More on the Reader's Role

A few comments on the reader's role in poetry, from Don Paterson, taken from 'The Book of Shadows,' one of his collections of aphorisms.

"Poetry is a mode of reading, not of writing. A poet is someone skilled in manipulating that innate human capacity to make things sign. They advertise the significance of the form in its shape or speech, build in enough strangeness and intrigue to have the reader read in, enough familiarity to repel them, and calculate enough reward for their effort. But so much poetry now is all advertisement, or all familiarity, or all strangeness, or all calculation."

"The reader may be witness to the exchange but can never participate in it; poetry, in the end, is a private transaction between the author and God. The true poem is firstly a spiritual courtesy, the act of returning a borrowed book."

"We read according to an undeclared handicap system, to the specific needs of the author. We meet the novelists a little way, the poets at least halfway, the translated poets three-quarters of the way; the Postmoderns we pick up at the station in their wheelchairs."


Peter said...

That last one made me laugh. Thanks, Mairi, for these. I'll check it out.

Joseph Duemer said...

Me too!

don't be emily said...

A good smile at that last one, I agree. "...the act of returning a borrowed book"--great comparison!

Joseph Duemer said...

So I'm teaching this intro to poetry class this semester. My students are mostly engineers in training -- they're smart but not word smart. Today I was walking them through Henry Reed's "Naming of Parts" and I realized that they really had not been able to mentally dramatize the voices in the poem. Consequently, it was hard for them to even understand what was going on at the most basic level. They sort of got that there were two voices, but it was hard for them to see that the voice of the drill instructor is filtered through the consciousness of the trainee. Readers have to help create the meaning of a poem by internally dramatizing the voice or voices, making them real. This requires a good deal of experience with language, and with poetic language in particular. Reading a poem requires training and to submit to training requires a certain amount of humility and good will. (The training can of course be done without a teacher, on one's own witha lot of poems and perhaps a couple or three good books about poetry.)

Mairi said...

Joseph - I think it begins with a simple question. "What's going on here?" If you give a poem that much attention you'll be on your way to something. But I don't think most readers get that far.