On the one mind, I'm all for it: I was always astonished by the statement I read somewhere by some recent MFA grad who was gushingly thankful for having been required to read 50 books of poetry during the course of his two or three years in the program. Wow – fifty whole books! (Read that with heavy irony, okay?) Sorry, fella, but it's a really slow year when I don't read at least half again more than that, & lately I've been trying to keep up a pace of at least 100 volumes (counting chapbooks, of course, but also counting big things like The Prelude & "A" & JH Prynne's Poems) every calendar year. And that's not counting magazines, journals, & miscellaneous stuff online.
It's partly vocational: as a guy who teaches modern/contemporary poetry, I feel like I've got an obligation to know, at least to the limits of my ability, the "field." So I try to look into things I don't find very congenial at a first glance, sometimes even to plough thru an entire volume to find out what the reviewers are so excited about. And I try to have a pretty clear picture in my head of what's happening in the sorts of poetry I find more exciting. Given the pace of poetry production and publishing these days, that's probably a quixotic intention, but still–
And as poet & lover of poetry (not necessarily identical subject-positions, we all know) I simply want to know as much of the stuff as possible, to hoover down as much of that sweet word-work as I can. The Doritos effect. So when I was admiring but not particularly enthusiastic about Karla Kelsey the other day, & then even rather disspirited by what struck me as the virtuosic self-absorption of Jorie Graham, I turned to two little chapbooks published last year by Slack Buddha, Catherine Wagner's Hole in the Ground X and Tom Orange's American Dialectics, and got all excited about "doing" poetry again. And I've got a stack of more SB productions on my desk right now, just waiting to stoke the excitement-furnace.
But on the other mind: I told a class this past semester that one doesn't really come to terms with a book until one's read it at least twice. Maybe that's me, perennial slowcoach: I don't really begin to come to terms with a book until the second reading. So in many ways the poetry reading that means most to me is reading something for the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, nth time: Going back thru Prynne's Wound Response for the 5th time, Geoffrey Hill's Triumph of Love for the 6th time, Susan Howe's Bibliography of the King's Book for the who knows how manyeth time. You can review a book on a first read (usually, you have to); but you can't really think deeply – or I can't – about it until it's so familiar it's become somehow absorbed into your cerebral grooves.
So I'm more than willing to forgive a certain degree of tunnel-vision in my scholarly friends – the Stevens guy who hasn't read anyone since Stevens, & precious few of Stevens's contemporaries, the Auden scholar who's never heard of LZ or Bunting; that tunnel-vision probably compensated for by a deeper understanding, a deeper engagment with their chosen figure. (At the same time, I distrust their historical sense, & suspect that rather than a love of poetry in all its forms, they love just one sort – like the "gourmet" who always orders the same thing at the restaurant, or the "music lover" who only listens one narrow sub-genre.)
And I think I'm still capable of mustering the intense engagement I brought to LZ's work all those years ago, even if I seem to have less time for it these days, what with all this mass reading (oh, & work responsibilities, parenting, etc.). But how am I ever going to find just that right poet to fixate on if I'm not reading at least a 350-degree swathe? So, back to the chapbooks & the coffee.