Quotations: On Poetry


Emily Dickinson Script

Emily Dickinson Script

“. . . you can’t force a poem.” —Elizabeth Jennings, quoted in The Poetry of Piety, edited by Ben Witherington III and Christopher Mead Armitage

“It takes a grateful audience to keep a poem alive.” —Ted Kooser, The Poetry Home Repair Manual

“Another note to tack up over your desk: Too much cleverness in poetry can be a real killer.” —Ted Kooser, The Poetry Home Repair Manual

“Poetry, even the poetry of humor and delight, is an agent of the imagination pressing back, in Wallace Stevens’s phrase, against the pressure of reality.” —David Lehman, Forward to The Best American Poetry 2006, edited by Billy Collins

Advertisements

Beyond the Sounds of Poetry


In a separate post, I’ve recommended Robert Pinsky’s little book The Sounds of Poetry. So maybe you’ve jumped in and grabbed your own copy of the book to get yourself educated in the values of poetry. What comes after Pinsky’s guide? Here are a few suggestions that vaguely parallel my own path toward greater understanding and appreciation of the riches of poetry. Read more of this post

Don’t Like Poetry? Start Here


How often have you read a poem and thought, “I don’t get it”? I can relate. How about this one: “I don’t get it; but I wish I could”? That was me, too. And it kept me away from poetry. Then I discovered Robert Pinsky’s little book The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide. Pinsky helped me get it, and made me a believer in poetry.

There are several reasons why I wanted a deeper appreciation of the poetry I didn’t understand. Read more of this post

Quotations: On Literature


“Even the objects in a fictional world are shot through with meaning and philosophical significance.” —Charles Johnson, in his interview with Diane Osen for The Book That Changed My Life

“I think that a good work of fiction is comparable to a good work of philosophy. That means it must engage the life of the spirit as well as the life of the intellect. I don’t want the characters to just talk the ideas; I want them grounded in the drama they find themselves in, in the world of action. Philosophy doesn’t begin in some abstract realm; the questions that philosophers concern themselves with begin in human experience.” —Charles Johnson, in his interview with Diane Osen for The Book That Changed My Life

The Stuff Growing on the Bark


Nick Hornby, a.k.a. Nick Jagger, was induced to read this volume of short stories by a friend, Johanna. Agreeing to do so, with the usual reluctance he reserves for books recommended by friends, Hornby found himself buying up first editions for his other friends. “It’s that sort of book,” he says, in The Polysyllabic Spree.

The book is How to Breathe Underwater, by Julie Orringer. One year after reading Hornby’s endorsement—today, in fact—I sampled two of the stories. First I read “Stations of the Cross,” the last in the book, and not mentioned by Hornby. It reminded me of a film I saw recently, where the son of an Irish Catholic fireman sets out to convert the ailing son of the local rabbi. I could see immediately that Orringer can write. But she hadn’t convinced me yet that her writing was for me.

So I turned to the first story in the book, called “Pilgrims.” It was this story that had single-handedly compelled Hornby to grab up copies. This story, he promised, “makes you feel panicky and breathless.” That sounded like a rewarding experience, so I dipped into it. I didn’t feel panicky and breathless. Still, I could see why I might if I hadn’t been led to expect it.

For me, there are a couple of crucial tests of a good short story. These are utterly subjective. First, I have to be tempted, if not driven, to find more by the same author. Second, I have to believe that the story is one I would return to periodically. “Pilgrims” passes these tests. But I can’t say I “liked” the story. Like “Stations of the Cross,” “Pilgrims” has that artsy unfinished feel to it. This authorial penchant is fine with me, if it’s handled properly. I want to have some idea how my train of thought can proceed—not to say, should proceed—without the author’s assistance, when the sentences have run out. My limitation, I suppose.

Hornby generalizes in this way about Orringer’s ouvre: “while her themes are as solid and recognizable as oak trees, the stuff growing on the bark you’ve never seen before.” Now I’ve read two of her stories, I think maybe I know what he means. Maybe.

Get Thee to the Novel!


This is Cynthia Ozick’s advice. It’s a vital antidote to the crowding of the mind by the . . . well, by the crowd. Ozick values “The Din in the Head,” the title of her essay in defense of the novel.

Cynthia Ozick

Cynthia Ozick

Problem? That special form of consciousness that is the unconstrained play of the mind is overwhelmed with noise from the outside world. The crowd, the human community, is her metaphor for this noise, because it is such a typical source of the noise. The problem has worsened with “the ratcheting up of technology.” So many things contrive to sublimate the maelstrom of the heart, “that relentless inner hum of fragility and hope and transcendence and dread.”

Solution? Reading that returns one to interiority. Two forms of literature have this power, and both are sadly neglected and increasingly hard to come by: the personal essay and the literary novel. “Literary grandeur is out of style.”

Why does Ozick value the din in the head over the din of the crowd? Din—defined by Merriam-Webster as “a welter of discordant sounds.” Who wants that going on in his head?

It may be that our self-saturation with inputs from a manufactured world is welcome precisely for its power to silence the din in the head. Ozick believes we need rest stops along the information highway. Our obsession with the delivery system of one kind of knowledge deafens us to another source of knowledge. Yes, knowledge. The literary novel imparts knowledge, but not systematically. Thus, it is not a delivery system. But there is truth in fiction, truth that surfaces through varied “cobwebby knowings.”

There are truths that have that cobwebby texture in our minds. It can’t be helped. And there’s no knowing them, at least initially, without this sort of acquaintance. But do we prize this sort of knowledge? Arguably, we do not. It is more likely that we are confounded by the claim that this is a kind of knowledge.

I believe that there is such knowledge and that it is foundational to the knowledge enterprise. Our reasons for believing so much of what we believe are often beyond articulation. And yet they are sound. They ground much of what we know through a peculiar form of consciousness, experience that is possible only under conditions of quietude. But what’s the novel got to do with that? The novel is the distillation of imagined experience. By reading I am able to experience what is otherwise beyond my frame of reference. And this puts me in cognitive contact with truths whose nature determines how they can be known. I concur with Ozick; reading carefully crafted fiction is one way they can be known.

Cynthia Ozick’s essay can be found in One Hundred Great Essays, edited by Robert Diyanni.

Cynthia Ozick Links:

%d bloggers like this: