At the end of his introduction to The Heart of American Poetry, Edward Hirsch says,
It may sound strange to say so, but I have found it heartening to write this book about American poetry at a disheartening time in our republic, a time of broken promises. These poems hold us to a standard and remind us of the sacredness of the individual life, the single testamentary. I believe they offer us a healthy antidote, or perhaps forty fiery antidotes, to the moment of our malaise...American poetry is one of the underutilized resources of American culture, and these lyrics are an incitement to our best selves, a gift to the republic.This paragraph made me stop and think of moments when poetry was the exact salve I needed for an ailment of the soul. I think about how much Amanda Gorman's poem "The Hill We Climb" meant to me and millions of others, as she recited it at the Biden Inauguration, for example.
The other day I was listening to the radio and an old Bob Dylan song, "Blowin' In the Wind," came on and for some reason the lyrics hit me harder than ever before, especially the third verse: And how many ears must one man have/ Before he can hear people cry? Just that day I'd read Joy Harjo's poem, the last in this collection, "Rabbit Is Up to Tricks". In it rabbit, a stand-in for a creation creature, is bored so he makes a man out of clay and urges the man to do naughty things like steal from others, and man decides he wants it all and no longer wants to share. Rabbit then tries to get the clay man to stop. "But when the clay man wouldn't listen / Rabbit realized he'd made a clay man with no ears." After reading this poem, Hirsch tells his reader, it is impossible not to picture the "mutilated American figure, the embodiment of our dominant culture, 'a clay man with no ears.'" But he goes on to say that poetry can speak to us so we can experience the grief and pain of others when we put on our ears and listen.
That is what poetry does for me. It speaks without sermonizing. It teaches without tests. It touches my heart and makes me want to be a better person.
I highly recommend The Heart of American Poetry, though I confess that it often felt like I was reading a textbook, a good textbook but one nonetheless. I appreciate Edward Hirsch for tackling such a monumental task and narrowing it down into a portions that can be consumed by beginning/intermediate poetry readers like myself.
At 470+ pages this book qualifies for the Big Book Summer Challenge.