A Rambling Post on Common Readers, Classes and the Noise of Poetry

I haven’t read poetry in years, an old friend said recently. I was shocked. We came to poetry together, traded our first real attempts. Why, I wanted to know. What happened? I can no longer hear it, she said, all the arguing about poetry has killed it for me. It’s no longer alive in my mind.

While in London recently I picked up a mug with the cover of Virginia Woolf’s Common Reader on it, from the 1938 version published by Pelican—an imprint of Penguin. As it happens I also have a paperback version and refer to it often. My partner has never understood my affinity for Woolf, a member of the literary elite, a snob, and so on. How can a working class girl from northern Canada relate to such a difficult and elitist literary being? But Woolf spoke and speaks to me. She unlocked my imagination, made me take huge leaps into the unknown.

I was thinking about my friend's dilemma. To engage in poetic discourse is to engage in difference, it's true. Engagement is exciting. What has been problematic for me is the narrowing of fields, or thinking. For example, the assumption that because I was a working class kid I should necessarily write and relate to working class poetry. What is a working class sensibility? I recall with some discomfort being at a demonstration in the late 80s listening to a self-described working class poet, reading a poem, more a tract, really, and while I admired the poet, her politics, and perhaps even aspects of the poem itself, I recall being upset by the suggestion that in order for poetry to speak to people it had to be immediately accessible, narrative, lyric poetry. It had to have real people in real jobs, struggling with life. It’s not that I don’t appreciate this work, or want to talk about working class issues, I do, but the idea of it being the only way to be a working class poet seemed and seems ridiculous.

What reaches out beyond any given perspective to connect with another? Do working class people not have imaginations? Can they not think conceptually? Can they not extrapolate and make leaps as much as the next person? Or more? Who is to say what poetry will speak to anyone? Who is to say what is accessible? I'm sure working class poets find this insulting as well... People know how to read a certain kind of poetry—a sonnet for example—because a/ the form is by now in the air or b/ they have studied poetry or c/ they have an affinity for it, enter into it and learn the terms of the poetry on their own not because it is anymore inherently accessible than a concrete poem, or a conceptual poem, or anything else.

For my own part, being completely challenged was, and is, a great thing. I loved Woolf because the world she offered was so completely different from mine it was like swimming in a library as well as in another world. I loved Woolf because to encounter any page I had to learn how to read it. Not just the vocabulary but the sensibility, the structure of her sentences—so unlike the language of my youth. And I loved Woolf because she was a poet who wrote novels.

Not that I don’t love the language of my youth, my father’s fabulous French accent and creative use of English, my mother’s bawdy working class vocabulary circa 1940s Winnipeg, daughter of two uneducated Icelandic immigrants and a grade eight education herself, the various conversational styles of loggers, road builders, café workers and so on.

My parents might have lacked education but they were two of the most intelligent people I have ever met. My father was a self-taught engineer, he kept two volumes of French poetry by his bed (they are by mine now), and looked at the world with me, working backward to figure out how things were built, and teaching me while he was doing so, how to think. He didn't care for my poetry, it was not Rimbaud, Verlaine...but that's okay. My mother read voraciously, including all of my poetry and that of my friends. She loved to be thrown off conceptually. Laurie Anderson’s Big Science was a favorite album (as was Patsy Cline and Ferron). She occasionally hit a road block, Stein’s Tender Buttons, for example. Upon first encounter, she felt insulted by it. When we talked about it, and I suggested she read it out loud. She began with “a carafe is a blind glass” and moved forward, lapping back to the beginning again and again, declaring finally with great pleasure, “It’s funny, I had no idea…” She didn’t always agree (okay, I'll give you Miss Stein, but I don't like that Miss Toklas and her autobiography...), or even get the joke, but she was willing to engage.

It's nice to read poetry that agrees with my idea of the world. But not only. I prefer to read poetry that offers radically different perspectives from mine. I particularly like reading very different poets simultaneously. Whether that’s Nazim Hikmet or Susan Howe, Ariana Reines and Kimberly Johnson, Tim Lilburn and Jorie Graham, Paul Durcan and Rae Armantrout, Don Coles and Dionne Brand. Reading Howe and Lilburn is very instructive—they will probably never come up together in the Amazon system, and that’s actually a great sign for companion texts: I don’t want predictable companionship. Or at least not only. The various posts on my blog over the past five years illustrate this.

