I began 2015 with my then-girlfriend, now fiancée, and two other couples, at a rented house in the Catskills. The house belonged to a college art professor — Bard, I think — and on every available wall of the place hung some darkly priapic piece of art. There was a small, cold artist’s studio in the backyard where Renée and I were supposed to sleep, but after discovering a bundle of dreadlocked human hair, strung invisibly from the ceiling, and a series of circular collages that can only be described as psychosexually insane (or insanely psychosexual?), we opted for the narrow futon in the main house, near the dry heat of the hearth.
We cooked every night, drank a survey of Caribbean sugar cane — Appleton, Barbancourt, Brugal — went hiking through the crater lakes at Minnewaska, talked and sometimes argued about music, art, magazines. Renée made a playlist I still sometimes listen to when I’m pretending to write, and as we counted down the seconds to the new year, we formed a little crooked circle and danced and sang.
During quiet times, I read poems: Richard Wright’s Haiku, and the Robert Frost collection I always throw into my backpack when I leave the city. This was the beginning of a halting, yearlong attempt to read more poetry. I finally caught up with people like Morgan Parker and Phillip B. Williams, revisited Langston Hughes (and dug into his enigmatic, newly released Selected Letters) and Gwendolyn Brooks and Kevin Young, consulted with the back-pocket edition of Pablo Neruda I used to carry around as an annoying undergraduate, and — speaking of haiku — tried, again and again, all year, to figure out the effectiveness and easy grace of Matsuo Bashō’s frog, slipping into the water with a immortal plop. No luck there.
I have been trying to understand pastoralism — I hit 30 and everything suddenly seems so loud — and so have been working my way, slowly, through a slim Dover Thrift anthology of English Romantic Poetry. (Has anybody, by the way, published a big takedown of the Dover people? What they do — I’m sometimes very cheap, it seems right to mention — seems too good to be morally right.) They’ve all got their merits, but let’s be honest: the whole movement was John Keats and the Pips. I reread Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at some point (Dover again! Please tell me this is okay to do), and her prose, and imagination, blows all her husband’s friends’ verse out of the water.
Speaking of publishers, I — like everybody else, maybe — was wowed, and often tutored, by this year’s offerings from NYRB books. Eileen Chang’s Naked Earth helped me to understand the logic and language of Mao’s China; Linda Rosenkrantz’s unruly, addictive Talk drew me closer to Andy Warhol’s drug-and-Freud-fueled New York than I’d ever, at least consciously, wanted to venture.
I can’t remember the last time I laughed at a book the way I laughed at Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. Or the last time I felt as trustful of the control and restraint and taste of a novelist as I did with Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House. Or as happy to be crawling through the oeuvre of a favorite playwright as with Eugene O’Neill’s Seven Plays of the Sea.
I found a first-edition, hard-copy of the O’Neill on one of the uncountable book-lousy folding tables you’ll find, any Sunday of the year, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. These tables, and their attendant “book guys,” are a good reason, if you need one, to live in New York. On another day — summer, sun-stunned — after, I’m just now remembering, a long weekend meal with those same couples from the Catskills, I stopped by a book table and picked up Michael Beckerman’s impressive New Worlds of Dvorak, a close reading — journalistic and musicological at turns — of the great composer’s years spent in America, trying to bequeath to us the “national music” we kind of already had.
I cherish Saul Bellow, so I started but am hesitant to finish his newly collected nonfiction, There Is Simply Too Much to Think About. I cherish Flannery O’Connor, so I read a few more of her beautiful, chastening letters and left her alone. I cherish Ralph Ellison — third big cliche in a row, I know — so I read Arnold Rampersad’s magisterial, appropriately tragicomic biography — very late to that particular party, I know — and went sprinting back to the essays in Going to the Territory and Shadow and Act.
Speaking of cherished writers and unfashionable lateness, I finally picked up my copy of Mansfield Park (Dover!!!) and wished I’d read it 10 years earlier, for all sorts of real-life reasons. I finally read Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, and felt the same way. I read Hilton Als’s White Girls and felt awkward about the looks I got on the subway. (The dynamics of reading on the subway are another essay entirely.)
And speaking of taking things slowly, for fear of ever catching up, I read the second of the Karl Ove Knausgaard novels and called it a year.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s haunting, world-beating Between the World and Me led me back — inevitably — to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Those aforementioned Hughes letters led me back to the Harlem Renaissance — and specifically, for some reason, back to the so-called “passers:” Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Plum Bun; Nella Larsen’s odd, twitchy Quicksand; Jean Toomer’s Cane, an insane, beautiful blend of verse, prose, and drama. Cane’s is probably still my favorite book, and reading it again made me want to someday try to write a life of Toomer, who seems to have been America’s most interesting psychopath as well as its most tragically unrealized and overlooked modernist.
(The Fauset, the Larsen, and the Toomer are collected in the Library of America’s beautiful boxed set of Harlem Renaissance Novels.)
At some point Renée and I began reading Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex — which she’s already read, and I have not — aloud, in bed, at night, sort of inconsistently. It’s wonderful so far.
As always, I ended up feeling like I should’ve been able to read a lot more.
