Do you read poetry out loud or in your head? Do you read so slowly you lose interest or so quickly you have motions sickness by the end of the poem? Is it okay to space-out during a reading? Are boredom and confusion acceptable experiences to have when, say, you read a poem that doesn’t stick, that slides right off your mind back onto the page?
This semester, in Lisa Olstein’s seminar class on sixties poets, we’ve been reading a poetry collection weekly and discussing the effects they have on us as readers. Two poets we’ve read recently have taught me one thing: No one can tell you how to have an experience.
My gratitude for this lesson goes out to John Ashbery and W.S. Merwin, and to their books, Rivers and Mountains and The Lice. Ashbery is notoriously difficult and polarizing in certain ways—a divide usually opening up between “I don’t get it” or “I don’t get why it matters.” I’ve loved Ashbery for years but also always felt myself space-out during his longer poems and then wake up in the middle of them. Then he explained in an interview we watched in class, “I like Jane Freilicher’s work because you can take out a piece of it without really altering the whole composition so much.” He also said he wanted his work to mirror behavior and life, of which boredom is a big part.
I tend to read poems too quickly. I’ve always thought punctuation helps control breath, teaches us how to read a poem, and the poets who eschew punctuation do so for velocity and verve. Merwin, on the other hand, is the first poet I’ve ever read whose lack of punctuation actually slowed me down, as if his words doubled over themselves. This was revolutionary to me. I thought I’d been reading like a robot—quickly and sans feeling.
In the past month I have attended a number of poetry readings: Major Jackson, Julie Carr, Lisa Olstein, Roger Reeves, Kurt Heintzelman, sam sax, and Marie Howe. I also read for Bat City Review’s Fall reading series with some of my cohort-mates. I’ve come to realize that there’s no single way to receive a poem, no one way that is so correct it defies all the others.
It’s not like you see a flyer for a poetry reading that says, “Only come if you are ready to have the experience I want you to have!” What if you are having a bad day and can’t think straight? Is it so bad that what you get from Ashbery, then, is a speaker so whimsical and goofily philosophical that instead of following the poem’s argument(s) you zone-out and follow its cadence and romping rhythms? What if you are deep into your own thoughts, your own struggles and victories, or are listening to a poet whose work comes from an experience so different from your own you struggle to follow? Does that make it a good or bad poem? Is “liking it” the point? Some poems you won’t love until you read them five times. Poetry readings aren’t organized around our moods or birthdays or preferences. You go to a reading the way you go anywhere: carrying everything you’ve known and forgotten.
I read Marie Howe’s new collection Magdalene and struggled to get into it. Then I went to her reading. She—Read—Her—Poems—Slowly—Taking—Her—Time—With—Each—Word. As if language were a baby we were all holding on our laps. It was not mechanical or trite. She read so that the rhythm of her speech enacted her lines, and they came to life for me. I didn’t necessarily follow the words. I didn’t listen to her. I merely heard, and that was enough to move me.