Sunday, November 14, 2021

Hirsch’s “How to Read a Poem” and Perrine’s “Sound and Sense”: A Comparison

Hirsch’s “How to Read a Poem” and Perrine’s “Sound and Sense”, which are written as “know-how” manuals for reading and enjoying poetry, have both explicit and implicit pedagogical goals. I think not only poetry teachers, students, and aspiring poets but also the general readers of poetry can hugely benefit from these two books for teaching as well us understanding poetry.

To Hirsch, a poem is created, interpreted, and enjoyed in a relationship between the poet, the reader, and the poem. Through the excellent metaphor of “message in a bottle”, Hirsch says that the poets and readers are like “strangers” (3) who communicate “through a text, a body of words” (4) and their “relationship is not “a static entity but as a dynamic unfolding” (5). I think Hirsch’s key pedagogical goal lies in this attitude to poets, poetry, and readers. There is a silent message for the practitioners of poetry, both inside and outside of the classrooms, that a poem, such as a lyric has an enduring appeal because it is read, enjoyed, and deciphered by its readers in different ages and contexts, which give different meanings to it. While teaching poetry, this awareness of the free play of interpretations of poetry will inspire a teacher to invite the students to come forward and participate in the open, multifarious interpretation of a poem. Perrine’s “Sound and Sense” has clearly stated pedagogical goals. The exercise questions he has added after the poems are helpful both for teachers and students in the poetry classroom. But the book also can be self-studied for understanding poetry. Perrine sounds almost similar to Hirsch when he says “They (poets) create significant new experiences for their readers…in which readers can participate and from which they may gain a greater awareness and understanding of their world” (4). Thus, both Hirsch and Perrine focus on the uniqueness of poetry in terms of its relationship to the readers and the language it uses to make meanings. And the way they describe this relationship and also the language of poetry has both explicit and implicit pedagogical lessons for teachers, students and readers of poetry.

Both Hirsch and Perrine suggest some methods for preparing the readers and students for understanding and enjoying poetry. Hirsch does not write anything explicitly on pedagogical methods of poetry. To Hirsch, the reader is the ultimate destination of a poem. But to enjoy a poem, the reader must “crave it” (7) and seek “it out the way hungry people seek food” (7). While teaching poetry, a teacher can work on activating this desire in their students. Moreover, to Hirsch poetry reaches to our innermost self and electrifies our senses by moving “us through the articulations of touch, taste, and scent” (24). I think here lies an implicit message for the teachers of poetry that they not only teach poetry but also work on how to uncover the hidden beauty of a poem. Perrine, on the other hand, suggests some methods for teaching and understanding poetry. He discusses the elements of poetry and also exemplifies the use of these elements in poems followed by exercise questions. These methods can help both teachers and students to be familiar with the content, purpose, and language of poetry in general.

Both Hirsch and Perrine agree on the point that poetry is unique and uses a special kind of language. Though Hirsch does not openly compare poetry with other literary genres, the way he defines poetry makes it a distinctive form of literature that also requires a distinctive pedagogy. Hirsch mostly defines poetry as a soul-making activity, because “it gets so far under the skin, into the skin” (6). Moreover, poetry works on senses and through figurative language like a metaphor. So, teaching poetry requires a special kind of pedagogy that activates spiritual and sensual awareness of reading poetry in readers and introduces them to its special language. To Perrine, poetry is both similar and different from other forms of literature. As a literary piece, poetry is similar to other forms of literature. But what makes poetry distinctive from other forms of literature is its language, because poetry is “the most condensed and concentrated form of literature” (9). Perrine also talks about different poetic devices and techniques which are essential for reading and enjoying poetry.