Reading habits, part I
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.
The son of poets Alice Notley and the late Ted Berrigan and stepson of poet Douglas Oliver, Anselm Berrigan earned a BA from SUNY Buffalo and an MFA from Brooklyn College. His collections of poetry include Integrity & Dramatic Life (1999), Zero Star Hotel (2002), Some Notes on My Programming...