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Independent Study

Thirty days, tons of poems, and a new way of looking at the world.

Like most people, I did not have a super-auspicious introduction to poetry. My early education was good but not great, and while it included A Child’s Garden of Verses and a stint at Shakespeare daycamp, it didn’t instill a lifelong love of rhythm and meter. In college, during the time that I went to a college that had majors, I thought mine would be English, so I took a poetry class because it was required. The professor had long, long center-parted flat brown hair and was rumored to be going through a divorce. The celebrity she most closely resembled was the farm wife in the painting American Gothic crossed with an Aubrey Beardsley engraving of the Lady of Shalott. (This is how I thought about things at the time.) We read poems by women poets who were dissatisfied with their domestic lives, or by Randall Jarrell posing as one of these women (“Moving from Cheer to Joy, from Joy to All . . .”). We eventually had to choose a poem to memorize and read aloud to the class, and like any oft-rehearsed thing, this poem, the one I for some reason chose to memorize, flits back into my brain sometimes like the refrain of an earwormy pop song about the brute heart of a brute like you. Everything about the class (including me) was a cliché, but I do remember enjoying it, and actually that I remember it at all speaks volumes in its favor. But I didn’t develop a habit of reading poetry in college, or in the 10 years that followed. I had a couple of favorite poems, but I would have felt like a poseur telling anyone these were my favorites; how can someone essentially unfamiliar with a genre deign to have favorites? Saying Elizabeth Bishop was my favorite poet seemed sort of like saying Jay-Z was my favorite rapper. The earth was also my favorite earth. Luckily no one ever asked.

But earlier this year, for a variety of reasons, it seemed like some kind of tide was turning toward poetry, at least in my life. I signed on to do a series of talkbacks for a Shakespearean theater company, and found myself rereading plays I hadn’t thought about since high school (they hold up quite well, wouldn’t you know) and allowing the singsong of iambic pentameter to regulate my heartbeats for the first time in years. My boyfriend was assigned a piece about Joseph Brodsky and spent months walking around the house declaiming, sometimes in Russian. I wrote a piece about a poet’s memoir in which I called a blogger who’d claimed not to like poetry childish and obtuse. But did I like poetry? Belatedly, I realized that I’d never quite bothered to find out.

So I set out to learn about poetry, via a method that was at once haphazard and systematic. I read a randomly selected poem from the Poetry Foundation’s website each day for a month, then picked my four favorites and read the books in which they were originally published, one a day for four days.

It turns out that unless you make a concerted effort in the direction of reading poetry, poetry doesn’t just traipse into your mind by chance. You have to seek poetry out and, at least at first, you have force yourself to swallow it. Like a scratchy vitamin. Those poems jammed into the middle of a page of text in a magazine: no one reads them, or if they do, they read them in the wrong mindset. A poem is not like a cartoon that provides an instantaneously assimilable commercial break, a respite from long-form narrative. A poem requires full attention in a way that prose does not, and worse, a poem is much harder to like because every word matters. In a 5,000-word story or article, a reader will forgive or just not notice an off metaphor, unfunny joke, or annoying word. But one false note destroys a poem, or at least destroys its rapport with a reader. In this way, a poem is as hard to like as a person. But to give a poem a fair shake you have to meet it on its own terms: it doesn’t work to stop in the middle of whatever else you’re doing and decide, okay, poem time! unless you want to fuck up your day (or fuck up the poem). The only time this approach met with even middling success was when I was trapped on a stalled bus with nothing but the poem (“Fresh Air,” by Kenneth Koch) in my email, which I was reading on a semi-smart (it gets only email, not the Internet, so actually relatively dumb) phone. Imprisoned with the poem, I fell in love with it. When the bus started moving again the poem lost some of its charm, but I still remember it fondly.

The rest of my single-serving poetry experiences weren't as charmed, though. I found myself struggling to hurry up and get in the mood to read the individual poems, and then in just as big of a hurry to get out of the mood to go on with my day. Maybe the model of ideal poem consumption turns out to be a lot like the vaunted ideal of music consumption: “Don’t download the single, get the whole album,” purists chide. Maybe more so in the context of poetry, the album model serves an important purpose: it establishes a reading rhythm that lingers in one’s thought patterns even after the book is done. When I put down Kim Addonizio’s book Lucifer at the Starlite, I walked down the street and noticed that the ordinary litany of tasks and concerns that my brain likes to take out and fondle was unspooling, for the moment, in Addonizio’s style. My worries seemed consequential and even a little bit beautiful in this new style; instead of disjointed phrases my thoughts had the solid heft of real sentences. This lasted for about 10 minutes.

Another great thing about reading books of poetry instead of single poems is that it takes only about an hour to read a book of poetry, sometimes even less. During this time people in the café or the library or the subway will admire you and also be totally mystified about what kind of person you are, which isn’t true of any other type of literature.

Having read 30 poems in a month and then four books of poetry in a week doesn’t make me an expert on anything, even my own taste. But although I’m at the beginning of developing my taste, I’ve noticed that my allergy to conspicuously showy turns of phrase —jokes or metaphors that interrupt whatever’s going on to call attention to their own glamour, like a movie star who can’t stop being her pretty self long enough to let the audience start believing her grubby character’s story—still applies here, as it does with prose. The word “lovemaking” can eclipse any amount of goodwill I’ve built up towards a poet (sorry, Kenneth Koch). I like funniness, even shtickiness, and I like drama. Love poems are okay, but they need a major hint of queasiness or salt to work for me; angry poems are best.

Another strange thing that I discovered: I was wrong, mostly, about what I’d thought I liked, based on single poems. I did not turn out to be a fan of Kenneth Koch’s jokey, wordy, formally complex and virtuosic poems, though I had loved that one on the bus. Kim Addonizio’s poems were cocky and strong but sometimes a little too smooth. What had initially attracted me— the way she revivifies worn phrases by inserting them into the jarring context of something deep and earnest— began to seem a little like a cheap trick by the end of her book. But I still like it, liked her, the way she writes about men, moments of transcendent joy and grief and rage, and most of all cats. I like her sense of humor; she was the only poet I picked who ever made me laugh out loud (“Where does macaroni come from? Where does matter? / Why does the cat act autistic when you call her/then bat around a moth for an hour / watching as it drags its wings over the area rug?”) I had no luck with W.S. Merwin whatsoever.  Robert Lowell alone made me gasp and remember unwanted memories and feel genuine lasting sadness: “Poor ghost, old love, speak / with your old voice of flaming insight / that kept us awake all night. / In one bed and apart.”

Thus honed, will my poetry habit last? I think it must, if only because I’ve discovered that 10 minutes of reading poetry—any poetry, even poetry I don’t love, even just skimming my eyes over it on the page without bothering to translate it into prose if its meaning is obscure—can negate up to half an hour of mindless browsing of the Internet. My number one work-related problem is that I will write for hourlong bursts and then reward myself by checking my email and Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook and whatever other sinkholes these portals lead to for however long it takes to disentangle myself, until I can summon the self-control to disable my Internet access again. But emerging from this underworld I’m often not in the right frame of mind to make anything; a thousand jumbled images, a few crappy and homogenous prose styles, and a few bursts of adrenaline from 10 or 12 manufactured controversies that I’ll forget by dinnertime are still percolating up through my consciousness. A few pages of poetry wipe my brain clean, without filling it with someone else’s story, and since I don’t write poetry I don’t have to worry about unconsciously parroting anyone else’s voice. Inoculated against bullshit ways of thinking and reacting, I can go about my business.


Independent Study

Thirty days, tons of poems, and a new way of looking at the world.

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