September 9, 2016KR BlogBlogChatsCurrent EventsEthicsReading

How To

Who said—and I’m woefully paraphrasing—that each poem teaches you to read it in the reading of it? Or each poet teaches you to understand their personal language within the poems themselves? I seem to remember that it was someone writing about John Ashbery, saying that if you “don’t get” a John Ashbery poem, you need to read John Ashbery? Anyhow, if this mangled line of thought rings a bell with you, please tell me.

Whoever said or didn’t say this quote or not quote about maybe John Ashbery, there is indubitable pleasure in thinking of poems as trying to teach us their own language, which is of ours, but luminous in its differences. (“Make it new!” Ezra Pound! See, I remember something.) There is something thrilling and uncanny about experiencing the language we use at our most mundane (reading our grocery labels and grumbling about politicians) rendered unfamiliar in its ways and means in poetry—and though there are aesthetic movements and schools and forms, each poet is reinventing the language in some unique and individual way. Lines that startle me out of my complacency not just through “what” they are saying, but how:

I chaos like a motherfucker.
Fatimah Asghar

My departing blossoms
Obviate parade. 
Emily Dickinson

The above lines function as mini-manifestos, making and being and declaring themselves in a lightning flash of syntax and lexicon. Don’t blink.

It’s one thing to read poems as “how to” guides to their own use of language; it’s quite another to read poems for “lessons.” One of the most freeing aspects of the literature I love is that it gives a space for us to engage with morality and big ideas in specific, provocative ways, without insisting that we walk away with one particular moral to the story. There is, of course, art that is intended to instruct in a specific way (say, 15th-century morality plays), but in most poems, if what we’re “reading for” is an easy take-away message, we’re missing the snowy woods for the . . . well . . . you get where I’m going.

And if you’re reading for that “message,” you also run the risk of missing the fruitful tonal ambiguities entirely, and ending up bass-ackwards on the road less traveled. Robert Frost is a classic example of a poet who seems to be speaking a language so close to ours that we don’t always listen carefully enough to register the music or tonalities that alert us to his depths. While perhaps Mike Pence really was referencing “an old saying in Indiana that good fences make good neighbors” in a speech last week, it’s a phrase that most of us have come to associate with Frost’s poem “Mending Wall,” in which the repetition and unpacking of the phrase is anything but straightforwardly supportive.

Read David Orr’s “The Most Misread Poem in America” in the Paris Review, an excerpt from his book The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong (Penguin, 2015) for a more in-depth take on this Frostian phenomenon. But before you start feeling too self-satisfied in your “correctly” nihilistic interpretation of “The Road Not Taken,” read through to the final paragraph: “Poems, after all, aren’t arguments—they are to be interpreted, not proven, and that process of interpretation admits a range of possibilities, some supported by diction, some by tone, some by quirks of form and structure.” Which is to say, in my opinion, poems are arguments—arguments for embracing complication and ambiguity, arguments for making “sense” with both the intellect and the body, arguments for paying attention. And they are, thus, teachers of the same.

A final thought on literature and the “how to.” There are numerous stories and poems that make the move of purporting to provide instructions and advice, while actually complicating characters and situations for the reader. (Two favorite stories, and “go to” pieces for teaching, are Junot Diaz’s “How to Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl, Or Halfie)” and Lorrie Moore’s “How to Become a Writer.” Both of these are studies in tone, voice, and irony. We are receiving “instructions,” but we are learning something else. A favorite recent poem that provides wry and moving “instruction” is Jennifer Michael Hecht’s “Grief’s Weird Sister, Gratitude,” a recent Poem-a-Day from the Academy of American Poets, which begins:

How to read a tome of Collected Poems?
Read one that pivotally changes you 
and lose track of the page and title.
How to clean a house? Lose your ring in it.

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