"Exchanging Signals with the Planet Mars":
Reading as Relationship

Edward Hirsch

“Exchanging signals with the planet Mars,” the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam suggested in 1913, “is a task worthy of a lyric poet.” It is also a task worthy of the reader of lyric poetry. One might say that the poet and the reader of poetry are bound together by a mutual relationship, by a necessary compact, by the ways in which they employ lyric poetry itself to exchange just such dizzying signals, such urgent and disturbing messages, some of them social and historical, some strange and otherworldly. Poetry is a highly concentrated verbal medium, a form of imaginative thinking, a type of rapid acceleration in language, and the words of the poem are a means of connection, a chosen method of transport. They are an act of attention that, in essence, estranges reality and returns us to the world deepened and renewed. The poet who tries to exchange signals with the planet Mars, however eccentric, does so on behalf of a distant reader who in turn infuses them with felt life. Poetry exists to initiate and create, to deliver and provide, the poetic experience to that reader.
      In his wonderfully suggestive little piece entitled “On the Addressee,” published in the second issue of the journal Apollon, Mandelstam spoke of the mutual relationship—the contractual agreement—that obtains between the poet and the reader, the writer and the hidden addressee of the literary text. “Why shouldn’t the poet turn to his friends, to those who are naturally close to him?” Mandelstam asked. But those who are especially close to the poet don’t seem to be those who surround him in daily life, which has its own practical imperatives and utilitarian ends. They aren’t the ones who surround her in ordinary discourse. On the contrary: the most intimate friend of all, oddly enough, seems to be somewhere else entirely, someone the poet has never actually met, a remote stranger, a “providential addressee,” what the nineteenth-century Russian poet Baratynsky called “my distant heir” and “a reader in posterity.” Mandelstam writes:

           At a critical moment, a seafarer tosses a sealed bottle into the ocean waves,
           containing his name and a message detailing his fate. Wandering along the
           dunes many years later, I happen upon it in the sand. I read the message,
           note the date, the last will and testament of one who has passed on. I have
           the right to do so. I have not opened someone else’s mail. The message in
           the bottle was addressed to its finder. I found it. That means I have become
           its secret addressee.

As a reader I am overwhelmed by a sense of providence when I discover an uncanny message in a bottle, when I encounter a poem of ruthless authenticity, the one that speaks to no one in particular, and therefore seems unexpectedly addressed to me. The discovery has the element of freedom, the fresh air of surprise, of speaking from the unknown into the unknown. It is a gift from a human beyond, but one that the reader, in turn, daydreams into existence and expands with thought, blooding with experience, gifting with intimate life. The poem, like a message in a bottle, comes from an enormous distance and only survives because a curious reader in a study, or a browser in a bookstore, or a student in a library, who is like an unsuspecting wanderer on a shoreline, finds and revivifies it. Poetry thrives in the electricity of this connection.
      The German-speaking poet Paul Celan was strongly influenced by Mandelstam’s key notion that “though individual poems, such as epistles and dedications, may be addressed to concrete persons, poetry as a whole is always directed toward a more or less distant, unknown addressee.” There is something secretive in it. Poetry may posit a transcendence, but it always does so with a human horizon, since, however uncertainly, and sometimes with little hope, the writer nonetheless also posits a future reader—a distant heir—as surely as a speaker implies a listener.
      In his ground-breaking 1958 speech on receiving the literature prize from the city of Breman, Celan suggested that a poem may claim the infinite but it always does so by reaching through time, “not above and beyond it.” He was echoing Mandelstam—and, indeed, keeping the Russian poet firmly in memory, when he declared:

           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 be washed up on land, on heartland
           perhaps. Poems in this sense too are underway: they are making toward

