Wednesday, 29 August 2007


I’ve been thinking over the last few days about the way I read poetry.
Increasingly, I find I’ve got several volumes on the go at once. At the moment, for instance, there’s that Mark Ford book I mentioned, and a Philip Gross collection (I.D.) I bought on a secondhand stall a few weeks back. Then there’s Helen MacDonald’s Shaler's Fish, and finally I’m methodically working my way through Lee Harwood’s Collected Poems (again – I enjoyed it so much the first time), plus Tomas Transtromer’s The Great Enigma.
When I buy a book of poetry, I generally have a flick through first, reading a handful of poems in no particular order. Then, sometimes quite a while later, I’ll read it cover to cover.
Thing is, though, I tend to keep the books in different places (one in my work-bag, for lunch hours, one beside the bed, and so on), and so I read them in different ways. After all, however good an idea it is to read a poem out loud, you can’t do that on a bus or train, or in the canteen.
Now the Helen MacDonald book is of a type that sometimes gets described as difficult, although I’d use a quite different word – rich. Rich as in food. To take the analogy further, it’s not something you want to take a bite out of just before bed, because it starts your brain roving off in all sorts of directions at once, and generally wakes up your senses. So I’ve been reading it slowly, a poem a day, out loud, with plenty of time afterwards to take it in. It’s worth it.
My own feeling is that there’s room for all sorts of poetry, from the easily digested type (and I don’t mean that it has less depth, or value) to the more acquired tastes. It does strike me, though, that the way I read probably doesn’t do either justice. After all, having decided that a book is ‘accessible’ (either because of the poet’s reputation, or because of that initial flick-through), I take rather less time, and possibly care, over it. Which, of course, is likely to confirm the prejudice that its pleasures are immediate. And I guess the same could happen the other way around.
In the end, I suppose, I’d rather be reading lots of poetry, some of it less carefully than I might (and of course, you can always go back to it if you feel there’s something you missed), than very small amounts, very closely.
I could be convinced otherwise, though...


Rob said...

I go through both phases. In the last couple of years, I've read a wide variety of stuff. But just in the last few months I've been concentrating on a small number of writers and taking it slow. They are all writers that can't be hurried, and they're also writers who inform my own work in some way. I think these writers are worth taking my time with.

James Midgley said...

I get most of my solid poetry reading done on trains. I'm easily distracted, and usually what happens when I'm at home is I'll be reading and the poems will give me an idea for a poem of my own, and I'll rush off and do that. With that done I tend to feel poetically exhausted, so stay away from poems more or less for the rest of the day.

Matt Merritt said...

Yeah, that sounds familiar, James. Unfortunately I rarely get to travel by train, but it is a great place to read properly. Lunch hours are a pretty good time for me too - we're a bit out in the middle of nowhere, so there's not many other options.
I think you're right Rob that some writers demand to be read slowly, but I suspect I'm not always great at recognising them.