It's not for everyone. And I don't know if it will help my friend come back to poetry, but engaging with radically different perspectives keeps poetry alive for me. The field opens so wide I see whole corridors of thinking that might have remained forever buried.

And you? What keeps poetry alive for you?

Originally Published: February 9th, 2010

Sina Queyras grew up on the road in western Canada and she has since lived in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, New York, Philadelphia, and Calgary where she was Markin Flanagan Writer in Residence. She is the author most recently of the poetry collection MxT (2014) and Unleashed (2010), a selection of posts from...

  1. February 9, 2010
     John Oliver Simon

    Back in the 80's, after the Sandinista Revolution, Ernesto Cardenal, as Minister of Culture, instituted a system of talleres de poesía, poetry workshops, throughout the country. Kent Johnson published translations of some of the best work from the talleres. They eventually folded before the Sandinistas lost power amid US harrassment and internal corruption.\r

    The talleres were part of a literacy program that was dramatically successful, and of course us leftie poets up nortth cheered them on uncritically. To us they represented a confirmation of the notion that poetry is innate in human beings and nations. \r

    The talleres also represented a narrow imposition of Cardenal's own poetics of Exteriorism, something very close to WCW's "no ideas but in things." There was a checklist of poems should – probably a good idea, beginners need scaffolding – which included don't use metaphors. Challenged by poets, Padre Ernesto explained that these are simple people, they have just learned to read, metaphor is too advanced. Too airy-fairy. \r

    As a poet-teacher working with mostly working-class, immigrant kids of color in the ionner city, whose words often soar wonderfully beyond the concrete, I found this aspect deeply condescending.

  2. February 9, 2010
     Sina Queyras

    John, \r
    Wow, I had no idea. Thanks for sharing that. The condescending is disturbing. Those translations would be good to see. I'll put that on my list. \r

    When I lived in Vancouver 80s/90s I worked with youth at risk, the most difficult of the difficult. Very interesting discussions about poetry and art. Not at all predictable. (Rushing now, but thanks.)

  3. February 9, 2010

    variety keeps poetry alive for me. i grew up in a working class household too. my father recited Shakespeare, Edward Lear and Victorian morality poems to me all the time. i like poems that experiment and play with language and surprise me. i like poems that make me reach. writers like Nathalie Stephens, you, Sina, Erin Moure, Anne Carson and others keep me reaching and exploring. Thanks for your post, Sina.

  4. February 9, 2010

    what keeps poetry alive for me is me. without me, poetry would be dead. i am a living, breathing, vessel/vassal of poetry. now, i'm may not always be physically composing poems, but it's always present. always has been. always will be. i am very loyal to that which moves me, or is me, as the case may be.

  5. February 9, 2010

    Discourse! Not the bickering, but the examining. I tend to get more stimulation and more reward out of the ensuing criticism, lectures, Q&As, podcasts, relationships, etc., than I get from encountering a text. I am curious about how a text is working in people's minds and in the world RIGHT NOW, and I am interested in the patterns therein, because to me, that's where poetry lives. Poetry isn't text, to me, but a way of responding. It's a behaviour. That is to say, it is the nature of the way the poet is responding to the world, conveyed by the text, which might contain poetry, or else the way I am looking at it. It's a bunch of readers with poetic desires, gathering around a text and engaging with it creatively, that gets me excited.\r

    This is what I like about conceptual poetry: there are all kinds of narratives within its realm to be read and related to in the personal way that we conventionally read and relate to poetry, but they occur in REAL TIME, or at least something closer to it than what can be achieved solely with print. They occur as conversations, and they include anyone who has anything to say about them, or who cares, for whatever reason, to listen to what's being said. Furthermore, a great deal of this activity occurs over the internet, so at the very least, it's accessible in that sense.\r

    Coming from a difficult background, myself, I appreciate what narrative poetry can teach me about where I am and where I've been, about how to be more empathic and imaginative, and so on. But what I really want to learn from my involvement with poetry is a new way of being in the world altogether. In order to move beyond my situation, I need to learn new modes of poetic behaviour, which tends to mean that I need contact with notions that lie just beyond what I've encountered or what can currently grasp. Such contact, for me, is more easily made through conversation than it is through reading literary texts. I learn better when I am being listened to as much as I am listening, and so it is where poetry is inclusively happening in this way, where poetry is LIVE and adventurous, that I find my connection.

