“A Poet’s Glossary” Edward Hirsch

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Epiphany Enclosed

Thanks to James Joyce, the word epiphany has been co-opted from the church by the world of literature. In A Poet’s Glossary, Edward Hirsch says this about the word:

“From a Greek word meaning ‘to appear.’ An epiphany is a sudden spiritual manifestation, a luminous or visionary moment. Epiphany means the manifestation of a god or spirit in the body, and thus the Christian epiphany is literally the manifestation of Christ to the Magi. James Joyce (1882-1941) secularized the term so that it came to mean a sudden manifestation of spiritual meaning, an unexpected revelation of truth in the commonplace, a psychological and literary mode of perception. It disrupts the ordinary, a moment out of time.”

Poets are well-versed (heh) in epiphanies. They consider it an essential part of their toolbox. The a-ha moment, after all, is often the spark to a poem and catnip for the Muse.

But what if the epiphany doesn’t come from within? What if it comes compliments of another person, someone who knows better, someone hellbent on overcoming our stubbornness or ignorance?

Ah, yes. That, too, is the stuff of poetry. For Exhibit A, I give you the always dependable Seamus Heaney:


The Skylight
by Seamus Heaney

You were the one for skylights. I opposed
Cutting into the seasoned tongue-and-groove
Of pitch pine. I liked it low and closed,
Its claustrophobic, nest-up-in-the-roof
Effect. I liked the snuff-dry feeling,
The perfect, trunk-lid fit of the old ceiling.
Under there, it was all hutch and hatch.
The blue slates kept the heat like midnight thatch.

But when the slates came off, extravagant
Sky entered and held surprise wide open.
For days I felt like an inhabitant
Of that house where the man sick of the palsy
Was lowered through the roof, had his sins forgiven,
Was healed, took up his bed and walked away.

The Secret to Happiness

The ode has come a long way. Consider its not-so-humble roots. In A Poet’s Glossary, Edward Hirsch defines it as “a celebratory poem in an elevated language on an occasion of public importance or on a lofty common theme.” In ancient Greece, odes were meant to be sung. Cue joy and victory.

But boy, howdy, has the ode evolved. Now it is like a comfortable shoe. Easy. Accessible. But still joyful and worthy of a victory lap. Hirsch says, “The modern ode, which freely intermingles  Greek and Latin elements, represents the claiming of an obligation, some inner feeling rising up in urgent response to an outer occasion, something owed.”

He continues: “The idea of a formal poem of considerable length written in an elevated language has had less currency in modern times, but has sometimes been revitalized, as in Hölderlin’s mystical odes or in Pablo Neruda’s wildly energetic three books of odes on daily subjects, which praise the dignity and strangeness of ordinary things.”

If there’s one thing we modern-types love, it’s the ordinary. We fancy ourselves, after all, as ordinary in every way. Perfect mediums, then, to sing the praises of quotidian delights.

Today’s poem is not in a Key of Neruda, though. It’s not about socks or apples or spoons or onions. Instead, the late Thomas Lux considers these strangely wonderful beings from another planet called “happy people.”

How do they do it? Especially (channeling Hemingway here) “in our time”? Step One is to avoid the news, I’m sure. But step everything else is to focus on the good in everyone. It’s there in varying doses, in case you’re wondering. Lux’s poem, then, is a description, an homage, a celebratory song to that simple, but often overlooked, fact:


Ode to the Joyful Ones
by Thomas Lux

Shield your joyful ones.
—from an Anglican prayer

That they walk, even stumble, among us is reason
to praise them, or protect them—even the sound
of a lead slug dropped on a lead plate, even that, for them,
is music. Because they bring laughter’s
brief amnesia. Because they stand,
talking, taking pleasure in others,
with their hands on the shoulders of strangers
and the shoulders of each other.
Because you don’t have to tell them to walk toward the light.
Because if there are two pork chops
they will serve you the better one.
Because they will give you the crutch off their backs.
Because when there are two of them together
their shining fills the room.
Because you don’t have to tell them to walk toward the light.


I love how joyful ones “bring laughter’s / brief amnesia.” I love how joyful ones lack the selfish gene we secretly cherish so much. And I love best joyful ones’ incandescent, otherworldly ability to shine and walk toward more shining.

We can emulate that. We can knock on the tree fort door of joyful ones. Both you know and I know they’ll let us in. Going there, then, is not half the battle. It’s all of it.

