Anyone who has ever climbed the short flight of stairs into my home office probably understands why I have a special fondness for “Delight in Disorder,” a sonnet by the 17th-century Cavalier poet Robert Herrick. In the sonnet itself Herrick is talking about a woman’s clothes—it seems as though an “erring lace,” a “careless shoe-string,” and a “tempestuous petticoat” really got him wound up—but I have taken private liberties with Herrick’s ode to messiness and have used it to justify a work environment that would qualify me for a very special episode of Hoarders.
My office is an absolute sty, and when visitors step inside and try to adjust their vision to this catastrophe of clutter, their dust mote–clouded eyes usually seem to land on a tottering cairn in the middle of the floor. Thanks to my compulsive habit of chipping away at my financial security by buying new collections of verse in every neighborhood I happen to wander through, books of poetry are nearly all that you’d find in this heap—many, many books of poetry. Right now, in fact, when I swivel around in my chair I can see the spines of Lucille Clifton, Hugo Williams, Vera Pavlova, Rae Armantrout, César Vallejo, Zbigniew Herbert, Wallace Stevens, John Clare, Aaron Belz, Sandra Beasley, Nick Flynn, Wanda Coleman. . . .
You get the picture. I’m not sure that “delight” is the word that comes to mind when my guests survey this experimental collision of library science and chaos theory. But they do seem to ask the same question, and it’s usually accompanied by a gulp or a wince: “Have you actually read all of these books?”
To which I invariably reply: “Of course not!”
I don’t really mean that, though. Honestly, I do read them all. Every single new book of poetry that I buy becomes my boon companion for a while.
On the other hand, allow me to confess (at the risk of offending all of those poets whose work gives me a daily infusion of sustenance, solace, strangeness, and provocation, and who probably put a whole lot of effort into making sure that the sequencing of their poems is just right) that I never read the books straight through, from the first page to the last, in the “correct” order, the way you’re supposed to. Never. In fact, I am incapable of doing so.
Instead, I subscribe to the ancient literary practice of Just Flipping Around.
How does it work? Simple. I pick up a book of poetry, in a store or on my floor. I open it up at random. I thumb around and scan the pages. I look for an opening line that teases me, haunts me, or slaps me across the face: I’m a journalist by training, so I am susceptible to the impact of a great lead. Here is one right now, on page 40 of Marie Ponsot’s Easy:
Burn, or speak your mind. For the oak to untruss
its passion it must explode as fire or leaves.
Those are the first two lines of a compressed conflagration of a poem called “Language Acquisition.” I know of various poems in Easy that I will never come close to untrussing, but I find myself drawn back to “Language Acquisition” again and again. For an inveterate flipper like me, there are lines that pull you in like a tractor beam, and there are certain poets who are so masterful at snatching your attention and knocking you thrillingly off-kilter that reading their books in the polite and professionally sanctioned manner, from the front to the back, seems beside the point. Dean Young comes to mind. Consider the Curb Your Enthusiasm–style curtain-raiser that kicks off his poem “Skipping the Reception”:
I don’t really want to meet Burkard.
Just because I like his books.
He’s probably disappointing in person.
I know I am. In person you have to commit
to what comes fumping out of your mouth
like popped ketchup.
Fumping! Yes. I’m in. Who cares if “Skipping the Reception” appears on page 33 of Young’s Elegy on Toy Piano! What, is the literary highway patrol going to give me a ticket for nonlinear speeding?
I’ll admit that the iPod Shuffle approach to poetry consumption has a variety of downsides. My whims always seem to lead me, lazily, to the shortest poems in any given book. Long James Schuyler epics such as “The Morning of the Poem” and “A few days” are mesmerizing and gratifying, but I have been forced to break my pond-skimming habits in order to open up to them. Overly knotty language repels me. If I don’t understand a beginning stanza, I will often just amble off to something easier. I can be a fickle squirrel who avoids the nuts that are hardest to crack.
Nevertheless, there is something to be said for immediacy. A between-the-eyes blam of an opening line can be a sign of authorial confidence, and for me that’s as good a reason as any to bond with a book—or, well, portions of a book. It doesn’t even have to be a blam that brings my random scanning to a pause—it’s often a whisper. I am a flipper, not a scholar, so I have no idea whether the Wallace Stevens poem “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm” counts as one of his greatest hits in academic circles. What I do know is that for those of us who happen to have noisy little kids in the house, it’s a masterpiece. And the bard of Hartford had me hooked from the start:
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night
Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
I don’t harbor any guilt about the philosophy of Just Flipping Around—they’re only books, after all, and I can do what I want with them. But I have noticed, in conversations with friends of mine over the years, that a lot of people cling to a Clean Your Plate approach to the printed word. If these erstwhile valedictorians don’t dutifully read a book straight through, they feel they are doing something wrong. Presumably they’ve internalized this habit from growing up tethered to everything from novels to newspaper stories, but for me collections of poetry are different, and they are uniquely suited to a cut-and-paste, attention-deficit era in which the very definition of a book is undergoing a dramatic metamorphosis. Even those collections that do have a strong sense of narrative momentum—John Berryman’s The Dream Songs, for instance, or Ciaran Carson’s For All We Know—are built in a way that allows the reader to begin absorbing and grasping them by zigging and zagging around.
And yet . . . press a book of poems into a friend’s hands and it’s not uncommon to pick up a flinch of confusion, a look that says, “Um, thanks, Bud, but what exactly am I supposed to do with this?” So maybe it’s a good time to remind those people that they’re free to flip. Maybe, with the gift-giving season now upon us, publishers should consider affixing a tiny “how to” sticker to the back covers of certain volumes of verse: “Yes, this is a book of poetry. But don’t worry. You have our permission to read it any way you wish: forward, backward, upside-down, fully, partially, semiconsciously, or in random dribs and drabs. It’s okay. If one poem isn’t working for you, just find another one. Happy holidays!”
Think of it as the Robert Herrick method: disorder, in the end, is what’s most likely to open you up to delight.