  6. February 9, 2010
     Fred Moten

    Dear Sina,\r

    What a cool and moving post! Your dad's rigorous attunements, your mom's adventurousness, both their capacities to enjoy language and poetry, all resonate with me and my own very different, but cognate, working class upbringing. And your relation to Woolf reminds me of my own to Eliot, whose even more brutal snobbery was never enough to make me feel able to do without his music. It's just really cool to have so much stuff, and such different kinds of stuff to read! Anyway, I just really liked what you had to say. Thanks!

  7. February 9, 2010

    Thank you for this beautiful post. I was moved to write a comment in response, but it got way too long & digressive to post here in full. But in answer to your question of what keeps poetry alive, I'd like to offer the following excerpt:\r

    Your descriptions of how your favorite writing speaks to you resonates with how I relate to reading/writing too. Also this question: What reaches out beyond any given perspective to connect with another? I want to connect this notion with something John said in the comments under Craig’s post on moderation–he talks about communion vs. community, and this distinction rings true with my experience as well. Not knowing any of the people here on Harriet except as authors/bloggers I’ve read or have/haven’t heard of, I guess I come here to the commentboxes in search of something like John’s notion of a communion with strangers through conversation. For me it’s deeply related to (though also crucially different from in certain key ways) a communion with strangers through books, by which I mean the connective tissue of understanding between reader and author. Life hands us enough rules & limits already (social, geographic, economic, etc.), enough shoulds & oughts. Isn’t this what the imagination desires to overcome, and often does? If the only books I ever connected with were the ones that literally mirrored my specific gender/class/ethnic/age/geographic position, the life of my imagination would be ridiculously narrow and impoverished. Not to mention antithetical to the very notion of imagination itself. \r

    [Re: slow blogging, which for me is slow blog-reading, slow blog-processing, I am still thinking about nature & wilderness, about the dangers of exoticizing wilderness as discussed in the Cronon essay, about Gillian’s worry that listing the names of beloved natural features for her child might be seen as an act of ownership, about how great it is that an offshoot of the Bow river is called the Elbow, about Lilburn’s incredibly personal & intimate relationship to his local ground, and then again about Cronon’s call for a recognition & humility in the face of the local natural, and how maybe this personal, respectful relationship with the local natural that one knows & loves might not be the start of an antidote to the dangers of exoticization, ownership, and cultural colonization that has been imposed on wilderness in the past?]

  8. February 9, 2010
     Sina Queyras

    Thanks for all your posts. It's reassuring to hear new voices. Sass, I like your perspective. It's very much you based on the you I have seen in the few posts I've read...very apt. \r

    And thanks Fred and Amanda. It seems to me that all of this arguing about poetry and poetics really misses the point--that there are people for whom poetry matters. The reading of poetry. The delight in the encounter. As poets we take ourselves way too seriously...\r

    And Roz, I hear you. It's important to be stretched, challenged--the poet Erin Moure says no one ever did anyone a favor by being easy or nice--but being affirmed is also great. Communion through ideas, even contrary ideas, absolutely essential. \r

    For a long time much of the writing I loved was way over my head and that has been a great teacher. Though in a world where at every turn voices are focussed on mastery, on totalizing arguments and essential, canonical threads and singular ways of reading, it leaves a person feeling rattled, unsure.\r

    More to come on the question of lyric, nature and so on...

  9. February 9, 2010
     Joseph Hutchison

    This is a heartening, even profound post. I say this as the son of working class parents, both smart as hell but not readers of anything but newspapers and technical nonfiction. My love of poetry came out of nowhere (well, really out of nursery rhymes and lullabyes first of all, then the hallucinatory poems of Poe, then a series of excellent teachers who encouraged me to wander outside the curriculum), and my parents kindly supported me while expressing a wary befuddlement. What did I see in all that? And when I started to write the stuff–what did it mean? Was I depressed? When was I going to "settle down"? I did settle down, of course. One either settles down or sinks until the waves start breaking overhead. Louis Simpson got a Ph.D. Ferlinghetti opened a bookstore. Ginsberg helped launch Naropa (I met him for the first time at a meeting designed to help organizations get NEA and state level arts funding; he was wearing suit and tie). But it's all in service of this craft or sullen art that has and needs no excuse. Though Williams claimed there was news to be gotten from it, the truth is that we write it and read it for pleasure, or pleasures (plural) of the senses, the heart and the mind, the spirit, the moments of illumination if we're lucky. All these are outside the boundaries of class, which is why poets may be found both inside and outside polite society. Being inside or outside is no guarantee of anything, is it? Or do we really have to choose between Lowell and Spicer (Silliman says yes)? Well, not in my world....

