...it's not dark yet, but it's gettin' there...

November 30, 2005

Wednesday Is Poetry Day

No poem today. Instead, i will quote some advice on how to read poetry, especially difficult poetry, which i discovered in the November 7, 2005, issue of The New Yorker. The advice comes from a worthy source, the great poet John Ashbery, in a long but fabulous piece about the poet, written by Larissa MacFarquhar.

This is how Ashbery reads. When he sits down with a book of poems by somebody else he goes through it quickly. He forms a first impression of a poem almost at once, and if he isn't grabbed by it he'll flip ahead and read something else. But if he's caught up he'll keep going, still reading quite fast, not making any attempt to understand what's going on but feeling that on some other level something is clicking between him and the poem, something is working. He knows implicitly that he's getting it, though he would find it difficult to say at this point what, exactly, he's getting. It's the sound of the poem, though not literally so--it's something like the sound produced by meaning, which lets you know that there's meaning there even though you don't know what it is yet. Later, if he likes the poem, he will go back and read it more carefully, trying to get at its meaning in a more conventional way, but it's really that first impression which counts.

. . .

It isn't that he believes that a poem can mean anything, or means nothing, or that language is irreducibly ambiguous, or that only an excavation of the author's unconscious can provide the key, or that the author's intention is irrelevant, or anything like that. He isn't interested in theory. It's simply that, for him, poems are pleasuable tools. He wants a poem to do something to him, to spark a thought or, even better, a verse of his own; he has no urge to do something to the poem.

People often tell him that they never understood his poems, or never understood them so well, until they heard him read them out loud. . . . [A] person might understand them better in readings because he is forced to listen to them in real time. He can't go back and try to make sense of this line or that, as he could if he were reading it in a book: if something sounds odd he must simply accept it and continue to listen, letting his mind catch on one phrase or another. And if he finds himself suddenly jolting back to attention after a minute or two of wondering whether he remembered to lock his apartment, or whether a crack in the ceiling looks more like a fried egg or France, or whether he should have a hamburger for dinner, he must accept that he has missed a bit of the poem, there is no retrieving it, and just enjoy what is left without worrying too much about how it all fits together.

In a sense, reading poetry is like appreciating fine art. i always try to remember to forget about prose, and the expectations of clarity one has from reading prose. Even the most dense poetry is communicating something. But just like painting or sculpture, if the message were something that could be communicated by prose, it would have been written in prose.

Posted by annika, Nov. 30, 2005 | TrackBack (0)
Rubric: Poetry


Annika, you amaze me. You live in my head. I always pick my Thursday poems on the Monday before, and set them up for a future posting in the wee hours of Thursday morning. Guess who I picked two days ago for tomorrow's poem? Ashbery!

We were siblings in another life.

Posted by: Hugo on Nov. 30, 2005

I find poetry to be distilled thought. Usually a line grabs my attention causing me to then examine the poem in detail. Thus, Ale man, ale's the stuff to drink, for fellows whom it hurts to think, should lead one all the way back through A Shropshire Lad.

Heh, if Houseman is good enough for Krusty...

Posted by: Casca on Nov. 30, 2005

no poem?


Posted by: tony on Nov. 30, 2005

My cat haiku

Fuzz and a fat ass
only wants your attention at dinner time
sits on lap and purrs

Posted by: Kyle N on Nov. 30, 2005

Wow, Hugo. i hope you get a chance to read the New Yorker article, it's fascinating. i anxiously await tomorrow's poem.

Posted by: annika on Nov. 30, 2005

Poetry is what George Bush read to us today.

Sheer poetry,

Kill all the fuckers and save six for pallbearers.

Posted by: shelly on Nov. 30, 2005

Forgot your pills again didn't ya.

Have a nice big scotch, no water, and take one of those Prozacs.

Dr. Casca

Posted by: Casca on Nov. 30, 2005