, Texas, who says, "Because poetry is an intimate expression of humanity, I am of the opinion it should not be subjected to the review of literary critics. What do your guests think about that?"
MILLEROh, okay. I agree with that.
REHMYou agree with that. How about you, Carolyn?
FORCHEUnless they happen to like it.
REHMUnless they happen to like it.
HIRSCHI would say there's a point there and there's a point yes and a point no. I mean, yes, it's possible for people. I mean, because of the intimacy, it's possible to feel that people are trampling on something you really care about. And it's possible to write about it and feel that you're not recognizing what the person is writing about. On the other hand, as someone who writes a lot of criticism about poetry, I'll say that sometimes people also need some help.
HIRSCHAnd you could sometimes point to things in a poem that people didn't quite realize that were there and that they could experience the poem more fully. So you don't want a -- you don't want a critic who runs over the poem, but you can bring out things in the poem that people might not notice themselves, but are experienced and therefore appreciate it more fully.
REHMAnd here's an email from William. "Does the panel think that poetry can still serve as a vehicle for political change in an age when poetic technique has been appropriated by advertising and institutionalized in schools?"
MILLERWell, you know, we just had in Washington, you know, the Split This Rock poetry festival that, you know, Sarah Browning organizes here. And you see poets of witness coming together. You see people who are engaged. Many things of us are shaped by many of the issues that are around us. And I like the fact that once again poets are part of the inauguration of our presidents. You know, we're center stage. I wish more poets would run for political office. You know, I think that would change the discussions on Capitol Hill.
MILLERYou know, people always want to talk about prayer. I think we'll have to have a poem before you talk. It's going to be very instructional. But this is a thing I feel, you know, in our society, we always like to separate the poetry from the politics. You know, this is why I respect especially Carolyn, you know, and I was very close to June Jordan, because writers understand their responsibility in this society. They understand the power of the word, especially now in terms of technology.
MILLERYou know, we have to make sure that there are guidelines, like what Ed said, you know, on a serious note, here, we have to uphold traditions. We have to have guidelines. We have to have rules and regulations. Right now, for example, you can go out here and someone will say, okay, oh, my child's writing a poem. No, your child's really expressing themselves, you know. You know how everybody's like, my child has athletic ability. No, he's just kicking the ball.
MILLERYou know, and you have to have teachers. You have to have guides. And you have to uphold traditions because at the end of the day, this is who we are in terms when we look to our poetry, you know, "Amazing Grace," you know what I mean, these things are part of our bone structure.
REHMAll right. To Fayette, Ala. Hi, Michael.
MICHAELGood morning. I'm so glad that you're rested and recuperate, that you had that vacation.
MICHAELMy question comes from the point of view of not -- what are they called? Professional writers such as newspaper editors who may have had English class, English majors in college, but those of us who had visual arts majors. Although I work in many different fields, I love so much drawing in the MGM, Warner Brothers, Disney style that I'm trying to get into the children's book and comic book fields. And one of the things I'm doing is trying to write about everyday stuff, what's in my head, but to write it in meter, not in singsong rhymed verse, but in meter. Is that the best way to learn on your own, because I never took poetry writing classes in college?
HIRSCHI mean, meter is one of the traditional elements of poetry, and I think learning about the meters is, you know, very interesting. I mean, I think if you're thinking about what's the best way to teach yourself poetry, if that's what you're asking for, I think finding poems that you care about, and then trying to imitate them, writing the style of imitating the meters, imitating the rhymes, imitating the way the metaphors work. Ultimately you have to write your own poem, but if you're not going academically, if you're not studying poetry in school, you can put yourself to school on the work of other poets.
HIRSCHI mean, the three of us really learned poetry not from classes exactly. We learned from studying poets. We learned from looking at poets that we loved. We read them. We studied them. We wanted to be like them. And we tried to write like them. I mean, that's how you learn to write poetry.
REHMAnd that's how you learn to write period by...
HIRSCHThat's how you learn anything.
HIRSCHYeah, by reading.
REHMExactly. Here's another email from Brian, who says, "Poetry means so much to me, but my girlfriend prefers nonfiction. She says she doesn't like poetry because it could mean anything depending on the interpretation of the reader. Can your panel recommend a way I could help her follow in love with poetry?"
FORCHERead to her.
REHMI think that's a lovely idea.
FORCHERead to her.
HIRSCHIf she can't respond to a love poem that you're reading to her 'cause you care about her, I'm a little worried about your relationship.
REHMAnd maybe even some of the "Songs of Solomon."
HIRSCHHow about those? Those are so sexy.
REHMI mean, they really, really are when you get right down to it. Let's go to Kirsten in Charlotte, N.C. Hi there.
KIRSTENHi, Diane. How are you today?
REHMI'm just fine. Thank you.
KIRSTENGood. Thank you for your show. I have been a listener for many, many years.
REHMI'm so glad. Thanks.
KIRSTENWhat I wanted to share with you is that I think many parents underestimate the power of poetry when they're teaching their children to read. My mother taught me to read by reading poetry. She had a book that was her go-to that was called "A Thousand Beautiful Things." And the one that sticks out the most was that she would have me read over and over again, was Don Blanding's "Vagabond's House," which for a 5-year-old is -- it's an intense poem. And it was powerful because it taught me more about reading and cadence and words and understanding them.
REHMAnd it clearly stuck with her.
HIRSCHI mean, her point is a very good one. Kid naturally like poetry. They respond to the rhythms. They respond to the music. They like the words. And I think it's a way to introduce them to greater literacy.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Is there another poem you'd like to read for us?
REHMGo ahead, Ethelbert.
MILLERI'll read -- since Ed was giving counseling about love, I will read a love poem.
MILLERAnd what I tell people, I'm trying to reach this combination of (unintelligible) and Smokey Robinson. "A time for love. There are so many minutes after midnight when I think only of your arms, legs, lips and everything else that moves in the dark. I refuse to believe in morning or daybreak. I am jealous of the sun that pulls you away. If only I could have another second with you now, a moment filled with your breath and beauty beneath the covers. Oh, this love that clings to stars and moonlight, this love that shadows me as if I were the earth beneath your heart."
REHMNow, Ethelbert, that has got to be a poem that this young man who wrote has got to read to his girlfriend which I think would capture her magically. I want to read to all of you a poem that was written by a dear, dear, dear friend of mine, E.J. Mudd, wife of Roger Mudd, and she died three years ago. But she wrote this and all of us who loved her and who love her still think of what she knew when she wrote this poem and how it speaks to all of us. It's titled "Old Wives."
REHM"What did we think when we promised to love and cherish those barely known men 'til death did us part and all that? I think what we heard was the first set of terms for richer, for better, in health. Who bothered to look through the mist of tulle at the contrary side of the vows, for poorer, in sickness, for worse? Who ventured a question? How poor? In what sense poor? How sick? Where sick? For how long? For worse? Were there limits to worse? Well, never mind now. After all these years we've seen it from both sides now. The point is that all of us promised we would, and some of us actually did." I love that poem.
HIRSCHIt's a very touching poem. It's a poem of real experience. You know when you're listening to that poem -- first of all, she's parsing the vow in a very interesting way.
HIRSCHBut really it's a poem of -- I'd say a poem of a grown woman, a poem of adulthood, a poem of someone who's lived through quite a lot of experiences.
REHMAnd I do miss my friend, E.J. Thank you all so much for being a part of this program. E. Ethelbert Miller, Carolyn Forche, Edward Hirsch. Your readings were wonderful. Your insights were glorious. Thank you so much.
HIRSCHThank you so much.
REHMAnd thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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