Friday, May 9, 2008

Is There a Part of the Brain Reserved for Reading Poetry?

Classes are over. Grades turned in. Only two weepy emails from students wondering what they had done wrong that I didn't give them the 'A' they were sure they deserved. Do math professors hear complaints like this? "I know I couldn't solve a single equation, but I worked so hard!"
Now to finish the novel I've been working since the end of the last century... and settle in for a summer of reading. I like to begin the day with poetry. Working my way through From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry 1960 - 1990, George Oppen's New Collected Poems, A Selection of the Poems of Laura Riding, and Frank Bidart's Star Dust. For some time I've been taking notes on the Thomas H. Johnson collection of Emily Dickinson, every poem. I've not yet covered 300 and the poor paperback edition is falling apart, held together with duck tape and paper clips. I write the annotations in the margins so don't want to buy a new copy.
In fiction: currently reading Douglas Parmée's translation of A Sentimental Education. I should try it in French, but still working my way though Germinal--a page, a paragraph, a sentence at time. Before the summer's over I hope I'll be able to finish, among others, Musil's Man Without Qualities.
Come the late afternoon, written out for the day, aching for human company, too early to make dinner, hours before I can justify calling it quits and heading for Bella Rosa for pool and a few glasses of wine, I take a chair and set it in the entrance walk in front of my apartment. (I rent a first floor front efficiency in a typical South Philly row house. Even have a little porch and a patch of garden space for basil, tomato, parsley, oregano and thyme). Broad street and a subway exit is only a block away, so there's a steady parade of people coming home from work that time of day. I bring out my journal, a book, a couple of New Yorkers or the London Review of Books, arrange a pillow at my back, settle down to bask in the late afternoon sunlight and read. The passersby satisfy the need for company; I get in quality reading time--altogether a fine way to end the daylight hours.
Cold wind and rain today, but there's a nice café on Passyunk (several, actually... and not one Starbucks. I can take my pick)... pack up and do my reading while enjoying an espresso and almond biscotti.
Yesterday I was browsing through the London Review of Books (T.J. Clark has a wonderful piece on Courbet and Poussin at the Met--and there's a James Wood review), when I found myself staring at--not reading, but staring at a poem. I couldn't read it. Couldn't force myself to read it. This got me to thinking. I can't read the New Yorker poems either. Sometimes it's because they show up half way through an article or story I've already begun, and I don't want to stop. But staring at this poem in the LRB (two poems, actually--and both quite short)--I realized it was something else, more to it than that. I simply cannot read poetry when I'm already engaged in reading prose. I try... read a line or two. Nothing registers. It's almost painful. I feel the muscles in my stomach contracting. I feel bad for the poets, their work surrounded by hostile prose, like trying to read them with three TV's going.
To read poetry I need silence. Wide borders. Lot's of white space. Best of all--to come to them fresh from a night's sleep full of dreams, cup of coffee in hand, desk cleared of clutter--especially--other reading matter. An open notebook--blank page inviting my impressions.
I'm sure that if my head were encased in an MRI when reading first poetry, than prose, entirely different areas of the brain would light up. For those who say they cannot read poetry... would it help to do a session of Tai Chi first? ... or yoga? Poetry requires a state of heightened mindfulness, a mind so acutely awake the circle comes back around and overlaps the state of dreams. But then, isn't that true in general of how we experience art? Everything else is divided between waking and sleep, but engaging a work of art we live in a state that is neither and both--a third state of mind, a state of mind, like the kingdom of heaven of Jesus of the gospels--with many mansions. Some for poetry, some for fiction, some for dance. Shakespeare has one all to himself. And Bach. Homer. Cervantes. Lady Murasaki.
Ah, I would be happy be occupy a rusty watering can in the far corner of an old weather beaten garden shed at the edge of the estate of the least of these houses of the mind.


  1. I react very similarly when I stumble upon poetry embedded in prose -- I mentally treat it like 'flavor quotes' in articles.

    I'd love to hear your thoughts on Musil when you get to him this summer -- I read through it last year and have recently returned to my notes on that text -- I remember finding it to be uncannily appropriate for our current world -- as I often find with early 20th century writing.

    It is, of course, also very hilarious and very beautiful

  2. Aww, that is too too bad. On average I tend to react more positively to the LRB poetry than those in the other lit mags. The good folks there introduced me to August Kleinzahler(the way he connects the sound of words to the images he creates in some of his poems is outstanding) and a late female Russian poet whose name I cannot presently recall...

    I just read the issue after yours and there's a full page given to a Muldoon poem -- maybe that will help; lots of space, nice borders. :) It's conveniently placed beside reviews on Nothern Irish lit. (Another thing I like about the LRB selected poems.)

  3. I do set the issues aside, take them up later just for the poetry, try my best to ignore everything around them.

    I also prefer to read poems in collections. Find it harder to relate to one or two isolated examples. Have the same problem with anthologies.

    Wonder why I'm getting my LRB so late?

  4. Hmmm, not sure. Mayhaps I have an in with one of the editors who sent me free copies when I blogged about it over a year ago. ;)(I complained about my bookstore no longer carrying it after I tried a single issue.)

    I am becoming more attached to single poem titles rather than the "Selected" stuff because I realise how deliberate poets are when they put the originals together. You lose that in collections unless they include everything and even then I'm tempted to skip.

  5. Agreed. I meant "selected," as in books of poems selected by the poet, not "Selected poems of _____ " sort of thing.


    "Collected," as in final and inclusive... collected works of...

  6. It's likely that poetry engages the whole brain, or large cross-sections of it, much as music does. There's not a single music region, if I understand Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia right.

    When I am reading an academic article about poetry, I skip over the actual poems the first time through. I try to follow the prose argument first. It's just too hard to make that transition. Then I go back and read all the quoted excerpts. Finally, I go back to the prose argument again. So yes, my experience mirrors yours.