The summer before I started high school I happened upon a little paperback titled “Immortal Poems of the English Language,” edited by Oscar Williams. At the time, I had — barring nursery rhymes — never read any poetry at all. But while browsing through a rack of books in a downtown store that mainly sold pens and stationery, I noticed Williams’s anthology, picked it up on a whim, and fatedly opened to A.E. Housman’s “When I was One-and-Twenty.” Wonder-struck by this wistful lyric, I read it three times, then shelled out 75 cents for the book — which I still have, now held together by rubber bands.
To this day, most of the poems I’ve learned by heart can be found in Williams’s pages. This is because it became my habit to memorize lines from Shakespeare, Wordsworth and others as an amusement during my morning walk to school. For the young me, poetry stood for aural enchantment, eliciting what Yeats once called, in “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death,” “a lonely impulse of delight.” But then in college, I discovered three works of criticism, all by remarkable poets, that taught me to look at verse more deeply: William Empson’s “Seven Types of Ambiguity,” Ezra Pound’s “ABC of Reading” and Randall Jarrell’s “Poetry and the Age.” All three are, moreover, as witty as they are eye-opening.
In their differing ways, Edward Hirsch’s “The Heart of American Poetry” and Brad Leithauser’s “Rhyme’s Rooms: The Architecture of Poetry” belong with my trio of mid 20th-century critical touchstones. The two distinguished authors — Hirsch heads 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, close, patient attention. As Leithauser says, to enjoy poetry a reader’s first order of business should always be to “Slow down.” That’s also true of poetry criticism of this quality.
Hirsch’s substantial volume honors the whole range 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 Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus,” Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning,” Langston Hughes’s “Harlem” and Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” then to each appends a short essay that mixes autobiography and explication 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 is all too often a dream deferred.
Written during the past three years of pandemic and political upheaval, this history-focused anthology reminds us that poets do more than extol daffodils or sigh over lips that are for others. They are also disturbers of the peace, regularly adding their voices to civic debates about race, women’s rights, sexual identity, nationalism, immigration, class and religious intolerance. Hirsch’s selections aren’t all inarguably “great,” but they are memorable, provocative and diverse, and clearly intended to enlarge the traditional canon, as in the inclusion of musician Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues (Take 2).” At the same time, Hirsch — rather endearingly — often launches his reflections by confessing straight out, “I love this poem,” followed by a reasoned explanation of why. In one careful, evenhanded essay, he traces the process of cultural transmission — not cultural appropriation — in which an eighth-century Chinese poem is glossed by a Japanese scholar, whose notes are then interpreted by an American art historian, whose work consequently inspires Ezra Pound to compose “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” the most beloved of the “translations” in that poet’s groundbreaking collection “Cathay.” When later Hirsch writes about Anthony Hecht’s “More Light! More Light!,” his analysis of that harrowing, Holocaust-inflected masterpiece is exacting, emotionally charged, and beyond praise.
Still, Hirsch never wanders far from the busy intersection of poetry and contemporary American culture. In a very broad sense, he emphasizes a poem’s message while Leithauser’s “Rhyme’s Rooms” concentrates on its music and mechanics. Poetry, after all, as Housman contended, “is not the thing said but a way of saying it.” This being so, Leithauser’s chapters cover such seemingly ho-hum subjects as iambic pentameter, iambic tetrameter, the stanza, enjambment, rhyming and wordplay.
Seldom, though, has a guidebook to prosody ever been so sprightly, so much fun to read, with deeply knowledgeable insights gingered throughout with low-keyed humor. For instance, to illustrate the basic form of rhyme in English, Leithauser proffers these not so innocent examples: “slick/trick, book/crook, dump/trump.” Elsewhere, he points out that “most rhyme schemes require partnered sounds to fall no more than thirty syllables apart.” I’d never thought of that.
Above all, though, this outstanding teacher reminds us that no matter how emotional the cri de coeur, calculation underlies the poet’s ecstasy. Pattern, structure, repetition, rhythm, meter, diction — these transmute familiar, often banal sentiments about love’s old sweet song or Nature’s wonders into heartbreaking art. For example, Leithauser hesitantly picks “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” Yeats’s ballad about love found, lost and ever after longed for, as the most beautiful poem in English. Could any theme be more hackneyed? Yet every word of this Irish fairy tale in verse is perfectly chosen and perfectly placed, creating an ethereal verbal music that peaks in the last two lines: “The silver apples of the moon,/ The golden apples of the sun.”
While the public-spirited Hirsch tends to view poets as the unacknowledged legislators of the world (Shelley’s phrase), Leithauser — only half playfully — acknowledges that a poet’s lot, like that of a Gilbert and Sullivan policeman, is not a happy one: “There is no potential payout to the perennially penniless modern poet, other than his rarefied inkling that someone somewhere someday at some point in some place might look over his words with something of the care invested in them.”
Like rumbustious Walt Whitman, “The Heart of American Poetry” is large and contains multitudes, being part “Song of Myself” and part July Fourth celebration. By contrast, Leithauser’s witty “Rhyme’s Rooms: The Architecture of Poetry” blueprints the struts and girders, the iron armature, needed to create even the airiest lyric. Each book, in its own way, is a book of revelations.
Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.
The Heart of American Poetry
By Edward Hirsch
Library of America. 480 pp. $26
The Architecture of Poetry
By Brad Leithauser
Knopf. 368 pp. $30
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