Random Thoughts, December Edition

  • With the Winter Solstice now securely in the rearview mirror, people can take good cheer: The days are getting longer! (Not that anyone notices at this hectic time of year.)
  • Here in New England, the Solstice was celebrated with sheets of rain and pillowcases of wind, temps in the 60s Fahrenheit. All fore of our fathers would shake their heads in disbelief. They remember when “winter was winter” in New England and you walked to school through six feet of snow, uphill both ways.
  • But there’s no global warming, oh no. How do I know? The scientists in the White House told me so.
  • Speaking of, I know of one chimney Santa is taking a pass on (shades of “The Madness of King George”).
  • Wait a minute. Three days till Christmas? OK, then. I can finally listen to Christmas carols. Turned them on just now by clicking iTunes and the first song I heard was Judy Collins’ “The Little Road to Bethlehem.”
  • Let’s just say I could listen to Judy’s voice from here to eternity.
  • And wait a minute. Do I actually have to start wrapping gifts? I met a lady last week who sneered at the whole concept. “I put things in gift bags now,” she sniffed. “Buy them marked down after Christmas every year.”
  • Who says “bag lady” has a negative connotation?
  • Yes, a lot of poetry books on the Christmas wish list this year, but new books are always a minefield, in poetry especially.
  • Just read a review of a book about books, Elisa Gabbert’s The Word Pretty, and there was an excerpt about judging books by their covers and their titles. Raise your hand if guilty until proven innocent.
  • You there! Raise your hand, in the name of that endangered species “honesty”!
  • (Oops. I’m back to a certain chimney, aren’t I….)
  • Anyway, back to Elisa Gabbert (who is also a poet). She opined that the best titles are spondees like Bleak House and White Noise and Jane Eyre.
  • What’s a spondee, you respondee? “A poetic foot consisting of two equally accented syllables, as in daylight and nightfall,” according to Edward Hirsch’s resource, A Poet’s Glossary (buy it and you, too, can be a poet!).
  • It all has to do with Lovely Rita, Meter Maid or something. Back to Hirsch: “The meter of a poem can slow us down or speed us up; it can focus our attention; it can hypnotize us.” He then compares it to ocean waves. You know. The things you stare at when you need to be mesmerized but good because the cruel world is bullying you.
  • Then there’s anapest, which is always anapestering spondees by one-upping them. Three syllables this time, “two unaccented followed by one accented, as in the words in a war” (accent on WAR, as you would expect from this world).
  • Do you know any poets who get into meter and form poems in a big way? Me, too (a spondee, you see?).
  • It’s like those English majors who love diagramming sentences. Math majors in English majors’ clothing, I call them.
  • I don’t know about your house, but every time I walk through the TV room, my wife is watching Hallmark movies. Like mac and cheese, they’re the comfort food of television viewers.
  • I lay blame at that big white chimney again. Pay too much attention to the news and you’ll be on lines of Hallmark, too.
  • “This is your brain on escapism…” (cue image of egg frying in pan).
  • Speaking of front page news, I see the U.S. government has been shut down because Mexico refuses to pay for someone else’s wall. Come on, chicos. Make Mexico Great Again!
  • If you could take only one book of poems to a deserted (except for singular book) island, which book would it be? No cheating now. I see that collected Shakespeare’s Complete Plays you’re packing!
  • Some people in these parts are bummed because we will be missing yet another White Christmas. I suggest we petition Congress to move the holiday to Feb. 25th, when white is more likely to have your back.
  • You laugh, but Congress messes with time zones, so why not calendars?
  • If you haven’t seen it, I leave you with Saturday Night Live’s true-to-life skit, “Best Christmas Ever.”
  • Now you go out and have a best Christmas ever, too. And if you don’t “do” Christmas for non- or alternative religious reasons, just have a good 25 December, won’t you? You deserve it!

The Lovely Vice of Rhetorical Devices


With the Thanksgiving weekend coming to a close (seems like an ordinary Sunday to ME, anyway), let us give thanks for rhetorical devices. Have you ever stopped to think of your favorite? Have you ever wondered which one you use the most? Have you ever realized that these devices are often the lifeblood of what you write and read?

In case you haven’t guessed, I have a special place in my heart (the right aorta, I think it is) for anaphora. In his reference book, A Poet’s Glossary, Edward Hirsch tells us it comes from the Greek for “a carrying up or back” and goes on to define it as “the repetition of the same word or words at the beginning of a series of phrases, lines, or sentences.” He goes on to say, “The words accumulate mysterious power and resonance through repetition.”

Emilia Phillips, writing an article called “Repeat After Me” in Ploughshares’ Week in Review newsletter, finds a bit of science in anaphora’s magic, too. She writes, “In her Poetry Foundation article ‘Adventures in Anaphora,’ poet and creative writing educator Rebecca Hazelton writes, ‘Humans are pattern-seeking animals, pre-tuned to the music of language. We are pleased when we hear patterns in language, perking our ears in recognition, and can be both vexed and delighted when those patterns are broken.’”

Admit it. You love a pattern. You probably picked one out as a gift on a shirt or dress over this endless Black Friday shopping weekend.

Think of that pattern as language. Think of it as sound. Think of it as a refrain you begin to subconsciously hum. Something like “And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep” — a case where the repetition extends beyond the beginning but seems not only reasonable but just right.

So…what rhetorical device are YOU thankful for?