Trying to read more poetry

Hello friends, as you might remember, I’m doing this thing where I only check my old email (which I still use for all business matters) at around 3 PM every weekday. This means I haven’t checked it since last Friday! Who knows what’s in there??? (Probably a lot of rejection). Actually, what’s surprising is usually there isn’t even any rejection. Just zero or maybe one rejection. I don’t really get much email.

I’ve also been off my old Twitter, though I check it at around the same time to see if I’ve any messages that I need to respond to. Like most rules, these rules will inevitably break down after a while, but for the past week they’ve been good. By de-centering the business of writing from my life, I’m more focused on the here-and-now. My other rule, more tentative, is to write fifty words sometime between 9 AM and 10 AM. I’ve observed that the sooner my writing day begins, the better I feel, and that once I start, I get in the writing mood and don’t stop. But we’ll see what happens. Today I just finished a little spate of writing, did 600 words in the novel rewrite, and I do not absolutely need to do anything more for the rest of the day (although I probably will).

For a while I was contemplating hiding my Nintendo Switch, which takes up a lot of excess time, but I realized that I was often playing it when I was tired or just totally out of energy. In keeping with my general feeling that self-help is largely useless, my basic plan is to at all times try and move just one rung up the ladder of useless procrastination. Instead of sleeping, I’ll play games while listening to books, instead of playing games, I can watch TV, instead of watching TV, I can read, etc etc.

Life has been good, no complaints. I’m going to say something that will probably strike many as infuriating or annoying, but I’ve basically read the canon of English prose fiction. From Aphra Behn’s Oroonookoo through Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Robinson Cruseo, and Journal of a Plague Year, to Fielding and Richardson, George Eliot, Austen, Thackeray, Dickens, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Hemingway, Faulkner, etc, etc, I’ve read almost all the touchstones, including many that are relatively less well known, like Godwin’s Caleb Williams or Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstones or M.E. Braddock’s Lady Audley’s Secret. I went through an 18th century kick a while back, actually, and I had a surprisingly good time–it was nice to read English language fiction that was less mannered than 19th century stuff. I’ve also read a lot of the great novels from other languages: Tale of Genji, Don Quixote, Anna Karenina, War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Story of the Stone, Madame Bovary, Germinal, L’Assommoir, Lost Illusions, Dangerous Liaisians, Pere Goriot, Les Miserables, The Magic Mountain etc, etc. There are some gaps: I’ve never read Tristram Shandy, Gulliver’s Travels, Pilgrim’s Progress, Gargantua and Pantagruel, but I’ve read a lot of novels.

I began the process of reading these books more than ten years ago, when I seriously committed myself to writing. I was like, “I do not want there to be anything in the world of literature that I do not understand.” And although I started with a long list of great writers, I gravitated towards the novelists, and I naturally tended to complete these first. But along the way I also read the great historians: Thucydides, Herodotus, Suetonius, Tacitus, Plutarch, Gibbon. Anyways, for years, I’ve been gearing myself up to start reading the philosophers. And I’ve made progress with these too: I’ve read a fair amount of Plato and Aristotle, I love Rousseau and Voltaire (everyone does), and I adore Hume. I read enough of Philosophical Investigations to get the gist, though I can’t say I understood it.

But recently I started to peruse Kant, who I gather is the ne plus ultra in terms of difficult-to-read philosophers, and I was making my way through it, and the ideas were interesting, and I could sense there might be some reward in this study, but I was also like…I just don’t care. I have no desire to make my way through this. What am I trying to prove?

I think because I wasn’t an English major, and because I mostly read science fiction and fantasy growing up, I always felt inadequate before the great works. I’d open something like Hegel or Kant, and I’d be like, I want to be able to understand this.

But…it’s just not my thing. I read Hume and I read Wittgenstein, and those too honestly solved philosophy for me. Which is to say, it’s pointless, these questions aren’t answerable through reason. I can see how Kant makes a very good try with his ideas about pure reason, but it just still felt flimsy to me. And I could work through the entire book and figure out why it’s not flimsy. But I could also…not do that.

In the end, I’m content to leave the philosophical world alone. I have my intuition that it’s mostly sophistry, but to confirm that intuition I’d need to do a lot of reading that I don’t want to do.

Which leaves the question of…what to read next?

Of course, there’s the possibility of reading increasingly avant-garde fiction. I certainly didn’t fully understand Ulysses, and making my way through William Gaddis’s JR was more an act of will than of pleasure. I could read Pynchon, find other difficult works. I could also explore the writing of other cultures. I’ve read a fair number of Japanese novels, my favorites are Yasunari Kawabata and Natsume Soeseki, but there exist many more. I’ve read almost no Chinese novels, few African novels, few Portuguese novels. (I only read in translation, so learning another language is also a possibility).

But instead of (or in addition to) doing that stuff, I’ve decided to try and read more poetry.

Personally, I have an arcane system whereby I assign point values to books based upon how long and how difficult they are, and I’ve decided I’m going to read 100 points worth of poetry from before 1900 and 100 points worth of poetry from after 1900. As always, I’ll be reading haphazardly and less-than-systematically.

I’ve read some of the great poets. I made my way through Paradise Lost a few years back, but in general I’ve neglected poetry. I always felt it was above me, that I wasn’t patient or careful enough to understand it. My technique with classic literature has always been to read it just like I’d read anything else–I might not gain as much as I could from a close reading, but it’s much more interesting, and I can’t help thinking maybe closer to the way these works were meant to be read. ANYWAY, I’ve made some progress already. I read a volume of Kay Ryan’s Selected Poems. I was impressed by her rhyming. Really subtle, innovative rhymes. I did sometimes feel like the poems themselves were a bit…empty? That they didn’t arouse much feeling? But maybe that’s only me. And I’m working through an anthology of Renaissance English poetry. Man this Thomas Wyatt guy really loved the ladies! How come there’s not as much poetry about trying to get with some lady anymore? Or feeling sad that she won’t get with you? Poetry nowadays is all about trees and nature and stuff. I guarantee you Thomas Wyatt spent way more time in nature than we do now, but he was like…I wanna bang.

Oh, and I’m mostly going to try and read English poetry. Not that poetry in translation doesn’t have value, but, well, poetry is literally the thing that is lost in translation.

So that’s where I am right now.

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