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Reading habits, part I

By Anselm Berrigan

Have been repeatedly making failed attempts at charting my reading habits in order to detect patterns and write about those patterns on this here blog with the hope that writing about the patterns will change them. What I’m finding is they change if I give any consciousness to their identification.

For instance, I begin to think I am out of the habit of reading poetry books from page one to the end – a habit I developed against my better judgment some years ago in order to slide into that angle from which a book of discrete poems takes order (I have a predilection for the writing of long poems myself, lately, but I also reserve much of my heart for books of individual poems). I say against my better judgment because I was writing reviews and getting paid a tiny (as in tiny) bit for them and so the new habit was tied to bringing in a tiny bit of money and therefore somewhat out of the loop. The loop formed between me and a book when I choose to read it or it chooses me (that does happen, if you think about it; if you don’t, don’t bother to think about my saying it), I mean.

Anyway I like to read books of poems in any order I can make work. Often enough that’s one to back, but that can be a bore, a pain, an order that is simultaneously important and out of the question unless we’re dealing with one long shot, some epic or some unquartered thing. To me, that all is (I claim none of this for anyone else, dammit). Give me a story without a plot. An idiot’s by-product of reading one to finale is all of a sudden having read the first twenty pages of six books and looking for something else to read. That’s not the books’ problem, though it might be, but I don’t think so because I don’t typically get twenty pages into something I’m not interested in. Unfortunately, I’m interested, at this point, in almost everything, so that’s no good for ye seeking judgment (fuck off by the way). The last time I think I was really in that reading space I had a baby not sleeping much, so neither was I, and that might explain twenty pages only in sixty different books, I mean six. That could have been any time in the last couple years, though more likely on the former side of last.

So recently I was reading a few things, mainly these books by Hoa Nguyen and Brett Evans, and I was very briefly feeling giddy that I didn’t care if I read them in order (I wound up reading Hoa’s book exactly backward poem by poem, as a matter of fact, and it attained a various propulsion nonetheless as its lines went forward while my sense of the book’s time took shape around it at a slant….her poems are rooms filled with moving sounds; BE’s book I read in waves, skipping around from section to section and ultimately reading this one poem “Fuck the System” several times to the point of wondering if I shouldn’t just post it by itself; I shouldn’t; not because it would be a bad thing to do and I could probably do it and Brett would be happy even if I didn’t tell him because I take him to be like that, but because the blog wouldn’t get the formatting right which would batter his shifting indentations and screw up a lot of the points of emphasis and though the poem is in fact more literally emphatic on several levels than its title – it’s a raging post-Katrina American language spectacle from a son of New Orleans that doesn’t at all admit the existence of hinges – his spacing needs to be presented exactly as is). Then Karen Weiser, a poet who made the decision to marry me, let me know that Lyn Hejinian’s book Happily struck her as similar in some of its workings to a thing I’ve been working on for a solid year now.

So I look at Happily, which I’ve not truly looked at before, and feel in my gut that I can read it in any order because it’s got a lot of approximates happening: the lines are approximately sentences and the sentences are approximately lines; there’s no punctuation to tell you a thought is definitively over but there’s a left margin CAP system telling you when a line that looks like it might be a sentence can be looked at as beginning; but the line spacing is uniformly spread so you get something like a double space or slightly less than double space between lines whether those lines are within a line that might be a sentence or across two lines that almost always complete a thought like a sentence might (I now hear Renee Gladman describing the sentence as the narrowing into line of the constellation that is, for her, mind). It’s either one line in approximately 275 units, or it contains approx. 275 beginnings of thoughts that are lines that make excellent sentences. I permit you to hear “excellent” being said in your dorkiest emphatic voice. It’s a generous form, working as vehicle inside a generous book, but only if you choose to feel it that way. It’s not like you open up the book and a hand comes out of a page to give you a cupcake. And anyway it’s another one of these little books. Probably big enough for a page to give you a cupcake, but maybe not via hand unless a kid’s hand, or that of a great ancient desert tortoise.

