Ten Windows, How Great Poems Transform the World, by Jane Hirshfield

This is a book of literary wisdom. Jane Hirshfield, chancellor of the American Academy of Poets, is our guide through the poems, and the mediator of the wisdom. On every page of steady, lyrical exposition, Hirshfield  supports her claim that great poems expand our vision of life. They tell us things we had not known, reveal who we are, change us into better or at least different people. In our populist day of creative writing–in which everyone can be a poet, and why not?–we have much to gain by returning to the prime examples which give full voice to human life and culture.

Great poems are cultural treasures and artifacts of insight into the mysteries of human nature.  Near the end of the book, Hirshfield declares that poems make us smarter. This is a gateway commentary, packed with insight of Hopkins, Whitman,  Thoreau, Dickinson, Stevens and many others. For example, she gets down close to a four-line poem by Ezra Pound, she takes a thoughtful view at the way poems convey surprise and an informal analytical view at what has gone into the modern American poetic voice.

In poetry, surprise deepens, gathers, and purifies attention as the mind of preconception is stopped, to allow a more acute taking-in. A taxonomy of poetic surprise covers many levels–word, syntax, concept, image, rhetoric, any of these can present us with something unexpected. Disruption of pattern (overt or subtle) can take place in structure, rhythm, approach, meter, or rhyme. Surprise can rest entirely in a poem’s textural surface or in a subtext alone.  p. 188.

The most basic devices of poetic speech are themselves, looked at closely, secret compartments, unnoticed places in which paradoxical expansion is stored. Image, metaphor, simile, allusion, music that departs from the metronomes’  pattness, irony, exaggeration, ellipsis, perspective, distortion, compression, disruption, leap, even list…each in some way slips past the narrow blunting of a relationship to the world that is overly literal.  p. 277

What timbres and qualities of pitch and attitude have we found thus far marking the American voice in poems? Openness, curiosity, permeability, hybridity both of being and of diction. Oddness. Speed. Embrace of contradiction, of vastness, of others as not separate or different than the self. p. 226

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