Confessions of a serendipper

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In yesterday’s post, I advocated for serendipity as a great way to find new poets. I have been unusually fortunate in this regard, I think, because the library where my father spent most of his professional career, Penn State’s Pattee Library on the University Park campus, is one of the largest libraries in the country – if not the world – to have completely open stacks. Anyone – even a ten-year-old kid with a yen for literature – can wander off in search of a call number and emerge hours later with an armload of books from the surrounding shelves. My father has often said he finds the easy browsability of Pattee Library to be one of its most patron-friendly features.

Until a recent expansion of the library led to a rearrangement, the literature was all shelved in one, big room with long, easy-to-browse aisles. All but the oldest stuff was catalogued according to the Library of Congress system, which doesn’t distinguish between poetry, fiction and plays, but I grew to love the way it grouped literature according to language – I was a fan of poetry in translation from an early age. When Vicente Aleixandre won the Nobel Prize in 1977, my parents bought me a copy of Roots and Wings: Poetry From Spain, 1900-1975, a bilingual edition edited by Hardie St. Martin – still one of my all-time favorite anthologies. Fortunately, the library had an extensive Spanish literature collection, and I spent many hours wandering the stacks and grabbing anything that looked interesting. While most kids my age were getting their first exposure to more challenging ideas through the lyrics of the more thoughtful rock bands, I was burrowing deep into Lorca, Aleixandre, Vicente Huidobro, Rafael Albertí­, and soon enough Neruda and Vallejo.

Around the same time, I stumbled across some anthologies of Japanese and Chinese literature up in the attic – texts from a class my mother had taken in college – and got hooked on Arthur Waley. That led to Donald Keene, Burton Watson and, eventually, a B.A. in comparative literature with a focus on Japanese and Chinese. So largely through serendipity I immersed myself in two of the main streams of influence upon North American poets in the second half of the 20th century.

My exposure to contemporary poets in English was less extensive and more haphazard, perhaps because it came originally under the tutelage of an elder poet with strong opinions of his own. I dutifully read the books he recommended, but other than William Carlos Williams, I didn’t really share his enthusiasm for most of the poets he idolized – wordsmiths like Hart Crane and Melvin B. Tolson. It’s only really been in the last 10-15 years, when I stopped trying to read poets that I thought I should read, and simply started acquiring whatever looked interesting in used bookstores and book sales, that I began to grasp the incredible richness of contemporary poetry in English.

These days I do prefer to buy poetry books rather than simply borrow them, again because of my fondness for the indirect, haphazard approach to reading. More often than not, if I’m in a mood to read poetry, I’ll quickly scan my shelves and grab two or three titles almost at random. Usually I will quickly lose myself in one of them, and end up dipping back into it several more times over the course of the following couple of weeks before finally returning it to the shelf.

How does one read a book of poetry? There’s no best way. Usually it’s a good idea to read it from beginning to end in one sitting at least once, but that isn’t always an ideal way to approach it for the first time. Often I’ll start in the middle and skip around for a while, reading perhaps half the poems in the book in this manner before settling down and starting from the beginning. Poems read for the second time almost always reveal more meanings and resonances than on the first go-round, but how much time should elapse between first and second readings? If you read a poem several times in quick succession, you may fool yourself into believing you’ve gotten everything out of it that’s there to get, and not read it again for another couple of years. But when you do, chances are you’ll see it in a completely different light.

My mentor always used to say that he liked to read poems first thing in the morning, and I’ve found he’s right – that is the best time. But it’s also the best time for me to do my own writing, so there’s a bit of a conflict. Many mornings, after I come in from the porch, I sit down to read a few poems from whatever book or magazine is handy and quickly find myself reaching for my pocket notebook. That’s how a lot of the material in this blog comes about. Even though I rarely discuss poetics or review books of poems, without this almost daily influence of poetry, Via Negativa would be nothing like it is.


Image Hosted by ImageShack.usI was going to review the most recent book of poems acquired in the manner I advocated yesterday, but this post is getting a little long, so I’ll be brief. Actually, I already did share a quote from it in a post last week. The book is Mermaids Explained by Christopher Reid (Harcourt, 2001). I picked it up last month, along with a couple others, at my favorite used bookstore, which is also where I buy my coffee. While I was standing at the counter waiting to get a pound of beans ground, I noticed a sign – “Half Price Off, All Used Books. Ends Sunday.” I wasn’t particularly in a book-buying mood, but this was too good to pass up.

Mermaids Explained was hardcover, in good shape, and whoever this Reid fellow was (the former poetry editor for Faber & Faber, it turned out) the collection was edited and selected by Charles Simic, so I figured it ought to be interesting. I opened the book and read this:

Lines from a Tragedy

Pale twin,
aren’t you ashamed
of what we have come to?
Abject crawlers,
porters of heavy flesh,
the unpretty caryatids
of a decaying house . . .

Surely you remember
the great days of our infancy?
Bewhiskered sister,
we did not always wear
such slabs on our toes,
such smoked-looking calluses;
our veins did not always
bulge like this.

Years ago,
before the fall into walking,
we knew how to play
and to touch the world
with our nakedness.
We were as tentative, then,
and as sensitive
as hands.

“The fall into walking” – how wonderful! This, it turned out, was from a collection called Katerina, poems in the voice of a fictional female poet from an unnamed country of the former Communist Bloc. Reid manages not only to create a believable voice, but to imitate the sound and feel of English translations from the Slavic – a real tour-de-force. In fact, each of the books that this selection includes samples from has a unique style; Reid is, as Simic puts it in the Foreword, “not an easy poet to characterize. He likes disguises, playing different roles, trying out different voices. While some poets seek the absolute, Reid delights in metamorphosis. He can also be unflinchingly direct.” This last is perhaps one of the hardest skills for any poet to master, schooled as we are in the art of finding meaning through multiple layers of allusion, nuance and ambiguity.


In a comment to yesterday’s post, Maria – herself an accomplished poet, originally from one of those Communist Bloc countries of Eastern Europe but now, like Charles Simic, an American writing in English – tells a brief story:

I gave a poetry workshop today in a library as part of a California Council for the Humanities project.

Five people showed up: one was a friend who brought along another friend; two were there because next week they are giving a workshop-discussion on another part of the anthology that had the poems I was discussing; and there was one other guy there who kept challenging me to make him love poetry, seeing how he doesn’t have the “poetry gene.”

I tried, but short of a lap dance, I don’t see how else I could have made him excited enough about poetry to go read some more. He was so determined not to like any of it….

Reading this right after another dip into Mermaids Explained got my mental juices flowing.

the man who does not possess the gene for poetry

Rap is sheer thuggery, poetry’s buggery –
I mean, it bugs me. Half the time it ain’t
even grammatical. I still like Al Pope –
so mathematical! When the cat goes
outside of the box, you better believe
she gets her nose rubbed in it. Listen
up now, this is a metaphor! I’m serious.
What the heck is a pet for, if not
to pet? That cat puts on airs. I say
Hey, old fish-breath, furr-ball, how’s
about jumping in my lap? Then purr all
day if you want. I’m getting crotchety,
I know, but Lord – why can’t things
be a little more straightforward?
Bikes could come with locks.
They could print more recipes
on the side of the box. Dictionaries
could tell you how to tell stones
from rocks. Words should say
what they mean, & don’t you forget it.
It’s all such hugger-muggery.
I just don’t get it.

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