I was restless this year. I didn’t read much, even less than I normally do, and I left more books unfinished than usual too. A lot of the novels I read were forgettable, but a few left more lasting impressions on me, their lines and images slowly making their way into the mental repository through which my relationship to the world is mediated. I thought about these latter texts a lot, naturally, returning to them in various ways and at various times, but I feel some hesitation now in sharing their names and what they have meant to me—shouldn’t reading be kept private, a part of me wonders, like one’s prayer or tears?
My primary reading project this year, fortunately, was completely devoid of interiority, public in the way one’s first reading experiences, on mother’s lap and classroom benches, are also public. I’d long been averse to modern poetry in English, not just failing to appreciate a lot of it, but also failing to understand why it is written the way it is. Why does a poet break a line here rather than there, for example, or use this spatial arrangement rather than that? What is the relationship between how a poem looks and how it should be voiced? Deciding, at the beginning of this year, that my aversion to modern poetry had its source mostly in insecurity and lack of training in literature, that I could learn to appreciate it the way I’d learned, just a few years before, to appreciate Homer, Dante, and Milton, I resolved this year to learn how to read modern English poetry. I took one of Yale’s free online classes, Langdon Hammer’s 2007 undergraduate course on modern poetry, sitting through several sessions on Yeats, Eliot, Auden, Pound, Moore, and Bishop. I did basic exercises in scansion, studied Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook, read interviews with Ashbery and O’Hara, Walcott, and Clifton, and listened to poets reading their poems so I could get a better sense of how to voice them.
I learned a lot, I think, enough to begin taking more pleasure in contemporary poetry, to understand some of the structural differences between poetry and prose, but not enough really to want to incorporate it more systematically into my reading habits. What started off as aversion became, sadly, with the passing months, something much closer to indifference. I’m not sure why, but it has to do with time, I think, the way a lot of the poetry I read this year seemed to want to gather itself around a moment, to hold a moment still inside margins of white space, which I contrast with the way certain novels, the ones I love at least, seem to dwell inside time’s currents, live through the long duration of moods. Maybe such generalizations are just a mark of not having read enough, I’m not really sure, but one book of poetry I did very much enjoy this year was Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, which has persuaded me to abandon modern poetry in favor of the epic for next year.
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