The Fine Art of Flipping

Yes, reader, you have our permission to flip around at random.

by Jeff Gordinier

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.

Originally Published: December 15, 2010


On December 15, 2010 at 2:52pm Richard Nash wrote:

I think you've identified a larger issue, frankly, which is that for so long publishing was for such a tiny % of the population we didn't realize everyone wasn't already "to the manor born"...We would do well to adopt some of the habits of newer tools of digital culture—user experience testing, hints through mouse-overs, little feedback tabs. To those who argue that takes the mystery of out things I'd point out that the rebellious always find ways to thwart the instructions...

On December 17, 2010 at 11:52am Thoithoi O'Cottage wrote:
Flipping is really a fine art, and being an art
doing this well really calls for a sharp sense
of taste well-established for oneself. I do
this myself. And I believe every artistically
(and intellectually) fastidious fellow does it.
If one is not master of this art, one will
spoil most part of his life stuffing it with

On December 18, 2010 at 10:46pm Charlene Temple wrote:
I find the various articles listed here of great interest. I'm a serious collector of Dickinson literature and have nearly every book by her and about her. One day I'd like to visit her birth place and then ask myself "Am I dreaming?" and try to take in all the eye can see...I look forward to seeing more and hearing more about what this foundation does and can offer an officianado like myself.

On December 19, 2010 at 11:43am Austin Bailey wrote:
Oh thank you! I'm glad you said it! I'm a
flipper too--and yes! poetry suits a
flippers' needs best! Actually, I think I am
a flipper because I read more poetry than
anything else. I have tried to flip with
fiction and I came out feeling kind of
ashamed. At least with poetry you finish
something--even if it is only one poem.
Ponder this: our attention deficient culture
least likes poetry, and yet, it is the
shortest read. I guess the majority of the
reading public still wants strong narrative
and accessible facts. Blah. Give me some
verse to flip through and I will get all
messy doing it.

On December 20, 2010 at 12:56pm ward wrote:
Much poetry is deceptively short. It has to be read over and over at times, in order to fully taste it. For me, painting and poetry are very similar in that respect. Our ADD culture may be missing the whole dish.

On December 21, 2010 at 2:34pm Brian wrote:
I feel liberated! And yes, this is well-timed
for various gift-giving holidays. Thanks,

On December 21, 2010 at 3:04pm Howard Hathaway wrote:
Reading a book of verse from front to back
is a maddening experience unless the book
is comprised of a single poem. There's
something counterintuitive about reading a
collection of poems in the the manner one
would prose. Many poems must be mulled
over to achieve their full potential in the
reader's mind, however flipping more
easily leads the way to poems that are
worth exploration. Excellent article.

On December 22, 2010 at 10:02am Robert Halleck wrote:
Thank you. I have shed lots of guilt. Also, I feel bad about the poems I have written and trashed because they were not any good. Who knows, they may have hooked someone.

On December 22, 2010 at 12:18pm Nina Alonso Hathaway wrote:
Thanks for your charming honesty about
the fun and joy of flipping. I've done the
same thing for years, unless forced to be
regimented about reading by some
academic setting, from which I finally fled.
At times I'm curious to survey the whole,
as maybe I'm missing something by
enjoying one nibble and might value the
whole loaf. Other times I think the whole
loaf, whatever that means these days, is
merely the cushion or the frame for a
wonderful phrase or line, the matrix, the

On December 25, 2010 at 3:03am rohn bayes wrote:
i would suggest that part of the pleasure of flipping is in the spontaneous fun of finding something unexpected and unknown just inches from your face and knowing that - like good conversation - you're not sure how you got there or where you're going next

On January 3, 2011 at 4:12am Trev wrote:
Good on you for flipping. I liked the article
for what I read of it......Yes, poetry is
perfect for flipping. Enjoy many good

On January 4, 2011 at 11:52am Irmi Willcockson wrote:
I loved your article! While I usually read prose all the way through, I love flipping through poetry books to find something that hooks me (less than 1 page in length usually). The spontaneity and serendipity is important. I also return frequently to one or two poems in a volume because they speak to me. Poems that grab me deserve to be reread, and possibly memorized. Thanks.

On January 12, 2011 at 4:40pm Zack Medlin wrote:

I'm glad you wrote this. With some minor exceptions, I'm a flipper too. I think this manner of reading is important for poets to keep in mind when assembling their collections. In the past year I've read several award winning books - all were quite good - but this wasn't my initial reaction as I flipped through. Each of these books relied on a cumulative effect that necessitated they be read start to finish. Individual poems often felt limp in isolation, but when read as a whole I had a visceral reaction, "as if the top of my head were taken off." I'm still not quite sure how I feel about this, how to gauge the importance of the whole versus the importance of constituent pieces, but I feel that it is worth considering when reading entire books as well as individual poems.

On January 28, 2011 at 10:59am Lou Pomeroy wrote:
To flip in the west... is a great aha each moment.... in the east it seems to be ...umm, that's how it fits.... so flip on instant order's gonna get ja.... thanks for a good read of the read....

On January 28, 2011 at 11:03am Kira Kariakin wrote:
Flipping allows to find revelations, illuminations which are not felt exactly that way when the reading is done orderly... For me is difficult to read in order a book of poems and when I do it, I feel I am missing the freedom, the elation inherent to the piece of art that is each poem.

However I was making the mistake of organizing my work as a whole, with a sequence that was stressing me out, and this article just arrived in time to make me realize the absurdity of it as I believe each poem is a unique piece of art. So, thanks!!

I believe most readers of poetry are flippers.

On February 9, 2011 at 10:25pm Ann Engelman wrote:
So that's what I am. . .a flipper! Like this.
I flipped through your essay. Liked parts
of it enough that I will email it to several
friends. Many thanks. Ann

On February 26, 2011 at 3:34am Tom S wrote:
Flipping is the best way for a very occassional poetry reader like me to enjoy a poem. I may go months between poems, but the the delight of reading a random poem or two is enough to fufill my day when I am not reading a novel or biography.

On March 16, 2011 at 10:19am Emma Koch wrote:
I do a lot of flipping, not within books but between poets, but still this makes me feel a lot less guilty for it. I need to point out the short poem thing to my friend, who always groans when I try and get her to read something more than 10 or 15 lines in length. Great article. Also I think I want to live in your office. I am very envious.

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 Jeff   Gordinier


Jeff Gordinier is the author of X Saves the World and has written for a variety of magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times, Details, Esquire, GQ, Elle, Spin, Creative Nonfiction, and Entertainment Weekly. His work has been included in anthologies such as Best American Nonrequired Reading, Best Food Writing, and Best Creative Nonfiction. He lives close to the Hudson River with his wife and two children.

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