Notes on Poetry and Reading

by Jeff Oaks

Honestly, when I was younger, I used to think about poetry constantly. I used to read anyone my teachers mentioned in class. I read everything by any poet my teachers mentioned at least three times. I didn’t classify things into mainstream and avant-garde because my teachers didn’t even talk that way. If I had, mainstream meant someone who is mentioned in the course of a normal conversation at least three times in a fairly short period of time. Who was mainstream usually shifted over the course of a few classes, as teachers quoted from or pushed us toward different writers or thinkers they themselves were interested in. Where names began to appear on multiple lists, I paid deep attention. That was what I thought the canon was.

But I don’t necessarily mean that I read those poets carefully. I would write down an important sentence maybe. Most of my critical writing as a student involved me correctly noticing that and articulating how a particular gesture a writer made had multiple meanings. I didn’t memorize huge numbers of lines as some people do. I did memorize a handful of poems, classic ones from Frost and Dickinson and Blake. What I did love about reading was seeing and then working out other poets’ structures. I loved seeing other ways of constructing and organizing (maybe I should say “patterning” because that seems more organic and less abstract than construction and organization imply). Some of my earliest poems were imitations of Stevens’ forms, which I found liberating even though I didn’t usually understand a damned thing about his poems otherwise. Using his structures (13 ways of seeing a thing was the earliest realization) gave me a way to play with my own material, which otherwise I wrote down in a kind of dutifully serious way, usually overburdening every noun with an stiffly adjectival symbolism, which I took then to be what “meaning” meant.

As I’ve grown up and read more, it’s become harder and harder to find something that surprises me, that suggests a new way to play. I’m not exactly sure when it happened but a whole lot of contemporary poetry seems like it became only play, a series of ironic gestures not (as in the “old days” of the 70s) over the nothing that we fear our lives are really made of but over the nothing that language itself is. As if there really were nothing else. So much seems simply gesture, all vehicle without any interest in a tenor. It may be that for those poets there are no tenors to depend on. They recognize the need for constant speed, being fast and furious. Holding still makes them nervous, potential targets for ridicule or worse obsolesce.

On the positive side, when I find a poet whose poems do unite (is that a word to be trusted anymore? Does unity requires the death of diversity or complexity?) or combine or mix (that seems to be a word I’m seeing lately in academic conversations as a way to think about what poets are doing when they compose (another dreary verb from the latinate dream of the sciences?)), when I find a poet whose poems fill me with delight and surprise, whose poems make both language and life seem serious, I feel deeply happy. When I was young, I assumed all writers aimed to do that, aimed at sentipensante (“feeling/thinking” to quote Eduardo Galeano who himself was quoting some Colombian fishermen who saw the separating of thinking and feeling as ridiculous).

At some point in the nineties I stopped feeling so hungry about poetry. The turf battles were tiring to read about, everyone trying to defend his or her approach, usually to the detriment of any poetry. I was busy trying to cobble together a life as a teacher. I lost hope that the poems I was writing then were ever going to be noticed, nevermind published. I spent more time putting together course descriptions than I did poems. Occasionally I’d read somebody who wrote in a style I enjoyed, that seemed without party allegiance–James Longenbach comes to mind–and whose attention to actual poems helped to renew and revise my own attention. In general, however, I came to believe that, to paraphrase the Tao the Ching, “If a poem was being talked about, it was probably being championed by partisans.”

My reading changed when I got into a serious relationship, when I bought a house, when I got offered a full-time job.I became enormously skeptical, critical, and dismissive. My tastes coalesced around a few subjects, a few styles, approaches, commentators. I picked up books and read only one poem from the middle. I abandoned the rest. I started novels and gave up after the first chapter. I mostly only dipped into books I heard my friends talk about. I read poems by poets who were coming to campus. I didn’t have time to engage with what I didn’t feel attracted to.

I used to feel (fear) that I’d become lazy, that I was being too stodgy, too narrow-minded. But I don’t think that’s exactly true. Although I do have certain aesthetic stances I’m fairly antagonistic to, I’m not as dismissive as I think I used to be. I’ve found in the past few years that my feeling and thinking have settled on a few questions, that my writing keeps revolving around a set of structures that “feel” right, that help concentrate me and so help propel me into mystery, uncertainty, and even truth and beauty I wouldn’t have foreseen before I started.

And so my reading is changing again. I feel it becoming more utilitarian than before. Now that I have a set of questions, I don’t want to read anything that doesn’t address them in some way.

I’m thinking about all this because I had an interesting exchange about reading with some students this past term. I was talking about how reading for me had changed, what I used to do, what I sometimes do, what I’d like to do more of, how and where I think I still fail as a reader. One student said, “I’m so glad someone’s talking bout this!” It turned out that she’d been feeling guilty that she didn’t read like the majors in her literature classes seemed to be reading–for themes, for examples of certain, largely sociological or political relationships. Not that there was anything wrong with that, she said, but nobody in those classes talks about structures or patterns, things she found herself increasing drawn to. Sadly, nobody in writing classes seemed to want to talk about structures though, so she’d been feeling like she was the odd person out. It was interesting, I thought, how little I’d actually talked about it myself in classes. I tend to think of reading the way I think about praying: you go into your own closet and invent it. But that can be lonely. You want to complete the circuit and talk or write about what happened to you there in that isolation booth. Maybe you have to to make it real, to return to the world.

Or to see if one’s experience makes sense to someone else as it often doesn’t to one’s self, a thing I’m finding is one of the uses of keeping a blog.