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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?