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Happy, Snappy, Sappy

There’s space in the living room for poetry.

by Daniel Handler

If you were to walk into my living room on some weekend night, that would be creepy. But before I stood up alarmed and demanded to know what you were doing there, you would see me in a big black leather chair that, I’ve been told, is too big for the room. I’d be all dressed up, and reading poetry.

I’ve never had any of the problems with poetry that most people do, i.e., that it’s boring and/or incomprehensible. A voracious reader, I spent my childhood reading things for adults, and learned early to find peace in the stasis of literature. Having read The Rainbow at fourteen (I’d heard D.H. Lawrence was dirty), a Robert Hass poem feels action-packed. And as far as comprehension goes, I find poetry actually has very little mystery compared to anything else. Just this morning at the bus stop, a little electronic sign told me my bus was arriving in two minutes, then one minute, then “arriving,” although the street remained empty. Then it was gone. I’d missed a bus that had never arrived. Not a phrase in The Tennis Court Oath can touch that for sheer befuddlement.

My problem with poetry was when to read it—for pleasure, I mean. I know how to read poetry when studying it (Donne out loud in my dorm room, for instance, with my college girlfriend feigning interest); I know how to read it when trying to write it (I ripped off so much of the collected Bishop that she really should have been awarded the 1992 Connecticut Student Poet Prize instead of, ahem, me); and I know how to read it when I’m reviewing it (in three long sittings at my local bar, with bourbon deliciously swaying my critical opinions). When I’m Lemony Snicket, I most surely know how to read Les fleurs du mal to tatters while writing thirteen books about terrible things happening to orphans I named Baudelaire in what the French call hommage. But, until a few years ago, I was having trouble figuring out when to read poetry when I just wanted to read.

With the huge tomes, there was simply no way. I’d buy them when they came out—so handsome and hefty that there was a great promise that, as with handsome and hefty people, they’d fix everything right away. But at home they were daunting, unhelped by reviews implying that we’ve all memorized Czeslaw Milosz—ah, yes, “Unde Malum”—and that they should squat on the shelves just for “reference.” But even with a standard volume—you know, about eight years of work for some poets, or a week and a half for Charles Simic—there are only so many poems by a single poet one can read in a sitting. I read two or three poems by Campbell McGrath in a row, and I’m infused with joy at the enthusiasm of his breadth. I read seven or eight, and it is truly admirable that he can maintain a consistency of tone and yet always be surprising. Ten or twelve and that just might be enough Campbell McGrath for a little bit, no offense. Eighteen poems without a break and, seriously, Campbell, shut the fuck up. What to do?

The answer came, as so many answers do, from my wife one Saturday night. It’s an unfair world, and like most of my gender I can go from listening to Sonic Youth in my sweatpants to showered, shaved, and dressed to the nines, ready for the first martini, in fifteen minutes—twenty with a Windsor knot. My wife, meanwhile, has the patriarchy to contend with, and so, in order to emerge in formal loveliness despite my protests that she looks equally ravishing in a ravished cardigan, requires all the time that there is. This left me at odds one too many times. What to do while waiting for her? There’s drink, but there’s enough of that ahead. There’s a child, but he’s covered in miso soup and blaming the babysitter. There’s e-mail, but how can I claim I can’t possibly, I don’t have the time, while replying on a Saturday night? “Get out of here,” my wife said, when I went to remind her that if we didn’t leave we risked being only twenty minutes early. “Go sit in that chair you insisted on buying that is really too big for the room.”

I did, and impulsively grabbed the complete poems of Cesare Pavese. In the bedroom my wife turned on the hair dryer for the third time. “Stunned by the world,” I read,

                                         I reached an age
when I threw punches at air and cried to myself.
Listening to the speech of women and men,
not knowing how to respond, it’s not fun.
But this too has passed: I’m not alone anymore,
and if I still don’t know how to respond,
I don’t need to. Finding myself, I found company.
          —From “Ancestors”

I kept going and I keep going. I’d found a perfect slice of time, as suited for poetry as—you say it, Matthea Harvey—the bathtub is for the human form. I first read Harvey this way, and Chelsey Minnis, and Joshua Beckman. I’ve furrowed through Joshua Clover and raged and raved with Carolyn Kizer. I get snappy with D.A. Powell and happy with James Tate and sappy with Robert Frost. I admire the designs from Wave Books and Ugly Duckling Presse. I try not to let Daisy Fried make me too weepy or Anne Carson make me feel too dim, and I try, again and again, to make legitimate headway with The Changing Light At Sandover because it’s been twenty years and I’m as lost as the earring my darling can’t find. The world doesn’t quite stop while I read, but my space in it is unaccounted for—what better context can one ask for to understand For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut? I invite everyone who’s dressed and ready to join me. Despite rumor, there’s plenty of space in the living room, even with my chair. Which you should get out of. It’s mine.

