Saturday, June 2, 2018

Reading Poetry

As a teenager and college student, fear of cultural inadequacy was a powerful motivator for me, and I suspect it was a major factor in my initial adoption of certain intellectual habits that have since become constant features of my life. One of these is reading poetry, which I first began to do self-consciously, and maniacally, some time in late high school.

As with many of the obsessions we decide upon at that age, I at first -- and for a long time -- derived no intrinsic joy from it. A vast portion of the poetry I consumed meant nothing at all to me. Nor could I figure out why exactly it seemed to mean something to other people -- I just knew that it did, and that it would be a shameful sign of inferiority if I confessed that I did not have the same reactions. The advice of the critics, who claimed to find mysterious resonances in sounds and meters, rather than what was actually being said, was of no use. I never could hear whatever it was they were talking about -- and for the most part I still can't.

Of course, the more I went on with this habit of reading poetry, the more I discovered that I did -- in fact -- like it, in addition to feeling that I ought to like it. What started as a compensation for a perceived failing in my current identity eventually became my identity itself. Something that I began doing in order to prove a point eventually came to assume a more intrinsic significance.

I would guess that a great percentage of the adult selves we eventually become is like this. We are at least partially made up of now genuine behaviors that began life as affectations. This is why the advice that is often given to teenagers to be authentic and true to themselves always rings so hollow. We don't have selves yet, at that age. So we're far better off posing as some aspirational notion of the self and forcing ourselves -- painfully -- to resemble it outwardly -- until, years later, we discover that this process has forced us to resemble it inwardly as well.

In order to get to the point at which reading poetry genuinely felt like me, rather than an idealized version of some future me, however, I had to invent a private system for reading poetry -- one in which no one had ever instructed me. I had to accept, first of all, that the advice of the critics and teachers would never avail me, that I would never gain an insight from scanning a poem and never appreciate a verse more for having discovered that it was trochaic.

I had to develop for myself my own procedure, which I now share in the hopes it will benefit others in gathering the courage to ignore most other advice on this subject.

The first delusion that I had to shed in order to enjoy reading poetry (one much inculcated in school) is the idea that poetry is difficult to understand and therefore should be read slowly. When I first started out, I assumed that a book of poems is something like a novel or any work of prose. After all, it looks like one, does it not? It generally has over one hundred pages in it, and it is printed in quarto or octavo size, and in all other way resembles other sorts of books -- except (mercifully) that it has fewer words on each page. All I had to do, I told myself, was begin on page one and I would eventually get through it, no matter what happened along the way.

This is precisely what always defeated me. Begin at the beginning of a collection of the works of Pablo Neruda, say, and you discover the line Body of woman, white hills, white thighs (Eisner trans.). This is the sort of point where I would immediately shut the book in despair. Despite my resolutions, I could not go any further. I was just too immensely and totally bored. I did not -- and still do not -- care what Neruda or anyone else has to say about sex, moonlight, wine, love, forests, nymphs, or any other traditional poetic subject.

I wanted to know what they had to say about death, war, despair, rage, sorrow, depression, poverty, injustice, cruelty, pity, and God.

Eventually, I would discover that poets -- including Neruda -- had written about all those other, more interesting subjects as well. I think it was listening to Harold Pinter's fiercely political Nobel Prize lecture in my high school years that first gave me an inkling of this, and thus started to swing me around on the subject of poetry. During the lecture, Pinter reads from Neruda's "I'm Explaining a Few Things." The thing that Neruda was specifically explaining in the poem -- one of the best ever written about the Spanish Civil War, and one of the greatest political poems of all time -- was the reason for the socially-conscious turn that his poetry had taken in the second epoch of his career:

And you'll ask: why doesn't his poetry
speak of dreams and leaves
and the great volcanoes of his native land?

Come and see the blood in the streets.
Come and see
The blood in the streets. (Tarn trans.)

Nothing could have better described the turn I was hoping to see in all poetry. I couldn't understand why anyone had ever written about volcanoes or leaves, or would want to read about them, and why Neruda hadn't just written the good stuff like this from the beginning.