Maybe it makes sense to share, before leaving this exercise alone, that this has been one of the more emotionally intense years of my life. I’ve been introduced to entirely new, often overwhelming species of joy and anxiety and fulfillment and fear and hope. There were times of ridiculous, almost uncomfortable happiness; other days (weeks, months) I spent wishing for a side exit.
With these extremes came a change in my reading. For the first time since I was a kid, I found myself reading almost desperately, reading as a purposeful means of escape. I guess I’d forgotten (likely during the slow and misguided process of becoming a writer) how effective and merciful an analgesic it can be to leave your own imagination and pick up somebody else’s.
Reading has always been my favorite thing to do. This year it was sometimes the only thing I could do. I felt more grateful for books, and for writers — because I remembered that I need them — than I’d been in a very long time.
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Michael wrote in with this question:For some reason (an end of summer shortening of attention span, perhaps) I’m in the mood for poetry, so I was wondering if, in the interest of discussing that other form of literature, the crew at The Millions could suggest some favorite poems, poets or poetry collections (the latter would be especially helpful, its the easiest way to carry around a dozen great mind in your pocket). Anyway, thanks for any suggestions.A trio of Millions contibutors chimed in on this one:Andrew: Full disclosure: my experience with poetry has been minimal, and for the most part it is my obsession with song and music that has led me to certain poets. In this context, then, I have been stirred most by the poetic voice of Leonard Cohen. The very fact that I know his voice intimately from his songs means that I hear his poems, too, spoken in my ear in that same voice. And while he’s often labeled as a darkly intense romantic, in fact some of his finest poems have a light, playful quality. The one that first caught my attention is a little thing called “I Wonder How Many People In This City”, from The Spice-Box of Earth, his second collection of poems from 1961. Here it is in its entirety:I wonder how many people in this citylive in furnished rooms.Late at night when I look out at the buildingsI swear I see a face in every windowlooking back at meand when I turn awayI wonder how many go back to their desksand write this down.All his collections are great, and his first one Let Us Compare Mythologies, from 1956, has recently been reissued. Additionally, many of his poems (including the one cited) and song lyrics can be found within the pages of the massive Stranger Music.Garth: Inspired by Craig Finn of the Hold Steady, I’ve been working my way through John Berryman’s Dream Songs this year. Even for someone like me, who enjoys the fragmentary and fractal poetry of, say, John Ashbery, the Dream Songs were an adjustment, in that point-of-view and syntax are ever-shifting. For the first ten poems, I found myself searching for a way in. But this seems to be one of those great books that teaches you how to read it; I latched on to the rhythm, started reading the poems aloud to myself, and was off and running. One of the pleasures of reading this book is that so many of my friends turn out to have read it, and everyone has different favorites. Dream Songs Week at The Millions, anyone?Emily: If you don’t have a preexisting taste for a particular kind of poetry and you like browsing, there’s really nothing like The Norton Anthology of Poetry – then you’ve got everything from Beowulf to Billy Collins (our former poet laureate, whom I loathe, but many people seem to like) in chronological order, along with brief bios of all the poets, and a bit of a reader’s guide on versification (rhyme, meter, forms) and poetic syntax. But it’s not cheap and with 1828 poems by 334 poets, it’s not a pocket book either.For price and selection – oh, most beloved of American publishers! – you cannot beat Dover paperbacks for poetry collections (where, right now, you can also get Obama and McCain paperdolls). All of their books are between a dollar and $10 and they have both single author collections (Yeats, Rochester – one of my favorites – a dirty, disillusioned Restoration poet, Browning, most wonderful Keats, Blake, Christina Rosetti, Tennyson, Sandburg), and multi-author collections. Favorite American Poems and 101 Best Loved Poems both looked good, but they have historical collections as well, like English Romantic Poetry, if you want to be more methodical in your reading.I also highly recommend the Academy of American Poets. They have an extensive online collection of poetry by American and English poets – more poets than the Norton – and they also have recordings of many of the poets reading their work. I highly recommend listening to Gwendolyn Brooks reading “We Real Cool” or Langston Hughes reading “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” It’s a very user-friendly site and in addition to better biographical sketches than the Norton, they have an index of occasional poems for those so inclined (wedding, funeral, etc).As for individual favorite poems: I love Christopher Smart’s crazy “Jubilate Agno” – it’s a long poem, but a small portion of it gets anthologized and excerpted a lot as “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry” or just “My Cat Jeoffry.” I also love Ogden Nash’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man” (also, if you can find the recording of this, it’s delightful). Robert Herrick’s short poems: “The Night Piece, to Julia,” “Upon Julia’s Clothes,” “Upon Prue, His Maid,” “Delight in Disorder,” and also his pastoral poems like “The Hock Cart” and “Corinna’s Going A-Maying.” Milton is great but he’s a workout – his syntax can be a bit like taking part in WWF Smackdown for some readers. And Marvell’s “The Garden,” his “Mower” poems, and “Bermudas.” Others to try: Gerrard Manly Hopkins, Christina Rosetti’s “Goblin Market,” Dorothy Parker’s “Resume,” Robert Graves, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Ted Hughes’ “The Thought Fox” …There are so many more, but I think I’ve probably already said too much.As a final note: I recommend you begin by reading William Carlos Williams’ “This is just to say” and then read Kenneth Koch’s “Variations on a theme by William Carlos Williams.”