Friday, June 02, 2006

On Poetry

I've had trouble, at times, fitting poetry reading into my life -- I've always wanted to be the kind of person who reads and appreciates poetry, but the image of myself as a reader and the kind of reader I actually am don't always match. And it's not just an image thing -- I've truly wanted poetry to matter to me.

I think part of my problem with reading poetry has been that I've felt I needed to read a bunch all at once -- to make my way through a book of poems in a relatively short time. I don't know why I felt that way. Maybe it has to do with getting impatient if I'm in the middle of a book for too long.

At any rate, I'm trying not to care if it takes me months to read through a book, and to read poems only a couple at a time, for short periods of time here and there. If I try to read a whole bunch of poems at once, I feel like I'm not absorbing them and that there's no way I will remember them. Even reading only a couple at a time, I may not remember them, but I'm more likely to. If I set out to read only two or three poems at a time, then I'll spend more time with each one, and really feel like I'm engaging with them.

But that leads me to the other problem I have with reading poetry: I'm uncertain about how long to spend with each one. For me, it's like looking at art in a museum -- I get self-conscious about how long to look at each piece and when to move on. I begin to think about how long I've been standing there and how much longer I should stand there, rather than thinking about the art itself. With prose, while I may re-read a passage here and there to understand it better, the expectation is that a person will read through it once. But with poetry, obviously, re-reading is much more important.

I'm in the middle of Jane Hirschfield's book Given Sugar, Given Salt, and I've found that she has many poems that consider the relationship of writing and life -- how the page can merge with one's experiences in the world. Here is one example. I like the image she has of memory as a book where the ink bleeds through the pages and the idea that even our blank pages -- or new days -- are already written on by our previous experiences:

Waking this Morning Dreamless After Long Sleep

But with this sentence:
"Use your failures for paper."
Meaning, I understood,
the backs of failed poems, but also my life.

Whose far side I begin now to enter --

A book imprinted without seeming reason,
each blank day bearing on its reverse, in random order,
the mad-set type of another.
December 12, 1960. April 4, 1981. 13th of August, 1974 --

Certain words bleed through to the unwritten pages.
To call this memory offers no solace.

"Even in sleep, the heavy millstones turning."

I do not know where the words come from,
what the millstones,
where the turning may lead.

I, a woman forty-five, beginning to gray at the temples,
putting pages of ruined paper
into a basket, pulling them out again.