To get to those better poems in the collected works of any great poet, however, I had to first accept, as I say, that a book of poetry is not at all like a work of prose -- despite superficial resemblances. It does not have thematic unity. It cannot be read through carefully, and with an effort to give roughly equal weight to each section that passes by. A poem -- if it's any good -- is a brief flaring up of fire in the imagination. It ought to be short, and to be read in a few moments. If -- on the second or third fast reading -- it has not yielded up anything approaching interest, then it will not on the fourth or fifth attempt either.

There are two possible explanations for why this might be. Either the poem in question does not have all that much to say. Or whatever it's saying is beyond your knowledge and experience and wisdom at the time you are reading it. In either case, however, there is nothing for you in particular to gain from it at this moment in your life, so put it aside. You can try it again later, some day. For now, no amount of metrical analysis is going to get it to yield up anything you didn't already find there.

So once I had accepted this, I no longer felt the need to halt and mortify myself every time a supposedly great poem failed to move me in any way. I could skim through, and if it was evident that a given poem was never going to get beyond the lovers' bodies pale in the moonlight and the skylark's song and so forth, then I could just skip it and move on to the next one.

Eventually, in short, I came to realize that the poems that would actually grip me would do so on their own -- I just had to get to them.

This is how I developed my method. Approaching any book of poems, I would read through the whole thing once at a fairly fast clip. For any poem that seemed of particular and lasting interest, I would circle the title, thus flagging it for a second visit. After I have gone through an entire book in this fashion, I then turn back to the beginning and reread -- more slowly now -- only the ones I marked the first time through.

Sometimes -- with Akhmatova, say -- there is a secondary winnowing even beyond this point. Among the marked poems there are usually a few I find were falsely marked. I thought they might be trying to say something to me, but on the second read I discover I was mistaken. These I leave untouched. Others -- which moved me profoundly the first time through -- continue to move me in just the same way. These I flag with a great bracket around their body on the left-hand margin, so my future self will know that these are the ones deserving of special praise and recognition.

There are still others, on the second read, that I discover I had marked the first time through out of a rather dim and mysterious sense that they were communicating something to me, but without knowing why. It is only on the second attempt that I discover what that thing was. This, at last, is where the value of close reading finally comes into play (i.e., only after one has taken out of consideration all the poems that are more obviously lacking in interest).

I was reading the Everyman edition of the selected poems of Akhmatova, for instance, about a year and a half ago. At the time, I was in the midst of the grueling process of making digital recordings of what suddenly seemed like an infinity of tiny VHS tapes that we had used for home videos when my sister and I were children.

What was unexpectedly painful about the effort was that -- as soon as I began watching these old tapes -- I realized that the only ones I remembered filming were the ones we had discussed endlessly in later years. Yet there were bundles of others that were totally alien to me. I did not have the slightest recollection of recording them -- even though they feature my childhood self.

In other words, I was confronted through this process with the artifice of human memory. I was being handed solid evidence that many of the stories I thought I "remembered" from my childhood were really constructed by narratives that we had told and retold -- and many others had apparently actually happened in my childhood that I cannot remember at all, because they left no impression. As Wislawa Szymborska writes in a poem called "May 16, 1973": One of those many dates/ that no longer ring a bell./ Where was I going that day,/ What was I doing -- I don't know [...] I wore something or other in such-and-such a color/ Somebody must have seen me. (Cavanagh and Baranczak trans.)

But it wasn't Szymborska I was reading then -- that would come later -- but Akhmatova. I was in the midst of the second-stage of the method I have described, and going back through the whole book, when I found one poem I had marked earlier for reasons I couldn't recall. In the poem -- one of the "Northern Elegies" -- Akhmatova describes a kind of nightmare vision of a visit to a barely-remembered childhood home.

[C]hoking with shame and anger, we run to it,
But everything (as in a dream) is different:
People, things, walls, and no-one knows us -- we're 
Strangers. We got to the wrong place... Oh God!
And now we face the bitterest of all moments:
We realize that we could not contain 
This past within the frontiers of our life,
And it was become almost as foreign to us
As to our neighbor in the next apartment. (Thomas trans.)

And I realized that this was speaking directly to my plight as a recorder of unremembered childhood memories -- of incidents that had once meant something that now no longer appeared in my mind and that had no place in my recollection of the past.

The first time through, marking this poem, I must have sensed in some way that its mood corresponded to my own -- or simply that the mood it contained was strong enough to make an impression. But it was only on the second attempt that I appreciated what it was actually saying to me.

