The same way that a squirrel stockpiles nuts for winter, I spend my school year searching used bookstores and attending author readings to build up an arsenal of literature to read over the summer. My entire school year is basically devoted to reading too, of course, but there’s a certain pleasure in reading something you’ve chosen off a shelf or picked up on recommendation that never comes with following a course syllabus, not to mention that choosing my books helps me fill out my knowledge as a reader (some of which, I hope, bleeds over into my skill as a writer). But there’s never enough times for every book I want to read, so summers inevitably become an odd balance of reading slowly enough to enjoy something, but quickly enough to get on to the next. It’s an easy balance to make in fiction, which is usually well enough paced that one page leads on to the next. But I just finished reading Hai-Dang Phan’s* poetry collection Reenactments in one sitting and, I’m not sure it was a very good decision. I feel like I absorbed a lot of detail, much of it beautiful, but so much that I’m not sure I’ll remember any of it, and I may understand even less.
Feeling unmoored by poetry isn’t a new experience for me. I’m a fiction writer, so trying to understand some new sort of art always unmoors me a little**, but poetry is always particularly irritating because it’s so close to prose. Most writers at least dabble in both, and it doesn’t take much to blur the line between the two. But the tools for understanding prose just don’t translate. When I start reading a story, no matter how experimental, there’s always some sort of narrative to grab, and the experience of reading and understanding naturally flows naturally. For poetry, that kind of anchoring is never a given. Often in Phan’s collection, I encountered a stanza like “In the cracked and blazing lot / you stand like a sundial / searching for that good shirt / you wear like someone else’s life” and could only wonder what made it beautiful or meaningful. That kind of wondering isn’t exclusive to poetry, of course. It’s the core of any literary analysis. But in fiction, at least you have a plot and characters as a guide through those moments, a tool to understand them, and a failsafe means of enjoyment in case you can’t make sense of those more esoteric bits. In poetry, it’s anyone’s game. That’s why I appreciate reading poetry in class: at least when the students and professor pool our talents in discussion, we’ll puzzle out something meaningful to take away. I don’t have that security reading poetry on my own, and I guess that’s why I’m scared that I’ll forget everything I appreciated about this book, that my fifteen dollars and the hours I spent reading it will all be a waste.
Of course, when anything resists interpretation, there’s that frustrated temptation to reject it altogether. I’ve certainly felt that way about poetry before. I’ve often thought and sometimes said that it’s an elitist art form, since it demands so much more time to decipher than prose, and there’s never any promise that it means anything at all. But I can’t accept that, since it would be so much more elitist to insist that every written word with creative intent must have characters and plot. There’s a need that poetry fills and prose doesn’t, and I know because I’ve felt it too. Taking a break about halfway through reading Phan’s collection, I started thinking about a theory I heard in English class once, that humans are drawn to poetry and its rhythm because it matches the beat of our hearts and the inhale-exhale patterns of our breathing. After a little muttering to myself, playing around with different words, I came up with my first ever lines written in something approaching a real meter:
Deep in the dark red double-thump
Where all first poems were born
An explanation, simple, true,
Too secular to be warm.
I’m not saying that it’s great writing. It’s a first draft in a format I’m unfamiliar with. But it helped me understand a little about how it all works. How you don’t always need a person and a plot to make a set of words beautiful. There’s no character in my little amateur poem, just sounds and thoughts, and I like it well enough all the same. And maybe that solves my fear of forgetting too. Even if all of Phan’s words don’t stick with me and I don’t have the names or scenes to tie it to in my memory, there will always be lines that will persist. “The fern leaves floating on the surface arrange themselves into brittle continents.” I’m not sure why, if it’s the sound or the image or the memory rises in response, but that’s at least one line I know I’ll hold onto.
* He’s an English professor at Grinnell, by the way, and one of my favorites.
** An idea I explored in another post a few weeks ago.