Paying attention to poetry

I’ve quoted Keston Sutherland on arduity about what reading serious or difficult work might entail. He claims that paying serious intention involves “staking an intimacy on the work of interpretation” and I quoted him because I thought that he was right.

On reflection and thinking about my own reading practice, I don’t think ‘intimacy’ is adequate and could be misleading. In preparation for a re-write of the arduity page I’ve come up with the following components of my practice-

  1. Evaluation. I’m not going to waste my time with stuff that isn’t any good so I scan the work to see if its subject(s) is going to hold my interest and to see if there are any lines that I wish I’d written. This second factor is usually crucial, I don’t need to understand the line but I do need to be impressed by it.
  2. Reading. This involves reading the poem four or five times to gain a foothold as to what it may be about. I’m not committing to interpretive work at this stage but again evaluating whether this is worth my while. It’s a this stage that I stop if I feel that the poem is dishonest.
  3. Interpretation. This involves work and usually entails me pouring most of what I know (or think I know) into working out what’s going on. This is an intellectual exercise that involves a great deal of mental effort but it doesn’t feel particularly intimate. There are some passages that speak to my personal experience and these are intimate in that they remind me of things that I try not to think about but these are usually identified in the reading stage.
  4. Re-reading and analysis. Once I’ve done the work of interpretation I re-read the poem several times and try and work out how it’s put together and the poet’s motivation for structuring it in that way. There are some poems that I re-read all the time both because it’s pleasurable and enriching to do so but also to try and work out how certain ‘effects’ are achieved.

So, the work of interpretation does involve throwing most of yourself at a poem but I don’t think that it’s just about intimacy. There’s also the element of testing yourself to see if you’re up to the task whilst evaluating whether or not the effort is worthwhile. I’m currently hovering on the brink of giving up on Simon Jarvis because I don’t think I’m up to the task.

On reflection I think I’d go with ‘immersion’ because I think that more accurately reflects what I think I do.

Any other suggestions?

10 responses to “Paying attention to poetry

  1. “Intimacy” does capture something appropriate — the risk taken by the receiver in engaging with the work. You commit yourself to interpretations which may very well be wrong. In this respect reading difficult work is more like creating than is reading e.g. Elizabeth Bishop (or whatever example you favor of work that’s decent, well-written, but lacking in strangeness).

    • I like the risk element, there’s also the risk of taking the time only to discover that the poem isn’t very good. I do agree that there is some intimacy at stake in the rightness/wrongness of interpretation. I’m still fond of ‘immersion’ but this is mainly because I stole it from Olson

      • Long ago, when I was studying music composition, I remember reading a comment from a performer — “Why should we play new music, when by choosing a classic, we can be assured of playing a masterpiece?” The risk of lameness is inextricable from engagement with new art. (Of course, there’s the risk of a different kind of failure in playing your favorite Haydn or what have you — not so much that it will be bad as that you won’t be up to it.) NB “immersion” captures something important too; but to my sense it applies to old art as well as to new.

  2. I’m enjoying his ‘Erlkönig’ in latest Chicago Review [55:2 Spring 2010] – even though I’ve not entirely worked out what is going on.

    • I have a new Jarvis strategy – avoid reading big books that he’s written on Adorno and Wordsworth and read short essays on prosody instead. The reading of ‘The Unconditional’ (if it ever gets past p40) will entail coffee, nicotine and a complete absence of distractions mainly to enable me to carry the length of the digressions.

  3. Hi John—
    I still remember reading Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation—where she concludes we don’t need so much a hermeneutics of art, but rather an erotics of art. Immersion v. intimacy: sounds like the same deal. Of course, they need not be competing approaches. It may be come down to the difference between (pedantically?) spelling out the steps involved in interpretation and wallowing in some (mystical?) notion of apprehension as understanding. Immersion does seem to suggest you should be holding your breath; and that’s not a good idea when you’re kissing, is it?

    I came across a nice quote from Adorno the other day: ‘We don’t understand music, it understands us.’ If we posit that music doesn’t really understand anything, what does this idea tell us about ourselves and our understanding?

    • I have literally no idea what he might have meant by music “understanding us.” That aside, it’s true that we don’t exactly understand music in the same sense that we understand the paraphrasable sense of a message. But the ssme is true for any art, including literature, which must go beyond message-passing, in some way, to be interesting.

      • That is, with apologies for cluttering up the comment stream: the use of “understand” in phrases like this is figurative.

      • George Steiner’s very good on the power of music to speak to us in ways that other modes of expression can’t. I have no musical knowledge whatsoever but I do know that there are pieces of Mingus, Ligeti, Derek Bailey and John Zorn that address me personally and immediately on an instinctive level without any formal interpretation on my part.

    • Jim,

      I’m not entirely sure (having just thought about this) that the ‘work of interpretation’ is always aimed at understanding and I do think that there is a strong element of self-measurement (do I agree with this? what do I feel about this? could I have written this? is this any good? does this speak to me as an individual living on this planet right now?) all of which entails a close relationship with the words. To give an example, the phrase ‘grow up to main’ in Prynne’s ‘Streak~~~Willing~~~Entourage~~~Artesian’ took me ages to get to a stage where I could make a reasonable guess as to meaning and this process involved thinking through most of what I knew (and had forgotten) about the Troubles. I then arrived at the guess and was pleased with myself and very, very impressed with Prynne. Of course the risk is that I may be utterly wrong in my interpretation but doing that work did at least make me consider my role as a political animal with regard to Ulster.
      With regard to immersion/intimacy, I don’t think they are in competition and I think there’s elements of both and that both require a level of personal commitment because you’ve got to have some courage to throw all of yourself into/at this stuff, as well as a well-developed ego.

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