Interview with Jennifer Michael Hecht

by Ann van Buren

Jennifer Michael Hecht is a poet and historian. Her new book is The Wonder Paradox: Awe, Poetry, and the Meaningful Life. Hecht is the author of the bestseller Doubt: A History. It covers the history of religious and philosophical doubt all over the world. Her book Stay is a history of suicide and a secular argument against it (Yale).  Hecht’s books have been translated into many languages. The End of the Soul: Scientific Modernity, Atheism, and Anthropology won Phi Beta Kappa’s 2004 Ralph Waldo Emerson Award. Publisher’s Weekly called her poetry book, Funny, “One of the most original and entertaining books of the year.” Hecht’s first book of poetry, The Next Ancient World, won three national awards, including the Poetry Society of America’s First Book award for 2001. Her most recent poetry book is Who Said (Copper Canyon, 2013). Her prose book The Happiness Myth (HarperOne, 2007) brings a historical eye to modern wisdom about how to lead a good life.  Hecht has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Politico, Vox, Poetry, and The New Yorker. She holds a Ph.D. in the history of science/European cultural history from Columbia University (1995) and has taught in the MFA program at Columbia University and the New School in New York City.

Ann van Buren has been conducting interviews for KPS since 2017. Her poetry and other interviews and book reviews are published in The Rumpus, Library Journal, The Westchester Review, The Columbia Review, and elsewhere.

Ann van Buren: As a historian and an author of a major text on the history of doubt, and as a committed rationalist, how did you come to write a book on religion and poetry?

Jennifer Michael Hecht: Well, I started in poetry. I was writing little poems when I was a preteen and it was certainly where I thought I was headed throughout my studies. By the time I got to college though, I wanted to know everything. It’s the hubris of the young but I saw history as a kind of skeleton that you could put all the different cultural stuff on. I wanted to know that history.

Poetry is my first love. I continue to read and write it. I published three books of poetry while I was doing all this history. My knowledge of poetry gave me the sense that I had something precious that I just wanted to share with people. This asserted itself through life. People asked me questions and I kept my finding myself answering them with poems that I know.

The religion part is very interesting. No one has ever asked the question in just that way. Sometimes our needs get met, but so often they don’t. When I began to notice that people keep asking me about certain kinds of rituals, I realized that maybe they mean to be asking me about some of the problems that could be solved with certain kinds of poems as well as rituals. It finally occurred to me to look at some of the things that religion offers and I asked What’s missing in what we get in modern culture?

People hadn’t asked me about a prayer for eating or a prayer for going to sleep. It just hadn’t come up. They were more likely to ask Well what should I do about my wedding? We both believe different things, our families believe different things. But when I think about the most common prayers and ask myself what we’re doing instead, I realize that we’re doing nothing. We don’t have that statement of thanks for getting me through sleep and into the morning.

It occurred to me to ask around, to ask how people are feeling. And I found that sleep was incredibly fraught for most modern people. Everyone I talked to had some sleep problem or another and everyone I talked to was at least curious about the idea of having some little text that you say every night, or perhaps a longer text that you have that you say when you’re having some real trouble sleeping, falling asleep, or nightmares, or something that you really want help with.

It makes so much sense to have these things. I think many poetry readers, or just big readers in general, have these things. Especially if you read a ton of poetry when you can’t sleep. You might get a poem in your head and you might notice that has something to do with sleep. Maybe it does. Maybe it doesn’t. But it comes to you. I wanted to give that to the people who aren’t reading hundreds and hundreds of poems. I wanted to just say Hey? You could have the same effect by choosing one, and you don’t have to even choose that carefully, because the biggest thing that poetry is going to do is take you out of your head and into someone else’s, and that in itself is a relief. When you pay attention to the details you find things you didn’t know about yourself, about the moment—especially if you come back to the same poem. (I’m all about rereading.)

The same goes for novels. I think people say Am I supposed to read these 100 great novels before I die, or stop reading? I for one say, You know, read a bunch and then go back and reread your favorite. You’re probably gonna get as much, or perhaps a great deal more, out of that experience, because it brings your own life experience into it. Right? I’m sure you’ve had the experience of rereading and wondering what your young self was thinking. Because I definitely have a very different experience when I go back.

Ann van Buren: Yes, it is amazing to reread and to realize Oh, it was about that! I was paying attention to this poem, for a totally different reason. Even though the poem is also about what you read in your younger self, too, rereading brings a new perspective.

Jennifer Michael Hecht: Another important part of the book is about sharing poetry with a group or with an individual. You don’t even have to love the whole poem.