The poem is en route, Celan suggests, sometimes for centuries, and longs for a hearing; it survives by moving “toward something open, inhabitable, an approachable you, perhaps, an approachable reality.” John Felstiner notes in his excellent book on Celan that under the cover of the word “perhaps” Celan definitely intended “a poem to seek and even regenerate its hearer.” It has a spiritual task. But that project, a particular form of opening, can only be fulfilled in the connection through words, in going with our very being to language, as Celan might articulate it. “The poem is lonely,” he says, and it breathes—it inhales and exhales—“in a mystery of encounter.
      The dynamic between the writer and the reader is what Martin Buber characterizes in I and Thou as a greeting of human spirits. “In the beginning is the relation,” Buber suggests. The relation precedes the Word because it is authored by the human. Or as Rilke put it in a 1923 letter to Isle Jahr: “instead of possession one learns relationship” (“statt des Besitzes lernt man den Bezug”). Rilke, Mandelstam, and Celan all teach us that lyric poetry can only exist in dialogue, in just such a human form of greeting and recognition, in relationship. Poetry is a non-utilitarian form of knowledge that teaches us to move beyond the literal and think metaphorically (Robert Frost considered it a form of education by metaphor). It is a species of play that is spiritually dependent upon the dynamic relationship that exists—that can only exist—between two unknowns, the writer and the reader. That’s why Marina Tsvetaeva, the most lyrical of modern Russian poets, suggested that “reading is complicity in the creative process.” (Joseph Brodsky points out in a fine essay on Tsvetaeva’s prose that this is not something that Tolstoy ever would have thought or said.) And Paul Valéry, the most theoretical of French poets, argued in his rigorous piece “Poetry and Abstract Thought”:

           A poet’s function—do not be startled by this remark—is not to experience
           the poetic state: that is a private affair. His function is to create it in others.
           The poet is recognized—or at least everyone recognizes his own poet—by
           the simple fact that he causes his reader to become “inspired.”

      Reading poetry gives one the visceral shock of an encounter with someone else’s words, which have been crafted into being. The encounter may be anticipated but always retains an element of wonder, of the unexpected, the unforeseen. It shivers with the freshness of mystery. In an insightful lecture called “Articulating the Spirit: Poetry, Community, and the Metaphysical Shortwave,” David Bottoms somewhat mystically calls poetry “the literary genre that points most willingly to the veiled significance behind the physical world.” These secrets unfold, he suggests, in the particular intimacy generated between individual writers and readers, which largely depends upon figurative expression, metaphorical thinking.
      Like most poets, who are first of all readers—and I believe that the majority of writers are essentially readers who have spilled over—I feel as if these crucial encounters with poems have given me access to my own interior life, and thus delivered me to myself. They have taken me to extraordinary places where I otherwise never would have traveled, which I nonetheless recognize once I have arrived. They have rescued me from a state of what the psychoanalyst George Groddeck strikingly calls “inner muteness.”
      In a brilliant essay about language, Groddeck writes:

           Man’s most personal thought is speechless, subterranean, unconscious, and
           the struggle of the creative forces with mute nature constitutes man’s
           innermost life. The inner muteness is the real human personality whether one
           chooses to call it soul or spirit or anything else. It is common to us all, the
           common factor, the basic human entity. Yet creative ability is a human
           being’s most valuable gift.

Creative ability in general—and creative ability manifested through language in particular—has the capacity to deliver us from an abyss of silence, from inchoate thought and feeling, and thus bring us into consciousness.
      Poetry urges us to question the familiar world, the one we receive almost without thinking, and to reexamine the nature of reality itself. I very much appreciate what Umberto Eco says about the poets in his philosophical investigation Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition: “the discourse of the Poets does not replace our questioning of being but sustains and encourages it,” he reports,

           It tells us that precisely by destroying our consolidated certainties, by
           reminding us to consider things from an unusual point of view, by inviting us
           to submit to the encounter with the concrete and to the impact with an
           individual in which the fragile framework of our universals crumbles.
           Through this continuous reinvention of language, the Poets are inviting us to
           take up again the task of questioning and reconstructing the World and of
           the horizon of the entities in which we calmly and continuously thought we
           lived, without anxieties, without reservations, without any further
           reappearance . . . of curious facts that cannot be ascribed to known laws.

      Reading literature in general and poetry in particular has been such a formative and defining experience for me that I’ve always treasured poems that take reading as their ostensible subject and treat it with the intensity it deserves. For example, there is a two-line poem by the eleventh-century vizier, Ibn ‘Ammar of Silves, that fills me with a sudden sense of liberation whenever I think of it . The poem is simply called “Reading” and I discovered it at the head of an anthology of lyrics from Arab Andalusia:


           My eye frees what the page imprisons:
           the white the white and the black the black.