But I had to read it from one to last because I needed to know something and that something would have to be alongside the experience the book would give me. I mean, I don’t assume that reading a book of poems is going to culminate in me knowing something. And if a book of poems I’ve made a commitment to makes me feel like something I already knew or suspected has been reinforced then I feel like I don’t know anything and figure I read the book like a fucking amateur (a problem of attention, and sensitivity). I needed to know how the poem Happily lets its aspects of mind hang together through its handling of spaces between thoughts and lines. On one level, a plain level, there’s a variation of movement between these things – there’ll be a run of lines that is list-like, there’ll be a line that’s a direct response to a previous line, indicating the dynamic of a conversation though the nature of the second voice may be sly in its shaky visibility, there’ll be lines that seem to blur into one another, lines that are set ups or the results of set ups, there are extra spaces to indicate something like a longer pause every once in awhile, and there’s no punctuation within these lines, which are often not very long, so you might have a dynamic between what could be separate clauses being formed into one that has a funny tug somewhere, or jump, or quick step.  But on another level, the level I wasn’t looking for, there was my response to a single line or thought that, for a number of days, erased the rest of the book from my attention.

About two-thirds through I get to this line at a point when I’m letting the whole thing just wash over my mind – when I really get into something with length and I’m dealing with it for the first time I let it go liquid this way:

“The closer expression comes to thought fearlessly to be face to face would be to have almost no subject or the subject would be almost invisible”

I get instantly bound up with this line because it tells me something about the way I think I think when I write, and because it has this odd use of the word “would” its not taking anything away from my feeling that I have to come near to a state of thought-suspension in order to write with everything really available. In order for that face to face to happen in my mind the thought has to shed its visibility and I have to imagine I have a blank as mind to write on. In something like a clean slate scenario the words appearing on the page are appearing in mind and/or ear at nearly the same instant. The smaller the lag, the less I have to search or scan for a sound with which to begin. And so I hope for no subject in that moment because I’m trusting that every feeling, every thought, every experience that has gotten me to this point is close enough by to be available to a poem taking shape, if it can. This happens sometimes.

Comments (5)

  • On November 30, 2009 at 12:43 pm Joshua wrote:

    The number of books I have read the first twenty pages of and then cast aside is astounding. But the number that I have “read” the whole way through just to get to the end is even higher. I remember nothing about either. I’d be much better off just reading one poem, I’m sure.

  • On December 1, 2009 at 6:53 am Carol Peters wrote:

    yes

    the Gita via Stephen Mitchell says this:

    without concern for results,
    perform the necessary action

    keep going

    – Carol

  • On December 1, 2009 at 8:09 pm Marina Lazzara wrote:

    Reading Habits. Interesting. I have a two year old now and so Reading is quite a different experience. I must be more present, exact at retention, somehow quieter and more efficient now. Not just brain muscle workout, something I did before the child in order to expand somehow, like a drug.

    I can’t get through a good book of poetry without wanting to write. A good book of poetry (for me) induces the writing desire, the jonesing. Hoa’s book (certainly one of my favorites this year) sent my fingers spinning. I forced myself to read it front to back and then began again in case I missed something. It was a lesson in will power. Mindfulness, let’s say.

    The power of the inner ear…

  • On December 2, 2009 at 4:50 am Frances wrote:

    I used to read in a very straightforward way but recently, since I’ve begun to read more find a different strategy for each one. I discovered that alteration to the normal mode worked wonders for me when I had put aside the Ox Classic Edition of Short Stories after finding the first story not at all to my taste. Recently I took it up and started with the last story and enjoyed it very much so worked backwards, finding that the more contemporary stories appealed more and the earlier onces became interesting as the sense of having a historical developmental excursion gripped me.

    I’ve been reading some others and find that reading a little each day enables me to get through those that seem dull at first. I’ve been reading Pliny’s letters for month’s now, a little at a time, and wanted to put it away after I’d started on account of the dryness of the tone.

    Melmoth the Wanderer is one I’ve always wanted to read and got it in three volumes from the library some time ago. Vol 1 is insufferably grim, but persisting in order to fulfill that long time desire to fill in a blank spot in my reading of Irish Literature made me go ahead to Vol 2 and there story there brightened up and because a beautiful read and Vol 3 was mixed the dark and the light side of life, all in all a good read – no wonder Byron was liked it and carried it with him on his travels; he also supported Maturin when he was very down on his luck and produced his first play which was a success at Drury Lane and brought the impoverished writer some much needed money.

    I’m not a contemporary Romance novel reader but do try out the occasional best seller just to see what all those book purchasers out there see in this genre and my strategy in reading these is to start somewhere in the centre and read it very closely; this will get my curiosity going far far better than starting at the beginning and I find myself reading both backwards to find out how the situation came about, and forward to see how it develops usually managing to get through the stories and learn something about why they appeal so much as to make their writers some of the richest people in the world.

    I just can’t read poetry unless it’s got some kind of commentary. There’re too many puzzles in poetry and I just love to read the explanations. The one I’m working on now is divided into poetry and philosophy, religion, psychology and it’s fun to relates the poems to the commentary; whereas the poetry on it’s own I’d just like to read one at a time and invariably put the book away somehere and forget it. The commentary gives it a unity which is essential for me to keep me interested.