You can take one stanza and say There’s a lot going on here. Maybe you’ll love it for more things, and maybe there are stanzas that upset me in this poem, but I wanted to turn you on to the stanza that I love. Maybe our conversations will help me love the other parts, too.

I know that a lot of people feel when it’s time to find a poem for the wedding or the funeral, they think that if it says one thing that isn’t right for you then you have to cut that, or it’s the wrong poem. But you can just say to the people you’re sharing with, This is the key part for me. This allows you freedom.

Ann van Buren: I’d like to segue into another question about the four sections of your book. You divide it into Practice, Holiday, Life Celebrations, Emergencies and Wisdom Questions. These sections are broken down into more specific categories and you use examples from poetry and religion to parse their meanings and to illustrate the various ways we make room for them within our culture and our individual lives.

But the book is also interactive, and you alert the reader to technique in each poem. Then you present and offer writing prompts for your readers.  What inspired you to do the latter?

Jennifer Michael Hecht: I think that one part of it is that I believe in telling all your secrets when you’re writing. If you figured something out and it comes up, tell the secret! You’ll get more secrets you know. It’s always best to put all you’ve got out there. You’ll feel like you’ve added value. You’ll feel good. I felt that after all these years of teaching history and poetry I had some good ideas about how to get into a poem, either when you’re writing or reading.

I’ll say another thing, which is that I think many people loved poetry when they were in college taking a college poetry class. I think the reason for that is that poetry can be solitary, but it can also be very social.

And when you’re in that college poetry class loving it, you’re loving that group experience. You’re loving that you studied the poem. Maybe before you came in you saw this side and suddenly everyone else saw something else. You get to learn, but also contribute to that unfolding of meaning of ourselves. Right? Because you’re showing your vulnerable self when you say what you saw in the poem.

Ann van Buren: I think we get to the meaning of poetry by understanding all this and am interested in how you bring us to these emotional places even as you tell your readers about the techniques used to convey that feeling. You identify alliteration, assonance, repetition and other ways that a poem is made.

Jennifer Michael Hecht: Yes. This is so that people can make a list and say, I’m going to use these techniques as well. People have access to the ones you mentioned in their regular speech. Repetition, I think, is a great one to talk to people about, because people don’t know whether it’s good or bad, but they know they can do it. Songs so often have a great line, and that line makes it into the chorus. We get to belt it out a bunch of times and it feels pleasurable. To talk about something like that seems like a real secret that you can use is not like saying If you study 10 years, you, too, can do this or that. It’s saying that something is already in your hands, that you might think is not allowed— Go nuts and see how it feels.

I’ll add that there are poets who stress that you don’t have to understand a poem to get the feeling. I’m with them. But I also am of the other camp where the more you learn, the more the poem unfolds. That’s an extraordinarily fun and meaningful part of the experience for me. I like to show people the poem makes you feel a certain way. But it’s also saying some very clear things if we go line by line and really ask what the poem could be saying here. That’s part of the technique, too. I believe that when you read poetry, you read by line and by sentence. If that is true, sometimes a single line is set there, saying the exact opposite of what the sentence means when you read down. You get the author’s ambivalence. There’s something there. In part, you have to trust the author to be doing all of this, either on purpose or because they’ve really gotten in touch with their subconscious and have molded something that really feels so right that it is worth unpacking.

Ann van Buren:  You’re talking about line breaks and how sometimes when you’re reading a line you fill in the blanks at the end and read it one way. But then there’s a line break, and there’s a big surprise. The break jolts you into a new reality, one you did not predict.

Jennifer Michael Hecht: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. In my own poetry I find I rhyme a lot, but not at the end of the sentence, not at the end of the line, usually. The rhymes are internal, but that’s partially just because I refuse to break the line at the rhyme. The reader isn’t expecting a rhyme, and those line breaks are so important in order to do the trick.

Ann van Buren: Yeah, that’s a good clue. And I’m so happy that you’re talking about how you rhyme because I struggle with not rhyming at times.

It’s almost as though I’m receiving this voice through rhyme. It helps get to another thought in a different way. But you make a good point that there are ways to rhyme without the thud, thud at the end of the line.

Jennifer Michael Hecht: Yeah, but I also do love some old forms. I’ll write in sonnets and villanelles and even the sestina—that last one can be quite the chore, in a way—. But yeah, I enjoy forms a lot because of just what you said. You can’t say what’s the obvious thing for your brain to say next, because it doesn’t fit in the form because it doesn’t rhyme. You’ve got to find what fits, and then you end up in some weird new place. And when it’s just between your subconscious and the blank page you learn about yourself, even if you don’t know how or why. Sometimes it takes a long time for me to know really what I said in a poem.