      The feeling of liberation that comes with freeing the words from the page and letting them fly around inside you puts me in mind of six poems about reading by C. K. Williams, which appear in his book Flesh and Blood (1987). Each one is structured as an urban parable. Each takes the general idea of reading and yokes it to a specific story: a man fixing a flat tire in bitterly cold weather suddenly stops to read a newspaper in the trunk of his car, or a cop who usually stands in the hallway with a “menacingly vacant expression” gets completely absorbed by a political pamphlet. There’s a voyeuristic element to these rapid, notational, ethnographic poems, a sense of invasive scrutiny, as if the poet had discovered a person doing something almost illicit—something intensely private—in a public setting.
      Here he trains his gaze on a woman reading on a bus. A kind of secret complicity arises between the woman who is so intently lost in her book and the narrator who is watching her with an equal intensity, perhaps even “reading” her expressions. Like a sonnet, the poem turns in the second half when the woman suddenly begins to feel the speaker thinking about her, and the watcher becomes the one secretly noticed, watched, and, finally, even engaged.

                               Reading: The Bus

As she reads, she rolls something around in her mouth, hard candy it must be,
           from how long it lasts.
She’s short, roundish, gray-haired, pleasantly pugnacious-looking, like Grace
           Paley, and her book,
Paint Good and Fast, must be fascinating: she hasn’t lifted her eyes since
           Thirty-Fourth Street,
even when sthe corner of a page sticks so that she has to pause a bit to lick
           her index finger . . .
No, now she does, she must have felt me thinking about her: she blinks,
           squints out the window,
violently arches her eyebrows as though what she’d just read had really
           to be nailed down,
and, stretching, she unzips a pocket of her blue backpack, rummages
           through it, and comes out with,
yes, hard candy, red and white, a little sackful, one of which she offers
           with a smile to me.

      By contrast, Wallace Stevens’s “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm” has a spacious privacy. It takes up the experience—the true plenitude—of being alone and reading late on a summer night. I think of this lyric from Transport to Summer (1947) as a work of tremendous spiritual poise and attainment that locates and focuses—that truly accesses—the transaction between the reader, the book, the house, the night, and the world.

           The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm

           The house was quiet and the world was calm.
           The reader became the book; and summer night

           Was like the conscious being of the book.
           The house was quiet and the world was calm.

           The words were spoken as if there was no book,
           Except that the reader leaned above the page,

           Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
           The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

           The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
           The house was quiet because it had to be.

           The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
           The access of perfection to the page.

           And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
           In which there is no other meaning, itself

           Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
           Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

