How to Read a Poem
PostedMay 24, 2000
Read these poems to yourself in the middle of the night. Turn on a single lamp and read them while you're alone in an otherwise dark room or while someone else sleeps next to you. Read them when you're wide awake in the early morning, fully alert. Say them over to yourself in a place where silence reigns and the din of the culture—the constant buzzing noise that surrounds us—has momentarily stopped. These poems have come from a great distance to find you. I think of Malebranche's maxim, "Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul." This maxim, beloved by Simone Weil and Paul Celan, quoted by Walter Benjamin in his magisterial essay on Franz Kafka, can stand as a writer's credo. It also serves for readers. Celan wrote:
A poem, as a manifestation of language and thus essentially
dialogue, can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the (not
always greatly hopeful) belief that somewhere and
sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps.
Poems in this sense are under way: they are making