Another curious instance of the method in action came when I was reading Gloria Anzaldua's Borderlands. As readers may recall, her poetry found its way several times into my post "Soltero" from this past October, in which I confessed to the world what still seem to me some slightly embarrassing and uncomfortable things about my romantic life -- or rather, lack thereof. All of this was based only on the reading the first time through. After I had finished the post, however, I turned back to Anzaldua's book the next day, and started in on stage two of the method.

Here, I found that I had marked a poem called "that dark shining thing" as worthy of a second read. What had drawn me to it the first time was an image of herself in a faculty photograph -- a visible outsider -- that she describes. On the second, and closer read, however, it was the latter half of the poem that began to assume more meaning. Anzaldua is describing some kind of effort she has made to encourage another person to "come out" -- though whether as lesbian or as possessing some other non-normative sexual or racial identity, it is not wholly clear.

I remember
he/me/they who shouted
push Gloria breathe Gloria [...]
I remember hating him/me/they who pushed me
as I'm pushing you
remember the casing breaking
flooding the walls
remember opening my eyes one day
sensing that someone was missing.

Missing was the pain, gone the fear
that all my life had walked beside me.

And somehow this poem was suddenly speaking to the whole painful ambiguity of the post I had just written and the decision I had just made. My confession had, to be sure, been a kind of unburdening. This is the part of any "coming out" experience -- or anything like it -- that our popular culture likes to emphasize. This element of liberation is the only thing you'll find in Sarah Bareilles. But Anzaldua seemed to be describing a much more complicated and uneasy aspect of it than that -- one much closer to the emotions I had experienced while on the phone with friends and family, talking about the post I'd written. At the end of the "coming out," there is something missing -- even if it is only pain and fear. It is still a part of oneself that won't come back.

I realized -- and heard in the poem -- that I had, by writing that post, let go of some element of power  -- the power of a secret -- that I could never get back. You cannot claw back your secrets once you have given them away to others. This had its upside, to be sure, but it was not the wholly freeing experience that pop culture would lead one to expect. Anzaldua's description of it as a kind of dark and unholy birth seems to come much closer to the truth.

These are the kinds of discoveries one can make by means of the method. In case you adopt it and fear that it is not working, however, I want to give you a few other words on what to expect, and why not to lose hope.

First of all, don't be discouraged if you have made it through the first third or half of a poet's life's work, and you still have distressingly few poems circled or marked for further consideration. This, for me, is surprisingly common. My theory is that any poet necessarily improves as they age. As people get older, they no longer have to get more of their ideas second-hand. They have more to tell us about themselves, rather than about someone else or something they read. And their awareness of mortality is based more in fact, rather than affectation.

For whatever reason, however, I made it through the first half of Roethke, the first half of Millay, the first half of Akhmatova, the first third of Szymborska -- and nearly gave up each time, as I had so far found almost no gleanings that I wanted to keep. Then suddenly,  in all four cases, there came a turn. The poet hits middle age, and then nearly everything they write seems worthy of preservation. I started to leave markings and brackets everywhere. Every poem had at once become more interesting.

Here's another theory that might explain the pattern: as poets age, they gain the intellectual confidence to just say something outright. They have lost the fear and awkwardness that leads a young writer to obscure familiar ideas under unfamiliar tangles of words.

Of course, this turn will not happen in every instance. Sometimes, I fear, you will get all the way to the end of the book and have only a few markings, and nothing that you would guess might be worthy of a bracket. This is when it is time to abandon stage two of the method. You will gain nothing by it in this case. That poet -- ahem, Yeats -- will not be worth your time. Maybe it's just that you "don't get it." Maybe it's just that you weren't ready. But whatever the reason, now is not the time. Don't bother re-reading them -- find another poet who more closely aligns with your sensibilities.

What, though, if you lack the great teenage motivator of cultural insecurity to get you started on reading poetry in the first place? What if you have made your peace with your own prosaic nature, or don't see poetry as an important part of the cultural self you would like to become? Does poetry have any intrinsically enjoyable qualities to recommend it, when these powerful motive forces are gone?

Yes -- to be sure -- though I'm not sure any of these qualities are strong enough on their own to lead someone to read poetry, if they do not also have on some level a desire to see themselves as "the sort of person who reads poetry."