  10. February 10, 2010

    The Yedi’s gonna getcha,\r
    Siña quiña querulousqueyras,\r
    the Yedi garabombillasquinita.

  11. February 10, 2010
     John Oliver Simon

    Kent Johnson comments from exile on Exteriorism:\r

    Oh I wish I could respond to your comment on the Talleres, but I'm not going to comment at Harriet until they get rid of this insidious "Report this Comment" function.\r
    But I've got to say here, when you say:\r
    "Challenged by poets, Padre Ernesto explained that these are simple people, they have just learned to read, metaphor is too advanced. Too airy-fairy."\r
    Though there was some of this poetic paternalism bandied about, it really wasn't the heart of the Cardenal-camp defense. Remember that Exteriorismo (which importantly derives from Pound--there is no Latin American country where U.S. Modernism is more key) is a major, if not dominant, current of Nicaraguan poetry in second half of 20th century! Exteriorismo also had a major impact elsewhere in Latin American, and before the Sandinista Revolution. Granted, there were things to criticize in the Talleres methodology and the debate was intricate and fascinating, but I fear your comment will mislead some readers of Harriet into thinking that Exteriorismo was conceived post-1979 for sake of the "illiterate masses." This is just not so!

  12. February 10, 2010
     Peter Greene

    @Sina: "Do working class people not have imaginations? Can they not think conceptually? Can they not extrapolate and make leaps as much as the next person? Or more?" \r

    No - they drug the very air and water these days. That's what cellphones are for.\r

    Otherwise, the scullions would rise up and seize those ivory towers. As Orwell pointed out (in the bit about the coal-miners), we teeming dirty hordes actually generally write rather better stuff than the pros - it's just a matter of attaining the condition of hope, which though you may not believe it comes free with a trust fund, and gets all used up the first time you have to sell something you like to pay the rent.\r

    I think poetry is an aspect of being a lens for what people talk about as God, or as themselves. It's not alive any less than a thought, or any more than a rock.\r

    Interesting bit of history on Exteriorismo. More history of poetry, less talk of the nature of this beast with no backs!\r


  13. February 10, 2010

    Quiet and solitude. That's what keeps it alive for me.

  14. February 10, 2010
     Sina Queyras

    "I have three entire days alone - three pure and rounded pearls." - Virginia Woolf \r

    I'm with you, Albertine. Though I prefer the back and forth: Middle of nowhere, middle of everywhere...the madness and the reflection. Too much of either isn't good.

  15. February 10, 2010
     Sina Queyras

    Thanks Joseph, it's important to remember, I think, why and how we come to this rather than the walls we construct to defend our idea of what it is we're doing. If poetry is what one is devoted to--and yes, I've made that commitment--the question becomes one of space. What kind of poetic space does one want to create, both inside one's poetry, as well as one's life.

  16. February 10, 2010
     Thom Donovan

    This is a great comment Alison. The way you're using the term "behavior" here makes me think of animal behaviorism/ethology, which takes creatures as a series of emotional complexes, drives, and instincts. A fascinating way to approach a poem... What can the poem do? What, by its creaturely powers, is it capable of? Spinoza: "We have not yet determined what a body can do." --Thom

