I have just finished poet Mary Oliver’s A Thousand Mornings while eating a bag of beet and sweet potato chips. It is the most nonchalant I’ve been with poems since I can’t remember when.
I may have been going about poem-reading incorrectly.
I checked this volume out of the library maybe a month ago. A book of perhaps 40 poems, sized about like my poems — that is, small ones. I kept the book in view, but saved it for The Right Time. A time when I would give it full attention, and slowness, with long pauses to be sure I absorbed whatever could be squeezed from the words.
Mind you, this is not how I read my friends’ poems. Those I read with a pencil in hand, once briskly, next intently, then with my lips moving as I read aloud without sound. The pencil darts in and out each time–making checks, circling, crossing out, sketching big arrows to move parts around on the page. I read my work this way, too; this is how we make the work its best, by bending it everywhichway to see if it cracks apart.
Slow squeezing is not how I interact with visual works at museums, either. I’m not going to alarm the guards by holding a poised pencil, but I use a similar rhythm of eyes when I’m engaging a painting or sculpture. In the once-over, I decide what, if anything, snags me. I review the snag, then come back over the whole to see what balances have altered after scrutiny. In time maybe I’ll read the artist’s statement, to see whether we agree…or maybe I’ll ignore it on principle. (As a rule, I think one should use one’s medium and not hedge bets by creating the thing in parallel. If paint can’t express it, then for heavens’ sake don’t use paint!)
When the beet chips were gone and the book finished, I wondered: why am I assuming there needs to be squeezing? What old habit am I falling into? Academic reading? But my ongoing time with The Psychology of Writing says: oh heavens no. Skimming over the words like a pelican over the inlet’s water is what’s needed for academic writing. There’re too many words piled up here to treat each citation like a tasty fish.
Perhaps it’s an older academic habit, from my English major days. I took many poetry classes for my degree, thinking a grounding in the field might come in useful. For English classes output is measured in literature essays; lit essays are fueled by what we students wring out of the writing. So I think this must be the source of my current behavior, my feeling that reading poems requires buckets of time and focus.
But I’ve no call for poem-wringing now. I need only enjoy, or shrug, before turning my attention to something else. It won’t take a month to gain strength enough to do that-!
There’s a growing stack of literary magazines in my living room. They, too, have been imprisioned, left to wait for the Right Time. Perhaps it’s time instead for this more live-and-let-live reading approach. Perhaps it’s even time for a new bag of chips?