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Another and Another Before That: Some Thoughts on Reading

Written by

Carl Phillips
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One way to look at reading: as the lifelong construction of a map by which to trace and plumb what it has ever meant to be in the world, and by which to gain perspective on that other, ongoing map—the one that marks our own passage through the world as we both find and make it.

If all we can ever know comes filtered through the lens of our own experience, and if we are readers, some part of our very selves will be the result of what we have read—this is obvious enough. Good writers not only have read widely and deeply, but they continue to do so—not in order to be better writers, but because for them the act of reading is as inseparable from living as writing is.

As for the fear that by reading the great work that has come before one's original voice will either be influenced away from itself or overwhelmed into utter silence: an original voice can perhaps half willingly be seduced; it is rarely mastered.

At the moment, I'm writing from a public library at one end of Cape Cod, much like the library where I worked for three years of high school at the Cape's other end. It was there that, in the course of shelving books, I saw a book called The Joy of Sex; no sooner did I open the book than I dropped it, half in shock at a picture I'd seen, and half terrified I'd be seen by the head librarian and fired immediately, on the grounds of—what? Then I picked the book back up—

It was also in that library that I came across the selected poems of a man named Auden. I took the book from the shelf for how the name sounded—or I imagined it should—like "autumn." What brought me to check out the book were these lines to which it instantly fell open: "Lay your sleeping head, my love / Human on my faithless arm; . . ."

I knew nothing about Auden's sexuality—and it would be almost twenty years before I entirely understood my own. But in "Lullaby" I first encountered what, for me, was then just as radical a notion: that love and faithlessness were not necessarily exclusive of each other, and that flaw did not always equal ruin. This can't have been the first time it occurred to me that —normal— was a vexed and relative term, and that there might be the possibility of another way to see almost anything; but this is one time I've not forgotten.

If it is true that what we read helps shape us, just as true is that our choices in reading are the result of our sensibility—teachers aside, who we are is a major force in shaping a personal canon. Back to The Joy of Sex and my encounter with Auden's poems: another person would never have picked up the former, simply because of the book's title; and Auden's poem might have bored a different teenage reader.

Until I was in high school, my family moved almost every year—and always in the middle of the school year, always therefore the awkwardness of trying to fit in, in the midst of things, both socially and academically. Whenever we moved, my books came with me, and I know that part of the role of reading became one of finding comfort: my world might have changed, but to re-read Tom Sawyer or The Call of the Wild was to know the pleasures of stability, of being able to step back into a world that had given pleasure, and have my bearings—to know everyone already, as it were, in the room. A portable world to keep with me in the midst of traveling always—which is exactly what writing would become.

Writing has always been for me an entirely private act—I don't share poems with other writers, I've no particular interest in having my work workshopped. Writing is one of the few spaces where I can be alone and not be questioned as to why or how I choose to be myself. Reading has also been that, from the start. I think it's true to say that, through childhood, the one thing I most looked forward to was being permitted to go upstairs to my room and read. Partly it was the privacy itself, but also the chance to see—in books—that it was okay not to love baseball, a boy could lose his dog and cry about it, and often enough there was fantasy, to show that nothing could be called impossible. It turns out, of course, that there are some limits to possibility; but childhood seems the right time not to know this. Books confirm at the least anyone's right to dream.

In the course of reading, a taste gets shaped—for what appeals or doesn't. And a writer's aesthetic gets not so much shaped as informed. I've learned as much about writing from what I don't enjoy as from what I do. Even as joy is understandable finally only after its opposite, too, is known. Moreover, it is by extended acquaintance with both pleasure and pain that we begin to grasp the notion of degrees. And so it is with reading, whereby the self and the writing that comes from that self acquire both dimension and resonance, by the steady increase of which we win the right to exercise that lately suspect thing, authority. We do have the right to an opinion because it comes from more than ourselves, from a self that understands its own context within the history of being human, and within that of the literature by which we express being human.

To have read Homer's Iliad is not the same as having seen combat. That is, it would not be enough, only to read—that would be experiencing everything via another's experience. Equally, it would be inadequate to know the world only through one's own actual encounters with it. So, balance is important. It is hard to believe that Dickinson never came across the subject of death in her reading; and certainly she had seen more than her share of dying by time she could say—and mean—"I like a look of agony."