Ann van Buren: I’m thinking about the section on practices in The Wonder Paradox.  You tell us about how different religions make rituals around decisions, eating gratitude, sleep and meditation. You show us that poets grapple with these topics as well. Eating and sleeping are very obviously necessary to our biological survival. Can you talk a little bit about the function of gratitude?

Jennifer Michael Hecht: Gratitude, you know, gratitude is so powerful. And yeah, I didn’t even realize until they started doing studies that were strict enough so that I could say, Yeah, this is doing people good.

We have pretty robust evidence that even trying to think of something to be grateful for and failing engages something in us that does us some good, that we report better feeling down the line. Other studies also show that expressing gratitude, thinking of great things to be grateful for and expressing them does us good in the short run and down the line. We report more happiness weeks later.

So there’s that. But lately I’ve been watching a bunch of those survivor shows like Naked and Afraid. (You know, you can just fall into a pit of them.) I’m just thinking about how they act when they are alone or when they’re starving. We’re talking about days of hunger. Not like we’re starving when we missed lunch, you know— days of hunger— and then they get some food. Do you know what they say every time, no matter what they believe? And what would I say? Thank you. Thank you, thank you. Then they go to sleep. And they can barely sleep because there are jaguar noises around. Then the sun comes up and the jaguar’s gone.

What do they say? You know? Thank goodness, thanks something. Thank you.

What is that about the human? I think it’s that we usually live in groups, that we’re raised by parents in families, and that there usually is someone to say please and thank you to. But when we’re alone, sometimes in our most need— I guess that’s why we’re in the most need—we can still share that feeling with the world. We can say Thank you world, for making this terror of our hunger stop. I think the thank you comes in this very natural way.

Gratitude also is so important because of what I just said. It’s baked into a lot of human experience. But by the time you get to the modern period, where we’re not terrified to go to sleep—most of the time— and we’re never starving— most of the time— should we get out of the habit of saying these gratitude things? It turns out that saying them and searching for them and realizing them does us so much good. Certainly it does me good in the most mechanical way, when I am longing for something, and I remind myself You were longing for this other thing before. And you got it. Can we try to sit with that?

Ann van Buren: Sometimes that gives us the will to go on.

Jennifer Michael Hecht: That’s exactly right. To look at the love that we have in our lives. To look at what we haven’t lost. All of that stuff, all of that stuff. But you know, I work on it in therapy. But I’ve been an achievement junkie in a certain way in my life. And you know it’s better when I can release that and that’s part of realizing what I already have, and not wanting some review or not wanting certain things to happen to realize that it’s a hamster wheel unless you really appreciate what you get each time. But if you just throw it on the pile and keep running, what’s gonna happen to you? What’s your life? Especially when you know that writing books is being in a small room by yourself! That can’t be your whole life. So it’s a struggle for most of us who write books. We got there by disciplining ourselves tremendously. And then at some point in your life you’ve got to stop disciplining yourself to only write and you have to do other things. I joke to my family that even God only wrote 2 books. Here I am working on my ninth! That’s pretty good. I like that.

Ann van Buren: Thank you! That’s very funny!

I love that you include decisions in the litany of poetry and prayer. It’s reassuring to read Antonio Machado’s poem, “Traveler There is No Road” which says:

Traveler, there is no path, the path is made by walking.

You also quote Rilke, who says:

Let everything happen to you, beauty and terror,
Just keep going. No feeling is final.

Many religious rituals are prescribed for a certain time of year, or for a certain stage in life, and you give examples of this in your chapter on life celebrations and coming of age rituals (COAR). Who do you think might benefit most from the Machado and Rilke quotes?

Jennifer Michael Hecht: Off the top of my head? My brain goes through every category. I was gonna say adolescence because they just come to mind first as needing that kind of guidance. But the truth is, children are smart, too. My kid is about to turn 18. The other one is 19. They’re pretty grown up now. But it wasn’t so long ago that I knew these tiny little people, and they were pretty philosophical, you know. They asked themselves questions about what’s going on here. That made me share poetry with them, to show what was expected of them. Shadow poems help. I think that the Rilke poem is one of the most powerful interventions that poetry can give us, There are times when we are allowed to not believe it. And I have certainly heard of atrocities that there’s no reason for anyone to go through, right? Rilke is not entirely right. I know that men can get tortured. With the things that women have to fear in life, I can’t even imagine a woman saying exactly that, you know? I can’t imagine them saying go through everything, every feeling, because some feelings stay with you an awfully long time.

