In his pamphlet-essay, ’13 Ways Of Making Poetry A Spiritual Practise’, award-winning Buddhist poet Maitreyabandhu advises reading widely, from the classics to contemporary to work in translation; and also reading deeply, because “if reading is to give us genuine pleasure and fulfilment it needs to be a kind of meditation”.
Which is why I’ve been trying out three ways of deep reading lately.
Firstly, I’ve been reading Derek Walcott’s 1992 Nobel Lit Prize-winning collection, The Bounty, which starts with his return to the Caribbean for his mother’s funeral and then expands like a storm front to encompass all of European culture and his relationship to it. So much bounty – that of God, in whom his mother took refuge. The bounty of nature, the endless moods of the sea and sky and vegetation which underpin every memory of his boyhood and every turn of his grief. The bounty of his homeland, which of course was plundered. The bounty of European civilisation and literature, which he has made his own but with which he sits in a sometimes uneasy relationship, a self-aware black intellectual in a white tradition. The poems are dense, their thought processes profound, their sentences compound and folded clause over clause into oblong packages that sit on the pages like blocks. In fact, they remind me of wood-printer’s blocks, as if they were artefacts produced by Albrecht Durer, each word a clean, sharp, chisel mark, a simple enough vocabulary creating through the intensity of focus and repetition a series of perfect complexities.
In order to read this amazing collection, I have had to read a maximum of three cantos a day, out loud, after meditation. It’s taken me over two months, allowing for gap days and repetitions. It has been utterly marvellous, and every other poem seems a bit flimsy in comparison, but I’m starting the process now with Imtiaz Dharker’s ‘I Speak For The Devil’.
Secondly, I gladly accepted an invitation to join a little, informal book group with the purpose of discussing Claudia Rankine’s collection ‘Citizen : An American Lyric’, which has just won the Forward Prize. A dazzlingly contemporary, genre-busting piece of work, it is a forthright exploration of everyday racism in America, told via a collage of prose poems, essays, free verse and photo-art. Some pieces are presented as companion texts to videos, though we weren’t sure whether those video pieces were imagined or if they exist. The visual art is taken from a number of other artists. The prose poems are incredibly similar to Facebook status updates of people I know who record daily incidents of their experiences with prejudice, while the free verse is darker, more a case of fluidity, interiority and sub-bass emotional synapses connecting across white page space.
It was great to discuss ‘Citizen’ with a group of writers, both British and American, although it was different from the kind of close textual response I was expecting. We spoke less about form than about the issues raised and our own experiences of prejudice, which was equally enjoyable but perhaps a little surprising given how formally iconoclastic the book is.
Lastly, I have signed up for an online course with The Poetry School all about close reading the work of Alice Oswald. Every week we can download a PDF of selected works, accompanied by reading notes, questions and creative prompts. So far we have looked as her sonnets, the long poem ‘Dunt’, and some works from her collection ‘The Thing In The Gap-Stone Stile’. I chose this course because I LOVE Alice Oswald, but I’ve only read the book-length poem ‘Dart’ and her collection ‘Woods, Etc’, so I wanted to expand my knowledge. She’s some kind of pantheistic dowsing-rod of a poet, channelling the music of nature and all that is immanent into poems so uniquely crafted they are like fantastical hand-blown glass bottles filled with liquid godhead.
The poems selected and the prompts to thought are good, but I feel like I haven’t yet got to grips with the idea of conversing via a chat-room. Although there are no ‘real-time’ chats, people are encouraged to post up thoughts and responses, and add comments to other people’s posts. I find I am continually behind with the work of this course, never finding the time to write my responses. Maybe this is because I am an extrovert, so I prefer to think with my mouth, and often don’t know what I think about something until I talk it through – face to face works far better for me.
So there you go. Hope this is interesting to anyone wondering how they can start thinking about the poetry they read, hope this encourages you to read some of the poets mentioned if you haven’t heard of them before.