Why is reading prose lazier than poetry?
I had thought there was no why, only the simple truth that anything with more words and complete sentences will roll more gently into our brains. But today as I considered reading poems of varying power on my left hand, and dense, layered, sharpened essays on my right…I turned right. For this, there must be a reason.
Perhaps it’s in poems’ careful pace. Even in the most bounding rhythm, in a poem no word can be taken for granted. Go too quickly, and you’ll “slide right off the surface” (my lament/critique of the Romantic and Victorian poets). My habitual reading speed is crazily fast—maybe 800 words per minute, if a recent Internet-provided test was accurate. When I start sliding, I’m gone. Maybe I’m seldom willing to temper my speed enough to read in the art form I natively create-!
So there you have it. Instead of working my way through the stack of literary magazines I love and respect, today I’m reading Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet by Christian Wiman.
Which itself is also a duty/backlog choice…remember I said I was going to read Acedia and Me? Well, my copy of Ambition and Survival is a library book, and I’ve already renewed it once. It’s all to the good; I’m halfway through and already it’s bristling with tabs. I expected it would, since a later book of his, My Bright Abyss, is one of my favorites (read it!). I feel like I’m hanging out with a friend from Rice when I read Wiman’s prose: beautiful, scalpel-sharp, generous yet without room for slop.
As I go back to waiting to be interrupted by our housekeepers/reading essays, I’ll leave you with this thought:
“Of all the many and mostly noble reasons why a poet might turn to prose, there is one which is often primary, personal, and only occasionally conscious: it staves off the silence.”
—”A Piece of Prose,” Christian Wiman (Ambition and Survival, p61)