And yet, there’s genius in pointing out to people how eventually feelings do change, and that we are here to experience them. We’re here, and what else is there to do but know the world? We all want to know it in different ways, or we end up knowing it in different ways

What I wanted to point out with the Machado quote is that we are raised, each of us, in some world that values something. Sometimes it’s running marathons. And it takes you 20 years to find out that most people in the world don’t care whether you ran the marathon or not. They don’t. They just don’t. It’s not their top goal and we all have different top goals. And so, we’re not really competing with each other. We can learn from each other and relax. We can start a top goal and then try one of the others. We can see what else is out there. None of us is gonna be able to experience everything. Right? So I think that’s where poetry and literature and these days, film, video and television come in. They give us so much that we wouldn’t have. I still think there’s nothing like a novel for a long-term experience of what someone else is really experiencing. We have access to almost everything else in the world except another person’s mind. With poetry it’s the exact same thing. But it’s the brief version. You get in, you get out, and something’s happened to you. Both feed similar desires. I want to know the world better. I want to know more.

When I find myself, as I often do, in some sort of fix— not understanding something—remembering something from literature helps me to understand.

Ann van Buren: What are you reading now?

Jennifer Michael Hecht: You’re not gonna believe this, but I just finished— two books ago, I’ll admit— but 2 books ago I read War and Peace for the first time. Can you imagine? I mean, the length of it makes us all think if you didn’t read it in college, you’re not gonna read it. I know this is a little silly, but I do enjoy ticking off great books on the list. You forget that there was one that you missed. I had read Anna Karina when I was young and I really should read it again. I have strong memories, but I’m sure they’re the memories of youth. But War and Peace was fun. It was so much fun, despite the long passages of land use tracts. The story moves along and is super interesting. So yeah, that’s the last novel I read. Then I read 2 memoirs quickly on audible, both were about neurotrauma, really. I am fascinated by the brain and how much we’re each bringing to our experience of life. Neurotrauma stories always give insight into that because when something happens and there is an exact harm or— as doctors say, an insult to the brain— some knock on the head and people go through an experience before they come back to being who they were, or some version of it. Anyway, I eat those stories up though the one I just finished was kind of harsh. It was called Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story. It was about these two PTSD sufferers falling in love, and both of them freaked out.

Yeah, those are two of my main categories. I go to the great books list and can’t believe how delicious a certain thing that for some reason I didn’t read, like The Bell Jar, which I also read this year, can be. How could I skip The Bell Jar all my life? Once you’re into the great books list you’re going to read The Bell Jar. You might also say Hey, there’s so little great literature by women that’s accepted as great literature. How could I have missed some of it? But anyway, do we have more questions about reading?

Ann van Buren: Many wars have been fought in the name of gods, whether it be the god of religion or the god of money. Has a war ever been fought in the name of poetry?

Jennifer Michael Hecht: You know I don’t think so. I just came to the question now, and so I didn’t have time to think deeply or look it up. I know that human beings like to get tribal. We don’t always get tribal, but we tend to get tribal. Without technology, we can sort of get to know about 300 people, and that tends to be the largest size of our groups. Then we fight with everybody, with the people on our border. I think that there were times where the elite of China was so dedicated to its versions of poetry that it could have a squabble with nearby Japan on the basis of that. But really, what you’re asking is that religion seems to double down on certainty. Poetry is the exact opposite. It’s all about nuance and questioning. It’s about seeking, ambivalence, curiosity, and learning. So it’s much more on the side of the people who sneak out together at night to be friends.

I think that that poetic styles get very distinct. And people have definitely had culture wars about how poetry should be written, what it should be like. There’s certainly enough bad feeling in any large group of poets. Some people feel poetry should be one way and some another but when there are more resources, poets tend to get along.

Ann van Buren: I have one last question. It’s about a poetry practice that’s part of the Jewish religion, called midrash. It is the practice of retelling a biblical story but with a modern or personal twist. I participated in a midrash workshop with Alicia Ostriker this weekend, and it was wonderful, profound.

Jennifer Michael Hecht: One of my best known poems is sort of that.

It’s short, and I know it by heart. Would you like to hear it?

Ann van Buren: I would love to hear it.

Jennifer Michael Hecht: It’s called History.


Even Eve, the only soul in all of time
to never have to wait for love,
must have leaned some sleepless nights
alone against the garden wall
and wailed, cold, stupefied, and wild
and wished to trade-in all of Eden
to have but been a child.

In fact, I gather that is why she leapt and fell from grace,
that she might have a story of herself to tell
in some other place.

Ann van Buren: That’s so beautiful! Thank you!

We are all looking forward to talking more about poetry, ritual, religion and the many topics you raise in The Wonder Paradox: Awe, Poetry, and the Meaningful Life when you come to read at the Katonah Village Library on April 14th at 4PM.

Jennifer Michael Hecht: I’m delighted.