      Stevens’s poem is so fulfilling because it enacts the texture and feeling of the experience of reading late into the night. It is not a report but a dramatic realization in the form of a meditative lyric, a poem that moves on the wings of eight stately two-line stanzas. At one moment, for example, the words seem to come to the fictive reader unmediated by the printed letters on the page, by the actual physical object of the book itself (“the words were spoken as if there was no book”), and he merges with his chosen text (“the reader became the book”). At another moment, however, he feels himself distanced and hovering over the very same book (“the reader leaned above the page”). Reading is re-created here as a bodily activity as well as a mental action. It is a quest, a desire aroused and fulfilled.
      I’m struck by the way that all the terms algebraically line up in the poem: the reader, the book, the house, the night, the world. The poem establishes a correspondence between the inner realm of the house and the outer one of the cosmos. It’s as if the quietness of the dwelling rhymes with the calmness of the universe on a summer night. The proposition is twofold: the house was quiet and the world was calm. Daily life, the daylight world itself, is suppressed. The poem takes place at night in order to establish a scene of autonomous solitude. No one else seems to be stirring nearby. The world sleeps, and the reader is alone with his book. So, too, this must be a summer night because summer is the season of plenitude and fulfillment. The reader in Stevens’s poem is a poetic quester, a pilgrim in search of a vivid transparence. He wants to transform himself into “the scholar to whom his book is true.” That desire in turn leads to an even greater one, since this scholar wants to be the one “to whom / The summer night is like a perfection of thought.” He seeks an utter realization of mind and, indeed, the phrase “a perfection of thought” puts one in the range, in the unlimited mental space—the cosmos—of the divine.
      So, too, the unnamed book that the reader studies becomes the emblem of his spiritual meditation. It’s as if through the contemplative act—the act of the mind in the process of finding what will suffice—the scholar and the book merge with the night in order to become the form of its true substantiation. The silence itself—of the house, of the mind—makes possible “the access of perfection to the page.” There is a kind of poetic crossing here. Reading itself becomes a mystic activity as the poem enacts its own ultimately satisfying transport to summer.
      “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm” gives us access through a third-person center of consciousness to a reader’s mind in a state of complete receptivity. It moves into a part of the mind that often seems unavailable to us, that is not antagonized. It dramatizes and re-creates that consciousness and thus provides us with the deepest form of mental nourishment. This is a poem of the spirit because it triggers a vital principle within the poem, which is part of its meaning. One might even speculate that the poem itself is only fully realized when the reader of Wallace Stevens’s poem becomes exactly like the reader within his poem, finding an access to wholeness or perfection, leaning late and reading there.
      Reading poetry is an act of reciprocity and one of the ethical tasks of the lyric is to bring us into right relationship to each other. The relationship between the writer and the reader is by definition removed and mediated through a text, a body of words. It is a particular kind of exchange between two people not physically present to each other. This is as true for the encounter with contemporary poetry as it is with poetry of the past. It is equally true for the American readers of, say, Five Points as it was for the Russian readers of Apollon, or the German listeners in Bremen, who might well have gone home from Celan’s accessible acceptance speech only to encounter (or re-read) his difficult, harrowing poems, which are so much more linguistically challenging, so filled with verbal ghosts and ghostly hauntings, so driven by the need for what he elsewhere calls “desperate conversation.” There is always a disjunction—a separation—between the writer and the reader, and this distance makes possible a certain kind of intensive (and interior) literary encounter.
      Yet it is this experience itself that seems to have come under threat in our time. One thinks of our alarming illiteracy rates, which keep climbing, and the tremendous success—the noisy encroachments—of our superficial, media-driven, celebrity culture that routinely debases language and has so often seemed uncomfortable, especially in the 1990s, with true depths of feeling. A lot of mass culture seems to operate so as to keep us from even having our own complex thoughts, our own divided feelings. Poetry after all teaches us that it is possible to have two opposing thoughts at once, which our master cultural narratives seem to deny. It is as if the culture itself had “lost sight of poetry’s private pleasures and of its public powers,” as Robert Scholes puts it in his recent book The Crafty Reader.
      There has also been a deepening interest in poetry in the past few years, which has reached a new level of intensity ever since the September 11th attacks. It has been striking—and noteworthy—how many people have been turning to poetry in their quest to make meaning out of what happened, to try to come to terms with it. One would like to think that this signals a new hunger for seriousness in our culture, a fresh maturity, and that this coming to adulthood is, at least, something to celebrate in light of our recent tragedies. So, too, I cannot help but think that literary magazines and small presses have continued to foster the intimate values of literary exchange and helped to create what literary theorists tend to call “an interpretive community,” and I would deem a community of solitaries. These solitudes, as Rilke formulates it in a letter about the freedom of love, “protect and border and greet each other.”
      It is paradoxical that contemporary poetry desperately needs contemporary readers to survive, but that the deepest poetry may not be the one that appeals to any particular or specialized group, to specific readers in our own age, or even to the age itself. I am going against a certain grain of identity politics in our culture when I say so. Of course, there is an element of civitas in poetry. There are invaluable public poems, political interventions. Poetry can be a form of social action, and there are times when it can (and perhaps even should) mount the barricades to try to change the world. Perhaps we are once more entering such a time, like the moment in our history when so many poets felt they had to put their art in the service of opposing the war in Vietnam. Some activist poets believe that this is poetry’s true function, its only real purpose. I do not. The poet wants justice. And the poet also wants music, stories, art . . .
      Poetry is like a house with many different kinds of rooms, and it needs all of them. I believe, as Stevens put it, that there is a life apart from politics, that poetry engages our imaginations, that it opens our inner as well as outer lives. It does many kinds of work. One of its main tasks is to protect the language, which is in and of itself a political act, and engage the imagination. It moves into the interior and enlarges our identities. It makes room for the single reader, the social oddball, the poetic misfit—a Rimbaud, a Leopardi—and springs into the zone of the imaginary. “I Dwell in Possibility— / A fairer House than Prose,” Dickinson notably put it in one of her finest poems: “More numerous of Windows— / Superior—for Doors.”
      “Appealing to a concrete addressee,” Mandelstam argued, “dismembers poetry, plucks its wings, deprives it of air, of the freedom of flight.” It deprives poetry of its freshest air, which is the element of surprise. Poetry most completely fulfills itself, Mandelstam suggests, as a highly concentrated and passionate form of communication between strangers—an immediate, intense, and highly unsettling form of literary discourse. “Perhaps poetry, like art, moves with the oblivious self into the uncanny and strange to free itself,” Celan speculated in his “Meridian” speech. It rushes headlong into the unknown, he noted, “for the sake of an encounter.”
      Lyric poetry speaks out of a solitude to a solitude. It begins and ends in silence. It crystallizes our inwardness and makes space for our subjectivity, naming our inner life. It arises from an interior planet that is as deep as the human soul and perhaps as far away as another planet. Language has been set free; it has become strange in this urgent and oddly self-conscious way of exchanging signals and speaking across time, through time. The writer posits the unforeseen reader on the horizon. The reader proceeds as if the text houses meaning and incarnates spirit. They meet when they cross the threshold into the sacred space of the poem itself. Thus it is that Wallace Stevens concluded in the Adagia that “One does not write for any reader except one.” And John Berryman declared in The Freedom of the Poet that “Poetry is a terminal activity, taking place out near the end of things, where the poet’s soul addresses one other soul only, never mind when.”
      Perhaps one ideally writes, as Tsvetaeva said, “Not for the millions, not for a particular person, not for myself.” Rather, she declared, “I write for the work itself. The work itself writes itself through me.” Hence her couplet:

