Abacus – Lines Drawn in Sand

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Reading as a Poet / Reading as a Critic


Why are these two modes of understanding —> absorption —> deep, private comprehension so different? Is reading affected when one sits down not only with book in hand, but also with simultaneous thoughts of deadlines / venues / editorial tastes superimposed on the process?

“Affected”? Of course! For when reading poetry collections, volumes of letters, or memoirs for review, we’re not allowed to fall wholly into that rapturous, dreamlike, and profoundly intimate state Bishop described so beautifully:

[R]eading Darwin, one admires the beautiful solid case being built up out of his endless heroic observations, almost unconsciously or automatic—and then comes a sudden relaxation, a forgetful phrase, and one feels the strangeness of his undertaking, sees the lonely young man, his eyes fixed on facts and minute details, sinking or sliding giddily off into the unknown. What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.

But does forgoing that “sliding giddily off into the unknown” mean that our understanding is corrupted or enlarged? I don’t know. In fact, this won’t be the first time I’ve stated in print that I’m far better at framing large, ineffable questions than answering them. What I do know is the truth of two maxims, the first by the man widely considered the best critic in the post-World War II era, Randall Jarrell. “Read at whim! Read at whim!”


(Since I’ve been lucky enough to know his prize student, Eleanor Ross Taylor, I can vouch for the effectiveness of his advice; the last time I saw her, she and her husband were reading the galleys of Bishop’s letters to each other at night.) The other is by Christopher Logue, who, when he wasn’t busily re-imagining the Iliad, was known to prune others’ bookcases, at least when drunk, thundering “Why read a book if it isn’t great?!”

Good advice on the part of both poet-critics, or so it seems to me, even if their words answer the question only partially. A different question was posed by John Palattella in the Atlantic three years ago. How would they have answered him?

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