10 mar 2009

(16) I should mention too the prose I have read that contributed to my poetic education. I always read fiction voraciously until a certain point when the intensity and obsessiveness of reading poetry led me to read less, and more selectively, and even to go whole months or even six-month periods sometimes without reading a novel. As Cervantes said of himself, I would read the "los papeles rotos de la calle." I dislike having not read something that someone I know has read, or not having read all of novelist's work when I consider myself a fan. Needless to say, I am more conscious of the enormous gaps in my reading than of how much I have read. As a kid I would read certain novels over and over: Catch 22, The Lord of the Rings, and Robert Penn Warren's The Cave. I never liked RPW's poetry much, but I did love this novel. I've read the Quijote three or four times as well.

As I noted earlier, nobody who's not already fallen in love with poetry has even read 20 books of poetry. Kids who love to read, though, will go through dozens of novels a year. It's good, too, that kids are less discriminating, because that allows for a critical mass of reading. I read every novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Saul Bellow, John Updike, and Philip Roth that came out in the mid-seventies, along with every short-story in the New Yorker. I've read every novel written by Henry Green. One summer I read thousands of pages of Galdós. Before grad school, wanting to be a Latin Americanist but never having taken a course in 20th century novel, I read numerous novels by Puig, García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Cortázar, Rulfo.

Novelists, more than poets really, are the guardians of the literary language. Poetry is too eccentric, too much of a violation of other uses of language, to fulfill this function. Usually, specialists in poetry have also read novels in some quantity, assuming that they were kids who were just reading all the time, like me. The converse, however, is less true. I know very literate people who see poetry as a dark alley in a deserted neighborhood that they may have glanced into a few times.

5 comentarios:

Andrew Shields dijo...

Your comments help me understand why I was avoiding even thinking about the 20 books topic: in the beginning, it was not poetry that got me into poetry, but fiction!

Anónimo dijo...

I'm not sure what you mean by "guardians of the literary language," but I would submit to you that it's poetry ordinary literate people turn to when they need to express their most powerful thoughts and emotions. Nobody quotes Heller or Tolkien or Melville or Roth at a wedding; nobody quotes Cortázar (a fine poet, by the way) or Bellow or Green or Updike at a funeral. And when lovers woo, they don't woo with Vonnegut or Puig or Rulfo or Warren. None of this would be so if poetry were "too eccentric." No, I think too many "literate" people read so they can say they've read this or that author, this or that best-seller or cult favorite, and they take as little from the experience as they do from the latest episode of Two and a Half Men.

Jonathan dijo...

Good point, Joseph. Poetry, or a certain conception of poetry, still retains that ceremonial function despite the incompetence of Elizabeth Alexander and the mindless repetition of Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment at weddings.

By the same token poetry seems more open to the amateur. It seems easier to write a short poem than a novel, so people frequently do.

What I meant was something a bit different. People read prose in order to become literate themselves. A poet who only read poetry would not share in this common language. Most literate people read novels, but the same is not true of poetry. I've read hundred of novels, but I imagine there are novelists who haven't read hundreds or even dozens of books of poetry. It's that asymmetry that's interesting to me.

Matt Walker dijo...

It reminds me of the asymmetry in music school--all the jazz people were capable of playing classical, but the classical people couldn't play jazz (and weren't expected to).

Anónimo dijo...

Yes, Matt! Why the asymmetry? And Jonathan's right, too: poetry is more open to the amateur, which is one of its virtues.

Poets write for love, not money; the vast majority of novels are written for the latter. Poets who don't succeed at publishing often continue writing anyway; novelists who can't get published pretty quickly find another line of work.

Maybe the asymmetry has more to do with capitalism than with the satisfactions of reading?