Range is important. Often, young poets want most to know which poets they should be reading—and yet, any poet worth reading probably read everything that came to hand, out of that insatiable desire to know, that curiosity that makes us want to grapple with the irresolvable and/or memorable and transcribe it in lines.

What I most remember of deep winter 1983 is that I read all of Milton's prose and poetry (in English, anyway) and—yes, from cover to cover—The Joy of Cooking. Some small part of a self is surely changed for having learned the best method for skinning a squirrel and having read the Areopagitica in roughly the same space of time.

Everything counts. I've no intention of canceling my subscription to People magazine any more than I'd stop getting the New York Times each morning.

I don't think there are any "shoulds" in the case of reading—that would lead to the usual thorniness of literary canons. Sure, I find it difficult to imagine writing—or indeed reading in an informed manner—without knowledge of classical mythology, say, or some grounding in the Old Testament; but another might say as much about the Bhagavad-Gita, which I have yet to read.

There is nothing wrong with asking for reading suggestions, so long as that request doesn't really mask a desire to have a sort of blueprint provided—an instinct that I fear writing programs tend to encourage, perhaps unintentionally: this notion that there is a "way,"— a structured means by which to become a writer, as if officially. As I say to my students, craft is teachable, vision is not. To read is to get a sense of the many ways in which vision has manifested itself in the past and continues to do so. We are wasting our time, though, if we believe that we shall thereby gain access to our own vision.

Also, asking what to read in order to be a good writer is rather like asking someone, "What should I do, in order to know life well?" The answer is obvious, to me at least: do all that you can do and care to do. Thankfully, there's no one model for any of this—it leaves the possibilities refreshingly, thrillingly wide open.

As far as I've been able to figure out, the truest—the most genuine, authentic—poem is the result of a consciousness articulating itself as only that particular consciousness can. Afterward, in the wake of that first making, there are the countless and usual "rules" to account for. That's where craft enters the picture. But the applications of craft must ultimately be governed by consciousness itself; each consciousness, over time (experience, again) incorporates those rules of craft—speaks to and away from the rules—in such a way as to produce on paper the authentic, the poem that is unique to that consciousness alone.

Those rules of which I speak are written down, but each time differently, in everything we read. The task of the writer, then, is hardly easy, but very clear.

Asked what I consider required reading for a writer, I can only say it depends, and is different for every writer. What I offer here is less a list of what to read than an idiosyncratic gathering of those writers who have had an influence on me as a writer and human being in general. This doesn't always have entirely to do with quality, but with timing and need on the reader's part. James L. White's The Salt Ecstasies is a lovely but uneven book—but, of contemporary poems, these were the first I read that spoke with disarming honesty about gay desire, desire generally, sex specifically. I myself had not come out yet, and had barely begun writing poems. White's was a crucial voice to encounter, for what it confirmed as possible—longing, homosexual longing, the expression of that longing in a poem. I think it's arguable that Dante's Inferno is better literature, but Dante couldn't have given me what White did.

As interesting, to me, as the writers we read is how we come to know of those writers in the first place. James White's book was in the bargain barn in back of a favorite bookstore in Falmouth, Massachusetts. White's book was a dollar, and poetry, and a strangely ordinary blue—and the title poem stirring. The poet Alan Dugan, after reading an early poem of mine, said: "If you haven't read Cavafy yet, you should." I did. And then read everything of Dugan's.

But when it comes to classical literature, I think I have to credit a book (yes, reading again!) that I bought through the Scholastic Book Club, with which most elementary schools were affiliated when I was growing up—the chance for every student in the class to order a book a month at a discounted rate. My parents agreed I could have the book on codes and code-breaking, which led to my spending a year inventing codes of my own. The following year, we were stationed in Germany; to me, German was a code, so it became the first foreign language I ever studied. A few years later, back in the States, I enrolled in a school where German wasn't offered—but there was room, still, for one more student in the beginning Latin course. Thus began an interest in classical literature that would lead to my getting a degree in Classics and teaching Latin for almost ten years.

And thus, while I wasn't thinking about it, began the development of a sensibility and aesthetic that would end up marking as uniquely mine the poems I would, years away, start writing.

