Thursday, July 10, 2008

Poetry is yoga for the mind

Just short posts this week, as the summer schedule is a bit grueling, and I have a book review due soon on top of everything else.

Reading: I have these theories, or perhaps just connected beads of thoughts about the act or art of reading.  I love my bowdlerization of Stanley Fish's "kinetic art" that I've talked about here, as well as some of the early work on reader response.  We, as individual readers, are trained and conditioned--taught in school--how to read.  

As I've seen recently, scanning some blog posts and responses on the Poetry Foundation blog, reading poetry in particular and reading in general is often presented to students as a puzzle that need be solved.  There is an "answer."  And the answer is "correct."  I ran into this mentality in my own teaching days, both at the private high school and Ivy League college levels.  Or you run into the corollary--Aristotle's basic theories run amok and misinterpreted as "everything is relative."  

And then there's my Warren Wilson flirtation with reading, which is that one reads for craft, for what is most interesting--that you can, as a writer, skirt about the edges of reading for meaning and read for something more interesting.  That was one of my most satisfying experiences with reading in the last 20 odd years: to read (and then analyze) for myself, for what I found valuable.  To read, in essence, for pleasure.  

Pleasure, for most people, is at the level of the plot: was it true? realistic?  did I agree with what the characters did? was is a good story?  None of this stuff applies to poetry, for most people.  Poetry is a puzzle, has an answer, spoon-feeds us the pablum of an extractable and digestible "meaning."  Is this reading per the male ego?  This is a sort of competitive reading: I solved the puzzle, I understood it, you did not.  Ergo, I am smarter than you.

But reading can be so much more than surface satisfaction (I was really entertained for a couple of hours!) or Rubik's cubism.  Can't it be a willingness to explore the unfamiliar?  Few people want that: they want access, accessibility.  But can't you create your own access point?  

Why can't reading be a method of asking yourself questions?  It's what I like to do when I read something, and it's a little off-putting, and I want to know why.  Or when I like something, but have no idea, really, how to organize my response to it.  I keep telling my neighbor that poetry is yoga for the mind, but she doesn't believe me.

Yoga is (well, I'm no expert) a process of making your body, through learned techniques, do things that are not natural for it, nor easy.  Contortion as a means of stretching and exercise.  I felt my body relax for the first time in years as I'm down on the floor on my hands and knees doing 'cat' and 'cow' and thinking that never in a million years would I adopt these postures in any sort of practical or voluntary way: or 'down dog' or 'pigeon.'  'Up dog': give me a break.  Yet there I was.  

Reading is a process of developing perceptive skills.  It should be a way of asking yourself questions about things you've read--a sort of call and reponse--the reading calls, you respond with what strikes and moves you.  Do you not want to ask yourself why something makes you feel a little uncomfortable or edgy?  Do you not want to ask yourself why something intrigues you?  

Postmodern visual art is so much further along than poetry, in part because it has an audience that is open to new things, new ways of seeing, new ways of thinking.  People who are willing to look at an image and not only contextualize it and evaluate it aesthetically, but ask themselves questions about it that go beyond I liked it or I didn't.  

Poetry is in a set of grooves right now where people want to see something that seems familiar and comfortable and hang their hat on it.  They don't want to question their assumptions.  I'm generalizing here because I don't want to point to the poetry of any particular individuals and set them up as straw men.  But we know, don't we, the poets that get too comfortable?  The poets that lean on poetry phrases and sounds and closing techniques?  The poetry gestures that do not press the art at its edges.

Perhaps I can be more clear another time.  Perhaps I can't.  Poetry is yoga for the mind:  you need to keep stretching your mind around the things you recognize, the element of the pose that is familiar, and then push it and keep breathing.  And as you do that, the uncomfortable, the unfamiliar, becomes something you can accommodate and that your body can understand.

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