My answers to a questionairre recently given to me by a friend

A friend is writing a blog post about peoples’ favorite books. I am going to repost her questions and my answers here because I am short on time to write today’s post

If you could please provide your favorite:
1. Book you could read over and over and over again.
2. Book from your childhood (childhood ends whenever you decide it ends but please specify).
3. Book that you would be embarrassed to admit is your favorite book.
7. BOOK OF ALL TIME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! If you have one of those.
Answers to question 1, 2, 3, and 7: My favorite book is Atlas Shrugged. It was my favorite when I was 14 and it’s my favorite now. I’ve read it at least a dozen times. I think it is sublime. (And no, I don’t believe in her political philosophy. But then…I don’t believe in Tolstoy’s either…) I wrote about it here.
4. Academic/pretentious favorite book… this category could also be thought of as “book that you maybe wouldn’t read again but really loved being forced to read in school” or “favorite book in the opposite of category #1 type of way.”
Answer to question 4: I really did love In Search Of Lost Time (which I read on my own and was not forced to read in school). But I also probably wouldn’t have stuck it out if it wasn’t as famous as it is. It’s also the book I’ve gotten by far the most mileage out of having read. It’s so expansive and so much stuff is related to it and even most people who love books haven’t read it. I do recommend it to anyone who has a few months to spare, though!
5. Out of genre/ “not my typical steeze” book (ie: “I normally never read Sci-fi/Fantasy, but I really liked [insert book title here]” or “Poems make me want to vomit except that one time when they didn’t because I read {insert poetry book here})
Answer to question 5: I don’t read much poetry, but the collected poems of Philip Larkin was amazing (only 250 pages, at least the version I got [which had all his published poems], though they have a much longer one now, which strikes me as BS. If you have an amazing 250 pages, why pad it out with 100 unpublished poems to make a turgid 450.)
6. Book to put on your shelf and admire… (you can pick a certain edition or cover or send me a pic if that’s important to you. This can also be a coffee table book that you have never read full of pictures of naked women.)

Answer to question 6: I keep my bookshelf in my bedroom, so few people ever see it. And, in any case, I recently got rid of most of my physical books. I guess the most impressive books I still have in physical form is my copy of Democracy In America by Alexis De Tocqueville. I read the first half of it ages ago, and am still planning on reading the 2nd half someday.

The Collected Poems, 1909-1962, by T.S. Eliot

So, right after finishing my last entry, I thought, “You know what? I am totally in the mood for some other poetry. What else is kind of short?”

Thus, I went a-googling, looking for a) a well-known poet who b) had a volume of collected works that was under 250 pages long.

At some point, my googling turned up this volume. Apparently, T.S. Eliot’s collected poetical works come in at only around 220 pages. That’s crazy low, considering he’s the most famous 20th century English-language poet. After some more googling, I realized that I could download this collection off of openlibrary.org and start reading it immediately.

But then I had a moment of pause. I thought, “Hmm…isn’t T.S. Eliot kind of dense? Didn’t you just write a whole blog post about how you’re not good at interpreting poems and how you don’t think that’s how poems are meant to be enjoyed anyway?”

So I went hunting for a poem by T.S. Eliot. And it was just my bad (good?) luck that the poem I stumbled upon was “The Journey Of The Magi”—a thoroughly accessible (and extremely awesome) poem that’s about exactly what it sounds like: the journey of the magi to go see the birth of Jesus.

With my anxieties thus assuaged, I started reading. I’d had to read “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” in high school, so I felt like I was on pretty solid ground there. In fact, most of the early poems were pretty accessible to me (as in, I could tell what they were about). In fact, I was kind of enjoying myself. Or rather, not enjoying myself. It was the opposite of enjoyment. I was reading these poems at 9 PM, all alone, in my apartment, with its dirty floors, in front of desk, with its heaps of papers and books and office supplies, and with my feet on my bed–all around me I was surrounded by squalor and decay. And I was reading all of these poems about the emptiness and futility of life. I was reading:

Here I am, an old man in a dry month,
Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.
I was neither at the hot gates
Nor fought in the warm rain
Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass,
Bitten by flies, fought.
My house is a decayed house,
And the Jew squats on the window sill, the owner,
(from “Gerontion”)

Or

The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.

With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.
(from “Preludes”)

And I was thinking, “This is really not what I read right now. Aggh, my other option for tonight’s reading was to hit up Anthony Trollope’s Autobiography. I bet that would’ve been super nice and pleasant. Goshdarnit, why can’t I read more things that are just purely ‘nice’. I’m really starting to see the appeal of Celine Dion right now.”

So, when I hit “The Wasteland”, I was in kind of a dark place. Luckily, the Wasteland didn’t exacerbate that feeling, because I just did not understand most of it. I definitely came to the limits of my “no interpretation” technique. Yes, the words of “The Waste Land” were very scary, and they chilled me, but I think I escaped most of their brunt.