  • On December 3, 2009 at 1:20 am Gloria Frym wrote:

    A Habit of Reading
    *A lecture delivered at the Writers’ Center of The Chautauqua Institution
    Chautauqua, New York, July 12, 1996*

    On one of those vocational/personality tests that ask, would you rather, (a) go to a party, (b) go to a concert, or (c) stay home and read a book, I would often have to check (c).
    I am a person who is easily distracted by books. Like many writers, I peruse bookstores and buy dozens of new and used books a year. I buy books for all the usual reasons, and also because of their covers, their blurbs, their illustrations, and their first pages–fairly shallow indicators of their quality, I admit. I buy books I read about in reviews and books recommended to me by other writers. I don’t collect books, I buy them, fully intending to read them.
    I do read some of them. And I used to read more promiscuously, rather like a finch at play in a huckleberry bush. Have you ever noticed how many times physically a bird seems to change its mind? Its restlessness amazes us. Flight defines it.

    But now my wings are partly clipped. Several years ago, I discovered the pleasures of reading one writer at a time. It’s rather akin to serial monogamy. Or a kind of economy.
    To be truthful, this reading one writer at a time is not without its actual and fictional complications. I stray, sometimes I become irritable with my main writer, or feel saturated. And it’s different with every writer. The economy of monogamous reading has a counter-economy, a thriving underground that subverts and stimulates the dominant commerce. Sometimes an infidelity will replace the current relationship, or sometimes a promiscuous foray serves as a tonic–or sherbet between courses of an extravagantly rich meal. How else could anyone get through Henry James?
    I would like to claim that I remember each book of every writer I’ve immersed myself in. But I don’t. With some notable exceptions, the works of an individual writer often blur together, but what remains is an atmosphere of that writer’s vision, indelible as a voice print.
    This practice of immersion visited me quite accidentally. It is not a discipline or a form of conscious control, but a desire, self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing. It has become a deeply ingrained habit, a habit of reading as much of one author as I can.

    The habits of reading, like any habits, have to be cultivated over a long period of time. The habit of reading, the habit of art, as Flannery O’Connor says in her wonderful book of essays, Mystery and Manners, is a way of looking at the created world.
    I try to remember when and how this habit began.
    Perhaps it was the death of a parent, the stability of raising of child; perhaps it was the growing fragmentation of postmodern life in an urban environment. Perhaps it was the demands of teaching, and its concomitant paradoxes–the academy, notorious for poor remuneration, compensates its writers with the privilege of reading and talking about books in exchange for a kind of respectability.
    Without my main writer, I am slightly unmoored. I am slightly lost, the world has less meaning, because I am lost without love as a ground. And this concentration is like a deep love affair, each unique unto itself. When I’m immersed in a writer, gone is that sinking feeling I used to get when I finished a book, that all too familiar sense that I have perhaps spent more time recently with fictional characters than I have with my own friends. When a great book is over, I for one do not wish it to be so. It is not a question of reaching the end–for the plot and its outcome are irrelevant. It is the atmosphere, the voice of the writer, that is lost unless I actively revive it with another written by the same hand.
    This habit of reading, I think, is a form of protectionism, a kind of amulet to counter the assault that threatens to drown us in tidal waves of information, political corruption, multi-nationalism, corporatism, tribalism, and just plain human brutality. Any innocence we may have accumulated in sleep is robbed from us by the morning newspaper. I believe I recapture a certain innocence by surrendering to the vision of one writer at a time.
    I would like to be, as Henry James says, one of those people upon whom nothing is lost. But there is too much and it is too painfully random and time is too short.
    And so my habit tries to corral the random and creates form for the mind. This is particularly true of fiction–the very word derives from the Latin, fictio, from “to form,” to give shape.
    Reading, like writing, is an act that orders the world. For among the possible elements of a text, among the infinite motives, actions, episodes, dialogues, lyric flights, etc.–a book presents only what is important to it–selecting, rejecting, even destroying, in the service of shape and meaning. Reading, like writing, as the French writer Hélène Cixous observes, is an act that suppresses the world. “We annihilate the world with a book,” says Cixous.
    By this she means that to read or to write requires that you shut the door on one world in order to enter another–“another universe of light and dark….”
    We know that information is not knowledge. We can have all the information we like but without a form to contain it, our minds are paint without a canvas.
    To read and to engage in the created world is to partake in the architecture, the ordering, the shaping, the form that nourishes us as humans and that gives us meaning.

