To this day, most of the poems I have memorized are found in the pages of Williams. It’s because I got into the habit of memorizing lines from Shakespeare, Wordsworth and others as fun during my morning walk to school. For the younger self, poetry represented aural enchantment, eliciting what Yeats once called, in “An Irish Airman Plans His Death”, “a lonely impulse of pleasure”. But then, at university, I discovered three works of criticism, all written by remarkable poets, which taught me to delve into verse: “Seven Types of Ambiguity” by William Empson, “ABC of Reading” by ‘Ezra Pound and “Poetry and the Age. All three are as witty as they are uplifting.
In their different ways, Edward Hirsch’s “The Heart of American Poetry” and Brad Leithauser’s “Rhyme’s Rooms: The Architecture of Poetry” belong to my trio of mid-20th century critical touchstones. The two distinguished authors – Hirsch directs the Guggenheim Foundation, Leithauser teaches at Johns Hopkins, both are award-winning poets and MacArthur Fellows – have distilled years of thought into their respective books. Each deserves and rewards careful and patient attention. As Leithauser says, to appreciate poetry, a reader’s first task should always be to “slow down.” This is also true of poetic criticism of this quality.
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Hirsch’s substantial volume graces the full gamut of American verse, from Anne Bradstreet and Phillis Wheatley to Louise Gluck, Garrett Hongo and Joy Harjo. He reprints works – 40 of them – as varied as “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, “Sunday Morning” by Wallace Stevens, “Harlem” by Langston Hughes and “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath, then adds to each a short essay combining autobiography and explanation. with up-to-date commentary on how each poem expresses the ideals, contradictions, or failures of what we call, sometimes facetiously, the American Dream. Needless to say, it’s too often a postponed dream.
Written over the past three years of pandemic and political upheaval, this history-focused anthology reminds us that poets do more than boast about daffodils or sigh on lips that are for others. They are also disruptors of peace, regularly adding their voices to civic debates on race, women’s rights, gender identity, nationalism, immigration, class and religious intolerance. Hirsch’s selections are not all unquestionably “excellent”, but they are memorable, provocative and diverse, and clearly intended to expand the traditional canon, as in the inclusion of musician Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues (Take 2)”. . At the same time, the rather endearing Hirsch often kicks off his thoughts by confessing upfront, “I like this poem,” followed by a reasoned explanation of why. In a thorough and unbiased essay, he traces the process of cultural transmission – not cultural appropriation – in which an 8th-century Chinese poem is glossed over by a Japanese scholar, whose notes are then interpreted by an art historian. American, whose work consequently inspires Ezra. Pound to compose “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”, the most beloved of the “translations” of this poet’s groundbreaking “Cathay” collection. When later Hirsch writes about “More Light! More Light! his analysis of this harrowing, Holocaust-influenced masterpiece is demanding, emotionally charged, and beyond praise.
Yet Hirsch never strays from the bustling intersection of poetry and contemporary American culture. In a very broad sense, it emphasizes the message of a poem while Leithauser’s “Rhyme’s Rooms” focuses on its music and mechanics. Poetry, after all, as Housman argued, “is not the thing said but a way of saying it”. That said, Leithauser’s chapters cover seemingly innocuous topics like iambic pentameter, iambic tetrameter, stanza, enjambment, rhyme, and puns.
Rarely, however, has a guide to prosody been so lively, so fun to read, with deeply informed insights laced with understated humor. For example, to illustrate the basic form of rhyme in English, Leithauser offers these not-so-innocent examples: “slick/trick, book/crook, dump/trump”. Elsewhere he points out that “most rhyme schemes require that associated sounds be separated by no more than thirty syllables”. I had never thought about it.
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But above all, this exceptional the teacher reminds us that no matter how emotional heart cry, calculation underlies the poet’s ecstasy. Pattern, structure, repetition, rhythm, meter, diction – these elements transmute familiar and often mundane feelings about the sweet old song of love or the wonders of nature into heartbreaking art. For example, Leithauser hesitantly chooses “The Song of Wandering Aengus”, Yeats’ ballad about love found, lost and still longed for, as the most beautiful poem in English. Could a theme be more hackneyed? Yet every word of this Irish verse fairy tale is perfectly chosen and perfectly placed, creating ethereal verbal music that culminates in the last two lines: “The silver apples of the moon, / The golden apples of the sun “.
Whereas the public mind Hirsch tends to view poets as the world’s unacknowledged legislators (Shelley’s expression), Leithauser – only half playfully – recognizes that the fate of a poet, like that of a Gilbert policeman and Sullivan, is not happy: “There is no potential reward for the eternally penniless modern poet, other than his rarefied idea that someone somewhere one day at some time in one place might examine his words with some of the care invested in them.
Like the boisterous Walt Whitman, “The Heart of American Poetry” is big and contains multitudes, part of “Song of Myself” and the celebration of the 4th of July. By contrast, Leithauser’s witty “Rhyme’s Rooms: The Architecture of Poetry” describes the struts and beams, the iron armature, necessary to create even the most airy lyrics. Each book, in its own way, is a book of revelations.
Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.
The Heart of American Poetry
Library of America. 480 pages. $26
The architecture of poetry
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