Friday, September 16, 2005

Reading Poetry for Fun (not profit)

Meghan O'Rourke's article in Slate, "Reading Faulkner with Oprah," was interesting this morning. Read it if you get a chance. O'Rourke spoke of her difficulty reading Faulkner to begin with, and how she hoped to actually get through some of his books through Oprah's book club Summer of Faulkner series. I've always loved Faulkner, from the minute I first read him, which I think was late in high school, on my own, or maybe early in college. I took a seminar in Faulkner my sophomore year in college, and it was just incredible--I've read them all and love each and every one.

O'Rourke talks about Faulkner's modernist style and its idiosyncratic nature. She found this impenetrable in the past and found it difficult at the beginning of Oprah's book club. After tearing her hair out in despair about the way The Sound and the Fury jumped around in time and between characters, she visited an Oprah book club message board and began to realize that reading Faulkner was about the language and the connections between fragments, not the Themes: "Faulkner, after all, was interested in the materiality of language, and my focus on understanding, on processing on a thematic level, was, in some sense, drawing me away from the intensities of the book."

Bingo. I just finished my masters essay on a related topic in poetry. Some of modernism, and most postmodernism is about the reading process. This is not to say that 'meaning' does not play a part in the reader's experience of the text. It does: our brains work to assemble a meaning or interpretation from any assembled group of words. But postmodernism (and I'd put Faulkner more in the postmodernist camp than with the modernists--I think he's a bridge between the two) is not about incrementally assembling a 'meaning' or 'theme' in a work, and then bringing the work to some kind of recognizable end or cumulative meaning. It's about the play between language and meaning and the process of reading. In short, it's about the fun of reading--even though something is confusing, how do we move from this point to that in the work? How are things connected? Finding the connections among points is an activity that unveils not only the author's presence in a work, but the idiosyncracies of the reader's mind. It is about 'consciousness' as O'Rourke notes, but also about the zig-zag of contemporary culture.

Postmodernist works often operate through a reading/writing process different than traditional literature: the work is strewn with significant bits of information, perhaps fragments, wild transitions, and unexpected juxtapositions. The process of reading them is like playing connect the dots, but without the dots being numbered for you--the text is not linear. So you read forward, then something catches your eye and you flip back in the text, read forward a little more, circle back, etc. It's about the pleasure of reading. Of course, those who really just want to move in a linear fashion through a text and receive meaning are not going to get pleasure from a postmodern text. But they, like O'Rourke, have been taught to read and assemble texts in a certain way, and are not receptive to finding other ways of reading.

O'Rourke and other readers in the Oprah book club found the activity of reading fascinating: "Rather than reading the book on our own and then getting together to gab about its themes and what we 'liked,' we were online solving textual puzzles and then sitting down for a dose of synthesized information."

This brings me to one of the things that seems missing from the contemporary poetry scene. There are readings of all sorts, and creative writing programs for enrolled students, and writing workshops both formal and casual, but there is very little space to discuss any of the things are are being written currently. To think about the processes of reading and how poets are asking us to see things differently, perhaps, and challenge us as readers. Discussion groups about poetry relative to classes or MFA programs, tend to discuss canonical authors. Writing workshops focus on what students are writing, but not to really discuss, to 'fix' it.

One of the things that's interesting about the revamped Poetry is its attention to the conversation about contemporary poetry, although that is in the form of short roundtable discussions and articles meant to be read. I would love to get together with friends to do a poetry book group of sorts--read something contemporary, talk about the process of reading, how the author wanted us to see--and not so much what the poems 'meant', or their extractable meaning.

There are all kinds of projects lately devoted to getting poetry to the provinces, the common people, the underpriviledged. But not so much attention is being paid to the group everyone loves to hate: college-educated women (and some men) who form book groups. There's very little outlet for those people who are highly educated and love poetry to actually discuss contemporary poetry--in a word, put their intelligence to use to be tastemakers by buying books and thinking about them. There's a huge market right now for contemporary novels because college-educated, upper-income women (white, black, asian & hispanic) enjoy reading. This is one of poetry's natural constituencies: the college-educated. Many of us grow to love the stuff in college, but spend our time reading canonical lit, then graduate, but have no way to pick our way through the field, and very little chance to discuss a published book that was not written by one of our friends. If poetry is to survive and find audiences, care needs to be taken to cultivate an existing, neglected base as well as reach out to other audiences.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jeneva writes: "Postmodernist works often operate through a reading/writing process different than traditional literature: the work is strewn with significant bits of information, perhaps fragments, wild transitions, and unexpected juxtapositions. The process of reading them is like playing connect the dots..."

Exactly the way that most government reports are written -- unintentionally.

Except, of course, when one has a good editor. Right, Jeneva?