    Perhaps focused reading is a quaint habit, a holdover from another century. Though I teach, I am not academically trained; and though I use academic texts in my courses, I have no desire to produce them. I think of my reading as inseparable from my writing life and my thinking life, but except for the occasional commissioned review, I do not read to write directly about my reading. I read for pure enjoyment, for stimulation, for curiosity, for material, for intimate friendship.
    It may be a long or short friendship–Balzac and his grand project of 100 novels, James and his twenty or more dense language events, Virginia Woolf and her ample opus. Or perhaps the more modest though equally complex output of a writer such as Rimbaud. To immerse one’s self in a particular writer is a curious form of friendship because it isn’t really a conversation. When we read, Proust insists, a writer’s thoughts are communicated to us while we enjoy the intellectual authority we have in solitude. Rather than a conversation, it is a correspondence. It is a correspondence filled with all the beatitudes and none of the drawbacks of good verbal volley. Or it is inspiration, in the literal sense of the word, and has the salutary effects of rigorous exercise, breathing deeply the oxygen of another writer. No writer I know could read Proust’s beautiful sentences for a month without being filled with a desire to write beautiful sentences, so impressionable to cadence, so open to sound and rhythm as we are.
    Reading deeply instigates writing.
    Reading, Proust tells us in his charming essay, “On Reading,” is a pure form of friendship, because “there is no false amiability.” I am only mildly anti-social, but like many writers, I am excessively self-conscious. If we spend time with books, it’s because we want to. When we finish a book, we don’t worry, did they like us, were we clever enough. “The atmosphere,” says Proust, “of this pure form of friendship is silence, which is purer than speech. Because we speak for others, but keep silent for ourselves.”
    I read deeply in the writers who attract me to see how they work out certain incurable themes they are given–what strategies they use to say what they must.
    And though these strategies may never be mine, though these worlds may be as far from my own as Mars, I can feel myself alive, where, as Proust says, “imagination is exalted by feeling itself plunged into the heart of the non-self….”
    When we read deeply in the work of a single writer, we are steeped in that writer’s vision, which is like no other–no other writer saw life in an ordering exactly like this one.
    “The great thing,” according to Henry James,” is to be saturated with something–that is, in one way or another, with life.”

    I have no prescriptions, really, for How to Do This. How to get into the habit of immersion. It’s not complicated and requires no special equipment besides a good bookstore or a decent library. Though I suppose it is a bit like going to church–this worshipping at the altar of a writer. But I think of it as utterly secular. Literature can’t and isn’t required to give us a spiritual life. It has no answers, and if it is any good, it is fraught with ambiguity. We reach the last page of a writer’s work far more confused than when we began. If reading deeply has a spiritual component, it is that the writer takes us to the threshold of our own spiritual inquiry.

    To immerse one’s self in a 19th century or early Modernist writer–which is my particular interest–is to arouse surprise and perhaps even mild suspicion in all but the most literary people. Most contemporary Americans don’t care about the burning issues that preoccupied the 19th century–notions of causality, consequences, destiny, and fate are really out of fashion, especially in California. The practice of reading deeply for anyone but a literary critic has, as they say, fallen into desuetude. If you are spotted reading Anna Karenina as you wait in line at the unemployment office, the clerk will unfailingly ask if you are a student. But once on the BART commuter train in San Francisco, a man observed me reading Whitman. I remember the passage–it was in “Song of the Open Road”–and I was nearly weeping at the now ironic beauty of the words,

    Allons! the road is before us!
    It is safe– I have tried it–

    Suddenly, the man next to me leaned over and began reciting, in a markedly Russian accent:

    I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
    The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,
    The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue.
    I am the poet of the woman the same as the man,
    And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man…

    As the train sped through the Transbay tunnel, he quoted whole passages of Emerson, too–all of which he said he’d learned in school in Moscow before he became an engineer. I was thrilled and embarrassed and amazed. His fluency with American literature nearly put me to shame. He told me that every Russian child is exposed to this simple immersion technique from an early age and required to memorize substantial passages of classic world literature.
    Whitman accompanied this recent immigrant on his not so open road to America.

