I have a dirty little secret: I am horrible at reading poetry. I read all the time. I love fiction, non-fiction, everything I get my hands on. But poetry is my downfall. I read it too fast, I can't tell if I like it or not, and my mind always starts to wander. I want to be good at reading it, but usually just get frustrated and put it down.
But not this time!
The World of the Ten Thousand Things by Charles Wright (1990) showed up on Harold Bloom's western canon list, and since I have made it a life-long project to work my way through the list, I figure now is as good a time as any to dive into some poetry.
Obviously the way I had been reading poetry (the same way I read fiction) wasn't working for me, so I decided I'd try something new: Every morning before work I would read one or two poems out loud, and then read them silently. Then I'd put the book down. The next day I would re-read silently the poems I read the day before, and then read another poem or two out loud. I essentially read the book three times (and it took three months), but I feel like spending that much time with the words -- and particularly reading them out loud -- really helped it all to sink in.
This book is actually a collection of four of Wright's poetry books, written between 1980 and 1990. Wright is a past winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, so as you might imagine, this is a nicely written collection. Wright's poems explore memory, language, death, time, seasons, nature, and all that good poetic stuff, but they are firmly rooted in experience, his personal past, and the geography and natural beauty of the places that surround him. Most of the poems are two or three pages long, although some are as short as half a page, and a few are much longer -- including a forty-page journey through a single year. While the themes and style are consistent across the collection, we still see Wright change his focus and play with different tones and formats as the collection progresses.
While I really enjoyed reading this collection, I'm not sure I've mastered the art of talking about what I like about poetry yet, but I'll keep practicing and see what I come up with next time...
I just spent twenty minutes flipping through the book and trying to find something to quote, but it is hard to find the perfect thing. Instead I'll just quote the first part of the first poem in the collection, which happens to be one of my favorites:
From "Homage to Paul Cézanne"
At night, in the fish-light of the moon, the dead wear our white shirts
To stay warm, and litter the fields.
We pick them up in the mornings, dewy pieces of paper and scraps of
Like us, they refract themselves. Like us,
They keep on saying the same thing, trying to get it right.
Like us, the water unsettles their names.
Sometimes they lie like leaves in their little arks, and curl up at the
Sometimes they come inside, wearing our shoes, and walk
From mirror to mirror.
Or lie in our beds with their gloves off
And touch our bodies. Or talk
In a corner. Or wait like envelopes on a desk.
They reach up from the ice plant.
They shuttle their messengers through the oat grass.
Their answers rise like rust on the stalks and the spidery leaves.
We rub them off our hands.