Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Emerson Was Right

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." The promise I made to read through my poetry shelves from A to Z? Foolish. I almost made it through most of Dante Alighieri's Inferno before I piled the book and my notes on top of the big dictionary, where leftover papers often gather, and drove as quick as the law allows to the library. I've lounged and loved the couple of mysteries I plucked off the new-books shelves and feel better for it. At least I don't fall asleep at every third page.

I once spent an interim semester (that long break between fall and spring semesters) on Dante, and I seem to have stuck with that, if my transcript can be believed. But the slogging through hell is no longer something I want. What did impress me was Alighieri's talent for the truly terrible scene, an imagination that leaves Hollywood a distant second for inventing torture and fear and gore and all things scary and ugly. I am surprised some desperate producer hasn't tried to make a film of the Inferno. Of course, given my resistance to filmed violence, maybe such a movie exists and I have successfully put it out of mind. Hurray for that.

Let me say, quickly, that I do not hold John Ciardi's translation responsible for my many unscheduled cat naps this past week. He did a fine job of turning medieval Tuscan language into contemporary English, all the while maintaining a strong semblance of the rhyme and structure which Dante so masterfully created. No, the lack is in me. I'm a vagabond reader. Always have been, always will be. Now, I'm off to see what other book winks at me from the bottom of the library tote.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Alighieri to Zukofsky

Recently I posted my experience of reading Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, about a reading marathon involving a book a day. And I nixed that idea for myself, while remaining impressed with Nina Sankovitch's courage and determination. She was reading to deal with grief. I read to deal with boredom, restlessness, stress, and challenge. I've almost finished Bill Moyers' The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets, in which I keep noticing that what other writers say about their work jump starts my own writing. And makes me thirsty for deep drinks of poetry, makes me want to know far more than I do. So here's my challenge to myself, and it's so simple I don't know why I haven't done it before. I want to read/reread every book on my poetry shelf. And, like Sankovitch, comment on what I've read. I had to do this sort of response in poetry school, so why not refresh those skills and teach myself about the books I thought enough of to give precious shelf space?

This won't be the first time I've reminded myself how much I have yet to learn about poetry. It won't be the first or last time I tell myself that it's cowardly to hide out in my beloved mystery stories and fluffy non-fiction. It will supplant my goal of reading every book I have myself listed in Feed: Reading Lists for Those Who Eat. (That's my latest publication, soon to be available on Amazon.) But I want/need a break from food lit. I now want, as Mark Strand says, to eat poetry. I want to feast on the tasty truth that poetry provides.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Suffering Poets

Currently I am reading and enjoying an old collection of interviews with poets, Bill Moyers' The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets (1995). These conversations in print are like lurking in a fine literary salon. The only problem is that Moyers, good as he is with interviews, does not challenge a theme repeated by several of the thirty-four poets included. They talk about the horrors of writing, the struggle, sometimes for decades to get it right. Donald Hall says, "It's typical for me to spend three to five years on a poem . . . not working on it every day, but maybe every day for six months. . . . I need to sleep on it five hundred times." And Stanley Kunitz says, "I think poetry is the most difficult, the most solitary, and the most life-enhancing thing one can do in the world."

Well, I get the life-enhancing part, but I cannot agree that it's the most difficult thing in life to write poems. Nor do I plan to spend 500 nights sleeping on one. Life is too full of life for that. I like the idea of William Stafford writing a poem every day, but I don't do that either. I manage most weeks to make a fair start on a new poem, but I don't expect 52 whiz-bang, Pulitzer worthy results every year. Writing a poem is most often a pleasure, like doing a good puzzle or solving a mystery. The discovery that comes from working on the piece is my reward, the response from readers and listeners a bonus. But the poem is words on paper, less worrisome than a sick child or a broken heart. I write about the child, the heart, the hunger in the world and the unfairness of life. But writing about it is not the same as suffering the event itself. Steven King says in On Writing to put your desk in the corner and not in the center of the room. It is not, however important, the center of your life.