    Borges says that when writers die, they become their books. So we can say, “I’m reading Tolstoy,” and mean the work, not the man. And thus the name Baudelaire evokes both idea and place, Paris as city and fantasy, the poet of spleen at the dawn of the mechanical age, and the writer we come to know is conjoined irrevocably with idea and place in our own personal lives. For the voice of the mind speaks indiscriminately and democratically with both the voices of history and those of posterity. I have begun to mark and recall time by what I’m reading. I associate writers I’ve read deeply with a certain period of my life, or with a certain person who introduced me to the writer.
    There was the era of Proust–that complex, labyrinthine vision of the world, with subordination, relative clauses, grammatical baggage–all in the effort to portray the emotional and intellectual complexity of his characters. Reading Swann’s Way aloud to my husband on the beach under a palapa near a bathtub bay in a Mexican village–I was determined to read Proust to my child every night to give her the most beautiful sentences in the world. Those sentences that grow from within, expanding and rearranging time, adding thoughts in between thoughts, not tacking them on. The never-ending quality of this sense of the world.
    Oh the winter of marital discord when Thomas Hardy seemed to comfort! Hardy, who had nothing good to say about marriage, created strong women characters, his Tess and his Bathsheba, whose passions bring them suffering. I could get lost in Hardy’s awkward antique style, I could be found in his social critique. He is a writer who stands on the cusp of two centuries, a Victorian and a Modern and ultimately neither. I swooned in his passages of uncontrollable beauty, his sense of the physical world, the landscape of Wessex, and his particular moments of vision. And I admired how, as Virginia Woolf says, he makes us believe that his characters are driven by their own passions while they have something symbolical about them that is common to us all.
    Reading generates reading. Reading deeply in a single writer, reading the writer’s journals and letters as well as the creative work often leads me to my next obsession. James lead to Wharton and Wharton lead back to James and James lead to Hawthorne and Hawthorne lead to Melville and back to James. And the poet Robert Creeley, an early teacher of mine, gave me William Carlos Williams and Williams gave me, as he gave many contemporary American poets, a world to stand in–a world of speech-based poetry from which to begin. For one writer leads to another–a great chain of literary beings, genealogies, and lineages. It is thrilling and necessary to know one’s esteemed ancestors and distant relatives and their friends–it places us in an expanding universe of thought and thought’s heritage.
    Over time, Emily Dickinson, a poet who for some years I’ve read like a bible, has led me in a number of radiant directions. I regard Dickinson as at least half the equation of 19th century American poetry. Hers was a supremely individualist vision, grounded in Calvinism. She was deeply antinomian, as all genius must be. Recent scholarship has catalogued the checkmarks she made in the books in her library. In her letters, she casually, if anything E.D. said was casual, and tersely notes what she thinks of what she’s read. Some Dickinson scholars even posit that many of her poems were written as responses to what she read, that she used the device of dramatic monologue more frequently than we imagine. Dickinson knew Shakespeare well enough to tell us, “While Shakespeare Lives, Literature is Firm.” She assured us that “Hamlet wavered for us all.” She knew the Brownings, especially Elizabeth Barrett, of whom she says in poem (593):

    I think I was enchanted
    When first a sombre Girl-
    I read that Foreign Lady-
    The Dark-Felt beautiful.

    Though her poetic strategies have influenced many postmodern poetic practices, and though she left variants of many of her poems–offering us multiple versions and thus variable readings of them–Dickinson would have rejected our contemporary obsession with material as well as abstract options. Hers was a poetics of restraint and limitation. We can conjecture from her letters that her habit of reading involved close and intense study of a few writers she found exhilarating. Early in her life, she discovered a particular freedom in limitation, though she stayed acutely abreast of popular culture and her contemporaries. For a woman who rejected fame, she picked her influences with impeccable taste. She certainly knew George Eliot and Charles Dickens very well. She followed with the bated breath only a 19th century reader could breathe, the appearance of a new chapter in the Atlantic Monthly, during an era when readers were held in exquisite suspension by the serialization of great literature. Dickinson read and reread her Eliot. In typical aphoristic style, she distilled what this Titan meant to her. George Eliot, she wrote, to her long-time correspondent Thomas Higginson, “She is the Lane to the Indies Columbus was Looking For.”

    The poet Jack Spicer believed that poetry is an argument, a kind of correspondence, between the living and the dead. “Things,” he said, in a letter to the then long gone Garcia Lorca, “do not connect, they correspond. That is what makes it possible for a poet to translate real objects, to bring them across language as easily as he can bring them across time…. Even these letters. They correspond with something you have written, and in turn, some future poet will write something which corresponds to them. That is how we dead men write to each other.”
    In our social life, in our literary life, in our private life, for those of us who must carry on the work of making literature, reading deeply–immersing ourselves in whole bodies of a great writer’s work–is a way of corresponding with, participating in, and furthering these historical calls and their eternal responses.

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Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, November 30th, 2009 by Anselm Berrigan.