Reading someone else’s work

Picture of an annotated page

Lately, I have been getting up and reading something with breakfast.  The only requirement is that it be neither Facebook nor Twitter.*

Right now I’m reading W.S. Merwin poems.  I like Merwin, who is a minor major poet.**  I used to tell my young students that all poetry is about either death or love or both.  Merwin’s writing, which is often political or ecological, is mostly of the “death” category, even when it’s a love poem.  The poems are austere, and they grapple with what no longer exists and what will not ever exist.*** 

I usually read one or two poems a day.  First, I read the poem to myself, then read it out loud if the coffee has kicked in.  I make some guesses about the meaning.  Then, I look it up online to see what other people have said about it.  The whole process takes ten minutes or so.††  I write notes in the margins in pencil.††† And then I rinse off my dishes and get on with the day.  Why?

Reading is writing.

Merwin, over and over, tries to describe the indescribable.  He has said, “The urge to tell it, and the knowledge of the impossibility.  Isn’t that one reason we write?”

Well, yes, it’s one reason.  And it’s an important one. Because all writing is describing the undescribable. My own writing tends to be much simpler than his, and I am obsessed with clarity.‡‡  But even if what I write is not poetry or high literature, even if what I write is easily-understood fiction with no pretensions, aren’t I trying to put into words what can’t be put into words, as they say about music? Any story I write exists, to a certain extent, in my head, but if it is read by someone else, they will be telling the story themselves, to themselves, building the story using the words I have put down.  I need to remember that when I’m writing.

It’s important to be a reader, as a writer. To be the audience as well as the performer, to understand as well as be understood, to create meaning from text from different stances. To remember that reading and writing are collaborations between people, one of whom is sitting with a quadruple espresso and a kale smoothie at a kitchen table so clawed by cats that its legs are no longer straight, while the other one lives in Hawaii somewhere with a lot of palm trees he has planted and with his third wife.‡‡‡

It doesn’t hurt that I also like poetry and can’t write until I’m really awake, so I might as well do something else useful with my time.

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*Facebook and Twitter are, for me, conversations rather than reading, even if I am scanning text rather than talking or listening.  One of the problems with social media platforms as a substitute for reading.
**He has earned many awards and is incredibly distinguished, but I suspect it is bad taste to still be alive and, seemingly, content with life.
***Starting with his own death, but including such things as the death of the world, the destruction of language, and the destruction of Hawaii.
†My husband is not yet up at that point.  He has also learned, finally, after decades, not to try to talk to me in the first hour of my morning. It doesn’t work, no matter how bouncy and enthusiastic he gets. Yes, he’s a morning person, god help me.
††That’s why poetry is such a good thing for this kind of habit.  It’s short, but it rewards close reading.
†††You should know this about me: I write in books, and I also throw most books out when I’m done with them.  After many years, I realized they were physical objects rather than household gods, and that we no longer live in a time when saving mass market books makes sense.  Feel free to pursue your own habits, but if I kept all the books I have ever read I wouldn’t have house room, I wouldn’t be able to breathe, and my soul would be burdened with the guilty realization that I would never open them again.
‡He says gnomic things like that.  If you haven’t read any Merwin, I recommend “For the Anniversary of My Death.” It’s well known and depressing as hell. I’ve always liked it. I like Philip Larkin, too.
‡‡A writer of my acquaintance once said she thought of my novels as YA.  She meant it slightingly.  I took it as a compliment.
‡‡‡Merwin’s ecological habits have everything to do with his writing. But writers also deserve to have private lives. (So do most public people.) We keep getting surprised by that, and we keep trying to connect the public selves with the private ones, but that’s because we think we know them when we like their writing. And because when we read, we create them in our heads and then think they should follow our rules. Don’t mind me, I’m sick of everyone wanting to know about people’s private lives lately. Oh, actually not lately, now that I think of it. Tennyson was pestered by tourists.

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