Lauren K. Watel
Ed Hirsch compiled book from his Washington Post columns.

During the three years he wrote an international poetry column for The Washington Post, Ed Hirsch says he had a tremendous response from both poets and general readers from all over the world.

"It was very encouraging to me and led me to believe that poetry has a greater place in the cultural dialogue than we have realized," Hirsch said by phone from Fresno, Calif. (He lives in New York and is president of the Guggenheim Foundation.)

Hirsch has compiled his columns into a wondrous book, "Poet's Choice," which makes a suitable companion volume to his earlier work, "How to Read a Poem (and Fall in Love With Poetry)."

He has also written six volumes of his own poetry, but "Poet's Choice" has short chapters on multiple poets with helpful advice about how to appreciate their work.

It's Hirsch's contention that neither the poet nor the reader necessarily "begins with a deep interest in language, although the more you read poetry, the more sensitive you become to the materiality of language. Language is the medium of the arts. In reading poetry, you must understand that the way it is said is inseparable from what is being said."

Because Hirsch loves the work of international poets, it is often necessary to translate those poems into English. "First of all, translating a poem from one language to another is impossible, but necessary. You have to be sensitive to the original language and to make the poem in the new language. Translating word for word does not work. A poem written in another language is remade into a creative entity in English."

Like many poets writing today, Hirsch believes "poetry ought to be as accessible to as wide an audience as possible, and poetry can find a larger audience — but it's crucial that you don't change the essential nature of poetry. The readers have to know how to go about thinking about poetry; they want a way in. Poetry is an art form and the deepest reading of it is sensitive to the nuances of the art."

As an expert on public education in America, Hirsch believes poetry has not been taught well in schools. "My central impulse is to say poetry belongs to everyone. It's not just for the elite. The art of poetry is more available than you think. Poets are not entirely born with a gift from the Gods. There is a lot that can be learned about the art."

On the other hand, Hirsch thinks a potential poet must also read poetry. "It means study. There is an element of craft involved. If poetry appeared in newspapers rather than in literary magazines, it would change the way people respond to poetry. Poetry enriches people and changes them."

According to Hirsch, "Poets are not necessarily the best interpreters of their own work. People who are not poets who understand the rhythms of language can do a good public reading of poetry. I like to read my own poems aloud and I have a sense of how to make them available to listeners. But I hope the dramatic impact of the poem lives in the words. I don't think I'm a necessary presence to bring them alive."

The "musicality of language" can be evident in the oral dimension of poetry, said Hirsch. But he thinks that every reader of poetry must "pay attention, get out of the cultural din around us and turn off the TV set. After that it may be possible to learn more about metaphor and the strategic devices of poetry as an art form. Sitting down and reading it is the most essential step. The nature of poetry is that words communicate before they are understood."

Hirsch expressed a special love of both Latin American and Russian poetry, but the American poet, Walt Whitman "has defined for me the notion of what poetry is. Whitman is a recurrent touch stone for me."

While much poetry is written during times of war, Hirsch believes that poems written today about the Iraq War "are important on a journalistic level. The most important poems about the Iraq War will be written by returning veterans of that war, those who experienced war firsthand."

Yet Hirsch is also convinced that poetry "is responsive to peace, war, love and other deep subjects, but it can also be responsive to everyday life. A poet can illustrate how everyday life is charged with meaning. Hirsch chuckled about a poem he included in his book called "Old Men Playing Basketball," by B.H. Fairchild.

But Hirsch has written one of his own, "Fast Break," which includes the lines, "A hook shot kisses the rim and hangs there, helplessly, but doesn't drop and for once our gangly starting center boxes out his man and times his jump perfectly, gathering the orange leather from the air like a cherished possession."

"You can see," Hirsch said, "the way a poem about a bunch of guys playing pick up basketball can be charged with meaning."