  17. February 10, 2010
     Thom Donovan

    others keep poetry alive for me. and a real desire to put whatever "me" is in check. what's the (George) Oppen line flipping (T.S.) Eliot on his head: til other voices wake us or we drown. it's like that. becoming porous to an experience of others--world, environment, socius. gathering around what can't be gathered around. loss, the gaps in experience. being permeated by this too. for years I have been writing around this idea. a manuscript yet to see the light of day, but maybe it will come into being yet. The Hole, Nonsite Poems, not sure what to call it anymore. Rachel Zolf, God bless her, has been nudging me to finish. my would be editor...\r

    thank you for initiating via such a beautiful and personal post (as tho the person did not matter, as tho (the) memory did not matter) a conversation about class. it is badly needed. where race and gender and sexuality are at the foreground (or at least the foreground of the margins) class remains somewhat taboo. why this is I can only speculate. tried to write about this problem via an intro for Stephanie Gray abt a year ago. CA Conrad's work makes the issue a priority (again out of autobiographical exigency, a "politics of the person" as Susan Howe's wonderful essay for Creeley goes).\r
    and who else is keeping class in the foreground? who without overgeneralizing? \r

    how can we not get personal when addressing class or race or gender or sexuality? yet experience and identity are irreducible to one another--how to maintain this irreducibility through a language-based practice? telling stories maintains, a grammar may also maintain (as in the case of Bhanu's research about the sentence). your reading Stein with your mother Sina, regardless, will remain in my memory for a long time. such a tender image...\r


  18. February 10, 2010
     Sina Queyras

    Thanks for the clarification. Much appreciated.

  19. February 10, 2010
     Sina Queyras

    "I learn better when I am being listened to as much as I am listening, and so it is where poetry is inclusively happening in this way, where poetry is LIVE and adventurous, that I find my connection."\r

    Thanks Alison for your important point. I'm not sure why it's so hard for others to acknowledge that people experience poetry differently, discuss poetry differently...it doesn't mean everyone needs to do the same. There seems an absolute lack of ability to accept difference. That some get off on the bickering, and others don't...it's not a weakness, it's a difference. \r

    Not sure why we can't have different modes.

  20. February 10, 2010

    Class systems die hard? Boundaries are normal where identities are needed. Some hounds, I suppose, are more interested in playing.

  21. February 10, 2010

    This is an animating reply – thank you!

  22. February 10, 2010

    Oop, that last one was for Thom. Sorry, new to this.

  23. February 11, 2010
     Sina Queyras

    "I think poetry is an aspect of being a lens for what people talk about as God, or as themselves. It’s not alive any less than a thought, or any more than a rock."\r

    Very much like the idea of poetry as a lens. Is there any separation? Am I ever "not" a poet? Try as I have over the years to "not be" a poet I wake up and, voila, I'm a poet. \r

    "we teeming dirty hordes actually generally write rather better stuff than the pros – it’s just a matter of attaining the condition of hope, which though you may not believe it comes free with a trust fund..."\r

    The relationship of poetry to commerce is problematic. I have had various ideas about this over the years, and they keep changing. One is fortunate to have an audience, but that doesn't often have anything to do with quality, or vitality, or relevance of a given work, obviously. One needs to write primarily for oneself first, that is the truly sustaining relationship. \r

    I saw a Picasso/Matisse show in New York a few years back. One Matisse, then Picasso's version, the next Picasso, then Matisse's version, and so on, so many of the same gestures. The fact that others were looking and buying mattered, but the depth of the conversation between the two artists was evident on the canvas.

  24. February 11, 2010

    A late response: I think that it is the passage of time that keeps poetry alive for me. Something that means little or nothing to me at one point will take on wildly new resonance and blow my mind later -- because of whatever has happened to me and around me in the meantime. Also, poetry itself changes over time, and I am fascinated by what poetic subjects, devices, and approaches seem to represent the zeitgeist of each few years as the time passes. \r

    And finally, for me at least, the passage of time tends to correlate to my movement through space. I had the most place-bound childhood, Sina, unlike yours, living in the same house from the time I was born until I was 18. But since I moved out to go to college, I've not lived in any one city (let alone the same home) for more than 4 consecutive years -- and often my stays are 1 or 2 years. Moving about the country (all this takes place in the U.S., for better or for worse) has given me different perspectives on poetry that reflect regional, even local, differences and particular possibilities. All this -- plus my natural inclination to recognize the value and enjoy the pleasures of a wide variety of poetries, much like you describe in your post -- keeps poetry alive for me.\r

    Hope you'll see this, Sina, because I'm sure everyone else has moved on to more recent posts. : ) Looking forward to your next!

  25. February 11, 2010

    I saw that exhibit -- amazing. I love exhibits that don't just gather things, but that really teach you something just in the way they are arranged.