Something similar could probably be said, however, for a surprisingly wide range of adult activities. By the same token, the pure gratification of vanity and self-image also probably would't be powerful enough in themselves to force one to do something -- year after year, decade after decade -- if one never actually enjoys it at all.

If you don't want to read poetry or be a person who reads poetry, don't do it. But if you think you might have an inkling of both or either of these motives, I can tell you the non-self-image-based reason why I continually come back to this activity.

Here it is: it is the quest for those poems beside which I can confidently place a left-hand bracket. It is those moments when you find that someone else -- someone from a different time and place -- felt and expressed exactly what you are feeling, or have felt.

The heartbreak of this quest is that there are never enough of these bracketed poems as one would like. For every one of them that you can find, there are twenty to a hundred "body of woman, white hills, etc."-type poems to yawn over. As a result, I live with a constant enervating belief that I must -- by this point -- have found every last bracket-able poem ever written. That I've exhausted the storehouse of poetry and my only hope now is to go back and reread all the ones I found before. I always persist in this belief -- until, of course, I find the next one.

(This rareness of the truly good poetry is of course an old insight, prompting Marianne Moore's immortal: "I too, dislike it [that is, poetry]: there are things that are important beyond
      all this fiddle.
   Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
      discovers that there is in
   it after all, a place for the genuine.)

And all of this makes the find of the bracket-able poem, when it happens, so much more thrilling. It is a moment of blissful discovery. The reward chemicals are squirted throughout one's brain.

An example.

This past summer and fall, under the guise of film and book reviews, I had written several long, rambling, maudlin meditations on the topic of the feelings that accompany that distinct epoch in a person's late twenties when one's close friends all start getting married. I eventually came around to the idea that the way past this emotional difficulty was to accept that the higher form of love among human beings is one that does not crave possession, and so is not dismayed by the realization that friends have significant relationships outside of their relationship to oneself. In an essay on Dorothy Baker's Cassandra at the Wedding, I closed with the following thoughts:
Once one has weathered the griefs of change -- of friends parting, or at least, of becoming somewhat different people -- one realizes that to accept these changes is actually the true basis for love among adults. To love another person -- whether a spouse, partner, sibling, or friend -- enough to accept their individuality, and their autonomy, where it leads them, requires a far greater love than the kind of attachment reflected in devotion to a single and unchanging state of affairs.
I thought that was the end of it -- I had wrapped up that thought to my satisfaction. But of course -- that's an intellectual solution. The emotion underlying it was still raw, for all the pretty prose.

A few weeks later, though, I found myself walking to the Davis Square T-station, on my usual commute to work. For once, my lifelong habit of staring at my feet paid off, because I discovered that whoever had designed the station had sandblasted into the brick floor some lines by poets who have lived in Somerville. I was amused by the lines they had chosen from a poet named Jim Moore -- whom I had never heard of -- as they were particularly relevant to the situation of Somerville commuters -- representing in that moment a kind of mocking freedom that none of us possessed:

At 7am watching the cars on the bridge
Everybody's going to work. Well.
Not me. I'm not
Going to work

On the basis of this, I ordered a collection of Jim Moore's poems, Underground, and it arrived in due course. And there, in a not very famous prose poem by a not very famous poet, I found -- succinctly expressed -- exactly the feeling that I had been struggling to articulate in the Cassandra post.
[Y]ou encounter more and more of these moments. What you love you can't control. The one you loved seems inextricably bound to you, then disappears. 
There it was, plainly stated, and so much more quickly than I had managed. Cassandra's plight. My plight. No solution offered. Just a fact: this is what it is. This is how it feels.

That is poetry. That is the mystery of it -- the fact that you can randomly see an unrelated poem under your feet in a subway, and it will lead you on to other poems, and that one of these will just happen -- just when you find it -- to say exactly what you need it to say. And they were not written by you, that's what's so strange. They emerged from another mind.

"[B]ooks and words (and sometimes people) come to one's cognizance just at the very moment in which one needs them," says William James in the Varieties -- quoting one of those founts of turn-of-the-century self-help advice that, having been strained through James' enormous mind, somehow reach profundities of wisdom.

  Poems come that way too. Just when one needs them.
  This -- plus vanity -- is why I still read them.

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