Poet's Choice by Edward Hirsch

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Merry Christmas everyone! Some of you may recall that earlier this year I decided it was time to explore more short fiction. I have read several anthologies this year, and plan to continue exploring short fiction next year. What you may not remember, however, is that not long before I picked up those anthologies from a local bookstore, I had also picked up several books of poetry. As I don’t have a ton of experience with poetry, I thought I’d start with the most guided of those books: Edward Hirsch’s Poet’s Choice.

Poet's Choice by Edward Hirsch Paperback Photo

Poet's Choice by Edward Hirsch Review

According to the back cover, "Edward Hirsch began writing a column called "Poet’s Choice" in the Washington Post Book World in 2002. This book brings together those enormously popular columns, some of which have been revised and expanded, to present a minicourse in world poetry."

This is a minicourse not in the sense of teaching poetic forms and devices, but in a more appreciative, exploratory sense.  The first half of the book covers international poets, and the second U.S. poets.  Some of the poets lived hundreds or thousands of years ago, and others were Hirsch’s contemporaries and friends. Some wrote in English, and some in other languages. Poems in other languages have been translated into English (translators attributed), sometimes preserving rhyme and rhythm, and sometimes more exactly preserving ideas and emotions instead.

While Hirsch discusses a mixture of joyful, mundane, and sad poetry, I think that the collection overall leans toward grief, angst, and other "negative" emotions. In his notes and acknowledgments, he says, "I began writing the Poet’s Choice column shortly after September 11, 2001, and the impress of that devastating event is heavy on my choices. It was clear from the powerful response of readers to that column that poetry sustains us in hard times." My experience of humanity is that we’re more likely to turn to poetry when we’re sad than when we’re happy. Who has time to read poetry when life is going well? And yet, when life goes poorly, it still goes on just as quickly, usually too quickly.  I can’t always go with it until I’ve fed my soul with verse, Scripture, or some imaginative fiction that gives some sense of meaning or purpose to the mess I live in day in and day out.

Each of the 130 chapters discusses either a specific poet with examples of their work or some sort of theme, like "Christmas Poems" or "Birdsong" with examples from two or more poets. They begin with a few italicized lines, sometimes quotes from the poet being discussed, and sometimes quotes from other poets and authors relating to the poet or theme. There are usually two poems in each chapter, and sometimes partials (a few lines set off within the text with quotes, with slash marks to indicate line breaks).

The bulk of each chapter is Hirsch's reflections on the topic theme or poet, sometimes showing a connection between two or more poems that aren't so obviously connected. Even with these thoughts, most of the chapters are short, a little over two pages. It's easy to blitz through this book, but I recommend slowing down. Read just a chapter or two a day. This book should be slowly savored--like a good poem.

Bottom Line

I thoroughly enjoyed Poet’s Choice. If I were a little more into poetry it would probably get a six-mustache rating (and indeed, maybe someday I’ll reread it and amend my rating), but for now, it’s been a solid five-mustache experience for me. I think it would most benefit people who already know they enjoy poetry and want guidance in finding themes and poets they’ve never explored before, especially non-U.S. or non-English language poets.

Have you read Poet’s Choice? What did you think of it? Are there any other books you'd like me to read and review?
Leave a comment below or my hairless ghost lemur will haunt your dreams.

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