Originally Published: January 3, 2011

COMMENTS (17)

On January 3, 2011 at 3:05pm NB wrote:
Daniel Handler is a brilliant man.

On January 3, 2011 at 8:16pm CC wrote:
Beautiful piece, and entertaining, too.

On January 4, 2011 at 8:38am M Perry wrote:
I've set poetryfoundation.org as my home page. Before the chaos of the day begins, I sit down with a cup of coffee and read two poems--or today, two poems and your lovely article-- to help me focus and put me in the right frame of mind for dealing with whoever walks into my office next. These people will never know how much they benefit from this practice. . . .

On January 4, 2011 at 10:39am MJ wrote:
Excellent essay!

I'm often torn between the desire to read, enjoy, and keep my poetry books and what Handler nails quite well - the fact that a few poems can be joyous but 15 in a row might require antacids or a quiet room. And where to turn in those huge Collected Poems volumes? Pick at random? Try to find the best and read it first? They intimidate! So many choices and potential disappointments....

On January 4, 2011 at 11:57am Irmi Willcockson wrote:
Wonderful! I think the best invention to counteract the intimidation of the tome is the paperback book!

On January 4, 2011 at 4:10pm alicia cabrera-thomas wrote:

daniel handler=adoration in my book that is to say ...I adore him - in every representation.... a tip of the hat to those of us who adore holding a volume in front of a fire, in bed, in a bubble bath wherever...........

On January 4, 2011 at 5:48pm Ebben Flow wrote:
Love the essay and love the Pavese excerpt.

On January 4, 2011 at 8:54pm tiziana quattrone wrote:
I read "War and Peace", "Dorian Gray",
John Donne, Rudyard Kipling, etc, etc, by
the time I was seven. Anything I could
grab from my mother's monthly, random
collection in Italy, in Italian. Now that I'm
fifty three and anything I want to read
available to me, I still read poems any
chance I get.

On January 5, 2011 at 1:51pm Lawrence Gilmore wrote:
Any article that contains this amount of
self-praise sort of loses worth in my book.

On January 6, 2011 at 12:43pm danielle wrote:
Oh, I love this six different ways.

On January 6, 2011 at 3:24pm d. oliver wrote:
how lovely.

On January 7, 2011 at 5:06pm Aili wrote:
But when are we, the wives contending with the patriarchy, to find this temporal niche for poetry? You leave us to fend for ourselves, Mr. Handler.

On January 8, 2011 at 5:40pm Mark Cotter wrote:
Yes, poetry has to be taken slowly and in
chunks gone are my student days of
reading a complete volume in one sitting.

Simon Armitage, Imtiaz Dharker, Roger
McGough and Seamus Heaney are under
my coffee table as I type and all are being
taken slowly.

On January 9, 2011 at 6:15pm martha b. wrote:
Mr. Hadler is charm, wit and grace personified.

On January 13, 2011 at 8:55am Sean Barker wrote:
This was a charming article. Alas, as a celibate I have nobody to wait for before I go out. I shall have to continue reading poetry on bus or train journeys when I take a small volume from my pocket (though tomes are out of the question unfortunately).

On January 16, 2011 at 5:35pm Pat Balthis Smith wrote:
Entertaining prose, perhaps,but not poetry in my book. For me, rhyme and meter and beauty are worth the time and effort to create poetry. In my opinion, Daniel is a writer who likes to see his words on a page, but not a true poet.

On January 18, 2011 at 2:35pm debra wrote:
Ali, we wives need to use poetry to contend with the patriarchy. My favorite dinner table conversations included my snatching volumes of poetry from the shelves and reading pieces aloud . . . at first they listen politely and eventually become literature major pre-med students and poetry reading economists. It's a beautiful thing.

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This prose originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of Poetry magazine

January 2011

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Biography

Daniel Handler is the author of the novels The Basic Eight (St. Martin's, 1998), Watch Your Mouth (St. Martin's, 2000), Adverbs (Ecco, 2006), and far too many books as Lemony Snicket, including 13 Words (HarperCollins, 2010), with Maira Kalman.

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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