My next encounter was not so lucky. “The Hollow Men” begins:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when

We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

It is a horrifying poem, but also one that’s filled with beautiful phrases: “the supplication of a dead man’s hand”, “death’s other kingdom”, “sunlight on a broken column”, “this is the cactus land”. I think I loved it the most out of any of the poems in the volume.

After “The Hollow Men,” Eliot gets religious. He also becomes a bit more abstract and metaphysical and symbological. His poems no longer have these definite speakers whose characteristics can be identified. Oh yeah, and he finds God and loses some of his sense of the hopelessness of life. Or at least, that’s reputedly what happened.

Eliot’s religion seems like some pretty chilly stuff. It seems like it’s all about rejecting the vanity of human endeavor and just sort of sitting tight and trying to think about God. His first religious poem is “Ash Wednesday”, which contains persistent meditations on the image of a veiled lady who intercedes for mankind:

Will the veiled sister pray for
Those who walk in darkness, who chose thee and oppose thee,
Those who are torn on the horn between season and season, time and time, between
Hour and hour, word and word, power and power, those who wait
In darkness? Will the veiled sister pray
For children at the gate
Who will not go away and cannot pray:
Pray for those who chose and oppose

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Will the veiled sister between the slender
Yew trees pray for those who offend her
And are terrified and cannot surrender
And affirm before the world and deny between the rocks
In the last desert before the last blue rocks
The desert in the garden the garden in the desert
Of drouth, spitting from the mouth the withered apple-seed.

O my people.

After this poem (only halfway through the book), I am just going to confess that I got a little lost. I touched base with some good poems, like the aforementioned “Gathering of the Magi” and the other Ariel Poems (which I gather were meant for an audience of general readers). Hell, one of Ariel Poems was even about Christmas. Can you believe this shit? Isn’t T.S. Eliot a little bit too pointy-headed to be allowed to write an ode to Christmas? That’s like if I wrote a story about a space marine saving Earth from an alien invasion by using the power of free will and individuality. But let’s not kid ourselves, even his Christmas poem swings around to death and to a man’s last Christmas.

Once we get beyond Christmas, to his unfinished verse dramas and his final masterpiece, the Four Quartets, I am only in and out (comprehension-wise). Magpie-like, I started accumulating the nice bits of poesy, like the following rumination on the writing life:

“So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years-
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of Ventre deux guerres-
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition-
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

But by and large, I didn’t understand much of it. I think the poems were mostly to do with Jesus. The strange thing is, though, that I wasn’t bored. I actually get bored fairly easily. Not here. There was something entrancing about the words. I didn’t have the training to read them the way they needed to be read, but there was enough magic in there to keep me reading. As Eliot wrote at the very end of the book:

By whom, and by what means, was this designed?
The whispered incantation which allows
Free passage to the phantoms of the mind?

By you; by those deceptive cadences
Wherewith the common measure is refined;
By conscious art practised with natural ease;

By the delicate, invisible web you wove—
The inexplicable mystery of sound.
(from “To Walter de la Mare”)

There was something captivating in that “mystery of sound”. I also think that Eliot might have finally worked in some kind of antedote to Prufrock and The Waste Land, because by the end of the work, that despairing feeling had dissipated. In a way, I was almost sad to see it go. It was a feeling induced by poetry, and that’s a rare enough beast in my life. And there’s something pleasurable about being able to pin down despair and stare at it under a microscope for a few hours. And it was only few hours—perhaps four hours from start to finish (and another half hour to write this blog post).

Definitely a pretty intense experience. Someday, when I have a little more knowledge, I hope to revisit this book and, perhaps, find some way to extract the rest of its riches.

The Collected Poems of Philip Larkin

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

Do you folks enjoy reading poetry?

Because I (mostly) do not. For me, an appreciation of poetry is a mark of rather excessive cultivation. It’s something that no one possesses naturally. People who like poetry usually acquired that taste in school. The few who possessed anything like a natural sensitivity for poetry are often aspiring poets themselves. In short, I see enjoying poetry (at least in modern America) as something like being able to read Ancient Greek. Many people can do it somewhat well, and a few people can do it very well, but no one can just pick up the Iliad (in the original) and fall in love with it. And, usually, the reason people can do it is because they’ve made a career of it.

I think the sales figures support me on this. A top-selling literary novel in America can sell millions of copies. Even a top-selling short story collection like Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies can sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Is there any living poet (in the English language) who sells even tens of thousands of copies?** No one reads poetry. It’s as utterly dead as any art ever has been. More Americans make a living as blacksmiths than make a living writing poetry*** In any given year, the book that wins the Pulitzer Prize in poetry has usually sold about 500 copies before winning the award and won’t sell more than 1000 after winning it.****

But clearly, my essential thesis here is incorrect. Poetry once possessed great appeal to ordinary people. In some places, it still does.

