I often wonder why people think reading a poem is different than reading other works of fiction. When you pick up Tinkers by Paul Harding or Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk or A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, you just start reading. You do not aim to discover the meaning of the work until you have worked through the story.
But with a poem people start trying to figure the meaning from the minute they read the title. If you are trying to determine the meaning of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” from the moment you begin reading it, you will miss the horror of picturing a raven flying into your house and speaking to you. If you are trying to discover the meaning of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” you will miss the woods, lovely, dark, and deep.
My friend lent me Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins.
I sat in a Dunkin’ Donuts reading through it and I nearly spat out my coffee in surprise. (I am sure she’s glad that I didn’t: she lent me an autographed copy.) One of his poems echoes what I wrote in Diving into Poetry two weeks ago.
W.S. Merwin, one of my favorite poets living or dead, has been named the 17th United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress*. His term will begin in the fall of 2010 and run through the fall of 2011.
He will open the Library of Congress’s annual literary series with a reading of his work on October 25, 2010.
For some of my favorite poets, like W.S. Merwin or Rainer Maria Rilke, I do not know how they first entered my life. They have become so integral to me that I feel as though they have always been with me. After reading his work, “Separation,” — which I hope he reads at the conclusion of his duties as the Poet Laureate — I cannot think of loss the same way.
I have an imperfect memory from the beginning of a middle school — was it sixth grade? Seventh? — science class. But it stands out singularly in my memory of my schooling.
It was the beginning of the year, perhaps even the first day of school. He called on me. I don’t remember what the question was. But I do remember how I felt.
I sat there, uncomfortable, searching. I felt my body growing tense. I felt first embarassed and then afraid.
“I don’t know,” I said, little more than a whisper.
He smiled. “That’s the correct answer — for now. You don’t know, but you will learn. Why else are you in school?” He turned to the rest of the class, “Does anyone else know?” And then he continued with the lesson.
Until that point in school, things came naturally to me and I remember feeling dread and panic that I didn’t already know something. How can I not know this thing? I felt relief and gratitude.
I don’t know that the teacher knows what a gift he gave me that day. I hope that he knows — that he intentionally asked something we unlikely to know, to remind us why we are in school — but I continue to wish that I could tell him. But I think the greatest gift I can give is to learn from his example and give that gift to my students.
Although I still dislike being wrong, I have carried this lesson with me. I know now that being wrong and being ignorant is not a permanent state.
“A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore, but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out. It is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.”
– John Keats in the film Bright Star
Bright Star has become one of my favorite movies since I saw it twice in theatres. And my favorite scene from the film is the poetry lesson that John Keats gives Fanny Brawne. Fanny states she does not know how to work out a poem, as so many of us would say if someone asked us how to work out a poem. Keats responds with the above.
The last few nights I have watched again and again and again this particular scene. Keats gives an entire year’s worth of poetic instruction in that single scene.
* * *
Lately in discussing poetry with my friends, they say, “I am no expert in poetry,” or “I do not understand poetry,” even before we have discussed a poem. If I were to ask a friend what they thought of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club or Hubert Selby Jr.’s Requiem for a Dream, would they say, “Oh, I am no expert in novels”?
No, they would not. The very idea is ridiculous.
|José Saramago, Nobel Laureate 1998|
November 16, 1922 – June 18, 2010
José Saramago died today according to his publisher. He was 87 years old.
I am mostly ignorant of Mr. Saramago’s work. I began reading The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis and found the story wonderful and strange. It tells the story of Ricardo Reis, a “heteronym” used by Fernando Pessoa, who continues to live on after Fernando Pessoa has died. A heteronym is different from a pseudonym in that each heteronym possesses a separate history, temperament, philosophy, and writing style, whereas as a pseudonym refers to the author.
The writing career of Mr. Saramago flourished later in life. He did not become a full time novelist in his late fifties, “after working variously as a garage mechanic, a Welfare Agency bureaucrat, a printing production manager, a proofreader, a translator and a newspaper columnist” (from the New York Times obituary).
His work serves as a reminder that not all great artists are great while they are young, a foil to our obsession with youth.
- “Nobel-winning Portugese Novelist Saramago Dies”, boston.com, June 18, 2010
- “José Saramago, Nobel Prize-Winning Writer, Dies”, nytimes.com, June 18, 2010
- “Portugese Novelist Saramago Dies”, wsj.com, June 18, 2010