Thursday, November 29, 2007

Poems on Reading Poems

A poem written on a work of art is called ekphrastic. What about a poem written on reading another poem or poet? I don't mean poems that allude to other poems or that gossip about other poets, like Thom Gunn's "Keats at Highgate," much as I like that sonnet; I mean poems whose subject is the experience of reading itself. A poem like Keats' "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer," for instance.

And why do poets write poems about their experience reading other poems? Some of it has probably to do with the common instinctive response to beauty: we want to reproduce it, whether by telling someone about it, by drawing what comes to mind, or by blogging about it. Some of it has to do with trying to make sense of, or impose some form on, a powerful but inchoate experience; it relieves psychic pressure. Some of it has to do with claiming literary ancestors or mentors or rivals, or with distracting readers' attention from the real ancestors, mentors and rivals by writing about someone else.

And how does the poet, in writing such poems, avoid redundancy if what she does is merely to reproduce the other poem's essence? How avoid the charge of parasitism? Or the charge of excessive literariness and self-referentiality since one must know the original poem if one is to appreciate the response-poem?

Or think about the issue of audience. In writing about another poet, what does our poet assume about her audience? How much of the original poet can our response-poet assume her audience would know? To what extent does our response-poet think it is her job to explicate the original? What about cross-cultural audience? Or multi-cultural?

I am led to these thoughts by two sonnets on Chaucer written by two American poets. I like the cummings poem much better than the Longfellow one. They gave me the idea of collecting poems on the topic of reading poems.


An old man in a lodge within a park;
The chamber walls depicted all around
With portraiture of huntsman, hawk, and hound,
And the hurt deer. He listeneth to the lark,
Whose song comes with the sunshine through the dark
Of painted glass in leaden lattice bound;
He listened and he laugheth at the sound,
Then writeth in a book like any clerk.
He is the poet of the dawn, who wrote
The Canterbury Tales, and his old age
Made beautiful with song; and as I read
I hear the crowing cock, I hear the note
Of lark and linnet, and from every page
Rise odors of ploughed field or flowery mead.



honour corruption villainy holiness
riding in fragrance of sunlight (side by side
all in a singing wonder of blossoming yes
riding) to him who died that death should be dead

humblest and proudest eagerly wandering
(equally all alive in miraculous day)
merrily moving through sweet forgiveness of spring
(over the under the gift of the earth of the sky

knight and ploughman pardoner wife and nun
merchant frere clerk somnour miller and reve
and geoffrey and all) come up from the never of when
come into the now of forever come riding alive

down, while crylessly drifting through vast most
nothing's own nothing children go of dust.

-e. e. cummings

1 comment:

Irene Adler said...

Jee Leong,
this is an interesting idea you have. What do lovers of poetry do, so often shove poems at each other; 'See? See?'
See how both Longfellow and cummings mention fragrance and odor; what is more immediate, less intellectual.

You seem preoccupied in your musings with 'accusations'. Is it not 'fair' somehow, to press what one loves forward, to share? See how insistent cummings is; 'come from the never of when/come into the now of forever come riding alive'. Because, for them, as readers, of course the force of the poems are now, immediate, just like all the other subjects of their poems. But poems are passive, in a book, on a page, and so it seems like the poets are fighting the same old fight. How to cause the same inchoate sensation I had when I read it. Like they're Anne Sullivan dragging their readers' hands to the water spigot; 'read, water, feel the water?'

Who the hell cares about charges or fairness; the poet has to bring the same skill to introduce a piece of writing to a reader, and awrrr, at even another remove, than his or her own experience. Yes, I'm able to feel cummings lifting 'nothing's own nothing children' up, more than Longfellow, but, er, I'm modern. But I can still smell Longfellow's and Chaucer's ploughed field, twice removed, twice sadder, saying 'read this!'

Thanks for the thoughts. Hope you post more poems about poems. What about Ted Hughes? Eh?