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Reading and Time

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Tuesday, May 8, 2007

For a long time I’ve been interested in the relationship between reading, time, and interpretation.  Anyone who’s ever had a conversation with someone, especially while distracted, or read a book, has had the experience of having a fuller awareness of a passage’s meaning open up long after the conversation or book is ostensibly over.  Sometimes you haven’t read enough to fully grasp a book’s import, or you’re just too busy, or, you know, you just missed it. 


I’ve become *particularly* aware of this difficulty over the past year, as I’ve started reviewing books more frequently (some 40-odd books since August 4, 2006).  Generating a reasonable off-the-cuff reaction, one that won’t be wholly embarrassing six weeks later, is a tricky thing.  But, then again, free books . . . .


This problem has been kicking around my brain again, thanks to this Kenyon Review interview with Meghan O’Rourke, whose first book of poems, Halflife, came out last month with Norton.  David Baker is an excellent interviewer, and the conversation is unfailingly interesting.  One exchange in particular has stuck in my mind over the past week.  Baker asks, “Why read lyric poetry?,” to which O’Rourke replies:


A lyric poem delivers its payload efficiently. It doesn’t require an extraordinary investment of time on the reader’s part. So you can figure out quickly whether you like something. More important, the lyric poem is the most powerful embodiment of the paradoxes of life and art. Walter Pater once talked about “the splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity,” a phrase I like because it contains both the unutterable depth of perception that living seems to contain and the peculiar corollary—that that depth, those perceptions, are unsustainable because we die. Poems have always seemed to me to be the most crystalline reflection of that sensation of privilege and loss. They mimic life, if you will.


This is a lovely answer, and, really, not enough people talk about Walter Pater on a day-to-day basis.  Having said that, O’Rourke here sounds a bit too optimistic about the investment of time required to read lyric poetry.  Clearly it’s the case that glancing over, say, this Kathryn Maris poem takes less time than does even the most cursory reading of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.  But it’s also the case that lyric poetry requires a greater investment of attention than does a novel.  Anyone who’s taught knows this: It can be quite difficult to get students to read poems, because they demand more care than novels do.  (And since Pater’s on the table, this is surely one of his points in that “Conclusion”—that art metaphorically grants us more life by awakening our otherwise sluggish consciousness.)  We could even sharpen O’Rourke’s point a little and note that “that depth, those perceptions” that life offers are only possible “because we die,” and are not “unsustainable” only.


I have yet to figure out a way to recognize quickly whether I will like a book of poems.  (Reading aloud sometimes works, but not always in ways I can explain.)  That’s why I like reviewing them and try to be extraordinarily careful when doing so: Not because poems are more delicate, but the converse: Because they engage consciousness in such an oblique way that I grow less sure of myself as I write. 


How do you know whether you’ll like a book—poetry or anything else?

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