Tuesday, May 03, 2005

More on "Accepting Poetry"

That quote again, from Stevens:
"People never read poetry well until they have accepted it" (Letters, 436).
When I hit a poet whose work I can't abide--say, Barrett Watten, about whom I posted a sniffy little protest on my friend Mark's blog a week ago--I always try to remind myself that I'm probably not reading the work very well, not "accepting" it, as Stevens would say. This isn't a matter of reading skills or strategies, I think, so much as a question of identity. I don't want to be the reader of work like this: which means, I guess, that don't want to embody, even temporarily, the values and desires that underwrite it, and don't want to act the role, even briefly, of a member of its target demographic. (Remember "Garageland," by The Clash? I don't want to know about what the rich are doing. / I don't want to go to where, where the rich are going..." That sort of feeling, only it's not the rich I have in mind.)

Louis Zukofsky once grouped the pleasures of poetry into sight, sound, and intellection. I think a fourth one--pleasures of character--needs to join that list. There's a pleasure in the character I have to or get to inhabit when I "accept" a work and read it well--and, conversely, that character can keep me at a distance from any given poem even when its pleasures of sight or sound or intellection beckon me across the great divide.

(Let those pleasures be great enough and I'll cave and cross, of course--but that's a matter for another post.)

1 comment:

Norman Finkelstein said...

Regarding your last two posts, Eric, here is an anecdote that may be relevant. I often tell it to students struggling with difficult modern poetry:

When I first started reading Michael Palmer's work (the early 80s, when Echo Lake and First Figure came out), I was extremely frustrated. I couldn't get a handle on it, found it almost totally impenetrable, but somehow I knew it was very important poetry. In your terms, I guess, I had already "accepted" it but I didn't know why, and the cognitive dissonance that resulted was unlike anything I had ever experienced reading poetry. My solution was to write about it, finding hints and making associations as I went along. In the end I wrote what I think is one of my best essays, "The Case of Michael Palmer," which concluded with my declaring the work to be "unreadable," a term of manifold ironies.

Since then, of course, I've learned to both understand and take immense pleasure from Palmer's poetry (no doubt it has influenced my own work too, but that's a different can of worms). Clearly--and, if you will, pre-consciously--I desired to be a reader of that work, and perhaps it intended me to be so too. Another way of considering this issue...