Tuesday, December 29, 2009

reading (lots of) poetry

I'm of two minds about it, the whole business of bulk-reading.

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.


Don Share said...

Just came across this quote from Thom Gunn: "I am not surprised that I have sympathies with such a broad range of poetry: I'm surprised that everybody doesn't." I like the idea that rereading broadens and deepens.

Ed Baker said...

Matei Calinescu's


no to goo through my 120,000 stashed books and pull out (and re-read) my

Thom Gunn "stuff"

things of his in same trunk with Gil Ott..

Vance Maverick said...

I have hit the same limit as you, Mark, but evidently at a much slower pace of reading. I have sympathies with a broad range of poetry, and I need to reread to get it -- result, a pace on the order of five books a year (not that the book is generally my unit of reading, except say with Oppen). Mostly I've made my peace with this limitation, but a part of me envies this man's depth, and that man's scope.

Norman Finkelstein said...

Sorry to be commenting on this post now, but it's been a busy few days. In terms of the number of volumes of poetry I read in a year, I'm much closer to that grad student than to you, Mark. I couldn't possibly digest that much poetry, couldn't process it, as it were. I think of the stack of books and chapbooks I've got piled up, most by friends and associates, and I'm embarrassed that I've skimmed them at best. I do want to know what's going on out there, though I also think I have a reasonable sense of that. Of course, there are some contemporaries I read immediately, as soon as I get my hands on new work. And reading certain poets sometimes helps jump start my own poetry.


As I get older and continue to write poetry, I often feel I need to keep other voices, however fine (or at least interesting) out of my head. It's more important for me to able to hear myself (or my own set of radio stations, as Spicer might say). In this case, the poet and critic in me may well be at odds. But much as I enjoy writing criticism, the poet has to have priority. So often I'm better off reading different genres. Or doing the laundry.

Anonymous said...

reading others' poetry
can and most likely will become/be hazardous to your own writing/voice

what is "going on" in contemporary Poetry is

from what I see

non-stop imitation, triteness, gimmickries, cliches, clubbie, etc..

best just

"get into your own 'bag' and
do your thing!

Curtis Faville said...

This sounds like a reviewer's pace.

When I was at Iowa, I probably read parts of at least 200 books of poetry, in addition to all the required material for my Ph.D. courses. But most of those were forgettable, i.e., the books that touched me I read over and over, especially certain poems that I thought spoke to me. I think that's common.

But diligently reading hundreds of individual poetry books seems kind of like drudgery. I mean, what about all the poems in the classical canon that you "put off until later"? When will you read the rest of Browning and Tennyson and Pope and Dryden and Blake and Coleridge and Wordsworth, etc.?

What about the Adorno and Derrida and Wittgenstein you've been putting off?

Are we not obliged to shake out the hierarchy of resolution once in a while, so we maintain some standards of priority?

It's hard for me to imagine that--given that I'm mortal and only have between 15 and 25 years of active life left (I'm 62)--I could justify reading any more of Jorie Graham, when I've never read all of Bunting or Rakosi or Jarrell or Hughes.

If I haven't yet read Call It Sleep or V. or Ulysses, how can I indulge in latter-day wannabes?

marukusuboy said...

"A man's brain," Sherlock Holmes once opined, "originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."

I don't necessarily think that the view of Sherlock is "elementary" (on the level of "no sh&% Sherlock"), but I do adore the (utterly functional) term "brain-attic" and will try to slip it into a sentence as soon as I can.