Greek lyric—Mimnermus, Alcman, Alcaeus, Anacreon, and particularly Sappho and Archilochus—I continue to admire the ability of those poets to waste no time in locating the precise point of human vulnerability, and to sing that vulnerability into a great openness. Although many of their poems are short because of manuscript damage and loss over time—that is, not because of a deliberately fragmented style—a single surviving line in many instances can resonate more than do many entire poems; and I think it is from these chance fragments that I learned about the effects of a purposeful fragmentation, as well as about brevity and the crucial element of the actual placement of words in a line or in a series of lines. For the same reasons, the choruses of Greek tragedy have also been significant for me—choruses whose relentless winging toward a truth that is unbearable and yet—borne upon flawless meter and rhythm—is unable to be turned away from, is all prefigured in Greek lyric. The choruses are usually complete, so there's less of the brevity of Greek lyric, but there is a similar exactness and a fuller, more measured music.

I am also drawn to and no doubt influenced by the hieratic and vatic qualities of poetry in ancient times, the way in which poetry and the petition and vow of prayer become one. At the same time, there's a mix of familiarity and awe when it comes to the poet's relationship to divinity. Sappho, in addressing Aphrodite, can essentially wonder why the goddess won't give her an even break when it comes to loss and heartache—and yet the poet never loses sight of the superiority of the goddess; she knows that, without the gods, poets would be nothing. Mary Barnard's translation of Sappho has its inaccuracies—it also has its charms. For Greek lyric more widely, an exciting translation is Guy Davenport's Seven Greeks.

From Pindar's Odes (the Lattimore translation captures the right muscularity) I learned much about the possibilities of syntax. But more from the prose of Cicero, Tacitus, and Sallust. In the case of Cicero, not only are individual sentences models for how syntax can be manipulated to snare and win permanently one's listener, but it's a great pleasure to read an entire speech for its overall structure—and this is a level on which Cicero can be easily enjoyed in translation: the syntax isn't always easily translated, but the structure is. It was with Cicero that I came to understand how stylized and regimented rhetoric once was—I admire the way in which words evinced an athleticism then that seems less in evidence today.

Between the verblessness of many of their sentences, and the asyndeton out of the blue, after some lengthily unfolding sentence has been eloquently, precisely laid before us—these effects in the Roman prose stylists convince me that I learned most from them about the possibilities for surprise in syntax and, by extension, a great deal about the psychology of line break as well.

Frequently, more lessons from prose than from poetry. In many ways, the sentence—the poetic line, as well—is for me a bow astrain; the poem is the arrow whose flight depends so heavily on the bow—and on the fletcher's hand behind it. Essential fletchers: Henry James, especially of The Golden Bowl; Proust; Virginia Woolf, especially The Waves, especially To the Lighthouse; George Eliot, who shows how syntax can be made to bear a great weight of intellect without becoming less fluid; Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian, for how the graces of syntax and sentence structure seem to graph or mirror the grace of memory itself.

The Old Testament (especially Isaiah, Proverbs, and Psalms).

Oh—and the Apocrypha.

Everything by M. F. K. Fisher, but especially the four or five early books published together as The Art of Eating. Not for nothing did Auden—who wasn't bad himself, though I'd easily prefer Fisher—consider her the best prose stylist writing in English.

More poetry, less ancient: Hopkins is near if not at the top of the list—but not just the poems, the sermons and other prose as well. Everything is there in his work—the concern with syntax and rhythm, the classical training, the nexus of sacred and profane, in the later sonnets especially. The conviction wrought of a vision wrung from agony. The seventeenth-century English poets in general, but Herbert and Donne in particular. Of the former, all of The Temple, but also the prose work The Country Parson. Of Donne, the Holy Sonnets, but also Sermons on the Psalms and Gospels and Devotions upon Emergent Occasions.

Two essential volumes to which I continue to turn are John Williams's English Renaissance Poetry and The Poetry of Meditation by Louis Martz.

Berryman's "Eleven Addresses to Our Lord" in Love and Fame.

Yes, I traveled everywhere, for a time, with Plath's Ariel in my backpack.

