There are alot of books on the market about how to read in a hoity-toity, analytical fashion (Mortimer Adler’s How To Read A Book, Thomas C. Foster’s How To Read Literature Like A Professor, etc., etc.). I think that these books are really dumb. The purpose of a book–whether it’s The Berenstein Bears or James Joyce–is to give pleasure. Insofar as the teachings of lit professors come to prevent their students from reaping a harvest of pleasure, they are actually undermining the purpose of the books that they purport to uphold. Some English classes would do less damage to literature if, instead of teaching, the instructor just went out and burned as many books as he could find.*
There is no branch of literature that is so ill-served by formal education as poetry. In English class, we’re taught to pick a poem to pieces and try to “discover” the various readings that the teacher is eventually so good as to hand to us. Or maybe we go through it on a structural and formalist level: we count the syllables and mark the stresses and sort out the meter; we categorize the rhetorical devices; we pluck out the allusions. But what we don’t learn how to do is pick up a book of poetry and enjoy it.
Until I read Paradise Lost two summers ago, I don’t think I had ever willingly read a volume of poetry. My whole exposure to poetry was through a few isolated “Best of All Time” type poems (like Byron’s “So, we’ll go no more a roving” or Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” or Poe’s “The Raven”). These poems are fine and these poems are entertaining, but they’re also, in some sense, dead ends. If you love a poem like “So, we’ll go no more a roving”–love it in a way that requires no interpretation, because an emotional reaction flickers forth in your heart as you read–then how do you keep pursuing that feeling?
If your answer is to go to the library and check out some more Lord Byron, then you’ll end up with cradling a monster like this 1120 page edition of his major works.
Now tell me, what is a person to do with something like that? That’s not a book for someone who’s trying to have an enjoyable reading experience; that’s a book for someone who’s got some kind of score to settle with Byron. Even this Penguin edition of his Selected Poems (my god, they actually left something out?) is 864 pages long.
Modern poetry is presented in a more manageable form: the 50-100 page book. However, modern poetry doesn’t even have an in. It’s not easy to discover a modern poet (unless you’re in the poetry world yourself).
But even if you do find a good poet and a nice book that’s of readable length, then what’re you supposed to do with the damned thing? All of your previous experience with poetry has told you that poetry is best consumed in singletons. That first you find a poem and then you pick it apart for every dash and jot of meaning. And then, presumably, you go onto the next one?
However, even a first glance at a book of poetry suffices to tell you that this can’t be right. For one thing, the book is too long. Surely one is not supposed to analyze every single poem therein? And secondly, all of this work of analysis seems a bit abstruse. Is this really how poetry is meant to be consumed? Was Shakespeare’s audience of groundlings rigorously engaged in puzzling out rhetorical devices as the actors declaimed onstage? When Omar Khayyam writes about curling up under a tree with a book of poetry and a bottle of wine is he really planning on getting some fine, rousing intellectual enjoyment from it? When one of Jane Austen’s heroes (I think it’s in Sense and Sensibility) is transported with delight by a book of poems, is it really because she’s managed to work out the cleverness of its meter?
No, of course not. In previous times, poetry was held to be something that was accessible to everyone. Plato hated poetry because he thought that poetry’s artifice could dress up falsehoods and make them sound like truths. But something of that confidence in poetry is lost to us. When I open a book of poems, I usually feel nothing. Sometimes if I strain and strain and read and reread, I finally manage to eke out a little joy. But I rarely feel anything like the ecstatic transport that Jane Austen would have me believe is a common feeling.
For a long time, I thought that perhaps the answer was to skim a book of poetry until you found “the good ones” and then read those ones over and over and over. To a large extent, this is how I enjoyed Wallace Stevens’ Harmonium. I think I’ve read “Tea at the Palace of Hoon” more than fifty times. And it has provided me with alot of joy.
But it also feels wrong, somehow. I mean, this is a way to enjoy a book of poetry. But it doesn’t feel right. It just feels like an extension of the “Best Of All Time” method. It lacks depth or understanding.