           A poet takes up speech from far,
           A poet is taken far by speech.

But the creator who becomes the vehicle of an inspiration—and Tsvetaeva believed that being a poet meant “Equality in gift of soul and gift of language”—can only be met by, matched by, the act of sustained attention that we designate as reading, which is itself an engaged, threshold activity. That’s why I so much appreciate Emily Dickinson’s radical characterization of poetry, which I hope everyone knows:

           If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever
           warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head
           were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know. Is
           there any other way.

Dickinson doesn’t define poetry by any intrinsic qualities per se, but by a great shock of contact, by what it mentally and physically does to her, by violent connection. She was seeking to be intoxicated—radically changed—by what she read, which requires a high degree of receptivity. One might speculate that deep reading, like writing itself, often demands equal degrees of activity and passivity. Readers of lyric poetry: a secret community of intoxicants.
      The truly individual poem is a last will and testament salvaged from the shipwreck, sealed in a bottle, and cast out into the waters. I think of each of us as readers who, at least for the moment, have turned off the television set and wandered down to the shore to see what can be found. It’s as if a vast ocean had delivered a message from afar. How often I myself have found an unlikely looking bottle from the past or present, and brought it home, and read it so intensely that soon it began to inhabit and speak through me. The encounter remains unprecedented. To live with a poem is to become its secret addressee. The poem has been silently en route—sometimes for centuries—and now it has singled you out precisely because you are willing to call upon and listen to it. That’s why Robert Graves deemed poetry a form of “stored magic.” Reading poetry is a way of connecting—through the highly mediated medium of language—more profoundly with yourself even as you connect more fully with another. The poem delivers on our spiritual lives precisely because it simultaneously gives us the gift of intimacy and interiority, of privacy and participation. The poem implies mutual participation in language, and for me, that participation mystique is at the heart of the lyric exchange.
      This is how we proceed then—one by one, alone and together, writer and reader. Lyric poetry seems to be a way of speaking both back to the self and outward to another. It is a particular mode of separation that empowers connection, a special form of reading as relationship. It stores a radical unknown excitement. Thus it is that each of us, in his or her own way, may take up the surprising project—it is a task worthy of a lyric poet—of exchanging signals with the planet Mars.