O'Hara—for the dialogue—influenced delivery, the unabashedness of emotion, the sudden poignancy. "Meditations in an Emergency." "To the Harbormaster." "Music." "Having a Coke with You." "You are Gorgeous and I'm Coming."

Everything by Li Po and Tu Fu, but especially those poems in a collection called Bright Moon, Perching Bird, translated by Seaton and Cryer. Also persuasive is Young's Five Tang Poets. The old translations of Arthur Waley may or may not be the most accurate—I can't claim to know the poems in the original—but as with Barnard's Sappho, they are charming, and I believe the spirit of the original remains intact.

The wonderful, eerie verbal landscapes of Reverdy—whom I discovered via Frank O'Hara, who mentions buying the poems of Reverdy in his own poem "A Step Away from Them."

A story about my copy of a book I mentioned earlier—Williams's English Renaissance Poetry. It was given to me by one of my teachers, Robert Pinsky, who urged me to read the poems included by Fulke Greville. Once I opened the book, I found it had been the copy of Frank Bidart when he was a student. Something seems to be getting said here about reading, writing, and how the communion between the two makes possible the continuation of a literary tradition.

Five favorite contemporary books that seem to me oddly neglected but from which I continue to learn: Pamela Alexander's Navigable Waterways, Linda Gregg's Too Bright to See, Peter Klappert's Lugging Vegetables to Nantucket, Laura Jensen's Bad Boats, and Martha Collins's The Arrangement of Space. Pushed to say what I've learned from each, I'd say—respectively: how experiment becomes invention; that sacrifice is most persuasively enacted on the page when brief and with the swiftness of mercy; that play and comedy need not compromise depth of feeling; how to go on sheer nerve because there is no other; about sequencing, that the arrangement of the words is as important as the words themselves.

From Robert Hayden's poetry, I learned that the only obligation of the poet is to write honestly from that part of identity that is the essence of self past race, sexuality, gender. Which is to say that I see such aspects of identity as simultaneously crucial to and incidental to our individual versions of being human. In Hayden's work, I find everywhere the particular and what transcends it intertwined. Hence, a poem like "Middle Passage" is as much an examination of a moment in racial history as of national history and of the kind of brutality that marks human history more generally. The father in "Those Winter Sundays" is any father, and he is the particular, African American father who seeks to offer all he can to his sometimes less-than-appreciative son: love, hard generosity, an example both of endurance and of responsibility. What is the color of any of these?

Everything by Randall Jarrell, but especially The Woman at the Washington Zoo and The Lost World; I've learned so much from him about how syntax and structure can variously enact, mirror, and prefigure psychic crisis.

Also a book he wrote for children—which I still read—called The Bat Poet. It says as much about being a bat as about being a poet—there are similarities.

And his prose, reminiscent of a time when reviews were written with unflinching honesty and unabashed intelligence. Integrity, crossed with taste.

H. D. Again, the vatic, the hieratic. A conviction that victory comes in many forms, and that the vision that is poetry is one of them—as she says in Hermetic Definition, "where there is Olympia, Delphi is not far.— She also understood that all literature is influence, that tradition means a handing down: "the torch was lit from another before you / and another and another before that. . ."

The emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote his Meditations in the midst of watching his empire get steadily eroded by barbarians. He turns away to the interior of the self not as escapism but as a means of understanding how a self is made: via experience, community (in which friends and foes are equally instructive), and—yes—reading. A kind of guide for the shaping of character, and for the ways in which—to be shaped—we must take advantage of even the least inviting lessons—for instance, those afforded by the example of an empire in shambles. He intended what he wrote to serve as guidance for one of his heirs. His writings have proven to be worthwhile guidance for many heirs since—myself among them.

At one point in the Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes about the body as a corpse, and its life a back-and-forth one of being carried, and the soul its doomed and small courier. He is more or less quoting, though he doesn't say so, someone else with whom he assumes his reader will be familiar. It was the second century AD, when to be a reader at all, let alone a writer, was to have read as much as was available. Why should this be any different now? Time, as they always said it would, has passed, and there's considerably more to read now than there was back in the second century. But my point is not that we should have read everything. Maybe folly figures somewhere in all of this. If we are genuine readers and writers, we should see squarely the impossibility of reading everything there is to read—and yet, impossibly, we should want to try.