For instance, I’ll often read in some old book about how some ordinary fellow has been stirred to the very depths of their soul by a book of poetry. For instance, Jane Austen is full of that kind of thing: people falling utterly in love with poetry. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam has a bit where the narrator is lounging in a field with a bottle of wine and a book of poems. Even as recently as the sixties, one reads about fairly ordinary people being enchanted by poetry. For instance, Jim Morrison loved Rimbaud and Alan Ginsberg was influential enough to spark a trial for obscenity. Moving further afield, a colleague of mine at the World Bank has told me that men in Colombia memorize copious amounts of poetry, and that to be able to recite is considering something of a mark of distinction.

We even have the evidence in our language. Poetry has a pre-eminent place in our culture as a metaphor. All agree that poetry is something sublime. It is a long stick that stirs the muddy depths of the soul. The poet is widely seen as a magical figure (just look at fantasy novels, they’re full of very elegant poets whose couplets often grant them magical powers). Any beautiful sentiment is “poetic”. People who exaggerate are exercising “poetic license”. Someone who is a little off-beat or insightful has the “soul of a poet”. A piece of prose writing that contains densely layered language, complex metaphors, and elevated diction is often called “a prose poem”.*

But either all that history is a lie, or we’ve somehow managed to lose something, because I think it is undeniable that even fairly literate people in America (including me) find most poetry (other than bits of, say, Kipling or Shakespeare) to be not at all pleasurable to read.

But I persevere, and keep reading trying to read it. Here and there, I’ve found things that I enjoy. Most often, it’s been long-form poetry. When poetry is wedded to some kind of narrative, I often find it eminently readable. For instance, I enjoyed Paradise Lost and Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol. I enjoyed The Rubaiyat Of Omar Khayyam because I could perceive some kind of narrative unity in it even though it didn’t quite tell a story. But enjoying a narrative poem seems a little bit like cheating, since I’m not quite sure that I enjoy these poems for their poetics (rather than for their story).

When I’ve talked to people about poetry, they’ve recommended trying to bring analytical tools to the game: trying to use the intellect to unpick its meanings, rhythms, and rhetorical tools. This, however, strikes me as not being the right course of action. When people fall in love with a poem or a poet, they’re rarely described as being fascinated by the intricacy of its machinery….they’re described as being stirred…emotionally affected. For me, the path to those emotions is not through the intellect.

The primary tool in my quest to gain some kind of emotional reaction from poetry has been re-reading. Over the last six months or so, I’ve re-read Wallace Stevens’ first book, Harmonium, some five or six times. Each time, I’ve discovered in it some interesting poem that I’d ignored previously (though my favorite is still “Tea At The Palace Of Hoon”). But I think that part of this effect might just be a kind of Stockholm syndrome, though. Since I’ve shackled myself to this book, I’d feel pretty stupid if I didn’t start enjoying it, so maybe the sparks of pleasure are less a result of some poetical alchemy than a result of my mind’s own sense of the just rewards that I am entitled to after hours of hard work.

There was, however, one book of poetry that I enjoyed without rereading or analysis. This was Edward Lear’s Book Of Nonsense, which is a collection of absurd limericks. I was steered towards them by George Orwell’s essay “Nonsense Poetry”. But I am not sure that I am showing any sort of poetic sensibility in my ability enjoy a limerick like:

There was an Old Man of Peru,
Who never knew what he should do;
So he tore off his hair,
And behaved like a bear,
That intrinsic Old Man of Peru

What about you guys? What is your opinion of poetry? Have there been any poets or books of poems that you’ve enjoyed? Everyone, of course, has a few isolated poems that they enjoy, whether it’s “Casey At The Bat” or “The Charge Of The Light Brigade” or “The Raven” or “Ozymandias”. I am less interested in that and more interested in whether people find it possible to enjoy poetry in any sort of systematic way, like by cracking a book and reading some, rather than just having it percolate into you in dribs and drabs.

*Yes, I am sure that there is a more technical definition of what a “prose poem” is, but like everything poetry-related, no one knows that definition.

**According to Time, the best-selling book of poetry of the last decade (by far) is a collection of Rumi’s poetry. It has sold 250,000 copies in a decade. And that is the absolute tops for poetry (dude’s also been dead 800 years). The best-selling contemporary poet seems to be Elizabeth Alexander, who read at Barack Obama’s inauguration, with a 100,000 print run of her book coming out shortly after the inauguration (couldn’t find out how many copies sold, though).

***I just made that up, but doesn’t it sound true?

****I also made this up, but it too is a pretty true-sounding stat.