[This week–a #TBT throwback Thursday that has not been printed on the blog before. In 2003 I was teaching British Literature and serving as Dean of Faculty at Asheville School in Western, NC. The piece below the brackets appeared in the Monday, October 20, 2003 Asheville Citizen-Times as the guest commentary. The headline, which I did not write, was, “Poetry can reveal to us insights that no other form of communication can.” It came back to mind for me yesterday as I am working on my own poetry at the Rivendell Writers’ Colony this week over Spring Break. It snowed a bit early Monday morning, making my morning walk around this place even more beautiful than usual. I wrote about it last year when I visited HERE. Unfortunately, despite its remarkable success over the years of its operation, it is closing at the end of this month–the owner of the property has some ideas about how to make better use of it. I can’t think of one–neither can the large number of writers around the region and indeed the country who have benefitted from being here. It has become a remarkable hub of connection for writers of various genre who so often work in isolation. Selfishly, I will miss it. The photographs come from Brinkwood, next door to Rivendell and formerly the Sewanee home of the Percy family where Walker Percy spent a great deal of time–it is now, at least until the end of the month, connected to the Rivendell Writers’ Colony. I included Brinkwood as part of my walk yesterday.]
From 2003 (please don’t go looking for Edward Hirsh at UNCA tonight!):
In sonnet 73, Shakespeare asks us to look out into autumn, a particular moment in autumn, mind you, in order to see inside the heart of his speaker—a neat trick, particularly in iambic pentameter.
Soon my students and I will focus our attention on Sonnet 73. We have to wait for just the right day, and unfortunately for an English teacher trying to work with some sort of course plan, I cannot identify that day until it arrives on the lawn, buried in an assortment of leaves. The timing must be perfect. The speaker begins matter-of-factly: “That time of year thou mayst in me behold,/ When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang/ Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,/Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.”
Among the many reasons I love Sonnet 73 is that I remember reading it at different stages in my life. Indeed, we must bring the context of our own lives to poems we read: we cannot avoid it. Edward Hirsh, who will be speaking about poetry and reading his own poetry tonight at 8:00 p.m. in Lipinsky Auditorium on the campus of UNCA, notes in his bestselling book How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry that, “reading poetry is an act of reciprocity,” meaning the relationship of poet and reader is, “a highly concentrated and passionate exchange… .” Just as Shakespeare uses this “exchange” to challenge us to look outside to the natural world in order to see inside his speaker, so too does great poetry challenge us to look out into the world in order to see inside ourselves or, perhaps even better, inside something greater than ourselves. The truth is both simple and profound: I am different than I was when I first encountered these fourteen lines; however, the lines will be the same as “long as men can breathe or eyes can see” (Sonnet 18).
Hirsch argues that “perhaps poetry exists because it carries necessary information that cannot be communicated in any other way.” Here, Hirsch makes a statement not only about the relevance of poetry, but more importantly, about the necessity of poetry—it can reveal what no other form of communication can. To place this statement in the context of our sonnet, we understand some things about the speaker in Sonnet 73 that we cannot come to understand about another human being in any other way, or even more notable, we can understand something about ourselves or others that we could not apprehend without this poem.
As a complement to Hirsch’s book and visit to Asheville, Rick Chess, Literature Professor at UNCA and recipient of the 2002 North Carolina Board of Governors Award for Teaching Excellence, has been leading a reading and discussion series at the West Asheville Library for the last two Tuesdays. The group will meet two times after Hirsch’s visit as well. Chess, a fine poet himself, expertly guides discussions of poems, including a number by Hirsch. The idea that poetry can provide us a kind of insight that no other means of communication can is often at the heart of the discussion of an individual poem. Hirsch quotes Percy Shelley to make a similar point; Shelley states in his Defense of Poetry that the language of poetry “is vitally metaphorical; that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things and perpetuates their apprehension.” In my course, Sonnet 73 will provide an apt platform upon which my students can discover that truth for themselves.
One day (many years into the future, I hope), in a moment as brief as late Fall, I will be the perfect speaker for Sonnet 73. I will be the embodiment of autumn, and my students might just see “that time of year…in me”—but not yet. Hirsch reminds all of us that the poem will forever be what Osip Mandelstam calls “the message in the bottle,” waiting to provide the solace of sound and meaning even when “that time of year” is beheld in us.
I hope you will take time out from the hectic daily schedules that hold us to hear Hirsch speak and read this evening. By the way, you can find all of Shakespeare’s sonnets, including the rest of Sonnet 73, at http://www.ludweb.com/poetry/sonnets/.