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Edward Hirsch on Poetry as ‘Necessary Speech’

Edward Hirsch is an American poet and critic who's devoted his career to writing poetry and explaining its relevance to a broad reading public, as in this video. His poem 'What the Last Evening Will Be Like' from his 2010 collection The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems, evokes the awe and splendor of final endings and speaks to the pervasive losses of the first year of the coronavirus pandemic.

Click the related article link to read the poem, and a discussion of its relevance to the experience of physicians caring for COVID-19 patients.

JN Learning™ is the home for CME and MOC from the JAMA Network. Search by specialty or US state and earn AMA PRA Category 1 CME Credit™ from articles, audio, Clinical Challenges and more. Learn more about CME/MOC

Transcript

You've said that poetry is a form of necessary speech. Why necessary?

I guess it's sort of being contrasted to a tremendous amount of unnecessary speech, things that aren't important to be said, that don't need to be said. There's a constant kind of buzz of unimportant things around us, but when someone writes a poem, it seems to me that it's because something really needs to be said. Something needs to be inscribed. Something's important to the person that the person wants it to live, and things go by so fast. Our lives are so short. Our attention spans are so short. Sometimes when someone wants to say something that they hope will have a lasting life, it seems necessary to me. And that's why I call it a necessary act of speech.

You've written a book called, you know, How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry.

I think there's an equal urgency for reading them. First of all, there are no writers who aren't readers, and in fact, one of my ideas is that poets are not just people who want to express themselves. Poets are people who've been so moved by what they've read that they want to respond in kind.

Yes.

Emily Dickinson calls them "my kinsmen of the shelf."

Yes.

They're your compadres, even though many of them are not alive. But I had a feeling that many people thought there was something in poetry for them, but they've been put off by the way it had been taught, by its difficulties, by the sort of sense of academic difficulty around it, and they had been turned away from poetry. And I thought that I could try to write a book that would speak to both initiated and uninitiated readers and welcome everyone in a kind of American spirit, welcome everyone into the tent.

Give them a few tools.

Begin with individual poems. I mean, it's called How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry. The idea is you begin with individual poems. And I began with poems that I really cared about.

You begin the in that book with a poem, one of the first poems you read in the basement of your grandparents' house.

A poem that I read when I was eight years old.

Yes, I think, as I remember, you thought your grandfather wrote it, but it was really Emily Bronte.

Yes, exactly. I thought -- I read this poem. For years, it moved me, and my grandfather had just died, and I somehow, in some kind of magical thinking thought he had written it, and it really moved me. It was when I was in high school that I was looking through a textbook and I thought, geez, this --

Grandpa's poem.

I'm like, it's published like my grandfather. Whoops, Emily Bronte. The thing about that is I was right about the poem. I just had the author wrong.

Yes.

But my idea in that book is, and my idea in general is you begin with an individual poem, and if you're moved by a poem, you want to know more about it. And the more you want to know about it, you'll begin to get interested in the devices, the techniques, the genres, and the history.

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