Well, I still don’t have any answers to the above questions, but I can add a datapoint. I just read The Collected Poems of Philip Larkin cover to cover in about 2 days. The edition was approximately 200 pages long and contained all** of the poems that he collected during his lifetime (as well as a few uncollected poems). And it was great! I definitely had some kind of emotional reaction to the book as a whole. I did no analysis! Mostly, I read each poem twice, and by the second time I had a pretty good sense of it. If I didn’t understand a poem, I just kept going.
In fact, I read a good portion of it while I was standing on a sunny Oakland sidewalk and waiting for AAA to come and jumpstart my car. And it was marvelous. As I was standing there, I thought, “You know, poetry is just like everything else. We don’t really remember most of what we read. We just read in order for momentary pleasure, and to gain a certain lasting sense of things.”
In Larkin’s case, the sense was vague and dim. It was a world of bookish men in tweeds who were forever looking in on dancehalls and scoffing at the people they found there. In fact, there was quite a bit of scoffing in this world. Much of it, rather strangely, was directed at children and people with children. But a significant amount of it was inward-directed, and aimed squarely at artistic pretensions. And then there was the scenery of the place: a distant English provincial town where there are still wheat fields in between the shopping malls.
I also loved the tone of Larkin. It was this almost-colloquial diction–all “chap” and “bloke” and “bloody” and “junk” and “bastard” and “sex”–combined with an intensely mannered syntax–the phrases proceed at a very stately pace. I am engaging in a light bit of biocrit here, but it does sound a bit like a born librarian who’s trying to mimic the voice of undergrads.
I feel as if I’ve already run far too long here, but I encourage you to read the book. One of my more favorite poems within it was “High Windows” (which I also think is pretty representative of what you’ll find within). I’ve excerpted it below (in what’s probably an act of copyright infringement).
When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise
Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives–
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide
To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That’ll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark
About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds. And immediately
Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
Read it and tell me what you think***.
*Okay, I feel like I was way harsh on English teachers. There’s nothing wrong with you, really. You’re just ordinary peeps who’re doing a thankless job. And it’s not really your job to teach people to love literature. It’s your job to educate them: to teach them how to extract all that juicy philosophical and moral and emotional goodness that literature is supposedly so jam-packed with. It’s not the fault of the English teacher that his whole enterprise is so dubious. I mean, English class is this astrological game where you examine a set of symbols and use them to build up little stories. It just seems totally out of place when compared to all the other, rather more straightforward, subjects. I mean, literary interpretation is fun and all, but it doesn’t really seem like it deserves to be such a big part of every young person’s education.
**There’s another version of Larkin’s collected works that is 400+ pages long and has twice as many poems. I thank God that this is the one that I picked up instead. Basically, the editor had this kind of change of heart and was like, “If Larkin chose not to publish these poems then they do not deserve to be published!” so in the next edition, he only stuck to poems that he published before he died. Larkin did not publish very many poems during his 40 year career. This just goes to illustrate a common truth. For a living author, it’s best to be prolific, so that you keep popping back up onto the radar with each book release. However, for a dead author, it’s best to be alive. Wait, I mean it’s best to have just a few books, so that people can read you and then feel like they really understand you. That’s why John Updike’s critical reputation has been dropping like a stone since his death. People don’t really know how to approach his oeuvre. Since it’s so big and diverse and hard to handle, they just skip it entirely.
***For your reference, my favorite poems therein were: VI; VII; IX; XI; XII; XVII; XX; No Road; Born Yesterday; Maiden Name; Next Please; Reasons For Attendance; Coming; Wires; Church Going; Toads; Poetry Of Departures; Desolations; Arrivals Departures; At Grass; Mr. Bleaney; Love Songs In Age; Faith Healing; Water; Selfs The Man; Take One Home For The Kiddies; Days; Talking In Bed; A Study Of Reading Habits; As Bad As A Mile; Reference Back; Forget What Did; High Windows; Going Going; Posterity; Homage To A Government; This Be The Verse; Sad Steps; Annus Mirabilis; Vers De Societe; Story; A Writer; Fiction And The Reading Public; Since The Majority Of Me; Continuing To Live; How; Life With A Hole In It; and Party Politics