Outward Bound Ideas

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Monday, September 24, 2007

108. Reasons For Poetry by William Meredith

Exerpt from: Poems Are Hard To Read, Reasons for Poetry by William Meredith

. . . . Perhaps the most useful definition, in fact, would begin with a statement about expectation: the expectation with which a reader engages a poem, and the reasons for which a poet may have undertaken the poem, and the possible discrepancy between these two. We have all had the experience of fighting a work of art because it was not doing what we were asking of it. John Ashbery said in an interview: "My feeling is that a poem that communicates something that's already known to the reader is not really communicating anything to him and in fact shows a lack of respect for him." Since what is communicated in a work of art is also how it is communicated, a false expectation is almost certain to produce a false reading. And often we confirm this by the happy surprise that comes when a work we had been defeated by suddenly opens itself to us--we find that it performs very well the job of work which was its reason, once we stop asking it to perform some other service which was no part of its intention.

A word here about liking a poem. This should of course be our primary objective and motive. But to like is a function of the critical intelligence, as this passage by W. H. Auden makes clear:

As readers, we remain in the nursery stage as long as we cannot distinguish between taste and judgment, so long, that is, as the only possible verdicts we can pass on a book are two: this I like, this I don't like.

He goes on with the lovely, schoolmasterly, and abashing accuracy of an Audenism:

For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five:
I can see this is good and I like it;
I can see this is good but I don't like it;
I can see this is good and, though at present I don't like it, I believe that with perseverance I shall come to like it;
I can see this is trash but I like it;
I can see this is trash and I don't like it.

My argument is that we should use the third option as often as possible, when the first response is not spontaneous with us. When we can't say of a poem, especially of a poem that comes recommended, I can see this is good and I like it, we owe it to ourselves and the poem to try to say, I can see this is good, and though at present I don't like it, I believe that with perseverance, et cetera.

Poems seem to come into being for various and distinct reasons. These vary from poem to poem and from poet to poet. The reason for a poem is apt to be one of the revelations attendant on its making. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader, Frost said. The reason for a new poem is, in some essential, a new reason. This is why poets, in the large Greek sense of makers, are crucial to a culture. They respond newly, but in the familiar tribal experience of language, to what new thing befalls the tribe. I shall have some comments to make here about three generic reasons for which poems seem to come into being, but even within these genera, the occasion of a poem is always a new thing under the sun. . . . .

From Poems are Hard to Read by William Meredith, published by the University of Michigan Press, pages 39-56. Copyright © 1990 by William Meredith. Reprinted by permission of the University of Michigan Press. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

107. Someone Reading a Book . . . by Mary Ruefle

Exerpt from: Someone Reading a Book Is a Sign of Order in the World by Mary Ruefle

. . . . .I had recently one of the most astonishing experiences of my reading life. On page 248 in The Rings of Saturn, W. C. Sebald is recounting his interviews with one Thomas Abrams, an English farmer who has been working on a model of the temple of Jerusalem--you know, gluing little bits of wood together--for twenty years, including the painstaking research required for historical accuracy. There are ducks on the farm and at one point Abrams says to Sebald, "I have always kept ducks, even as a child, and the colors of their plumage, in particular the dark green and snow white, seemed to me the only possible answer to the questions that are on my mind." It is an odd thing to say, but Sebald's book is a long walk of oddities. I did not remember this passage in particular until later the same day when I was reading the dictionary, where I came upon the meaning of the word speculum: 1) an instrument inserted into a body passage for inspection; 2) an ancient mirror; 3) a medieval compendium of all knowledge; 4) a drawing showing the relative position of all the planets; and 5) a patch of color on the secondary wings of most ducks and some other birds. Did Sebald know that a compendium of all knowledge and the ducks' plumage were one and the same? Did Abrams? Or was I the only one for whom the duck passage made perfect, original sense? I sat in my chair, shocked. I am not a scholar, but for the imaginative reader there can be discoveries, connections between books, that explode the day and one's heart and the long years that have led to the moment. I am a writer, and the next step is inevitable: I used what had been revealed to me in my own writing. . . .

Monday, September 10, 2007

106. Bernard Shaw to The Nation

From The Nation, (correspondence August 24, 1921)

My Dear Mr. Shaw:

I understand a number of friends are writing to you and urging you to come to the United States. May I say how gratified we of The Nation would be should you come to us?

Yours very sincerely,
Oswald Garrison Villard, Editor

Dear Mr. Villard:

This conspiracy has been going on for years; but in vain is the net spread in sight of the bird. I have no intention either of going to prison with Debs or taking my wife to Texas, where the Ku Klux Klan snatches white women out of hotel verandas and tars and feathers them. If I were dependent on martyrdom for a reputation, which happily I am not, I could go to Ireland. It is a less dangerous place; but then the voyage is shorter and much cheaper.
You are right in your impression that a number of persons are urging me to come to the United States. But why on earth do you call them my friends?

G. Bernard Shaw

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

105. About C. P. Cavafy by E. M. Forster

From "Pharos and Pharillon" by E. M. Forster

. . . a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe. His arms are extended, possibly. "Oh, Cavafy . . . !" Yes, it is Mr Cavafy, and he is going either from his flat to the office, or from his office to the flat. If the former, he vanishes when seen, with a slight gesture of despair. If the latter, he may be prevailed upon to begin a sentence––an immense complicated yet shapely sentence, full of parentheses that never get mixed and of reservations that really do reserve; a sentence that moves with logic to its foreseen end, yet to an end that is always more vivid and thrilling than one foresaw. Sometimes the sentence is finished in the street, sometimes the traffic murders it, sometimes it lasts into the flat. It deals with the tricky behaviour of the Emperor Alexius Comnenus in 1096, or the olives, their possibilities and price, or with the fortunes of friends, or with George Eliot, or the dialects of the interior of Asia Minor. It is delivered with equal ease in Greek, English, or French. And despite intellectual richness and human outlook, despite the matured charity of its judgments, one feels that it too stands at a slight angle to the universe: it is the sentence of a poet.