How to Read a Poem

Question: For someone who might not be familiar with the genre, what is the best way to read a poem?

Edward Hirsch:    Double Take Magazine once printed a little pamphlet in which I listed ten different things that you should do.  I can’t remember all of them, but the first one was turn off the television set.  I don’t think you can read poetry while you're watching television very well. 

The idea of how to read a poem is based on the idea that poetry needs you as a reader.  That the experience of poetry, the meaning in poetry is a kind of circuit that takes place between a poet, a poem and a reader and that meaning doesn’t exist or in here in poems alone.  That readers bring their own experiences, their own range of - their own wisdom, their own knowledge, their own insights to poem and the meaning of a poem takes place in the negotiation between the poet, the poem and the reader.  And that as a reader you have a task to do, you have something to do.  You bring your experience to it.  It’s not all inherit in the poem.

The great post-Holocaust poet, Paul Celan, said that a poem is a message in a bottle sent out in the not always greatly hopeful belief that somewhere and some time it would wash up on land on heartland perhaps.  The idea of a poem as a message in a bottle means that it’s sent out towards some future reader and the reader who opens that bottle becomes the addressee of the literary text.  Celan was picking up something that the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam had written in 1916 called On the Addressee.  And Mandelstam says a poet - you go down to the shore and you see an unlikely looking from a bottle from the past, you open it.  Mandelstam says, “It’s okay to do so.  I’m not reading someone else’s mail.  It was addressed to whoever found it.  I found it, therefore it’s addressed to me.”  And that when you find it you become the secret addressee of a literary text and I felt that their reader had been left out of this experience of reading poetry or what the experience of poetry was.

And so, my focus is on the reader and that the poet’s job is not to inspire himself or herself.  The poet’s job is to inspire some future reader.  And so, as a reader you have a task to do in finding those bottles and opening up the messages and experiencing what's in them inside of yourself. 

Question: How do you create that connection with your reader?

Edward Hirsch:  I think that’s a connection that you can only hope for.  It’s not something that you can make because it needs someone else.  I find in Walt Whitman and in American tradition a certain kind of, I would say, desperate American friendliness in which the poet tries to reach out through the page to make a connection by the side of the road with some other person.  But, ultimately that’s a longing, not a completion, that has to be made by other readers.  You can seek clarity, you can seek warmth, you can try to make something for lasting.  You can pack something in salt so that it’s well made and you can hope that it outlasts time.  But, ultimately that’s not up to you.  Ultimately you’re trying to reach across and find some other person, some other human warmth.  But it is, especially in written poetry, it is inscribed in a text and the text can’t do that work by itself and you as a poet can only do your best.

Recorded on February 4, 2010

More than anything, it’s a genre that relies on its readers.

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Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

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Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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