Ferlinghetti on My Mind

It’s absolutely true that my life is in constant revision (yours, too?). And, maybe as a writer, I’m already inclined toward revising bits and pieces of my life to make the whole thing better.

This week’s attempt at life revision centered around what I can do to make myself a better poetry reader. I’m always looking for ways to be better at reading. Let me be clear here that I am talking about reading submissions, not just kicking back to read the latest Stephanie Plum mystery before bed (written by Janet Evanovich, definitely a writer who can make you laugh at the end of the day). Some days, I feel completely inadequate, particularly when I have in front of me a poem that is so obscure I can’t make any sense of it. So, it felt like a gift when I stumbled across Jan Schreiber’s article, “An Agenda for Critics: Judgment,” on the Contemporary Poetry Review website.

Schreiber’s article discusses the complexity of how one critiques a poem in a universe where there is no absolute standard. Do we look for truth? Clarity? Sincerity? Eloquence? Certainly something beyond skill with meter or rhyme. We look for language and ideas that resonate and will continue to resonate. We pass judgment.

But in what context? Because we all know that what resonates for me may strike you as utterly banal. Our experience, and by extension, our grasp of the literature out there that has the power to broaden our experience, informs every response we have to the work in front of us. And this is the point on which I often get stuck.

How well-read do those of us who read submissions need to be? As well-read as possible. And when do we feel like we’ve achieved that? If you’re me, never. There is such a huge amount of material to read, that the best I can hope for is to be familiar with the work in my own area and maybe a couple of others. But what is clear is that I will always scramble to catch up to the ever-shifting imaginary line that marks “well-read” territory.

With that in mind, I went back to some work of well-known poets this week. My favorite from the half-dozen poetry collections I scooped up at the library is Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island of the Mind (New York: New Directions Books, 1958). What struck me about this work that was created before I was born was how much it still matters, how hard-hitting it still is. I’m grateful for those readers who knew enough about the tradition of poets as those who comment upon the hypocrisies of the day to recognize that this work mattered. I wonder if they knew that it still would.

I will think of Ferlinghetti and Schreiber the next time I read submissions. I’ll think about whether the poet whose work I’m reading is a well-read person. And I’ll wonder if they realize that the people who accept or reject their poetry work hard to keep their own skills sharp, that passing judgment is not usually done on a whim, even if it’s done in a blink.

What are you reading this week?

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4 comments

  1. I always find myself returning to my favorite poets – kind of like comfort food. I read a lot of new stuff online, and pick up the occasional collection by someone I don't know, but there is something that attracts me about the tried and trues. Maybe part of finding one's own voice?

    I agree that it is essential to constantly read poetry while editing/reviewing. I never reject on a whim – and I always feel a pang that if only the poet had taken a bit more time with this one, it would have been good, if not great. Maybe that's an idea to explore, our impatient society (the rush to publish) and how it brings poetry down.

    Reading: Carl Dennis, Louise Gluck, St. Hildegard, Collection-Women Poets From Antiquity to Now.
    Reading soon as I get a copy of his books – Nick Lantz.

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  2. Thanks for sharing your current reading list, Constance. The tried and trues, as you put it, are the anchors, I think…the touchstones as we sift through new material. They are a reminder of why we care so much about poetry and a standard to hold up as we consider what poetry can be.

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