(Original Review, 1995-12-12)
I'm pretty respectful of other people's opinions and durable literary reputations. Reading Ulysses was bliss for me, but I have no harsh words for people who don’t like it. It is obviously something that has engaged reader’s minds, hearts, and souls, and perhaps more importantly influenced and engaged writers across generations, and I wish I could figure out why the rest of the world does not like it. As a reader one needs a little humility about one's little opinion, especially if it is “I like” or "I don't like".
Poetry has been a long uphill battle for me, and I don't think I still get very well what many folks take to be its essence. Rhyme tends to annoy me, and I can barely hear meter, read or spoken, and saying 'the accumulation of hard consonants with contrasting soft vowels throughout the line creates and effect of ....' is usually rather meaningless to me, as personal experience. I don't mind puzzling out poetry, if I can, and have learned to love poetry, but for me, in general, it just has to make sense (that’s why I love the German Romantic Poets: Rilke, Hölderlin, etc.). If I have to go to an interpretive text fine, but if I think the interpretive text finds no better, or little better, sense in it than I do, I tend to think it is time to abandon said poetry. Sometimes the interpretive text outweighs the poetry itself. I enjoyed Bettina Knapp's discussion of Stein's "Tender Buttons", but find "Tender Buttons" itself unreadable. YouTube has made spoken poetry available on an unlimited scale, but still I prefer to read it. And one can also listen while reading the text (which is often my preference).
I am shooting a little from the hip here, but my memories of Dylan Thomas poetry are that it is just incomprehensible to me, and since I personally have a hard time reading page after page of what is to me gibberish, I stopped reading it. "Milkwood" though, again from memory fumes, I remember as a grand work. I am a GREAT believer in individual sensory ratios AND that we can work on them if we choose rather than hunker down within our predispositions. I cannot tell how much reading the poetry I have read has enriched my life (a single person tipped me into it in midlife) and how making the effort to alter/overcome my own sensory/cognitive ratios/preferences, in so far as they succeeded, was very, very much worth the effort.
Shakespeare is hard to generalize about because he is so singular. Once again, earlier in life I was tipped into it by a single individual, a college professor. I find that Shakespeare is simply different on the page than in the ear. I, like many people, can watch/hear a play and both understand what is going on and appreciate the language too. But to get deeper into it, for me anyway, I have to read it. Same thing with poetry. And of course it is not an either/or choice. One can, I must, do both, but especially read. And then the next time you see it, it is all the more wonderful.
I wonder if the most adamant advocate of the ear doesn't rely on line by line reading to understand something like “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” I would bet 90% of such advocates DO perform, and rely on, such (multiple) readings.
So really it just takes me around and back to what Literature is for me. I have to try to understand it so it makes sense to me, however quirky and subjective that sense is. When I read Ishiguro's “The Unconsoled” it seemed to me to be an original and text book case of my theory of readership (which it helped immeasurably to evolve). If I could ask Ishiguro if he intended that at all, I’m sure he’d categorically say 'no'; that it was all about something else. But if I had to write a thesis about it, I would write what I still think of as its principle merit which is to have created and incarnate, in its protagonist, a conceptual double of a 'reading self', or “ones-self” as a reader. And that is how I approach literature; what would I say if I were writing a thesis on “Ode on a Grecian Urn” or “Milkwood?” And if I could write nothing because I didn't understand two words of it, then I tend to disregard it, while acknowledging there are valid approaches to 'pure abstract language' or the 'pure music of language'.
What people say about poetry, I would say about Literature: it is a way of looking at the world that should inform you about the world and in the process surprise, delight and possibly change you and the way you look at the world. In a very real sense obliqueness is the enemy of true poetry. Which is why, in part, I tend to be dismissive of genre, but keeping in mind some genre writing transcends it. Genre writing is generally not: a way of looking at the world that should inform you about the world and in the process surprise, delight and possibly change you and the way you look at the world. Some prose texts are, some aren't. It's like 'verse' versus poetry.