As soon as I get up in the morning I sit down and read a few pages of poetry. Sometimes I read poetry that runs on the tracks and offers up the kind of enjoyment you get from the familiar or easy. An example from recent times would be Where Water Comes Together with Other Water by Raymond Carver. Good poems with some quirky moments, I would say. Probably more often I will be reading harder stuff, such as the book I am halfway through now, Charenton, by Chus Pato, as translated by Erin Mouré, a book I first read about five years ago. It is difficult to read. But I have spent a lifetime reading books that are difficult to read. Let’s use the “U” word. I have all my life persisted in reading poetry and prose that I don’t understand.
While hanging out in airports or waiting rooms I have noticed that most people want to be understanding what they are reading. Clive Cussler instead of Parmenides, let’s say. Let us not say anything about those disturbing people who sit in the dentist’s waiting room staring straight ahead for half an hour. Yesterday I thought about those people enjoying their familiar formula novels while their B737 finds its way to Puerto Vallarta. They are a lot like sports fans, I thought. The Brit and the Italian want to watch that soccer game, and can’t sit still for baseball. Ontario guys like the comfort and expectedness of ice hockey, and don’t have patience for the drowse of cricket.
But during Gertrude Stein’s famous tour of the United States in 1934, she attended a college football game and on several occasions compared the experience with the experiencing of art. In a radio interview about her unusual opera Four Saints in Three Acts, the interviewer brought up the question of whether any operagoers would understand the work. Stein replied with her usual calm:
What do you mean, of course they understand or they would not listen to it . . . . If you go to a football game you don’t have to understand it in any way except the football way and all you have to do with Four Saints is to enjoy it in the Four Saints way which is the way I am, otherwise I would not have written it that way . . . . If you enjoy it you understand it.
Then when she talked about the substitutes jiggled on the sidelines, the interviewer said, “But those jiggles are just warming-up exercises.” To which Miss Stein replied that it didn’t matter what they are doing it for.
But even today, when I am an old coot in the literature business, I get uneasy around poetry that is hard to follow. I see young people writing poems the way the Language Poets write, and ask myself why I come up hard against the materiality of their words. Then I remember the summer when I was 24. I had a job pulling weeds during the hot sunny days, and I spent the evenings reading Ulysses. Here is another book I read that summer: The Lovely Lady by D.H. Lawrence. What a relief that was! Around that time I was baffled by Pound’s Cantos but I knew that I should spend the rest of my life reading them. All it took to “understand” them was to make the effort to look up things. But all the while the reader was noticing Pound’s wonderful masonry, enjoying the 750pp poem in the Cantos way.
I remember that one day a person who is closely related to me in a maternal way told me that she doesn’t want to read anything that was difficult at night because life had given her enough difficulty during the day. And this is a woman who has been in an airport only a handful of times. I think about her and I consider that I have grown old enough to give up the difficult books and enjoy a nice read. So I have made a deal. After I re-read a hundred pages of Louis Zukofsky, I get to snuggle up with William Deverell, who is a very good writer, by the way.